In the most recent issue of the Baptist & Reflector Justin Wainscott has a wonderful column by this title. Justin rightly notes the importance of congregational singing and the fact that this is too often overlooked by pastors. Justin writes:
Let’s face it. If our churches don’t value congregational singing, it’s likely because we don’t value it. While everyone else is supposed to be singing together, we’re busy fumbling through our notes or looking around at who’s there or not there. Or worse, we just stand there with our arms folded, waiting on ‘our’ turn.
This column is a good challenge for pastors to lead the way by example in the importance of congregational singing. Too many of our members think of singing simply as the “set up” for what really matters, preaching. Of course, preaching is important but the scriptures make clear that congregational singing is important as well. Just this morning I read Psalm 96 which opens with,
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Three times in two verses we are explicitly commanded to sing to the Lord, and the context makes it clear that only hearty singing will do. This is of course only one of the many places where this is commanded in Scripture (commonly in the Psalms and also Col 3:16; Eph 5:19). It simply won’t do to say, “I’m just not into singing,” or “I don’t really like to sing.” It has been commanded by our Lord. When people give these responses, I want to reply, “Oh, are you not a Christian?” We may as well say, “I’m just not into obedience,” or “I don’t really like to share the gospel.” And God’s commands are always for our good. We are blessed as we sing the praises of our worthy God.
So, I encourage you to read Justin Wainscott’s column and let’s help our people really engage in congregational singing.
My poem of the week this week comes from Elizabeth Prentiss, whose poems abut faith in the midst of suffering have for years been a challenge and comfort to me.
“So Be It”
So be it; ’tis Thy plan not mine,
And being Thine is good;
And God, my will shall yield to Thine
Ere it is understood.
So be it; I a child of dust
Will not oppose Thy way,
Move on, mysterious Will, I trust,
I love, and will obey.
So be it; and do Thou, my heart,
No childish questions ask,
Thou in God’s counsels hast no part,
Crave not so hard a task.
So be it; yes, so be it, Lord,
No word have I to say–
O be Thy gracious Name adored–
I love and will obey.
~ Elizabeth Prentiss, from Golden Hours
I am reading All Quiet on the Western Front with my boys for school. The writing is powerful and sobering, raising many key issues of life. One passage particularly caught my attention as an illustration of the church. After the narrator got lost in no man’s land after a reconnaissance mission at night he began to despair. The hopelessness of his situation is powerfully communicated. Then, in the midst of the darkness and despair he heard movement and voices. He realized these were his friends nearby. Then he states:
“At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices, these quiet words, these footsteps in the trench behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by which I had been almost destroyed. They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear, they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades.
I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness; – I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.”
This is the Church! In the midst of a fallen world, particularly in our dark times when despair claws at us, we need to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters, the ones to whom we belong and who belong to us. The ones with whom we have shared life and fears and joys. At various times, when our faith falters and our strength fails, it will be these voices which save us and stand by us.
But this only really works when there is a community of believes with whom we are connected, whom we know and by whom we are known. We dare not neglect this great gift of the church.
A couple of weeks ago I visited a bookstore with some friends and noticed this figure of Jesus.
It struck me that this is the Jesus our culture is interested in: a discounted, bendable Jesus. Jesus is welcome as long as he doesn’t cost much and as long as we can shape him as we see fit.
But “Bendable Jesus” isn’t the Lord Jesus of the Bible. Lord Jesus is the one who upholds all things by the word of his power (Heb 1:3), the one by whom, for whom and through whom all things were created and who holds all things together (Col 1:16-17). He is not cheap. He is the pearl of great price. He is not bendable. He is unchanging and, therefore, can be trusted and relied upon. He cannot be shaped by us but he has come to redeem us because of his great love for us. He does not bend but he stooped to save us and therefore every knee will one day bend and bow before him (Phil 2:6-11). He is worthy of all praise, devotion and obedience.
T. H. L. Parker’s challenge two decades ago of the Church of England, of which he was a part, is relevant to us today.
“What wonder that a church which picks and chooses what it wants out of the Bible should become confused in its theology, flabby in its morals, and with little to state but the worldly obvious- the day after worldly liberals have stated it more convincingly?” (from the introduction to Calvin’s Preaching).
This is a powerful reminder of our need to preach the whole counsel of God and to let the Scriptures shape all else.
Looking back through the excellent volume, What Luther Says (an excellent resource!), I came across this passage where Luther extols the value of singing the Psalms. I have discussed previously Luther’s love of the Psalms. Here succinctly he mentions the comfort they give, how they “preach the Messiah,” and the added impact of singing them (as opposed to only reading them).
“In view of their spiritual meaning the psalms are really lovely and sweet; for they are comforting to all depressed, wretched consciences, who are in fear of sin, the anguish and agony of death, and all sorts of trouble and misery. To such hearts the book of Psalms is a sweet, comforting, lovely song, because it sings and preaches the Messiah, although one merely reads or recites the words without notes. Nevertheless, the use of notes or music, as a wonderful creation and gift of God, helps greatly to produce this effect, especially when the people sing along and do so with fine devoutness.” (#3098)
Why would we deprive ourselves of such a resource? As Bonhoeffer wrote, “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.”
If you’d like to get started singing the psalms but aren’t sure how this free booklet can help you get started.
I have made the point often here that the New Testament portrays pastors knowing their people well, and not just speaking to crowds of unknown people. The command to watch over their souls, knowing God will hold us accountable for this (Heb 13:17), requires this as does a ministry in which we “warn everyone” and “teach everyone” with an aim to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28). The assumption is that we know whom we are caring for. It will be difficult to watch over souls of people whose names you don’t know. I have also cited here numerous instances where church leaders from the past have affirmed this understanding. Recently I have come across one more example.
Theodore Beza served under the leadership of John Calvin in Geneva and was Calvin’s successor. Beza exemplifies this understanding of pastoral ministry in his sermon on John 21:15, where Jesus charged Peter, “Feed my sheep”:
It is not only necessary that [a pastor] have general knowledge of his flock, but he must also know and call each of his sheep by name, both in public and in their homes, both night and day. Pastors must run after lost sheep, bandaging up the one with a broken leg, strengthening the one that is sick …. In sum, the pastor must consider his sheep more dear to him than his own life, following the example of the Good Shepherd.
(Cited in Scott Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609, 281)
This is what scripture calls for and our forebears recognized it. Let us be faithful to walk in these ways as well.
Over the holidays I tried to listen to the audio of The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, by Edward Dolnick. I appreciate the general topic, but after a few chapters I stopped. The condescending caricature of Christianity presented in the book was too much. To tell well the story of a group of people, one must at least appreciate at some level where they are coming from and why. Dolnick simply sneers at the backwardness of people who were so silly as to think that God controlled the world, that hell exists, that sin is serious, etc.
His contrast between the 17th century and today is telling, though. For example he writes:
“Today damn and hell are the mildest oaths, suitable responses to a stubbed toe or a spilled drink. For our forebears, the prospect of being damned to hell was vivid and horrifying.”
Dolnick seems to think this change of perspective is progress. The modern man Dolnick happily describes sounds rather like the wicked described in Psalm 36:1: “there is no fear of God before his eyes.” The fact that fear of facing God’s judgment is rare in our society, that words like damn and hell mean so little, explains a lot about behavior and belief today.