Lift Us Up Where We Belong

An Appeal to Worship Leaders and Writers of Worship Songs

I’m a little envious, I have to admit, of the kind of ecstasy I see people experiencing around me in the worship time at church. It looks amazing. If it’s legal, I don’t mind getting some myself. But no, I would gladly concede, ecstasy is one emotion that’s appropriate for people drawing near to God, though arguably there might be times when abject penitence or a sort of shock might be equally apt.

But whatever the strong emotion, it isn’t how I arrive at church. Like many others, I have to rouse three or four bodies as sleepy as mine out of bed on a Sunday morning and make sure they get in the car at home and back out at church before the sermon’s over. It doesn’t induce a state of meditation, let alone ecstasy. And if my eyes are shutting, that might not be ecstasy either, though I don’t mind if people think so. Sometimes I just can’t keep them open.

We want to worship. Please remind us why it’s so right. What was it again, that God has done? Continue reading

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Law, Grace, and Sabbath for the Christian: An Open (Anonymous) Letter

Dusting off the old blog once again! In my teaching role, I have just been asked by a student for my Christian position on Sabbath observance for today. Since I’ve taken the trouble to state my position succinctly for her, perhaps it might start a conversation or stimulate your thinking on the topic if I record my reply here. Keep in mind that I’m from a rather free-church, not-very-hierarchical and not-very-liturgical Protestant tradition as an Australian Baptist.

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The Digital Document Detective Episode 2: Ancient and Medieval Backgrounds

You can find many important ancient, medieval, Renaissance/Reformation and Modern primary documents online. The scene is changing all the time, and sometimes documents you could find earlier disappear. But more often the trend is towards greater availability, and other parties such as European libraries and universities are catching up to Google in providing materials online. Top-notch critical editions and recent scholarly publications are the two categories of documents usually not available online except behind paywalls. Older materials, private translations, book previews, online journals…there is still much that is useful that can be found online for free. Here is merely a sample list, stemming from things I was looking for in my own research:

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Hacksaw Ridge Movie Preview

Thanks to an invitation through the Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society, based in Victoria, Australia, I spent last evening at a preview screening of Mel Gibson’s new film, Hacksaw Ridge. I thought while it was fresh, and since it hasn’t come out in Aussie cinemas yet, I don’t think, I’d offer a short evaluation.

The Story

We all hate spoilers, and this bit of fluff will give you time to look away…

Alright, in very brief, it’s the story of an unusual war hero, an American pacifist who went to fight on the Pacific front in WWII, voluntarily, but wouldn’t handle, let alone fire a weapon on principle. His name was Desmond Doss. And his principles were related both to earlier personal experiences and to Christian beliefs.

(I actually know some Americans, friends who have nearly the same level of distaste for guns of any kind. Just thought I’d put that on record. You can’t judge a book by its bookstore, I always say. From now.)

Okay, I won’t tell you how it all came out in the wash, but offer some pluses and minuses, while still trying not to spoil the plot.

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Mini-Book Review: Failure Is Not Final: A Life of C.H. Nash

Do you ever have a book hanging around that you guiltily feel you ought to have read?

To some mild extent, that’s how I felt about Darrell Paproth’s book, Failure Is Not Final: A Life of C.H. Nash (Sydney: Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, 1997). Why? Because it is the story of the founder of the theological college where I work, now Melbourne School of Theology (MST), before that Bible College of Victoria (BCV), and originally Melbourne Bible Institute (MBI). I should know about this man, I thought, whose story made my own story in its current form possible. The author, too, spent a number of years from 1986 teaching at BCV, so his ministry life also symbolized the influence of this noteworthy figure of Australian Christianity from the early days of the Commonwealth (post-1901).

Biographies don’t always leap off the shelf at you, but in time I felt ready, and especially on a recent, first-time visit to Papua New Guinea, namely MST’s daughter college, the Christian Leader’s Training College in Banz, near Mt. Hagen, I found Paproth’s book a suitable companion. Continue reading

A Footnote to That Sermon on Worship Music

I didn’t really admit this when I prepared and presented that sermon on worship music a couple of months ago: https://firstthreequarters.wordpress.com/2015/07/19/a-sermon-on-music-in-worship-worshipping-in-song/

Worshipping in Song Prezi Sshot

https://prezi.com/czzhib-lcf3_/worshipping-in-song/

…but I am actually pretty worried about where worship music is in my kind of evangelical Protestant churches such as I see here in Australia. The following video from the US speaks in jest, though not too biting in my view, but it puts its finger on the problem:

That is pretty well the way most worship songs sound to me – very often four-chord pop flavourless enough to avoid offending most musical tastes, in fact, really quite ‘accessible’ even on the first listen, and with words that in themselves are hard to fault. They’re correct enough in some ways as to make me wonder why I usually feel completely unmoved, in fact, disinterested. Is the problem with me? Does my heart not respond because I don’t belong with these people? Because I’m not an authentic Christian? The people around me mostly look carried away in a kind of ecstasy that I don’t feel at any time, and am certainly not feeling at the time. The first song begins, and it’s straight into a kind of euphoric state. How can a person get so high emotionally so instantly? I’m not being sarcastic or cynical. I’m mystified. Whatever train the ecstatic worshippers around me are on, I clearly didn’t catch, or else I fell off the back of it. What is wrong with me?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I hope we aren’t happy to have the show go on when the playwright has left the building. It could, I think. The band can still play even while the ship sinks. For those who relate to weather analogies (that will whittle the readership down!), is it like a cumulonimbus (a thundercloud) whose big, showy head floats on when the big, dark cloud base that generated it has long evaporated away?

