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Tuesday
Aug222017

Be known by the people you know

Quite a few years ago, I was having a chat with my pastor, and I was really surprised when he said he'd never heard of Mark Dever. What? I, in my discovery of all things Reformed, could not believe it. Sure, Dever was not as well-known as R.C. Sproul or John Piper, but I was surprised.

Christian circles are actually pretty small, and just because a lot of Christians have heard of someone, it doesn't mean everyone has. I'm pretty sure that if I were to go out on the streets of my little town and take a poll, most would not know who Mark Dever is, if any. And most, if any, would not know who John Piper is. Now, if I asked if they knew who Taylor Swift was, that's a different story (for the record, I am no fan of Swift, but because of her recent court case, her name was first to pop up in my head as an example. This post is not an endorsement of her).

When we put something online, there is a feeling that we're known. It's like being given our own little speaker's corner. Here in Canada (and I don't know if it's done elsewhere), one of the television networks used to have kiosks on various street corners in Toronto (and I think, Vancouver) where people could record themselves talking about something. If it was outrageous enough or interesting enough, the clips would be broadcast on television, during a segment, obviously, called "Speaker's Corner." Having a blog or using social media is like Speaker's Corner daily; except, of course, for the crucial difference that most people won't ever read our blog posts. Even the "big" bloggers still don't reach people in the way that really famous people do. And even people like Taylor Swift are likely unknown in countries which don't have a steady flow of information. I suspect my Compassion child, who comes from Uganda, doesn't know who she is.

For all that we are aware of this reality, we still tend to post things on our blog, or say things on Twitter, or post pictures on Instagram which reveal that we believe we are known by everyone; as if someone is waiting for our next utterance. In most cases, it's likely that if we stopped posting to our blogs or tweeting that in a few days, people would stop thinking about us. Perhaps even sooner. I don't think about 99% of the people whose blogs and tweets I read beyond that moment of reading. Just because we can read our own blog posts or tweets doesn't mean someone else is reading them, too. And it doesn't mean we are known.

Similarly, name dropping doesn't mean we're popular, too. Seriously, if you know someone who is popular in Christian circles, more power to you. I hope you enjoy that connection. But it doesn't make you well-known, nor does it obligate others to get to know you.

We should desire to be known by those who are right in front of us. We should desire to be known by the people whom God has placed in our lives, face to face, right now. I've been guilty of caring more about what my online friends think. I am ashamed to admit that I've been obtuse to the fact that I've been doing it. We can build some great connections online, but they will never be what they can be if they were face to face.

The truth is, online connections are easier because they require less effort, and I can protect myself. The real test comes when we have to live side by side and people see our warts. We have the perfect excuse to not have to drop everything to care for an online friend, but what about those friends who have needs, and they're five minutes across town?

At time, I find it challenging building relationships. We have to open up, to expose ourselves. But at the same time, I've come to see what is lacking in a strictly online friendship. While I continue to build those online connections, it should never be to the detriment of the others. It's something I'm continuing to learn. 

Tuesday
Aug152017

Want to write a hymn? Learn poetry

The September/October issue of Touchstone has a great little piece by Anthony Esolen regarding hymn writing. He echoed many things I have thought myself, but he's a great writer and says it much better. 

Now, this assumes that one wants to write a hymn. Most of what is produced today is referred to as a worship song, not necessarily a hymn. I wonder if that is deliberate; hymns are associated with the old and stodgy, so better to call it a worship song. Anyway, I don't know if the rules apply to what we consider choruses, but I don't see why they couldn't. I think all music sung in church should follow these guidelines. 

Become Conversant With English Poetry and English Meter

Some songsters seem to think that a creative aura floating a few feet over the head and a knack for sort of  rhyming are enough to get them started. That’s a little like saying that we should let you paint the walls of a church be- cause you can name most of the colors in the big crayon box. 

Poetry is an art; the raw stuff of the art is provided by your language. But you’re no more an artist in language because you talk all day long than you are a musician because you whistle in the car. There’s no way around it. You must steep yourself in English verse, and see—rather, hear—what centuries of artists have done with the sounds and shades and gleams and feints and glories of our words before. 

I agree that song writers could benefit from understanding poetry. Poetry is hard. It takes thought. Good songs benefit from rhyme, meter, and rhythm. What better place to learn than poetry?

Attend to the Musical Structure of Hymns

You can tell at a glance when a hymn is not a hymn but an off- Broadway show tune. It has bizarre intervals and strange syncopation and time-changes and ties of a half and an eighth and three-quarters of a sixteenth and who knows what. It “wanders” melodically ad lib. It cannot be sung by a congregation.

