Death & Worship, A REblog from Carl Trueman

Do you ever feel like you have to put on a happy face for worship? Does it ever seem insincere? This is a good article for you to read and think over.

Tragic Worship
Carl R. Trueman
The problem with much Christian worship in the contemporary world, Catholic and Protestant alike, is not that it is too entertaining but that it is not entertaining enough. Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment, the one that tells us, to quote the Book of Common Prayer, that “in the midst of life we are in death.”

It neglects tragedy. Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken. Even the cry “Jesus is Lord!” assumes an understanding of lordship very different than Caesar’s. Christ’s lordship is established by his sacrifice upon the cross, Caesar’s by power.

Perhaps some might recoil at characterizing tragedy as entertainment, but tragedy has been a vital part of the artistic endeavors of the West since Homer told of Achilles, smarting from the death of his beloved Patroclus, reluctantly returning to the battlefields of Troy. Human beings have always been drawn to tales of the tragic, as to those of the comic, when they have sought to be lifted out of the predictable routines of their daily lives—in other words, to be entertained.

From Aeschylus to Tennessee Williams, tragedians have thus enriched the theater. Shakespeare’s greatest plays are his tragedies. Who would rank Charles Dickens over Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad? Tragedy has absorbed the attention of remarkable thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Terry Eagleton.

Christian worship should immerse people in the reality of the tragedy of the human fall and of all subsequent human life. It should provide us with a language that allows us to praise the God of resurrection while lamenting the suffering and agony that is our lot in a world alienated from its creator, and it should thereby sharpen our longing for the only answer to the one great challenge we must all face sooner or later. Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection.

Yet today tragedy has, with few exceptions, dropped from popular entertainment. Whether it is the sentimentalism of the Hallmark Channel, the pyrotechnics of action movies, or the banal idiocy of reality TV, the tragic sensibility is all but lost. This is further compounded by the trivial way in which the language of tragedy is now used in popular parlance. As with defining moment and crisis, the words tragedy and tragic are now expected to perform Stakhanovite levels of linguistic labor. In a world where even sporting defeats can be described as tragedies, rarely do the terms speak of the catastrophic moral crises and heroic falls that lie at the heart of great tragic literature.

Yet human life is still truly tragic. Death remains a stubborn, omnipresent, and inevitable reality. For all of postmodern anti-essentialism, for all the repudiation of human nature, for all the rhetoric of self-creation, death eventually comes to all, frustrates all, levels all. It is not simply a linguistic construct or a social convention. Yet despite this, Western culture has slowly but surely pushed death, the one impressive inevitability of human life, to the very periphery of existence.

Pascal observed the problem in seventeenth-century France when he saw the obsession with entertainment as the offspring of the fallen human desire to be distracted from any thought of mortality. “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room,” he said. And: “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”

Today the problem is even greater: Entertainment has apparently become many people’s primary purpose of existence. I doubt that it would surprise Pascal that the world has increased the size, scope, and comprehensiveness of distraction. It would not puzzle him that death has been reduced to little more than a comic-book cartoon in countless action movies or into a mere momentary setback in soap operas and sitcoms. Indeed, he would not find it perplexing that the bleak spiritual violence of mortality leaves no lasting mark on the bereaved in the surreal yet seductive world of popular entertainment.

But he might well be taken aback that the churches have so enthusiastically endorsed this project of distraction and diversion. This is what much of modern worship amounts to: distraction and diversion. Praise bands and songs of triumph seem designed in form and content to distract worshipers from life’s more difficult realities.

Even funerals, the one religious context where one might have assumed the reality of death would be unavoidable, have become the context for that most ghastly and incoherent of acts: the celebration of a life now ended. The Twenty-Third Psalm and “Abide with Me” were funeral staples for many years but not so much today. References to the valley of the shadow of death and the ebbing out of life’s little day, reminders both of our mortality and of God’s faithfulness even in the darkest of times, have been replaced as funeral favorites by “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “My Way.” The trickledown economics of worship as entertainment has reached even the last rites for the departed.

Yet tragedy is a vital part of entertainment. Aristotle in his Poetics famously argued for the personal and social benefits of tragic drama. The audience, swept up into the vertiginous moral crises, the magnificent flaws, and the catastrophic falls of the heroes, enjoyed the experience of catharsis—running the gamut of relevant emotions—without being agents in the events depicted on the stage. They left the theater cleansed by the experience and knowing more deeply what it means to be human. They were wiser, more thoughtful, and better prepared to face the reality of their own lives.

