All posts by missannita

Willing to be Present and Powerless

From Simon Stokes at “Mere Fidelity” :

….Many in the church are anxiously grasping to take control over a culture that does not want to be controlled. This overreach is born out of the fear of what might happen when Christians lose power and influence. Yet, the church has often grown, and even flourished, in times and places where it lacked control over essential aspects of its existence. This is true today of the persecuted church throughout the world, and it was true of the ancient church under Imperial Rome.

In The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider makes the point that the early church did not write treatises on evangelism. Nor did it consider influencing the Roman Senate. Its focus was not on controlling the dominant outside forces of power or cultural perception. Instead, the early church pursued its own spiritual formation and patiently worked at simply being present in the Roman world. It embraced its status as “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1), who inhabited the pagan world but did not align with its priorities. In so doing the early church was different enough from the surrounding culture to open the possibility to outside observers that there might be another way to live. Kreider writes,

It was not what the Christians said that carried weight with outsiders; it was what they did and embodied that was both disconcerting and converting. It was their habitus—their reflexes and ways of life that suggested that there was another way to perceive reality—that made the Christians interesting, challenging, and worth investigating.[5]

By being willing to be present, and powerless, in a culture that often held them in derision, our forefathers in the faith embodied the reality that true life came only through belief in Jesus of Nazareth. They focused on their own actions of spiritual formation and grass roots evangelism, and they believed that God would carry out his purposes in good time.

The North American church of the modern era must embrace a similar posture of powerless presence if it hopes to provide today’s world with a comparable experience. It must cease fretting over what it cannot control, namely the actions of the culture. Instead, Christians must calmly and compassionately commit to being with the world, and in the world, but not like the world. Individual Christians should focus on their own spiritual formation, and in working out their faith in smaller, localized areas where they can make a direct impact with their lives. They should also commit to the work of renewing institutions within, and outside the institutional Church, working for the common good. Many Christians are already leading the way on some major aspects of cultural renewal. They should continue to do so, and wait for God to work through their steady, patient effort.

The Necessity of Believing Rightly

Even among those who claim Christianity there are a variety of beliefs about the Incarnation of Christ, and also the Resurrection of Christ. I agree with Dorothy Sayers that belief in the Incarnation of Christ is critical to Christian faith. From Sayers’ Creed or Chaos:

“It is not true at all that dogma is ‘hopelessly irrelevant’ to the life and thought of the average man. What is true is that ministers of the Christian religion often assert that it is, present it for consideration as though it were, and, in fact, by their faulty exposition of it make it so. The central dogma of the Incarnation is that by which relevance stands or falls. If Christ was only man, then He is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; if He is only God, then He is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Unless he believes rightly, there is not the faintest reason why he should believe at all. And in that case, it is wholly irrelevant to chatter about “Christian principles.”

One Holy Church Universal

From The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning for the Church (John Bright, 1953):

“The Church … is not at all an organization, nor yet the sum-total of all its organizations: it is an organism; it is the people of … faith, the people of the Kingdom of God. We speak not now of the churches [small c], but of the Church [capital C]—and of a far higher sense of peoplehood than most of us have known. We are not the people of the Rev. Dr. [X]’s church, held there by the power of the Rev. Dr. [X]’s oratory—or in spite of it, by a very stubborn loyalty. We are not the people of the Presbyterian, the Methodist, or the Baptist churches, challenged by the worthy programs of these churches and finding fellowship in them. We are not men of good will, concerned for the foundations of society, aware that these are the gifts of religion to society, and so supporters of our churches. We are the people of the Church.

And the Church is greater than the churches. As the true Israel of God’s purpose was not equal to the Israelite nation, so is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ not equal to the Christian churches. It is in every one of them, yet beyond all of them—so much so that no church may claim to be the One True Church without self-deification and blasphemy. The Church is an invisible thing. It cuts across the membership [roll] of the churches along a line no ecclesiastical statistician could follow, and reaches out to include the most improbable publicans and sinners. It breathes in and out of the forms and standards of the churches like a wind blowing “where it wills” [or] may indeed “hear the sound of it,” but there is no telling “whence it comes or whither it goes” …. The Church is a supra-earthly community transcending time and space. In it one sits down with Father Abraham and the Twelve, with the Christian brother in the pew and the Christian brother in China. It is the community of all who have heard the sound of the Kingdom of God drawing near, and have said Yes to its coming. It is the new Israel, the new people of God, One Holy Church Universal.”

