Why Bells At Christmas


golden_christmas_bellsI love the trappings of Christmas. I love the light displays, the decorated trees, the candles and stockings hanging off the mantelpiece, I love wreaths and gingerbread cookies (or the idea of them, at least), and I love Christmas carols and candy canes and bells.

But why bells? How did they make their way into Christmas?

I’ve not really researched the issue, but I can speculate based on some of the carols we have. When Christmas was primarily a religious holiday, churches undoubtedly rang their bells, whether for a special service or simply in celebration. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” a carol based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, contains these lines:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet
The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Ah, yes, all those church belfries.

christmas_bells_in_the_snowIn winter climates, during the horse-and-buggy era, sleighs provided a means of transportation during the Christmas season, and apparently bells were part of the adornment. We learn this from a number of Christmas songs that have become classics: “Silver Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” and of course, “Jingle Bells”:

Bells on bobtail ring’
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way.
Oh! what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.

Then there are the songs like “White Christmas,” and “The Carol of Christmas” that indicate bells were nothing more than instruments of joyful celebration:

Hark how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say
Throw cares away

Christmas is here
Bringing good cheer
To young and old
Meek and the bold
Ding dong ding
That is their song
With joyful ring
All caroling

One carol that seems to come closest to capturing all these facets of bells at Christmas is “Ding Dong Merrily On High.” Apparently the music was originally a French dance tune. The lyrics were first published early in the twentieth century. Today we are most familiar with the first verse and the chorus, but here are all three verses:

Ding dong merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rime
Your evetime song, ye singers.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

Clearly in this song the bells are a means of celebration, whether on high or here below, and the note they sound is that of glory accompanying the cry of Hosanna. This is worship.

Besides all we learn from the holiday music, I can’t help but think of bells as a means to ask for people’s attention. The Salvation Army bell ringers do this. I imagine town criers of old going along the streets, ringing bells and shouting, “Hear ye, hear ye.”

That use of bells, of course, would fit for the Christian about to proclaim good news—which really is what Christmas is all about. Perhaps, then, bells are one of the most fitting accouterments of Christmas.

This post, minus the embedded video, is one that first appeared here in December 2012.

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Published in: on December 14, 2016 at 6:09 pm  Comments (4)  
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The First Thanksgiving Day


old_testament012

I’ve not verified this with anyone, but I think the first recorded Thanksgiving Day occurred under King David’s rule and is found in 1 Chronicles 16. The day was a community-wide, or more accurately, a national occasion, with worship and feasting and music of every kind, including songs. One is recorded for us, so we know the focus of this thanksgiving was God.

Here are the key parts of the passage (I’m leaving the verse numbers in place so you can see what I’ve included):

old_testament0241 And they brought in the ark of God and placed it inside the tent which David had pitched for it, and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before God. 2 When David had finished offering the burnt offering and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD. 3 He distributed to everyone of Israel, both man and woman, to everyone a loaf of bread and a portion of meat and a raisin cake.

4 He appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the LORD, even to celebrate and to thank and praise the LORD God of Israel

7 Then on that day David first assigned Asaph [who wrote some of the psalms recorded in Scripture] and his relatives to give thanks to the LORD.

8 Oh give thanks to the LORD, call upon His name;
Make known His deeds among the peoples.
9 Sing to Him, sing praises to Him;
Speak of all His wonders.
10 Glory in His holy name;
Let the heart of those who seek the LORD be glad.
11 Seek the LORD and His strength;
Seek His face continually.
12 Remember His wonderful deeds which He has done,
His marvels and the judgments from His mouth,
13 O seed of Israel His servant,
Sons of Jacob, His chosen ones!
14 He is the LORD our God;
His judgments are in all the earth.
15 Remember His covenant forever,
The word which He commanded to a thousand generations,

23 Sing to the LORD, all the earth;
Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day.
24 Tell of His glory among the nations,
His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.
25 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
He also is to be feared above all gods.
26 For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the LORD made the heavens.
27 Splendor and majesty are before Him,
Strength and joy are in His place.
28 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples,
Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
29 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come before Him;
Worship the LORD in holy array.
30 Tremble before Him, all the earth;
Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved.
31 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
And let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns.”
32 Let the sea roar, and all it contains;
Let the field exult, and all that is in it.
33 Then the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the LORD;
For He is coming to judge the earth.
34 O give thanks to the LORD, for He is good;
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
35 Then say, “Save us, O God of our salvation,
And gather us and deliver us from the nations,
To give thanks to Your holy name,
And glory in Your praise.”
36 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
From everlasting even to everlasting.
Then all the people said, “Amen,” and praised the LORD.