I think many of us have been in a service where the only ones who can seem to follow the song are the ones leading it. Give me a simple, repetitive, singable tune any day. There is a sentiment out there that reptition is bad. It can be, but when we're storing up biblical truth it's extremely helpful. Does it not follow that having good worship songs stored in our heads is also good? One of my most UN-favourite Christian songs is "Good, Good Father." I don't like the words at all. But it has a repetitive tune. Inevitably on the days when we have to sing it, I have the tune rolling around in my head. If only there were better words attached to it.

Immersion in the Bible

Finally, Esolen encourages the writers to meditate on Scripture, "as Christ did, and the apostles, and the poets after them." I cringe when worship songs contain only vague references to the Godhead. My church has sung songs where the only indication that the song is actually Christian is the presence of the capitalized "You." It is as if they afraid to use words like Christ, redeemed, or crucified. 

What has happened in church music is that its creators try to make it sound like popular music. Doesn't that mean it has more appeal? Perhaps. But one thing I ponder often is the fact that Sunday morning worship, a time with God's people, is supposed to be a calling away from the rest of our lives. It is a time devoted to worship. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing a worship song in a contemporary mode, but I believe we have gone overboard.

When I was in my firs year of university, I told my roommate that I had to sing at church but didn't know what to sing. She, not a Christian, suggested John Lennon's "Imagine." Sometimes, some of the songs we sing today aren't too far off from that.

The idea that everyone can do everything because we all have the freedom to do so trickles down to the fact that we refuse to recognize that there are some people who simply can't do a particular thing. I can't write a worship song. I don't have the ability to do so. And if I wanted to try, I'd labour long and hard to do it, and I'd take Esolen's advice.

Sunday
Aug132017

That Man is Blessed

Quite a while ago, I purchased the book The Book of Psalms for Worship. I love psalms set to music. Here is a hymn based on Psalm 1, using the tune of "I Sing the Mighty Power of God."

That man is blessed who does not walk
As wicked men advise,
Nor stand where sinners meet nor sit
Where scorners pose as wise.
Instead he is the one who makes
The Lord's law his delight,
And in that law he meditates
By day and in the night.

He's like a deeply planted tree
Beside a water stream,
Which in it season bears its fruit,
Whose leaves stay fresh and green.
In all he does he will succeed,
The wicked are not so,
But they are like the scattered chaff
Swept by the winds that blow.

The wicked therefore will not stand
When time of judgment comes,
Nor will the sinners stand among,
Assembled righteous ones.
Because the Lord the righteous loves;
The path they walk he knows.
The wicked walk a different path,
That to destruction goes

Saturday
Aug122017

Being whittled away

Okay, we'll try this again. Yesterday, I posted this with the word "stripped" in the title. Bad idea. After blocking a few accounts on Twitter who wanted me to look at their "pictures," and having to moderate some interesting comments, I put it back into draft to save myself the headache. When I told my husband, he laughed and said he could have told me that was a bad idea. I guess I'm naive, and I guess I'm okay with that with regard to this. So, let's try this again.

One of the songs my church sings is "All is Well." We sing "It is Well With My Soul," on occasion (not often enough, in my opinon), but this one is more contemporary, so it gets sung more. I do like it. I had it playing as I cooked dinner recently, and I really stopped and thought about these lines: "He clothes us, then he strips us."

Christ clothes us in his righteousness when we come to him in faith. We are told to put off the old and put on the new of his righteousness, but he will take things from us. He won't remove our righteousness, but he will remove things: He allows us to lose people from our lives; to suffer health issues; to watch children rebel; to struggle in our marriage; to lose friends. Sometimes, he simply removes things from us, and at other times, makes it very clear that it's time to walk away. I have two close friends who are walking hard roads whereby they have been stripped. 

The song "All is Well" opens with the lines "He lowers us to raise us/So we might sing his praises." Have you ever felt lowered? When we have things taken from us, we feel low. When we feel that way, we don't feel like we have it all together; like we have the world by the tail. We feel like all we can do it reach up a trembling hand and ask God to pick us up.

God's purpose for trials is so that we will praise him; even in the littlest ones. He wants us to cling to him tightly in the storm so that we can see that he is able to sustain us. There are times when in a trial, we take matters into our own hands; we fight what is happening. We rob ourselves of seeing how God will sustain us. We may need another trial if we don't learn the first time; or the second, or the third. How low will he make us go? As low as is necessary. But it doesn't matter how low that is, because he will be with us there.