Of all places, the Church should surely be the most realistic. The Church knows how far humanity has fallen, understands the cost of that fall in both the incarnate death of Christ and the inevitable death of every single believer. In the psalms of lament, the Church has a poetic language for giving expression to the deepest longings of a humanity looking to find rest not in this world but the next. In the great liturgies of the Church, death casts a long, creative, cathartic shadow. Our worship should reflect the realities of a life that must face death before experiencing resurrection.

It is therefore an irony of the most perverse kind that churches have become places where Pascalian distraction and a notion of entertainment that eschews the tragic seem to dominate just as comprehensively as they do in the wider world. I am sure that the separation of church buildings from graveyards was not the intentional start of this process, but it certainly helped to lessen the presence of death. The present generation does not have the inconvenience of passing by the graves of loved ones as it gathers for worship. Nowadays, death has all but vanished from the inside of churches as well.

In my own tradition, the historic Scottish Presbyterian tradition, the somber tempos of the psalter, the haunting calls of lament, and the mortal frailty of the unaccompanied human voice helped to connect Sunday worship to the realities of life. There are indeed psalms of joy and triumph. The parents rejoicing in the birth of a child could find words of gratitude to sing to the Lord, but there are also psalms which allow bereaved parents to express their grief and their sorrow in words of praise to their God.

The psalms as the staple of Christian worship, with their elements of lament, confusion, and the intrusion of death into life, have been too often replaced not by songs that capture the same sensibilities—as the many great hymns of the past did so well—but by those that assert triumph over death while never really giving death its due. The tomb is certainly empty; but we are not sure why it would ever have been occupied in the first place.

Only the dead can be resurrected. As the second thief on the cross saw so clearly, Christ’s kingdom is entered through death, not by escape from it. Traditional Protestantism saw this, connecting baptism not to washing so much as to death and resurrection. Protestant liturgies made sure that the law was read each service in order to remind the people that death was the penalty for their sin. Only then, after the law had pronounced the death sentence, would the gospel be read, calling them from their graves to faith and to resurrection life in Christ. The congregants thereby became vicarious participants in the great drama of salvation.

There was surely catharsis in such worship: The congregants left each week having faced the deepest reality of their own destinies. Perhaps it is ironic, but the church that confronts people with the reality of the shortness of life lived under the shadow of death prepares them for resurrection better than the church that goes straight to resurrection triumphalism without that awkward mortality bit.

Bonhoeffer once asked, “Why did it come about that the cinema really is often more interesting, more exciting, more human and gripping than the church?” Why, indeed. Maybe the situation is even worse than I have described; perhaps the churches are even more trivial than the entertainment industry. After all, in popular entertainment one does occasionally find the tragic clearly articulated, as in the movies of a Coppola or a Scorsese.

A church with a less realistic view of life than one can find in a movie theater? For some, that might be an amusing, even entertaining, thought; for me, it is a tragedy.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.

REblog:Hymn Story, “Just As I Am”

Just As I Am” is one of the few hymns for which we know not only the author’s story but also the exact circumstances in which it was written. Charlotte Elliott of Brighton, England (1789-1871) was either born, or in early life had become, an invalid. Her life was a testimony to patient endurance in suffering, not only physical, but also emotional and spiritual. This was the context in which she wrote the hymn, as her nephew the Rev. Handley C. G. Moule recounted it in 1897:

But ill health still beset her … it often caused her the peculiar pain of a seeming uselessness in her life while the circle around her was full of unresting service-ableness for God. Such a time of trial marked the year 1834, when she was forty-five years old, and living in Westfield Lodge, Brighton… .

Her brother, the Rev. H. V. Elliott, had not long before conceived the plan of St. Mary’s Hall, at Brighton — a school designed to give, at nominal cost, a high education to the daughters of clergymen… . In aid of St. Mary’s Hall there was to be held a bazaar … Westfield Lodge was all astir; every member of the large circle was occupied morning and night in the preparations, with the one exception of the ailing sister Charlotte — as full of eager interest as any of them, but physically fit for nothing.

The night before the bazaar she was kept wakeful by distressing thoughts of her apparent uselessness; and these thoughts passed — by a transition easy to imagine — into a spiritual conflict, till she questioned the reality of her whole spiritual life, and wondered whether it were anything better than an illusion of the emotions, an illusion ready to be sorrowfully dissolved.

