In Debt to Our Trespasses

For the first nineteen years of my life, I attended Methodist churches in which we possessed ‘trespasses’ needing to be forgiven, according to the form of the Lord’s Prayer we regularly recited. For all but three of the years since (I’m now sixty) I’ve attended Presbyterian churches where the ‘trespasses’ had become ‘debts’. I’ve been confessing debts twice as long as trespasses. And yet…

Some months ago I was sitting in my study troubled by many things and seeking to pray. I prayed, as I am prone to do in such times when I don’t know how to pray, the Lord’s Prayer. In the intensity of that moment, I found myself praying for the forgiveness of my childhood Methodist trespasses and not my adulthood Presbyterian debts. Praying from within the context of desperation, those childhood liturgical forms welled up from deep within me where they had been disciplined to reside until needed most. Liturgy has an ability to shape the young and formative mind in powerful and lasting ways.

I was reminded of this in a comment by journalist James Fallows, not a particularly devout man if his blog and other writings are any indication, and yet he says this:

“I spent my youth hearing the cadences of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer repeated roughly one zillion times and still feel they are my main guide to the proper shape and pacing of a sentence.”

Somehow our youthful liturgical exposure is formative in ways that transcend the merely spiritual.

And yet, we’ve persuaded ourselves that children get nothing from public worship. I beg to differ.

Panting

When the sons of Korah speak these words

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God. (Psalm 42:1)

we read them as their longing for a mystical emotional experience of the presence of God. Perhaps that is right. Certainly I speak with lots of people who are longing for a more concrete and less purely intellectual experience of God. This could be what these men longed for as well.

But if we read the whole psalm, we realize that what they longed for was something they once had but which was not simply lost but had been stripped from them. And what had been stripped from them was the opportunity to “come and appear before God” (verse 2). What they longed for was not simply the experience of God, but the experience as it was mediated through the place where they would meet with God.

These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival. (Psalm 42:4)

To be blunt, and anachronistic, but still on point, they had been denied the opportunity to go to church. And they missed that, grieved for that, lamented that, because ‘church’ was where they could come and appear before God and have their desperate soul thirst assuaged.

They had been denied and longed for what we have and take for granted.

May today our glad shouts and songs of praise return, from our hearts, as we come and appear before God and have our thirst sated.

A Hymn’s Mysterious Ways

It is typical for preachers such as I in an attempt to bring encouragement to people struggling through difficult times to quote from the hymn whose first line is ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way’. We will often along with that tell something of what we know of the hymn’s author, William Cowper.

William cowper 448
We will tell how he was a pastor and a poet, and friends of the famed John Newton, the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. And finally we will point out how Cowper dealt with severe affliction, that he struggled with mental health issues and that he was hospitalized numerous times, sometimes after attempts on his own life. Given that context we will then encourage people to reflect on lines from the hymn:

You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.

And from this, we hope people will find comfort.

But did Cowper find comfort from these words himself? That he did not is the possibility that hymn scholar Erik Routley in his book I’ll Praise My Maker suggests.

Routley points out that the bulk of Cowper’s hymns show they were written by a man with a passionate and sensitive heart. His words were often personal, flowing from a heart in love with his savior.

Oh! for a closer walk with GOD,
A calm and heav’nly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

But Cowper, like many sensitive souls, struggled to understand God’s providence when it took dark and inexplicable turns. And so, Routley points out, the words from his hymn on that matter,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

are completely true and deeply hopeful. But, coming from the pen of Cowper, they are oddly lacking anything personal or emotional. They lack, that is, Cowper’s heart.

The whole hymn exhorts men to trust in God and not to enquire into His ways, which is well enough so far as it goes….

But what astonishes the careful reader is surely this, that here is a man who had both plumbed the depths of suffering and scaled the heights of faith, who wrote so passionately of his Saviour as he did in “There is a fountain filled with blood”,…yet, when he would advise men upon the inscrutability of God’s Providence, he makes no mention whatever of the Saviour of the world, and does not so much as mention the word “grace”.