Now that’s Thanksgiving!

Published in: on November 24, 2016 at 9:47 am  Comments Off on The First Thanksgiving Day  
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What I DO Like About Church


Church_ServiceI’ve said more than once that I’ve been spoiled. I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life in one Bible-believing church. Without a doubt, the teaching I received there and what I’ve learned from regular time in God’s word are the causes for any spiritual growth in my life. From what my church has done right and also from what it has neglected, I have developed a few items on my “this is what I like” list.

First, Biblical, expository preaching. Many preachers use the Bible as their text. I’ve heard preachers who primarily retell the Biblical passage they’ve chosen, putting it in their own words and perhaps giving it a contemporary slant. I’ve heard other preachers who take the main topic of a text and discuss it, using all kinds of research and examples from literature or history or psychology or whatever. I’ve also heard preachers who take a topic and then find verses in the Bible to support what they want to say about that subject.

None of these are necessarily wrong. They might provide the congregation with helpful knowledge and might facilitate their spiritual growth. But from my thinking, there’s a better way.

A pastor, as I see it, should not pick and choose what parts of the Bible his congregation needs. In reality, we need the entire Bible, even the hard parts. Some hard parts, to be sure, might not seem to yield “good sermon material,” so a pastor needs to decide how to handle those sections of Scripture. I’m thinking, for example, of passages in Numbers discussing the dimensions of the tabernacle or the laws intended for the Jewish people or 1 Chronicles genealogies or even the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and in Luke. There are lessons to be gleaned from each of those, and a pastor may want to address those in a different way than he would a New Testament letter or a study of a book of prophecy or of history.

But the point here is this: expository preaching intends to explain or describe a Biblical passage, going into some depth, and generally working through a section from start to finish.

Expository preaching still uses cross references and still looks into the historical background of the text. But the primary element of expository preaching is to let God say what He said. Consequently we don’t dodge hard verses that say things that don’t square with our theology or that clash with our cultural proclivities. Expository preaching doesn’t chase trends in the church. It doesn’t camp on one topic and hit congregants over the head with the same “thou shalt” week after week after week. The Spirit of God might want to get someone’s attention that way, but the Bible has such variety, written from the perspective of so many different writers, it’s really hard to work through a passage of Scripture and not find something new and diverse.

Second, singing that’s congregation oriented. I’m of the mindset that corporate worship should be different from a concert. Corporate worship is participatory. We should be engaged during sermons, checking the Scriptures to see if the things we’re being taught are true. We should also be engaged in any singing. Yes, there might be times when our engagement is within as it is when we listen to sermons, but I believe in congregational singing. Jesus sang a hymn with His followers the night before He was arrested, so we have His example.

Paul says we are to teach and admonition one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16). That idea leads to a second point of emphasis: the purpose of the congregation-oriented music is that we might have doctrine reinforced. Yes, singing should also be for worship, but again this is a corporate activity, so we as a congregation should do this together—praising God for who He is, for what He’s done, for the beauty of His person, for the perfection of His plan, for His creation. In other words, praise should be focused on God, not on how I feel about God.

A third point here is that congregational singing should actually be intended for a congregation, not for a small group or soloist. So I really like congregational music when I don’t have to change keys to keep on singing or to stay quiet until the music comes back into my range.

What else do I like about church? I like groups of people from our church working to serve others. We once had a vibrant ministry to prisons. I don’t hear about that any more, but maybe we still do it. We also used to participate in a program that provided prisoners gifts for their children at Christmas time. I like missions and short term mission opportunities. I like various activities and services for the poor and needy. Big churches, of course, can offer more varied ways of serving, but I like whatever effort a church makes to serve at home or abroad.

Along with that, though, I like to see people speaking out boldly about Jesus Christ. Anyone can do a good deed. I think it’s important for others to know we love and go and work and serve because Jesus first loved us. We’re not trying to earn church brownie points or, worse, heaven brownie points.

One last area I’ll mention today. I like churches that take care of one another. Churches are filled with people, and God designed us to pray for one another and to help one another and to comfort one another and to serve one another. In short, I like churches with people who develop relationships with one another—not always easy to do in big metropolitan areas in the fast pace of today’s society. But all the more necessary because of the disconnect we can easily feel away from family.