Spurgeon on Hymn Tunes

Charles Spurgeon:

Simple [melodies] are the best, and the most sublime; very few of the more intricate tunes are really musical. Your twists, and [your] fugues, and [your] repetitions, and [your] rattlings up and down the scale, are mostly barbarous noise-makings, fitter for Babel than [for] Bethel. If you … wish to show off your excellent voices, [why not] meet at home for that purpose[? But] the [Lord’s Day] and the church of God must not be desecrated to so poor an end.

Charles Spurgeon, “How Shall We Sing?,” The Sword and the Trowel (June 1, 1870), 277

Stonewall Jackson’s Faith Speaks to Christians Today

I have happily returned to reading Robertson’s biography of Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Because the writing is good, and based on both first hand accounts, private letters and contemporary reports, I feel I almost know the man. And I admire him. We need people like him in our country today, those who are public servants in the best sense: committed to fulfilling public and private duty. But more than that, I admire him as a Christian, a man who struggled to know and do God’s will.

The following section from the book occurs shortly after the Harper’s Ferry incident and the ensuing anxiety about sucession.

From the book:

“For Jackson, Lincoln’s election meant that, barring divine intervention, the days of the Union were numbered. Now was the time for serious discussion and mediation. He joined with eleven other Lexington gentlemen in issuing a call for a town meeting to consider the state of the Union. ‘By expression of our opinion,’ the group stated, residents could band together and ‘contribute our mite [sic] to arrest, if possible, the impending calamity–and if that is impossible, then to consult together as to what is the safest course for us to pursue in the event of a dissolution of the Federal government.’ Several gatherings took place, and a number of study committees came into being. Each produced much rhetoric but little resolution. As meetings became more inflammatory, Jackson’s support dwindled. He soon stopped attending the sessions.

Within a few days, Jackson relaxed. He had decided, as was his custom, to put his trust in God. Deacon Jackson would await further developments. Meanwhile, and as a deacon, Jackson had the responsibility for securing accommodations for visiting Presbyterian clergy. Jackson usually found it expedient to extend to such guests the hospitality of his own home.

The Reverend J. B. Ramsey of Lynchburg was at that time staying with the Jacksons. One morning the family had just risen from family prayers. Ramsey expressed lamentations over the state of the country. Jackson listened patiently, then gave the preacher a mini-sermon. “Why should Christians be disturbed about the dissolution of the Union? It can come only by God’s permission, and will only be permitted if for His people’s good; for does He not say, ‘All things work together for good to them that love God?’ I cannot see how we should be distressed about such things, whatever be their consequences.”

The Fourth Commandment

From my earliest memories I knew about the Sabbath. Both of my parents came from generations of ancestors who kept the Sabbath, Seventh Day Baptists. When I grew up I was puzzled by the seeming lack of honor for the 7th day Sabbath (or the “Lord’s Day” Sabbath as well) in other Christian communities. As time went on, and I did not normally live where I had access to Seventh Day Baptist churches, I grew accustomed to worshiping in church for an hour or so on Sunday, and nodding to Sabbath by trying not to shop or clean my house on that day. I wouldn’t say, now, that I kept the Sabbath holy.

This week I was surprised to hear Alistair Begg, who is not a Sabbatarian, preach passionately on the Sabbath and the fourth commandment. From the sermon:

Now, there are two things that mitigate against any good understanding of this commandment, and they are these: on the one hand, an almost complete lack of conviction about any notion of the abiding significance of the fourth commandment—and we’ll address that in a moment—and on the other hand, almost total confusion concerning the nature not only of all the Ten Commandments but peculiarly of this one day.

Now, we can highlight this in a number of ways. Let me do so by quoting from the Civil War. I think it’s the Civil War, isn’t it? Stonewall Jackson? General Jackson is a legend in American history. Any of you who have read of Jackson will know that he was a man of extreme principle and character. At the very heart of this was his conviction of faith in Jesus Christ. And his extreme rigorous character attached itself also to the observance of the Sabbath. And writing in his biography, his widow says,

Certainly he was not less scrupulous in obeying the divine command to “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” than he was in any other rule of his life. Since the Creator had set apart this day for his own, and commanded it to be kept holy, he believed that it was … wrong for him to desecrate it by worldly pleasure, idleness, or secular employment, as to break any other commandment of the decalogue. Sunday was his busiest day of the week, as he always attended church twice a day and taught in two Sabbath schools! He refrained as much as possible from all worldly conversation, and in his family, if secular topics were introduced, he would say, with a kindly smile, “We will talk about that to-morrow.”