How can Cowper, after all his experience and all his exhortation, write a hymn of providence that makes no mention of redemption?…Something is wrong here…. (page 110)

I’m not sure that there is something actually ‘wrong’ here, but something is clearly missing. How can that be explained?

Sometimes we find ourselves in those hard places where we are torn between the pain that hurts so badly and the truth that we are supposed to believe. All that we can really do in the midst of that agony may be to recite what we know to be true even though it seems distant from our hearts. Sometimes all we have strength to do is to sing, or in Cowper’s case write, what we are having trouble believing so that we might come around to the place where in fact we do believe and our hearts can again rejoice.

This is the ‘I believe’ part of the complete confession, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’ (Mark 9:24) We do believe, but contentment eludes when the horror of what we are experiencing and feeling overcomes us.

Perhaps in his own way, Cowper, struggling with the incomprehensible darkness of mental illness, is showing us a path. In the dark we confess the truth that we know until the light comes to illuminate it to our hearts. Perhaps this hymn itself moves in a mysterious way.

Skipping Scripture

I’m skipping church this morning.

Well, not precisely. I’m skipping MY church. I’m skipping the church where my heart is. I’m skipping worshipping with the community I have come to love and appreciate.

I’m skipping because people tell me I must. That I need to be on vacation. That I need to take a break. And so, I, with my family, will worship with others today, in a place where I can be relatively anonymous, which is somewhat contrary, in my mind, to what church is supposed to be.

Because of that, I have a bit more time on my hands – time I rarely have on a Sunday morning. It is the Lord’s day, and so to turn my thoughts in His direction I casually picked up Kathleen Norris’ book Amazing Grace, one which I’ve been working through occasionally over the past few months. Her perspective, different as it is from my own, is often stimulating. (Previous comments here and here and here.)

It only took a few paragraphs (pages 189-190, if you are following along at home) for me to be impacted. She notes the irony that in Protestant churches, especially those of the more evangelical type, worship consists of so little reading of Scripture. In the history of protestant churches men and women died to secure the right to have the Scriptures in the language of the people, died to have access to the Bible. In evangelical churches, we speak of the centrality of Scripture and call ourselves Bible-believing and toss the Reformation slogan Sola Scriptura around like a talisman. But one would be hard pressed to prove that the Bible means anything to us judging from the amount that is read in worship.

Our contemporary services of worship don’t allow for the tedious and drawn out reading of Scripture. We sing about Jesus, but do not listen to his words or the prophets who spoke about him. We read the text given for the sermon, but little more. If the pastor does not preach on the prophet Isaiah, which I’ve not done for many years, a congregation will never hear its promises and warnings and rhythms and tone.

But they can read it at home, no? Perhaps. But that cannot be taken for granted. And what they read, they often do not understand. The Bible was never meant to be a private book. It belongs to the church and needs to be read in the church. I’m saddened and somewhat embarrassed by this lack in my own congregation. It takes time, it may seem tedious, it may seem opaque. But is it not worth it if in so doing we build a growing rootedness in the book from which we learn of life?

My own, admittedly private, reading of Scripture earlier this morning came from, ironically (or providentially!), Psalm 119. I was struck with this verse:

How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)

I wondered how one comes to view God’s word with such longing. Perhaps God is pointing me in at least one direction toward an answer.

Feeling Rotten?

When we feel rotten, we want to avoid happy people. Laughing hyenas travel in packs; the depressed ones probably travel alone. Sometimes we just want to be alone and church is not a place where that is easily accomplished.

Often those who feel the worst avoid worship because they are convinced that everyone else is happy and no one knows the misery they are experiencing. No one who is struggling wants to hang out with people who are going to inevitably ask, “How are you?” Maybe they care, maybe they don’t, but when we are upset, we don’t want to be asked.

And so, we stay home. We go to the beach. We watch TV. We feign illness. And we void the very thing that God has created for hurting people.

Hearts that are chewed up and in trouble provide fertile soil for the gospel. Overturned earth is most ready for the seed. Sorrow breaks the hardness of our hearts and brings the possibility of healing most in view. And our Enemy does not want us to find that healing. So he whispers insistently, if not persuasively, “Stay home; you don’t want to be there. Not with THEM.”