God identifies His Church using a variety of metaphors. One is that we are His children, which makes us all brothers and sisters. That’s something vital I think the church must not lose. No one needs another bureaucratic entity in our lives just because. But we need the church, mostly because we ARE the Church. We need to be with like-minded people, not so that we can settle, but so that we can be empowered to go out and serve and preach and love those around us.

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:1-8)

Published in: on May 5, 2016 at 6:10 pm  Comments (9)  
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What I Don’t Like Regarding Church


Mars_Hill_Church,_Ballard_location,_worship_band_stageChurches are nothing but a collection of people—sinners saved by grace who sometimes listen to God and follow Him, but who sometimes rebel and go their own way, though they may repent and come back to a place of obedience. Sometimes, without realizing it, we let stuff creep into our churches that is really harmful, stuff that acts like a little leaven. Sometimes we let in wolves that masquerade like shepherds. Sometimes we tolerate what amounts to cotton candy.

When I was in Tanzania, the average person lived hand to mouth. One of the staples in their diet was ugali, a dough-like substance made from the cassava plant. Cassava is a root, similar to the potato. In Tanzania, the farming techniques at that time often depleted the soil of nutrients. Hence, cassava, and ultimately ugali, had little nutritional value. People could eat their meals which would assuage their appetite, but they were not receiving the vitamins and minerals they needed.

Some churches can be like ugali, or like cotton candy—on the surface it seems as if the people are being fed, but they end up nearly starving.

I don’t like the things that hurt our churches!

Here, in no specific order, are some of the things I think hurt our churches:

Copying. Or jumping on bandwagons, if you will. We seem too eager, in my opinion, to jump to the next trend, as if church is all about keeping up with the trendy, the pacesetters, the megachurches who seem to have find the right formula to bring people in.

Jesus attracted big crowds, so there’s obviously nothing inherently wrong with a large congregation. But Jesus didn’t do market studies to see how to bring people in. His crowds also included a group out to catch Him in some kind of error—either morally or theologically.

The crowds also included those who were there just for a free lunch or to be wowed by the next dead-man-walking event. Some may have been there for the cool stories.

But at one point, Jesus laid out what He expected of people who followed Him, and the crowds dissipated. Rapidly. Jesus didn’t revamp His style or technique. He didn’t soften His message or steer away from the truth. He didn’t open up coffee shops or promise to provide lunch from only ONE loaf of bread if they’d just come back next week.

Which brings me to the second thing I think hurts churches: counting the number of people who attend. We’ve got this idea that more is better.

More can be exciting and encouraging when a ministry starts out. That people come to a house church in the Arab world at peril of their lives is an awesome sign that God is moving. But here in the western world? The biggest crowds are in sports arenas. In other words, great numbers aren’t necessarily a sign of great spirituality. So why do we count?

Maybe the leadership needs to know attendance as part of their planning, but a fixation on numbers can derail a ministry in short order. We start relying on the techniques of the world, we start taking credit for the “success” of a large congregation. We stop trusting God to bring the people He wants to come.

A third thing that hurts churches is performance. Ministers perform more than they preach.

They’re preceded by the opening act—the worship band. Lights go dim in the “house” as spotlights illuminate the performers. Sound equipment is turned up to loud or loudest so all that the people in the “audience” hear is the lead and backup singers and instruments. Some churches include special effects.

The point of all this performing is to entertain the people to keep them coming back. If they get an emotional kick from the concert or from the speaker, then church has been “worshipful.”

Well, no it hasn’t. Such a service puts the focus first on the performers and then on the people in the audience who are responding emotionally. Where is the focus on the Lord Jesus Christ? Putting the spotlight on Him is worship!

Number four naturally follows. Churches are hurt—crippled, really—when ministers preach the topics of their choice rather than what the Bible says. Oh, sure, lots of ministers who pick their topic use the Bible, but it’s more by way of reinforcing the point they already want to make.

How about if we opened up the Bible and looked at a passage, verse by verse and chapter by chapter, to see what it says? In other words, how about having a minister preach from the Bible—whether it addresses one of the hot, trendy topics, or something really uncomfortable—as opposed to using the Bible for our own purposes.

The thing is, some pastors who use the Bible are in sync with it, but the model of preaching that way is flawed. Therefore, someone can come along behind them who is not Biblically minded and follow the “use the Bible” model, only to lead the congregants away from the truth.

