All that’s fit to sing

“Let me write the songs of a nation–I don’t care who writes its laws.” -Andrew Fletcher

From time to time a member of the Merritt brood will make a comment or ask a question that gives rise to a 10-15 minute family colloquy. The most recent one arose when one of the teenagers called into question the biblical accuracy of a (currently) popular Christian song and the appropriateness of using said song in a music set at church.

While we took the time to address specific lines in the song, we also used it as an opportunity to talk more broadly about how we ought to think about music in the church. I don’t remember everything that was said but the discussion set me to thinking on a verse that ought to play a larger role in these friendly music critiques.

Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. {NAS}

Two observations are in order. First, “teaching and admonishing one another . . .” helps to explain the command “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” Most likely we’re to understand this teaching/admonishing either as the command’s result (i.e. what happens when the word dwells in us) or as its means (i.e. how we let the word dwell in us). Either way, the point is that the teaching & correction Paul has in mind is decidedly Word-based. Second, this Word-based teaching & correction is done in the church’s singing.

Certain implications follow when we consider the relationship of singing to biblical instruction:

  1. Our songs ought to articulate biblical truth. By this I do not mean that the only viable songs consist of Scripture set to music (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Rather, our songs should be more like a good sermon, declaring and expounding what God has revealed in his word. Practically, this means avoiding songs that are so theologically impoverished that we can only commend them on the ground that “there’s nothing wrong with it.” We need more than “not wrong” for teaching and correction. [Try this thought experiment: if you removed the sermon from your church service, how deeply and how clearly would your singing preach the glory of God and His saving work in Christ?]
  2. We sing to each other. “Singing for an audience of One” turns out to be too narrow a view of what the church is doing when it sings together. Yes, we’re singing to the Lord but we’re also singing to one another. In this light, the relative merit of a song turns not only on what it says to me but on what it says to the member next to me. And if I’m singing for the other’s instruction an unmistakably clear message should be the order of the day. Let’s drop the ambiguous and innocuous and clamor for something with definition and depth. If our songs leave every man to interpret what is right in his own eyes we’re missing the mark.
  3. Our singing is formative. Good teaching is more concerned with long term results than momentary effects and we need more of this perspective as we sift and select our church music. Too much singing these days is short-sighted and one dimensional as if our main concern is setting a positive tone for this particular gathering. If even a good song can ring hollow when confronted by the vagaries of a sojourning life, we ought to consider the benefits of diversifying our music catalog. Otherwise, how will we sing under the shadow of death? What songs will give us a meaningful response to spiritual (or clinical) depression? When will we sing of the cost of discipleship?

Say the Word. Pray the Word. Sing the Word.

Although I am in the wilderness

Help me to see that although I am in the wilderness
it is not all briars and barrenness.

I have bread from heaven, streams from the rock,
light by day, fire by night,
thy dwelling place and thy mercy seat.

I am sometimes discouraged by the way,
but though winding and trying it is safe
and short;

Death dismays me, but my great high priest
stands in its waters,
and will open me a passage,
and beyond is a better country.

While I live let my life be exemplary,
When I die may my end be peace.

The Valley of Vision, “Shortcomings”

Sounds familiar

Jeremiah develops the idea of prophets who are deluded [23:25-32], contrasting the power of the genuine with with the worthlessness of the counterfeit. He finishes with an attack on the cheapening of the Lord’s word, where it is everywhere sought but only to be tamed, and where everyone’s claim to have it makes it impossible to hear a true word when it comes.  –Gordon McConville (New Bible Commentary, 691)

Reformation 500: Zwingli’s turn to ‘sola scriptura’

When I was younger, I gave myself overmuch to human teaching, like others of my day, and when about seven or eight years ago I undertook to devote myself entirely to the Scriptures I was always prevented by philosophy and theology. But eventually I came to the point where led by the Word and Spirit of God I saw the need to set aside all these things and to learn the doctrine of God direct from his own Word. Then I began to ask God for light and the Scriptures became far clearer to me.

–Bromiley, Zwingli and Bullinger, 90-91 (as cited in George, Theology of the Reformers).

The Crucifixion

I recently began reading The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ and have been very appreciative of what I’ve read so far. If Part 1 is any indication this may be the first of many passages I share from the book.

[Note to the Haters: the author, Fleming Rutledge, is an Episcopal priest and {gulp} a woman! How do ya like me now???]