When you feel rotten is, in fact, when you most need to be in worship. Go. Be there. And pray that the renewing dew will fall upon your broken heart.

With Sadness and Frustration

About four or five years ago I was having a conversation about worship with a very sharp and well-informed pastor friend of mine. He wished I and many more would read the book With Reverence and Awe by John R. Muether and D. G. Hart, which I recently did. I was hoping for a thoughtful and reflective consideration of worship. My hopes were not met, I fear.

I was not expecting to find anything that would radically alter my thinking about worship, but I was hoping along the way to find some helpful reflections on the value and place of worship for the contemporary church. While I’m not sure what to call my ‘position’ on worship, I was at one time pretty securely camped out on Muether’s and Hart’s side of the fence. Though my views have shifted (“matured”, I like to think; others may prefer “deteriorated”) I know that these men have something to teach us. But teaching cannot be heard when the tone is set on “attack”.

This is the type of book which garners rave reviews from those already convinced of its premises, but which will persuade no one not already persuaded. Sadly, there is nothing here to engage or to improve those who differ. The logic is often fallacious, and the argument selective. And the combative tone squelches any dialog. The final chapter implies that those who differ tread close to, if they have not already crossed, the line separating the true church from the false. If we don’t agree it is because of the non-confessional and anti-intellectual climate of our day.

Worship, being a human activity, will always be constantly maturing, growing, shifting. The church therefore needs wise and biblical counsel to guide its practice. Muether and Hart might have input if they did not couch their counsel in such ‘you’re bad; we’re good’ terms.

The good ship Worship has long since left Muether’s and Hart’s port and it’s not coming back. Their best contribution would come if they would style themselves as fellow passengers with the rest of us instead of simply screaming at the ship.

The Aim of Worship

The flow of worship at the church I pastor follows a pattern by which we rehearse the gospel message. We are confronted with God, we confess our sin, we receive his grace, and we celebrate our new and renewed lives. Week after week we do this.

And this worship is not meant to be passive. We invite participation in a number of ways – through song and corporate prayers and creeds. This participation reaches a climax at the end of the service where we are invited to ‘participate’ in the Lord’s Supper.

As important as all the other elements of worship are, they all nevertheless lead us to this final act of participation. The rest of worship presents Christ to us. At the table, we take him by an act of faith to ourselves. The rest of worship exposes what a life of faith looks like. At the table, we take hold of the One who can enable us to live that life. And at times, the rest of worship exposes our sin. At the table, we have the opportunity to repent of our false saviors and take hold of the True.

So, in a sense, all of worship prepares us to respond to Jesus at the table. As we worship this morning, listen, sing, pray, and attend to all with the knowledge that you will, at the end, join in communion with the one who makes it all real.

The Value of Worship

Christian worship is far too often judged for its immediate effects and not its long term value. Surely things such as the quality of the sermon, the selection of songs, and even length do matter, but I wonder if we often ponder enough the vital transformative power of regular participation in worship. Is there not something in the character of the liturgy itself with power to integrate itself into our own perceptions and to form and shape our own rhythms of experience? I cannot really recall any of the sermons of my childhood. I cannot reflect any of the hundreds of thousands of words spoken or songs sung. Nevertheless, I am certain that the character of my life and or my thoughts and of my desires has been shaped and directed by those weekly routines of song and word and prayer and, in my case, quarterly sacramental participation.

I cannot PROVE the value and I cannot point to academic comparative studies substantuating my claims, but I sense this is true.

Joking with a newly married couple the other day, they spoke of something they had now done ‘twice’ which had become for them, therefore, a tradition and needed to be kept up. Clearly there are aspects of family life that through repetition and priority form the members of that family into certain shapes and develop within them certain attitudes and passions. As family tradition and ritual can do that, so can regular participation in Christian worship.

A fellow pastor lamented to me recently the low commitment to worship evidenced by members of his congregation. I know the temptation to treat worship lightly. On a Sunday I had ‘off’ a few weeks ago, I faced the desire to just kick off my shoes and sit quietly at home for a Sunday. In nearly thirty years of pastoring, I’ve heard my share of ‘reasons’ for missing worship on Sunday far less substantive than I would have had. But I wonder what sustained and regular absence does to us. I wonder what we lose.