The next day, the busy day of the bazaar, she lay upon her sofa… . The troubles of the night came back upon her with such force that she felt they must be met and conquered in the grace of God. She gathered up in her soul the great certainties, not of her emotions, but of her salvation: her Lord, his power, his promise. And taking pen and paper from the table she deliberately set down in writing, for her own comfort, ‘the formula of her faith.’

Hers was a heart which always tended to express its depths in verse. So in verse she restated to herself the gospel of pardon, peace, and heaven. (Quoted from Louis Benson, Studies of Familiar Hymns, Second Series, 201-202)

Within a matter of years Ms. Elliott had the hymn published in The Invalid’s Hymn Book , and from there it spread and gained in popularity.

Many people associate “Just As I Am” with the life and ministry of Billy Graham as for years it was sung during altar calls at his crusades; it is also the title of his autobiography.

Just as I am – without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
– O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
– O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – though toss’d about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
– O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in Thee to find,
– O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
– O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – Thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
– O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
– O Lamb of God, I come!

REblog: Secret Sauce? by Joe Thorn

On Wednesday mornings I meet with Pastor Jamie Page, founding and Lead Pastor of The Church in DeKalb. We meet to share what is going on in our lives, what God is teaching us, and to pray together. It’s always a good and fruitful time. This morning I busted out my iPad and asked Jamie to let me record him explaining something they talk about at TCD. It’s their “secret sauce.” The secret sauce is sort of a hermeneutical recipe for fruitful Bible reading. He encourages the church to not just read the Scripture, but to come to it with these specific questions.

Jamie was kind enough to let me record him summarizing the whole thing off the cuff, and he didn’t even ask for makeup. (video not included in this REblog) Below is the recipe itself for TCD’s secret sauce.

When reading your Bible, you must ask these questions:

1. What does this passage say about God?

2. What does this passage say about people?

3. Therefore, what should I do?

4. Let’s be honest: How do I fail to do what I ought to do?

5. How has Christ done this thing perfectly?

6. How is Christ’s death sufficient and satisfactory for my sin of not doing what I ought to do (Romans 8.1)? And how is Christ’s resurrection empowering me to be transformed and live as I ought (Romans 8.11)?

7. Because the Gospel is true, therefore, what am I going to do?

“O Selfless Christ” by Tom Schmidt

A beautiful poem to meditate on today. Think on the selflessness of Christ and how that should impact the way you live today.

O Selfless Christ

You spoke the world into being:
Every star and moon,
Every animal and plant.

Ruling in glory with the Father and the Spirit,
One God in three persons,
Infinite power, inexpressible strength.

You emptied yourself and became a man,
Unimaginable humility:
God incarnate serving the created.

You were obedient to the point of death,
Crushed for our sins,
Crucified on the cross.

You took our death and gave us life,
The Great Exchange:
Our sins for your righteousness.

O Selfless Christ, your ways makes us marvel,
You acted out of love,
Empowered by the Spirit.

Help us Lord to take up our cross and follow,
The path is glorious,
The path is pure.

O Selfless Christ, we are yours forever.
Help us serve like you today.

A Tozer Devotion For Tonight

SEEKING GOD WITH ALL OUR HEART
I have previously shown that any Christian who desires to may at any time experience a radical spiritual renaissance, and this altogether independent of the attitude of his fellow Christians.

The important question now is, How? Well, here are some suggestions which anyone can follow and which, I am convinced, will result in a wonderfully improved Christian life.

1. Get thoroughly dissatisfied with yourself. Complacency is the deadly enemy of spiritual progress. The contented soul is the stagnant soul. When speaking of earthly goods Paul could say, “I have learned to be content” (Philippians 4:11); but when referring to his spiritual life he testified, “I press on toward the goal” (3:14). “So stir up the gift of God that is in thee” (2 Timothy 1:6, KJV).

2. Set your face like a flint toward a sweeping transformation of your life. Timid experimenters are tagged for failure before they start. We must throw our whole soul into our desire for God. “The kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it” (Matthew 11:12).

Today’s Devotional was originally found in the writings from A.W. Tozer from the following book:
The Size of the Soul
Chapter 5 – What About Revival?–Part IV: How to Have a Personal Revival

Verse

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. Jeremiah 29:13

Thought

A holy dissatisfaction arises when we look in the mirror of God’s Word. What He has for us is far beyond what we have so far experienced. But when we seek to know God with all our heart, He will be found.