The health-and-wealth preachers fall into this latter category. Those who want to “name it and claim it” use the Bible to reinforce their beliefs about God’s blessing and prosperity while ignoring passage after passage after passage that talks about suffering and being in need and sacrificing.

I haven’t exhausted the things I don’t like, but I’m going to stop. I’ll end with this short video of a musician who understands about worship. It’s encouraging to know that there are people out there who are working to enhance corporate worship. It gives me hope.

My Cry Ascends | Greg Wilbur from Compass Cinema on Vimeo.

Published in: on May 3, 2016 at 6:25 pm  Comments (3)  
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It Came Upon A Midnight Clear And Other Christmas Carol “Facts”


The_Shepherds011I’m a big believer in hymnody. I learned a lot of doctrine in church without realizing it because we sang hymns with substance. Not every hymn is theologically sound, however, and not every Christmas carol adheres to the facts Scripture reveals about that first Christmas. More than one relies on imagination or “poetic license.”

“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” is an interesting example. Scripture doesn’t say that the night was clear, though it’s a fair assumption since the shepherds seemed to have an unimpeded view of the angels. But why midnight? Why not 6:35 or 8:20? That time is speculation, which is fine as long as we all understand that it is.

Then there are the angels. I don’t recall any human encounter with angels that includes a description of wings. Granted, the ark of the covenant and the Holy of Holies in the temple included angels with wings, but when humans saw angels, they didn’t mention the wings. In fact some angels looked just like humans and were mistaken for men. One passage of Scripture says we might actually from time to time entertain angels, not realizing that the people we’re extending kindness and the love of Christ to, are actually heavenly beings. I doubt if that would happen if angels all had wings! Or had wings all the time.

All that to say, the description in “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” of the first angel and then the accompanying host includes a bit of speculation. Then there is the erroneous idea that the angels sang their praise to God. Scripture, as jarring as it is to our Evangelical culture, never says the angels sang.

The good thing about this particular carol is that in the final stanza it ties Christ’s first coming with His impending return:

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Minus the singing part, those lines are pretty awesome. The angels announced the coming of Messiah and praised God for it; one day He’ll come again and the whole world will praise Him for it.

One of my favorites, “We Three Kings,” suffers from the same imagination/speculation issue when it comes to the particulars of the visitation by the wisemen. First off, nowhere in Scripture are the visitors identified as kings. The word we translate as wisemen is magi. The footnote in the New American Standard Bible defines the term as “a caste of wise men specializing in astronomy, astrology, and natural science.”

In addition, the idea that there were three comes from the fact that they brought three gifts, but in reality, five could have given gold, two, myrrh, and four frankincense. It’s unlikely that the three came alone, too, especially bearing such expensive gifts and traveling so far. They likely had a caravan of servants and perhaps other travelers, but that’s my speculation. 😉 Scripture simply doesn’t say how many were in their company.

The other thing that’s problematic is the idea that they followed the star. They did for a short distance, but not all the way from their home. I mean, did you ever wonder, if they were following the star, why did they end up in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem? Scripture says they saw in the east the star belonging to the King of the Jews, and went to worship Him. When they didn’t find Him in the capital city, Jerusalem, the place you’d expect to find a newborn who would be king, then the star “went before them” and stopped over the place where the Child was.

One more thing about the star. Nowhere does Scripture tell us it was particularly bright. I used to wonder what was wrong with everyone else for not following the star too. Well, the truth is, it didn’t have to be bright for these men who studied the stars to recognize it. Their field of knowledge surpassed ours. They knew something supernatural from examining the physical. I mean, they came to worship the King. Not the king of their own country (which may have deified their kings), and not to give tribute to a young prince. They wanted to worship, the rightful response to God alone.

With the faults of “We Three Kings,” it still delivers a powerful message, tying the types of gifts the magi gave to the Christ Child with the various truths about Him: that He was King (gold), and God (frankincense), and Suffering Savior (myrrh).

Many of the Christmas songs are like this—there may be some factual errors or pure speculation, but at the heart of the carol is the truth about Jesus. “Silent Night,” for instance, is much more than a sweet Christmas lullaby. The heart of the song includes these lines:

Alleluia.
Christ the Saviour is born,
Christ the Saviour is born.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light,
Radiant beams from
Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Yes, the “radiant beams” are imagination at work, but the redeeming grace dawning with Jesus at His birth is not. Nor is the pronouncement that Christ the Savior was born.