He never travelled on Sunday, never took his mail from the post-office, nor permitted a letter of his own to travel on that day, always before posting it calculating the time it required to reach its destination ….

One so strict in his own Sabbath observance naturally believed that it was wrong for the government to carry the [mail] on Sunday. Any organization which exacted secular labor of its employees on the Lord’s day was, in his opinion, a violator of God’s law.[2]

And so his life was marked by a rigorous obedience to the law of God.

Now, loved ones, here’s the question: Is this quote from Jackson an anachronism? In other words, if Jackson was right, where does that leave us? ’Cause if we’re right, most of us, he was wrong. But one thing is for sure: we’re not both right. So we need to go to our Bibles, then, and determine who approximates to the instruction of God’s Word closely. Is it us, in our libertine rejection of the Lord’s Day, or is it Jackson, in his rigorous obedience of it?

You can read the transcript, or listen (which I suggest) here:

A Hymn of Hope

I Look Not Back

By: Annie Johnson Flint

I look not back; God knows the fruitless efforts,
The wasted hours, the sinning, the regrets.
I leave them all with Him who blots the record,
And graciously forgives, and then forgets.

I look not forward; God sees all the future,
The road that, short or long, will lead me home,
And He will face with me its every trial,
And bear for me the burdens that may come.

I look not round me; then would fears assail me,
So wild the tumult of earth’s restless seas,
So dark the world, so filled with woe and evil,
So vain the hope of comfort and of ease.

I look not inward; that would make me wretched;
For I have naught on which to stay my trust.
Nothing I see save failures and shortcomings,
And weak endeavors, crumbling into dust.

But I look up–into the face of Jesus,
For there my heart can rest, my fears are stilled;
And there is joy, and love, and light for darkness,
And perfect peace, and every hope fulfilled.

The Long View

I found this interview with Pastor Aaron Graham of The District Church in Washington, DC so encouraging. It reminded me that God is working in that city, regardless of the politics and power struggles I see in the news.

From the article, one question and answer:

Elijah: You mentioned the progressive bubble in D.C. earlier, it seems to be around the world. Both large national church organizations all the way down to the local church are grappling with this progressive social narrative, issues like gender identity or abortion, life issues, racial issues. It seems to be really this tension between the church trying to welcome as many people as possible while also standing firm theologically. How have you tried to meet that intersection, and also bring the church through it as well, particularly being in such a progessive area?

Pastor Graham: I think it’s just doing the hard work of trying to teach people to think Biblically, and to increase Biblical literacy. Because we live in the social media age along with 24 hour news cycles, that many Christians today are more discipled by media commentators than they are by the Word of God. It becomes difficult for a pastor to speak to the issues in a way where it’s not already emotionally charged. I try to teach and preach the Bible, and allow the Bible to speak to the issues of the time. When I went through the Sermon on the Mount recently, I critiqued progressive Chrisitanity and Christian nationalism. What happened in our city on January 6th with the insurrection had its roots in Christian nationalism, where people don’t know where the American dream begins and Christianity ends. It’s just all one and the same, and it’s like Christianity is America and we have to create this top down. That’s dangerous, we have to preach against that. Likewise, there’s a movement deconstructing core theological doctrines that have been consensus doctrines for 2,000 years in the local church. In our quest to do good, to do justice, we’re forgetting fallen humanity, that the chief problem is fallen humanity and that’s shared across all groups of people. That’s what makes the gospel so great and so inclusive, is that we’re all fallen, and that God has given us a way to be reconciled to Him through Christ and through His death for us on the cross.

It’s easy to respond to whatever’s popping up here or there, important things and important current events, things that we should be engaged in, to forget our history and to forget the Bible. Biblical literacy and understanding the core Christian doctrines of the faith have become an increasing priority to me the longer that I’ve been here, because I’ve realized that I think secular culture is doing a better job of discipling urban Christians than the local church is. I’m having to be more intentional and aggressive about that, to say hey, let’s make sure the questions you’re asking around progressive Christianity, that progressive Christianity doesn’t become a layover to post-Christianity. That reading progessive Christianity becomes a place where you can wrestle with your doubts and come back to historic Christianity and a deeper sense, rather than “oh, this is just an exit for me to total deconstruction.” I talk about the difference between doubt and deconstruction, that doubt is a normal part of growth, asking questions, not just inheriting your parents faith, wrestling with these things, but active deconstruction is trying to tear down things where progressives have an agenda to then convert Christians to their agenda, just like Christian nationalists have the same thing.