Prayer

Lord, I want to grow not just tomorrow or in the the years ahead but now, today. Show me what it means to seek You with all my heart.

REblog: Hope for timid evangelists

» Blogging Theologically | Jesus, Books, Culture, & Theology
Aaron Armstrong
Apr 24, 2013, 5:33 AM more »

I have a confession: I’m one of the world’s most timid evangelists; it doesn’t come naturally to me (no surprise there). We’ve been working our way through a very practical witnessing workshop to provide a biblical framework for evangelism—one that actually requires you to *gasp* ask questions of non-Christian friends and family!

You wouldn’t think this is a terribly hard thing to do, but it seems to be. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt a sense of hesitation set in before doing something even as simple as sending an email asking a pretty open-ended question. When I see that people are ready and willing to answer these questions (some as pointed as “where do you believe you’ll spend eternity and why?”), I feel a little silly.

But here’s the good news—God’s Word offers much hope for timid evangelists like me, especially in the gospel of Luke. Here are five truths we can embrace:

1. You don’t need to fear man. The worst they can do is kill you. (Luke 12:4-7)

2. You don’t need to be concerned about what to say, especially when facing persecution—the Holy Spirit will teach you what you ought to say when you need it. (Luke 12:11)

3. You don’t need to get caught up in results. You are responsible to sow the “seed” of the gospel, not to make it grow. (Luke 8:4-8)

4. You don’t need to be surprised when things get difficult. Jesus has promised these things will come and we will be rewarded as we persevere through trial. (Luke 9:23-27)

5. You don’t need to worry about messing it up—you are the means by which God has sovereignly ordained the nations will be reached. (Luke 24:46-49)

What biblical encouragement would you add to this list?

REblog: Hymn Stories – The Church’s One Foundation

Songs are a powerful means of teaching. The melodies, rhythms, and rhymes that characterize songs make the words easier to remember. The best and most effective songs combine lyrics and music to cultivate feelings that complement the meaning.

All throughout history God’s people have used songs to teach. We can see this as early as Exodus 15 where Moses records the song Israel sang after crossing the Red Sea. It taught everyone who heard and sang it about God’s character in that great act of delivering his people. In the New Testament we encounter simple but important truths in the earliest Christian hymns.

The Rev. Samuel John Stone was well aware of the effectiveness of singing when he wrote and published Lyra Fidelium in 1866. As a curate in the small town of Windsor, England, he was aware of his parishoners’ habit of using the Apostles’ Creed in their private prayers. But he was concerned that many of them did not grasp the meaning of what they said. The prose felt too academic, disconnected from the average worshipper, and lacking a devotional spirit.

It was in this context that he wrote Lyra Fidelium, which consisted of twelve hymns, one for each article of the Apostles’ Creed. With each hymn he included a short “summary of truths confessed” in that article, along with a list of the Scripture passages supporting it. “The Church’s One Foundation” was the hymn he wrote for article 9 of the Creed, which affirms belief in “the holy catholic church” and “the communion of saints.”

“The Church’s One Foundation” is the best known of the twelve hymns in this collection. Louis Benson quotes one English archbishop as saying that “wherever he was called upon to open or dedicate a church, he could always count on two things–cold chicken and ‘The Church’s one Foundation’.”

The hymn’s long legacy undoubtedly owes to the many sweet doctrines it includes, its use of the words and concepts of Scripture to express them, and its uniqueness in teaching the doctrine of the church. Benson describes it as embodying “practically every doctrince concerning the church [Stone] held most dear (its divine origin, its unbroken continuity, its catholicity and essential unity, its orthodoxy, its sacramental grace, its communion with God and with the departed saints, its militancy and final triumph).”

The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.

She is from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth;
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.

The Church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish,
Is with her to the end:
Though there be those who hate her,
And false sons in her pale,
Against both foe or traitor
She ever shall prevail.

Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed:
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!

‘Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.

Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won,
With all her sons and daughters
Who, by the Master’s hand
Led through the deathly waters,
Repose in Eden land.

O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee:
There, past the border mountains,
Where in sweet vales the Bride
With Thee by living fountains
Forever shall abide!

Indelible Grace has a recording of the song set to a new melody and they are offering it to you for free. You can visit NoiseTrade to get it. There is the option there to leave a tip, but feel completely freedom to take the song for free.