The carols are great, and some of the newer Christmas music is too. “Mary, Did You Know?” is Scriptural and reveals who Jesus is. Keith and Kristyn Getty have a Christmas album which includes some great songs. One of note is “For To Us A Child Is Born” and another “Joy Has Dawned.” The Biblical lyrics faithfully point to why Jesus came.

I guess the real point of all this comes down to something I’ve been reminding myself: to keep my mind engaged even when I’m singing or listening to familiar Christmas songs. What we humans write, needs to be filtered through God’s Holy Word.

Then, too, the “old, old story” should never be taken for granted. God’s great love is new every morning. I should never stop giving praise and thanks to my Savior for rescuing me from the kingdom of darkness. As the lyrics of another Getty song, “Holy Child,” says,

May the gift of God amaze us still
The triumph of all time

How great to have such an array of Christmas music to further our worship.

Published in: on December 15, 2015 at 5:00 pm  Comments (12)  
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Hilarious Joy


Advent Wk 3Chuck Swindoll, my first pastor as an adult, liked to use the word “hilarity” or “hilarious.” It fit. I never knew a pastor could have so much fun preaching. But as I recall, he used the word more in connection with things like giving and worship.

I remember one sermon in particular which he preached about David bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. As the procession moved forward, David stripped off his outer garment and was leaping and dancing before the ark. He was worshiping with hilarity.

Another sermon along these lines which I remember was from Nehemiah. The people gathered to hear the reading of God’s word, but when they did they started weeping—their sins and the sins of their nation down through the years weighed on their hearts. Nehemiah told them to stop mourning, though. “This day is holy to the Lord your God,” he said. Then he added,

“Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.”

All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them. (Nehemiah 8:9b, 10b-12)

Their mourning turned into feasting and hilarious celebration. They ate, they drank, they gave to others, and they celebrated.

Sound like anything we might also experience, oh, say every December 25? We undoubtedly have the eating and drinking and giving parts down pat, though our giving is more often than not to those who also give to us. We aren’t perhaps quite as proficient at giving to those who have “nothing prepared.” But I also wonder if we have the motive behind the celebrating sorted out.

The people Nehemiah led were taking part in a holy day, set apart to the Lord. Christmas, as some have pointed out, is a tangled holiday—part with religious underpinnings and part with secular, though even these have godly men (St. Nicholas) and/or godly purposes at the heart of their traditions. Still, might we not experience more of the hilarious joy of celebration if we saw the day as holy to the Lord?

Too often, I think Christians equate worship with quiet reverence, not hilarious celebration. But what did the Psalmist mean when he said, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord”?

The snatches of heaven we glimpse in the books of prophecy seem anything but solemn and sedate. For instance, the four living creatures shout, “Holy, Holy Holy is the Lord God the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.” (Rev. 4:8b) Further, crowds surround God’s throne, and they’re giving God praise too.

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” (Rev. 7:9-12)

When I read that passage, I don’t get the impression that there was a leader saying, OK, time to fall on our faces before the throne. Rather, it seems as if this is a spontaneous reaction to seeing God.

So maybe that’s the key. Maybe we need to spend some of our day looking at God.

I know, I know. He’s a Spirit and we can’t really see Him. I’m not saying we need to dig out some icon or a picture in a Bible or something. Horrors! No!

We “see” God by reading what He’s said about Himself and then thinking about it deeply. The more familiar the passage, the more we need to think about it, to let questions come to our mind and to dig into Scripture to see if we can’t answer those questions.

Then after we see God, let the hilarity begin!

Published in: on December 18, 2014 at 5:43 pm  Comments (3)  
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Congregational Singing


Photo shared on FB by Susan Gentry DeMaggioOnce upon a time, when churches had bulletins in which the order of service was printed, occasional lines read, “Congregational Singing,” followed by a number in a hymnal.

Times have changed, bringing changes to church services. Certainly some of those are fine and appropriate and not in the least contrary to Scripture since the Bible doesn’t mention bulletins or orders of service or hymnals.

In fact, how we conduct “church” is more a reflection of our culture than any Biblical mandate. There’s simply not much laid out concerning what our “assembling ourselves together” is supposed to look like.

I was raised in a church that didn’t use instruments to accompany our congregational singing, and I don’t remember a choir. Instead the congregation sang hymns in four-part harmony at the direction of a music minister or song leader—I’m not sure what his title was.

But in my teen years someone introduced contemporary Christian music, and before long praise songs made their way into church.