On the significance of Christ’s crucifixion to the Christian faith Rutledge incisively observes:

In the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the only word used in connection with the entire span of Jesus’ life is “suffered.” “Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Who, today, notices how extraordinary this is? What a way to describe the life and ministry of a man so famous for his teachings, parables, healings, exorcisms, and other works! None of these things are even mentioned in the creeds, and very little is said of them in the various New Testament epistles. The wording of the creeds is a vivid demonstration of the early Christians’ conviction that the passion was the culmination and consummation of everything that Jesus accomplished, so as to subsume everything else in the magnitude of its significance. Yet various versions of Christianity stripped of suffering and devoid of crucifixion are more common than ever in affluent America.

Miscellany

♦ I take most of the Barna, Rainer, et al stuff with a grain of salt, but Rainer’s Five Reasons Church Members Attend Church Less Frequently is at least anecdotally true.

♦ If Rainer’s diagnosis is accurate we ought to look for remedies.

♦ As proof that I remain blissfully ignorant of so much tripe in pop culture, I pass on this piece of musical propaganda circa 2013(!). I’m spotty on the details but apparently a portion of this video was worked into a larger presentation on “gender fluidity” that was presented at a Grand Rapids high school.

♦ A memorable passage from Chesterton’s Heretics:

A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours…

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

Explaining the Lord’s Supper through Deuteronomy 6

…we should want to provoke the inquisitive nature of our children by exposing them to things they don’t understand.

There was a time not so long ago that kids sat with their parents during a church service. My history is fuzzy but I think it was in the days after child labor laws but before we discovered the retarding effects of acute pediatric boredom (APB).¹ But societal evolution marched on and our ecclesiology eventually caught up so that programs like “children’s church” have nearly eradicated APB (and similar disorders) from our gatherings.

Of course, societal evolution rarely comes without a trade-off. For us, the boon of children’s church meant the absence of young children when we observed the Lord’s Supper. So, in what I hope was a small, first step, our leadership decided to change the service order once a quarter so that our children’s church kids (K5-3rd grade) could experience the sacrament.

Better minds have attempted to work out their corporate worship according to the text and pattern of Scripture only to reach varying conclusions on practices like children’s church. I have no desire to jump into that discussion here except to make one observation.

It’s interesting to note that a full understanding or appreciation of God’s commands are not prerequisites for obedience. Or, to put it another way, sometimes we obey so that we may understand (Psa 119:100; Jn 7:17). For our current discussion the point is that one of the ways God would have our children learn the faith is by experiencing things they don’t understand.

And that brings us to Deuteronomy 6 where God prescribes a parent’s answer to a child’s question:

Deuteronomy 6:20-25   “When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD our God commanded you?’  21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the LORD brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand.  22 ‘Moreover, the LORD showed great and distressing signs and wonders before our eyes against Egypt, Pharaoh and all his household; 23 He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers.’ 24 “So the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God for our good always and for our survival, as it is today.  25 “It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God, just as He commanded us.

At the risk of stating the obvious [A besetting sin in your teaching ministry. –Shive], this proverbial son is watching, if not participating in, things that seem strange to him; and his lack of understanding is what draws him in. I take it, then, that in we should want to provoke the inquisitive nature of our children concerning our faith by exposing them to things they don’t understand.

To that end we might even consider keeping a fidgety kid in the pew every now and then on a communion Sunday just to pique his curiosity.

And if your son asks you, “What is the Lord’s Supper and why are you doing this?” then maybe you could say something like:

 ‘We were slaves to sin, and the Lord freed us from the curse with a mighty hand.  Moreover, through his death and resurrection Jesus Christ has shown us great and distressing signs and wonders against death, the devil and all his works;

God brought us out from the domain of darkness in order to bring us in to the kingdom of his Son, to give us an inheritance which He has promised to us.’

“So Jesus commanded us to observe the Lord’s Supper, to fear Him for our good and for our salvation, as we are doing today. “It is a sign of our righteousness when we keep this command before our LORD and Savior, just as He commanded.

 


¹We now know that APB is merely the symptom of bigger problem–excitement deficit disorder (EDD).

The winds move fast

Last night: the greatest Super Bowl game in history.

This morning: SB51 stories headline espn.com

This evening: NBA basketball stories headline espn.com

SB51 doesn’t even hold the top spot for a day. Not 1 day.

