Sunday, May 26, 2013

Who can partake of the Lord's Supper?

Today was week six as a visitor at the Free Church of Scotland in Portree and it was also our first communion service.

In the Highlands, many believers do not partake of the Lord's Supper because of a sense of unworthiness. This has been a long standing issue in many presbyterian churches despite the best efforts of many ministers who labour tirelessly to magnify the grace of God. Traditionally, in some presbyterian churches, the minister would 'fence the table' in other words certain criteria had to be satisfied before a person would be allowed to take communion. Sadly, a zeal for purity created a legacy of legalism which remains a stumbling block for many believers to this very day.

On the other end of the spectrum, many modern churches can fall into licence and the communion table is so open that even non professing attendants can partake of the Lord's Supper.

This morning the minister laid out four simple questions (and offered some explanation) to help clarify who can partake of the Lord's supper.

1) Do you know Jesus?

In communion we remember Jesus' death, we can only truly remember Jesus and what he has done if we know him personally. Have we encountered the Saviour?

2) Do you love Jesus?

Do we love the Lord? The question is not, do we love him as much as we ought, but do we love him? Is it impossible for us to say that we do not love him? The Lord's Supper is for those who love Christ.

3) Do you trust Jesus?

Do we trust in Christ alone for salvation? As the minister said today, 'Communion is not for those who think they are good enough, it is for those who know they are bad!' In other words the Lord's Supper is for those who know they need a saviour.

4) Will you obey Jesus?

Jesus says 'Those who love me will obey what I command.', will we obey Jesus' command to 'Do this in remembrance of me'? Communion is not about pronouncing ourselves as righteous, it is simply a response to the grace of God and obedience to the command of Christ.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Radical Christianity: A new thing or an old thing?

As we reflect upon both the contemporary evangelical and wider church scene it is increasingly apparent that something is amiss. We even hear claims that 'God is doing a new thing'. Many modern churches are blown from one fad to the next as they seek the latest solution to church growth. Many believers are sinking in oceans of uncertainty as they seek to hold on to various pieces of theological driftwood, anything to keep them afloat in a world of material and moral pressures.

For a number of years I have had the growing conviction that the way forward for the contemporary church is to be found by looking to the past.

Why look to the past?

Quite simply, our faith comes from the past.

We have 2000 years of church history to draw from. There are lessons to be learned from former generations. There are men of God who walked faithfully in the midst of darkness from whom we can draw inspiration and wisdom from. More importantly we have the age-old holy scriptures to guide our paths in truth and righteousness.

Time and time again Israel fell in to apostasy and barrenness and during these times the Lord sent prophets to bring correction and restoration. These prophets, most of the time, did not declare new things, instead they called God’s people back to old things. They called God’s people to remember. God’s people were called to remember their past. They were called to remember the Lord’s dealings with them. They were called to remember his mighty deeds. They were called to remember who He was and what He was like. They were called to remember his promises. They were called to return to His word, their departure from which, was the source of their present troubles.

The following scriptures along with an excerpt from C.S Lewis sum up many of these issues quite well.
“This is what the LORD says:
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.
But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” Jer 6:16

“Ask the former generations
and find out what their fathers learned,
for we were born only yesterday and know nothing,
and our days on earth are but a shadow.
Will they not instruct you and tell you?
Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?” Job 8:8-10
The following is a fairly extensive quote from C.S Lewis which emphasises the importance of drawing spiritual wisdom from the past.
“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.
This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.
Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
C.S Lewis Introduction to Athanasius: On the Incarnation

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Worship in 'Spirit and Truth' (Part 3)

A number of years ago I was struck by an article in The Guardian which read: "The great evangelical rebranding: US evangelicals no longer talk about how God will smite you. Now it's all about personal, spiritual and material fulfilment".

While the article creates some caricatures, and focuses on some of the more extreme expressions of  the 'evangelicalism' of the God TV variety, there is a shameful amount of truth contained within the stinging observation that evangelicals have modified their view of God. When we consider the claims of modern evangelicalism regarding the nature of God, we are often presented with a being who is 'loving' and who exists for no other reason than to make us happy. Other aspects of God's character (his attributes) such as his holiness, justice and  his actions such as judgement and wrath are often minimised or not mentioned at all.

While the impoverished preaching from many pulpits is a primary reason for this theological shift, another reason is the type of songs that are sung regularly in many evangelical churches. I think it was Jeff Lucas who once said that he was concerned about the number of 'God is my girfriend' type songs which were becoming increasingly popular in evangelical circles. Lucas, through use of wit and satire is basically making the same point as the article in The Guardian: the God of evangelicalism is too fluffy.