Since then, there seems to be a running controversy about how we are to “do worship” because with more and more frequency, congregational singing has come to be known as “worship.” Prayer, offering, sermons, even communion are something else, apparently, and corporate singing alone is worship.

Along with these changes, much of this “worship” has taken on the trappings of secular concerts. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this ostensibly since the Bible doesn’t lay down any direction about our singing except to say that we are to teach and admonish one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in our hearts to God (see Colossians 3:16).

So in some churches, the tech people flash words on a screen, lower the house lights, turn on spotlights to illumine the worship band, and crank up the mics. The leader will sometimes verbally cue people to the next line of a song—though it’s in front of them—or riff some line that’s not there. Sometimes, with no warning, all but one member of the “worship team” will stop singing and the rest of us are left to wonder if we are also to be silent or to be led by the single singer.

In short, there’s more of a concert feel to these times of singing than there is of congregational singing. Good? Or bad? Young people should feel right at home with the concert atmosphere, and tradition isn’t supposed to become Law.

But maybe there are a couple bigger issues. I wonder if we’ve lost the purpose of our singing.

When we meet together we can make a joyful noise to the Lord as the people of Israel did and we can sing to instruct one another as Paul said in Colossians 3. However, I think we might be losing both those purposes in our concert environment.

First, people go to concerts to be entertained. I think too many people are going to church for the same reason. Was the pastor funny? Did he repeat the stories he’s already told? Was he boring? That mindset is replicated during the singing. Rather than thinking about the instruction of the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, or singing with thankfulness in our hearts to God, or making a joyful noise to the Lord, we’re thinking about whether or not we liked the music. Is it too old fashioned, too shallow, too repetitive, too loud, too archaic, too jazzy, too uni-voice, too whatever I don’t like as much as I like something else?

People who love hymns and people who love contemporary music can error in the exact same way—judging the music based on how entertained they are by it.

In addition, in a recent Facebook discussion about worship, several people mentioned euphoria as part of the experience in the “concert mode” style. I have to wonder how many people are gauging “worship” based on how euphoric it makes them feel.

I do think when we enter into a closeness with God, we can experience a “spiritual high,” but if we go about trying to recapture that surprising joy, as C. S. Lewis referred to it, we’re worshiping for the wrong reason. We ought not think about what we can get from the experience. Instead, we ought to be focused on other believers or on God as we sing truths or praise. And yes, when we sing truths for others, we will hear them too. When we sing praise to God, we may enter into a closer experience with Him.

But those are gifts God gives us as effects of our singing. Our purpose ought not to be to receive an emotional boost, and it ought not to be to be entertained.

Secondly, singing is only one aspect of worship, but our concert mode and our “worship team,” “worship band,” “worship leader” phraseology encourages us to think of music as worship and the rest of our service as something else.

I suppose these two are tied together because we don’t often get a euphoric bump when we put an offering into the plate or even when we listen to a sermon (unless our preacher is one who milks the crowd and has everyone weeping by the time he’s finished). Nevertheless, the teaching of the word of God, giving to His work in our church, community, and the world, petitioning Him to change our hearts and draw us closer to Him, are all parts of worship, whether we feel it to be so or not.

Worship ought not to be about how we feel. Worship is about us giving. We ought to worship God, not because we to get something from it, but because He deserves it.

Hezekiah And The High Places


King_Saul006As far back as the time of the judges, before Israel went through the civil war that split them into a northern and a southern kingdom, they began disobeying God. One manifestation of this was the fact that they began building “high places” all over.

God had instructed the people through Moses to have only one place of sacrifice, one altar where they were to gather and where the priests were to offer the Sabbath day, new moon, and feast day offerings.

The thing was, the peoples around them had a different way of doing things, and pretty soon, though Israel started out with zero toleration for strange altars and offerings, they began to look more and more like the nations around them. When the northern kingdom succumbed to Assyria and went into exile, here’s the epitaph God wrote for them:

Now this came about because the sons of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up from the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and they had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD had driven out before the sons of Israel, and in the customs of the kings of Israel which they had introduced. The sons of Israel did things secretly which were not right against the LORD their God. Moreover, they built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set for themselves sacred pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they burned incense on all the high places as the nations did which the LORD had carried away to exile before them; and they did evil things provoking the LORD. (2 Kings 17:7-11, emphasis added)

There were other things too, but this passage seems to indicate that building high places so they could be like the other nations was a key part of Israel’s downfall.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know why God wanted one central place of worship. The Church today obviously is made up of many houses of worship, and the very idea of a single location for all believers to gather is impractical in this lifetime. Consequently, it’s hard for me to imagine why it was so important to God that Israel establish one and only one worship center.