Psalm 103:15-16  As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.  16 When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, And its place acknowledges it no longer.

Should we major in evangelism?

At least one local Christian in the Fountain City is doubting that evangelism is the Church’s most important job.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled Facebook lurking to bring you this important newsflash:

At least one local Christian in the Fountain City is doubting that evangelism is the Church’s most important job.

Apparently, our young churchman has a niggling suspicion that the priority placed on evangelism is short-sighted and rife with unintended consequences. Specifically, He worries that majoring on evangelism means minoring in discipleship, an arrangement not found in Scripture. After all, Jesus didn’t say “Go and evangelize” but “Go and make disciples” (Mt 28:19).

On the whole I think our agitator’s instincts are right, especially when we consider two misconceptions that plague too many evangelism campaigns:

  1. Evangelism ≠ converts. Unfortunately, many pep talks for evangelism conflate evangelizing with winning converts. Strictly speaking, to evangelize (Greek, euangelizō) means “to announce/proclaim good news.” Thus, whenever we share the gospel with someone we have done evangelism regardless of whether or not we win a convert. Failing to distinguish between act and result leads to the belief that we’re not evangelizing unless we’re seeing new people in the pews. Maybe, maybe not.
  2. In Mt 28:19 make disciples is the main verb, not Go. It’s not uncommon to hear someone explain the Great Commission as if it consisted of two commands: Go and make disciples. The effect is that ‘go’ is taken to signify our going out to win the lost (i.e. evangelism) while ‘make disciples’ is what we do once we get them in. So there’s evangelism and there’s discipleship.

    But Go is actually a participle in the Greek which draws its “force” from the imperative make disciples [Oh, you have them on the edge of their seats now. Tell them more! -Shive]. The point is that go is tied to make disciples which is the focus of the verse.

On biblical grounds I think evangelism should neither be conceived in terms of results (i.e. conversions) nor should it be considered apart from the broader work of discipleship. By all means, emphasize evangelism, but do it for the increase of disciples not converts.

Parents, you need to read this book

I’ll let the author make the case for herself but as a father of six and a full-time education pastor who regularly interacts with other people’s kids, I have to say that I found this book compelling.

reset-your-childs-brainIn the introduction to her book, Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time, integrative psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley observes:

In a mere ten-year span from 1994 to 2003, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children increased forty-fold. Childhood psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and tic disorders are on the rise. Between 2002 and 2005, ADHD medication prescriptions rose by 40 percent. Mental illness is now the number one reason for disability filings for children, representing half of all claims filed in 2012, compared to just 5 to 6 percent of claims twenty years prior.

Now consider that this rise in childhood psychosocial and neurodevelopmental issues has increased in lockstep with the insidious growth of electronic-screen exposure in daily life . . . Children aged two to six now spend two to four hours a day screen-bound — during a period in their lives when sufficient healthy play is critical to normal development. Computer training in early-years education–including in preschool–has become commonplace, despite a lack of long-term data on learning and development. And according to a large-scale survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010, children ages eight to eighteen now spend an average of nearly seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen–a 20 percent increase from just five years earlier. (2-3)

Even if you end up disagreeing with Dunckley that Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) is contributing to (if not causing) an increasingly broad spectrum of behavioral and/or developmental disorders, you will certainly benefit from knowing the pitfalls that accompany unregulated screen-time for children. I’ll let the author make the case for herself but as a father of six and a full-time education pastor who regularly interacts with other people’s kids, I have to say that I found this book compelling.

Although not a major focus of the book, parents would also benefit from the counsel that Dunckley provides concerning communication and discipline. A good bit of content is universally applicable. For example:

It’s very easy to get caught up arguing and debating whether there’s a problem and whether this is the right solution–which is exactly what you don’t want. Children will always have more energy than you, so it’s to their advantage to keep you engaged. It’s to yours to keep it short! (164-165; emphasis added)

And my personal favorite:

Who knows, but considering the current trend is wearable computing, the next wave of devices might make today’s screen-time problems seem laughable . . . So be wary when the next new technology comes out and steer clear of adding new devices to the home. It’s harder to have and give up than never to have at all. (240-241; emphasis added)

It may not be a fun read but it’s necessary. So take a look but be prepared: the diagnosis and prescription are not for the faint of heart.