Spent desert thunderstom, from http://www.stormeffects.com/images/.

Spent desert thunderstorm, from http://www.stormeffects.com/images/.

Is it all “sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Why does it all feel so empty to me?

It might be partly me, but it isn’t entirely me, I don’t think. On my recent first-time visit to Papua New Guinea with some of our college students, we spent several church services with students and families at Christian Leaders’ Training College in Banz in the highlands. And for the first time in a long time, I felt sure that the worship I was hearing was real. Similar instruments, somewhat different songs, but somehow there was something far more authentic there that I’ve been missing.

That X factor. And it sure can’t be found on X Factor, either.

Crazy Love, Surrendered Life and the Life of the Scribe

That title doesn’t really tell you what this is going to be about, does it? Well, this is a thought and a mini-book review in one.

I’m currently reading the Gospel of Luke (in the ‘Final Quarter’) and once again came across Jesus’ call, not to arms, but to lay all on the line for his cause:

23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24 NET Bible)

Many of you will know that chapter 9 is pivotal in Luke, marking a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, in the course of which Jesus elicits from his disciples who the people think he is, and then ‘turns his face to go to Jerusalem’ and lets them know that if they want to come, it’s all on the line, right down to their lives. It’s all or nothing.

The quote above would be a pretty accurate summary of a book I’ve just finished reading, Crazy Love by Francis Chan. It’s unusual for me to read the kind of book that you would find popular at a Christian bookshop (bookstore, for US readers). I normally read more academic and factually-oriented things. But my sister bought me this last Christmas, and I finally worked my way down to it in my impossibly high bedside table must-read book pile.

Chan Crazy Love

I won’t try to summarize it further, but I did find it challenging. Sometimes I disagreed with Chan, such as when he (like everyone else) assumes that when Jesus says within the parable of the sheep and the goats,

‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’ (Matt 25:40 NET Bible),

that he was talking about doing good for every human being on the planet. That’s a nice thought and a good ideal, but I strongly suspect that Jesus was talking about his disciples, and to the crowd: “They’re with me, and how you treat them, including when I’m gone, I will take personally!” Well, Chan has lots of company there.

When he was challenging the Western reader to live less indulgently and give more material means to the work of God, I knew he was right and felt suitably guilty. At the same time, I would like to be reassured that Chan himself really lives like this. He assures us in the book that he does. I’m just inherently suspicious of people who get their income from the church, telling others to give more money to the church. Well, let’s trust that Chan is not milking the system. No sense assuming the worst, though that’s kind of a gift of mine.

At the end of the day, I thought his book was good, though uncomfortable, reading. It was meant to be uncomfortable – it’s a classic prophet’s call, and God’s task for prophets is certainly not to make people comfortable.

So I felt suitably guilty.

All the more so because I’m a Christian academic. The academics in Luke 9 aren’t the good guys. They’re among the baddies in Jesus’ story. If Luke 9:22 were translated into current English, it might say that those who reject Jesus would be “the elders, the head priests, and the biblical scholars (‘γραμματεῖς’, traditionally ‘scribes’).” When God does a new thing, as He certainly did in Jesus, the traditional political leaders, the existing religious leaders, and the academics normally do their best to shut it down. Old wineskins don’t take well to new wine. Jesus taught with authority; scribes (scholars) hedge their bets and prevaricate (Matt 7:29). The prophet believes. The scholar doubts, checking and rechecking.

The one who is greatest in the economy of God is the child, not the expert (Luke 9:48). God revels in ‘destroying the wisdom of the wise’, and ‘frustrating the intelligence of the intelligent’ (paraphrased from 1 Cor. 1:19 NIV).

So is there any hope for the scholar in God’s kingdom?

All I can find to cling onto here is Paul’s teaching about the one body needing a lot of different parts (1 Cor. 12:12-31). I believe that we need a range of gifts at work in the church, and our sheer diversity is our strength. We need prophets like Chan to kick us stiffly up the backsides at regular intervals. It hurts but it does us good. We need the tenderhearted people too, to pick up the pieces afterwards. We need all kinds.

Perhaps God wants, still, the odd Nicodemus, the odd Joseph of Arimathea, to play a part in His plan and purpose.

Because it’s hard to change how you’re wired, and God is responsible for that wiring, at the end of the day.