I can speculate on reasons—the main thought I have is that by maintaining one place of worship, there would be less likelihood of false teaching seeping into the nation because everyone would be hearing the same message from the same high priest—but God only knows why He planned it this way. I have no doubt that His way was best for Israel and that by copying the nations around them instead of following God’s clear instructions, Israel opened themselves up to many other evils.

Surprisingly Scripture never records a prophet reprimanding a king for tolerating or promoting high places, though the kings of Judah are identified as good to the degree that they did or did not remove the high places.

In fact King Hezekiah was one of the few who did remove the high places:

He did right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan. He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel (2 Kings 18:3-5a)

Ironically, Assyria came up against Hezekiah’s kingdom, too, and the military leader who led the siege against Jerusalem chided Hezekiah as anti-God for this very act of obedience:

But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the LORD our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and has said to Judah and to Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem’? (2 Kings 18:22)

Basically he was saying, Hezekiah just tore down your God’s altars and places of sacrifices and expects you to only use the altar in Jerusalem, and you think this same God is going to protect you now?!

Because Hezekiah was doing something counter-cultural—all the surrounding nations had high places where they worshiped their gods—this Assyrian, who didn’t have the Torah and didn’t know what God had told Moses, questioned Hezekiah’s relationship with God.

I’ve started wondering what the high places are which the Church of today has built or which it has not torn down. We have God’s word, but the culture around us does things differently, so we are choosing to go along with them instead of standing up and doing what God has said to do.

A few things come to mind, one being gender issues. We the Church went along with the patriarchy of society for years and years, though Scripture paints a different picture of the husband/wife relationship from the beginning and even after the fall.

Yes, when God established the Church, He did clarify the roles of husband and wife, but like Christ sacrificed Himself for His Bride, so a husband is to love his wife in the same sacrificial way. That’s his role, which isn’t the kind of patriarchal, iron-fisted, authoritarian rule too often seen in the past. Sadly the Church went along with “the way things were in the world.”

feminismToday there’s a shift in the culture, and women are now being told we are only valuable if we do what men do. Once again the Church is peering about, watching what the world is doing, and scampering to catch up to the customs of those around us. Consequently, some in the Church believe women are only valuable if we can be like men, Therefore, we must be allowed to be pastors too.

I think both extremes are “high places” we’ve built and are building, instead of paying attention to what God has told us about man/woman relationships.

Published in: on November 11, 2014 at 7:15 pm  Comments (4)  
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Why Christmas Can Be Hard


eagle-1132464-mIn the best of times, Christmas can be hard. For me, there were Christmas programs to rehearse and then to attend while “monitoring” a host of lovely junior highers. All in a day’s work. But so was practicing and coaching my team in a Christmas basketball tournament, buying and parceling out Christmas goodies to give to my homeroom, decorating the room and hanging Christmas bulletin boards.

Then there was the Christmas church program, gifts to buy and wrap for my family, decorations in my home, a church party, a school faculty party.

Of course, times weren’t always the best. There was the occasional cold, progress reports that happened to fall the week before vacation, travel plans, stormy weather.

In short, Christmas time is far from restful. Add in the fact that Christians often receive admonitions to “keep Christ in Christmas.” All the busy-ness and we are supposed to incorporate worship. In fact we are supposed to make all the other things serve worship.

It can be hard.

I mentioned in “Christmas And The Hope Of Heaven” that losing someone you care about can make Christmas hard, but so can relational problems, long distance moves, marriage break-ups.

In all this, I’m convinced that God doesn’t want the remembrance of His Son’s birth to be a source of despair or doubt of fatigue or sadness. He is a God who prescribed lavish celebrations for His chosen people as part of their worship of Him. He is a God who promises feasting and parties for those who come to Him. He is a God whose Holy Spirit produces, among other things, the fruit of joy and peace.

Add to this the fact that He gives the gift of grace and forgiveness so we do not have to earn right standing with Him–as if we could anyway. Rather, what He wants is our joyful, grateful response–the pure exhilaration at finding ourselves unshackled and the overflowing appreciation poured upon the One who broke our bonds.