I'm not going to go into details, and my purpose is not to generate sympathy (I'm learning that sharing too many details online is not really fair to our families, even when they say it's okay), but right now, I'm in one of those seasons when I feel like I'm being stripped. It isn't nearly as bad as my friend who grieves daily for the son she lost this past year or the friend with chronic health issues. It's more of a slow process, little by little, whittling things away, one by one. It isn't suffering; more discouragement than anything.

After years of resistance, I have to learn to put things in a box, close the lid, and stop thinking about them. I may allow myself a few minutes to look into that box when I'm unable to keep its lid closed, but at some point, I have to simply leave it with God and focus on something else. That is not an easy thing for me. I tend to see life experiences and our reactions to things as being more like a big pile of spaghetti where things get mixed together; not the plate where not one scrap of food touches the other. But I have to learn to think differently.

The last time I went through something like this, I had a very bad bout of anxiety. I don't like that prospect. But lately there are moments when that familiar feeling comes back. This time around, I think it would be much better for me if I simply accept that is going to remove what needs removing. I know that what he leaves me with, chiefly himself, will be enough. It isn't easy, but it's enough.

Thursday
Aug102017

The baggage we bring

I had three brothers, many male cousins, and I had a father who was good to me. I have a husband who is very good to me, respects me, and is not combative or abusive. When I sit in a sermon which talks about Ephesians 5, I don't feel a sense of anxiety or concern. However, there are women whose experience makes their reaction the opposite.

I was bullied by a pack of angry girls in the 8th grade. In my years as a young mother, I was involved with a very toxic friendship with a female friend. I have also had a few really unpleasant experiences with women I have met online. When I am told I "need" my female friends, I squirm. The prospect of a large gathering of women (especially a conference where I may have to spend a few days among them) puts me on guard. Now, if I'm going to stand up and teach women, I'm okay. But to sit among them, open up to them, and "share" sets my heart racing. 

When we come to Christ, we bring our personalities, experiences, and in some instances, baggage, with us. How I react to one thing is not the same as another woman might. I was scanning Twitter last night before bed, and I saw a string of people gushing over a book that I thought was marginal at best. We all react to things differently. 

As someone who has been teaching the Bible to others for over 20 years, it is my goal to become better at bringing out the implications of a text and helping the student to appropriate it into her life. Right now, I'm teaching teens, and that can be a challenge. It can be tempting, because they are teens, to reduce everything to a "do or don't" scenario. 

I've just finished Andreas Köstenberger and Alan Fuhr's book Inductive Bible Study. It is a great book. Though it's not directed with as much effort to women as other Bible study books, it should be read by women (Interestingly, the authors use the pronouns "he" and "she" interchangeably throughout the book). It may not be easy, nor does it have that chummy feel of typical "women's books," but it's filled with insights which will really make an impact. It's worth the effort to read.

In my quest for developing application skills, I love what the authors say. In their next to last chapter, they discuss three phases of application: personal assessment, reflective meditation, and appropriation. Application is intensely personal, and because of that, I'm trying to be more cautious about using my personal experience as a jumpstart to application. As I said, what we bring to our faith -- and, by implication to our reading of Scripture -- is filtered through our experience.

Köstenerger and Fuhr have some very wise words that really made an impact on my thinking:

As the reader submits to the text, she also submits to God. Much of application can be described as an obligation to holiness -- behavior and activities that honor God in the daily routine of life. Yet the term "appropriation" implies a greater work, the act of transformation and the development of Christian character. In this we ought to think of application in broader terms than simply doing what the Bible tells us to do. The study of Scripture results in a holistic transformation of our minds into conformity with Christ. (emphasis mine)

There are some times when simply doing what Scripture says is unavoidable. Flee sin. There is nothing wrong with that application. But as the authors remind, the goal of appropriating Scripture to ourselves is our transformation. We are already one with Christ, but we are in the process of becoming more transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). Scripture study, as we appropriate the word and are taught by the Holy Spirit, is part of that process. It certainly includes actions to do and actions to avoid, but it is all anchored in how the word transforms us. While some personal experiences will be meaningful to some, others will fall flat. I'm beginning to see more and more that as a teacher, my goal is to emphasize this need to be transformed.

The results won't be immediate. Sometimes, we grow slowly. That is another truth I have picked up from this book: Scripture study is a long process. It's work. And it takes a lifetime. If we understand that going into it, I think we will benefit a great deal.