Americans in Paris

At the insistence of a friend, I have been reading a David McCullough book The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris (2011). It did not sound interesting to me but I was hooked by the time I had read the first page. Here it is:

They spoke of it then as the dream of a lifetime, and for many, for all the difficulties and setbacks encountered, it was to be one of the best times ever. They were the first wave of talented, aspiring Americans bound for Paris in what, by the 1830s, had become steadily increasing numbers. They were not embarking in any diplomatic or official capacity–not as had, say, Benjamin Franklin or John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, in earlier days. Neither were they in the employ of a manufacturer or mercantile concern. Only one, a young writer, appears to have been in anybody’s pay, and in his case it was a stipend from a New York newspaper. They did not see themselves as refugees or self-imposed exiles from an unacceptable homeland. Nor should they be pictured as traveling for pleasure only, or in expectation of making some sort of social splash abroad. They had other purposes–quite specific, serious pursuits in nearly every case. Their hopes were high. They were ambitious to excel in work that mattered greatly to them, and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream–though, to be sure, as James Fenimore Cooper observed when giving his reasons for needing time in Paris, there was always the possibility of “a little pleasure concealed in the bottom the cup.”

The book proper contains about 450 pages. It is not historical fiction, although it reads like a good novel, full of accounts of intertwined lives of historical figures and events that are recognizable to anyone who knows much 19th century American history and art. ( I discovered I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did). What makes the book most interesting is the conversations and thoughts of those individuals based on their own writing and journals. There are almost 60 pages of source notes.

It was fun for me to get an inside glimpse of so many people I learned about in school, and artists whose work I have seen and admired in person. Here is a partial list of the people included: James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse (did you know he aspired to be a portrait painter?), Charles Sumner, Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winslow Homer, P.T. Barnum (and Tom Thumb), Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Adams, Henry James, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

The person who made the most impression on me was someone I did not know, Elihu Benjamin Washburne, who had been appointed as minister to France by President Ulysses S. Grant. Washburne served heroically during the Franco-Prussian War, chosing to stay and help in spite of being given permission to return home. He commitedly kept a daily diary of the entire war, a valuable document today.

So, I enthusiastically recommend this book.

Life Changes

Having grown up in the Church, I have been church singing all my life, often in a choir. I have been singing in my current church choir for over ten years now. Right after I joined, and after I had left for the summer, the choir director/organist left the church, and I still don’t fully understand why. But when I returned from my summer hiatus I discovered the choir was reduced from probably 25 members to 8 or so. And the recent choir members left the church as well. I was shocked.

We had a wonderful interim organist/choir director. He was serious about singing good music, annunciating well, and doing what was necessary to aid worship. In retrospect I see that he also encouraged us to become a cohesive group. I listened, and in my own way I did what I thought I could to do to help that effort. Then our Mary came. Mary is an incredibly talented pianist and musician. If you heard her play the organ you would think she was also trained in organ as well.

I don’t think Mary had much education in choral music, but her husband did, and he came to ALL of our rehearsals. (Both of them graduated from Julliard). They were quite the team! Tim was focused, but also had a wonderful sense of humor. Mary, was just steady and amazing in her accompaniment and also directing. I could not fathom how she could play some of that complicated accompaniment and yet lift a hand to give us a cue. Mary is shy and quiet, and Tim had a dry and quick sense of humor. Tim also came to all of our bell rehearsals, and taught all of us how to play the dang things.

In the last 5 years or so Mary was the recipient of numerous and frequent complaints about music choices, speed of hymns, and even suggestions that she not play the organ any more. But we kept singing, often singing classic worship music almost no one sings any more. It was such a blessing to me, and I hope to others as well. I sang so much music I had admired, but never imagined I would ever sing.

Mary is leaving in two weeks. She and the family are moving back to Florida. I, and my choir members (all 5 of us) are devastated. I plan to go back to Georgia for our last rehearsal and worship service. I don’t know, but I think probably this will be the end of our choir, and the end of the organ during the service. I am sad, but also very grateful.