Our exhilaration and appreciation can come out in all the things we do at Christmas time. We can decorate and do Christmas programs, shop and wrap, party and perform all in light of God’s great gift. We love because He first loved us. We serve because He served us. We sacrifice because He first laid down His life for us.

If we are mindful of what God has done for us, if we do not look at Jesus as a perpetual baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, if we have responded and are responding to His greatest gift, then our Christmas may be hard, but it will be the kind of hard that has purpose. Like training for the Olympics, only better.

And in the end, we’ll be preoccupied with looking to God and will forget to check to see how hard things are for us today.

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been declared to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
He it is who reduces rulers to nothing,
Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.
Scarcely have they been planted,
Scarcely have they been sown,
Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth,
But He merely blows on them, and they wither,
And the storm carries them away like stubble.
“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the fnstrength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God”?
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable.
He gives strength to the weary,
And to him who lacks might He increases power.
Though youths grow weary and tired,
And vigorous young men stumble badly,
Yet those who wait for the LORD
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary. (Isaiah 40:21-31)

Published in: on December 12, 2013 at 5:30 pm  Comments Off on Why Christmas Can Be Hard  
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Christmas Trees


christmas-time-1408534-mReal or plastic?

When I was growing up, real was the only way, in part because it was the cheapest way. I sort of felt sorry for people who had to have fake trees. They came in all kinds of outlandish colors, looking more like gigantic sno-cones than evergreen trees. They had a real feel of the future, though, made from plastic or metallic foil, as they were.

And then came a twist–fake trees made to look like the real thing.

Suddenly there was an attraction to fake trees: no yearly expense for a new one, no need to remember to water it, no messy needles to clean up. The downside? I suppose the initial payout might be steep, and for those of us who enjoy the fragrance of pine, that’s missing. Of course, there’s the loss of tradition, too, since families won’t be heading to a Christmas tree lot one cold night after Thanksgiving, picking out a tree, loading it on top of their car, and setting it up in their living room.

Still, for many, there seems to be a lot more up side than down to these artificial trees.

Of course, there is also the issue of decorating trees. Should the lights be multicolored or all of one uniform color? Are the ornaments classical and identical or are they handmade and representative of a person or family’s interests and activities? Do you use tinsel? A star or an angel?

Christmas_tree_in_TexasLike Christmas presents, Christmas trees and lights and all the decorations, for that matter, occupy a good amount of money, time, and energy during this busy season. For those locked in bleak climates of white snow and gray clouds, the colorful reds and greens of Christmas can be a refreshing break to the monotony and drabness of winter that has just set in.

So is there a Christian worldview of Christmas trees and all the accompanying decorations?

I think so. I think there’s a Christian worldview of everything, though that will not play out the same from one home to another, let alone from one country to another. Nevertheless, I think the Bible gives us some guidance.

First, God, in laying out what His tabernacle was to look like, included beautiful things. He included candles and incense and fine priestly garments. He gave detailed instructions for a gold table and cherubs and an ark. He specified the handcrafted curtains with an intricate design.

In other words, creating beautiful things and a beautiful atmosphere was part of creating a place of worship. Can that translate into our homes, especially when all that we do at Christmas time is not concerned with worship?

Well, there’s the real point, isn’t it. Shouldn’t a Christian’s life be about worship? I mean, our bodies, Scripture says, are temples of the Holy Spirit. So why wouldn’t our homes, where we spend time day in and day out, be as significant as, say, our church?

I’m not saying decoration is mandated in Scripture, but clearly having beautiful things, especially at a time of celebration, is consistent with what God instituted for the nation Israel.

I also think Christmas trees and decorations can be a form of giving. I mean, chances are people in a family may have different ideas about the way things should look and how things should be done. The first gift a person can give, then, is peaceful assent. In other words, cheerfully and joyfully doing things the way the other person wants to do them.

Maybe it could be Johnny’s turn to be in charge of the decorations–picking the day when everything comes out of the attic or basement or storage bin and making the critical decisions where to put the manger scene and whether we’ll put tinsel on the tree.

The Christian worldview of Christmas trees and decorations, then, includes putting people first, aiming to be considerate and humble, not demanding and selfish.

Are trees and decorations the real meaning of Christmas? Far, far from it. But in and through the process and the enjoyment of the end results, God can be front and center, and wants to be–not by us forcing religious significance to the tree (which can be legitimately done, if a person wants to do it), but by using the occasion to be Christian–to be a worshiper, to be a person who loves and serves others.

Published in: on December 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm  Comments (2)  
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