Criticism of sermons is painful, but a part of the job. Complaints about music I take to heart but despair of satisfying. I do want worship to have an immediate positive impact upon all who participate. I do want worshipers to drive home with their hearts full of the power of the gospel and the greatness of God. And yet, I think the real, lasting, deep, and abiding value of worship is in its regularity. It is a discipline that shapes us.

Psalm 84
1 How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD of hosts!
2 My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise! Selah

Really Cool Grace

A casting call has been issued for replacement vocabulary for all the Christian hymns dependent upon ‘amazing’ for their power. We’re talking some biggies here. “And Can It Be” ponders God’s “amazing” love, as does “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”. And of course, there is (or was?) “Amazing Grace”.

All of them need to be fixed.

According to the arbiters at Lake Superior State University (home of the appropriately named ‘Lakers’) “Amazing” is one of the words which should be banished from use, along with “Baby Bump”, “Occupy”, “Man Cave”, and “Ginormous”. LSSU receives nominations for its annual banished word list throughout the year, and this year the greatest number of nominations mentioned “Amazing”.

Say the judges,

Many nominators mentioned over-use on television when they sent their entries, mentioning “reality” TV, Martha Stewart and Anderson Cooper. It seemed to bother people everywhere, as nominations were sent from around the US and Canada and some from overseas, including Israel, England and Scotland. A Facebook page – “Overuse of the Word Amazing” – threatened to change its title to “Occupy LSSU” if ‘amazing’ escaped banishment this year…

Pretty intense.

So what are we to do? Send Wesly, Watts, Newton, and Co. back to the drawing board, I guess.

Awesome grace, how sweet the sound…

Love so mind-blowing, so divine…

Stupefying love, how can it be.

Hmmm. This presents a potentially ginormous problem.

—–

As a footnote, let me praise the folks at LSSU. I am generally in total agreement with their judgment. Last year’s list included “epic”, “fail”, “man-up”, “viral”, and my personal dis-favorite, “the American people”.

The Extraordinary Privilege of the Ordinary

This past Sunday morning, I went to church.

That in itself is not so unusual. After all, I am a pastor, and going to church is my job. What was unusual is that I went to church as an ordinary guy. Not as pastor, but as worshiper. And I was reminded of how great a privilege and how important a component of life is worship.

Sunday for a pastor is normally a work day. My mind is filled from the moment I rise – usually very early – with thoughts about the details of the service and particularly the sermon I’m to preach. Right or wrong, this preoccupation rarely disappears even after worship has begun. And though I benefit from worship and truly do celebrate the Lord’s kindness in the communion we share, there is still a distraction that comes from having such a public role to play.

But this past Sunday was different. It was ordinary. I was on vacation and had no responsibilities. In fact, I could have stayed home. I could have judged that I ‘needed a break’, or that I was tired, or any one of the myriad of reasons that I have heard as a pastor over the years for placing a low priority on public worship.

But I went, with no responsibilities, and I was blessed.

We showed up later than planned because we went together as a family. My visiting son and his wife have an infant son whose presence slowed us down. But that was okay. We arrived as worship was beginning and we took our seats as would anyone else. We listened, we spoke, we sang, we prayed.

When the time came for the sermon to be preached, I reached for my note pad. The one preaching in my place was my intern and I knew he would be interested in my critical reflections upon his preaching. I started to take notes to share with him, and then stopped. More than he needed my reflections, I needed to be fed God’s Word. I needed to be preached to, and he did such a solid job of that that it was a blessing just to listen.

And then I had the rare experience (for me) of being served communion. I am normally the one serving. The sacrament served to remind me of my place in the people of God and the privilege that is. It was such a warm and encouraging reminder.

I left having been blessed by the ordinary service of God’s ordinary people in the ordinary rhythm of the church.

And I left wondering why anyone would ever voluntarily pass on the extraordinary privilege of gathering for worship with God’s people. It is not something that we merely should do. It is something that we are regularly privileged to do.

Perhaps it is only we who rarely have that privilege who can see that so well.