This brings me to my final  and perhaps most important reason why I have found the singing of the psalms so 'incredibly refreshing'. Not only do psalms, as I mentioned in my last post, incorporate the fullness of human emotion into worship, but the psalms also reveal the fullness of God's nature. The psalms magnify the mercy, goodness and love of God without shrinking from his justice, righteousness and holiness. They reveal his acts of kindness and his works of wrath.

Michael Lefebvre in his book Singing the Songs of Jesus uses an example from C.S Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to illustrate how the psalms enable us to reflect not only upon the goodness of God, but also his justice:

"One of my favorite lines in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia occurs when Mr and Mrs Beaver first tell Lucy about the lion Aslan (the Christ-figure in that allegory). Quite alarmed at this talk of a lion, Lucy asks, ‘Is he quite safe?’ to which Mr Beaver replies, ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.’ And so the thematic phrase is repeated throughout the story, ‘He is not a tame lion.’" Lefebvre then applies this observation to the psalms that deal with God's justice and judgement which, he argues, serve to remind us that: "Jesus is a good king, but not a ‘tame’ king. He is a just king, who loves his people and comes to their aid."

I share, with many Christians across the various denominations in Scotland, the desire that our land and churches will experience revival. However, I am increasingly convinced that in order to experience revival we need to stop expecting God to conform to our expectations. It is perhaps good to remind ourselves that he is the God who made us in his image, we need to also be careful that we have not substituted this God, for a god which is made in our image, Perhaps more precisely, a god that is simply a reflection of the values of secular culture: A god who is pleasure seeking, tolerant of unrighteousness and intolerant of truth.

On the other hand, the God we encounter in the psalms, is God as he truly is. We can, as believers, at no point say, 'Oh I don't really like that psalm', if we do, what we are really saying is 'I don't really like that God.' Jesus explained to his disciples the nature of true worship: Those who truly worship are those who worship in 'Spirit and truth'. What is truth? Jesus again tells us 'Thy (God's) word is truth.', elsewhere we read that scripture is 'God breathed' (therefore spiritual). Perhaps the historic psalm singing churches have something to teach us about worship in 'Spirit and truth' after all.

Psalm 102
For God will yet appear
In glorious might to reign;
The Lord in grace will build
Jerusalem again

Worship in 'Spirit and Truth' (Part 2)

In my last blog post I was reflecting upon my experience of worshipping at the Free Church of Scotland and the huge cultural (and theological) gap between psalm singing congregations and churches which practice the more common contemporary worship model.

One of the reasons why many modern Christians struggle with psalm singing is the lack of emphasis on the 'feel good factor'. In our modern approach to worship, as soon as we begin to worship, the whole experience is geared towards leading the worshipper to engage at an emotional level. I am not saying that feelings are bad, but I am saying that the modern method narrowly focus on certain emotions to the neglect of others: in effect worship is geared towards good emotions. The beat and rhythm of praise songs are stirring and designed to stimulate exuberant and joyful praise.

Not only is the music designed to stir nice feelings, but the content of most of our modern worship songs is narrowly focused too. The staple diet of the contemporary worshipper is songs of victory, celebration and declaration. It is not wrong to sing these types of songs (it is very right!) but the problem emerges when these are the only songs that we sing.  Singing with great enthusiasm, 'Oh I feel like dancing' is great when you are actually in that place and your heart is bursting with the joy of salvation. Yet the reality is, this is not where Christians live most of the time.

Modern praise and worship leaders recognise this, hence one of the difficulties they face in a Sunday morning is when they are trying to shift a downcast (or even just tired) congregation from a place of sombreness to place of exuberance. Often it takes about three of four songs to 'crank them up.' Often the congregation will hear the words of exhortation 'Don't focus on your feelings, focus on God and his promises, and make a joyful noise'. The message is clear: sing joyfully until you feel good.

The reality is we don't always feel good, and this is another reason why the psalms are so rich. The psalms engage with the totality of human emotions. Modern worship tends to be one-dimensional, it focuses on joyful expression; the psalms on the other hand meet the worshipper where he/she is at. If our worship does not allow for the expression of 'Why are you downcast, oh my soul?' and instead focuses on a constant diet of  'It was there by faith, I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day', our worship will become inauthentic. Failure to incorporate the fullness of human experience (grief, anger, depression, disappointment etc) into our worship because we only sing about joy and victory is artificial and is not worshipping in 'Spirit and truth'. This doesn't mean that we don't praise God when we are in the storm: it just means that we don't pretend that there isn't storm. It doesn't mean that we don't declare that God is the God who delivers us from the pit: it just means that we don't lie about the fact that we are in a pit.

Michael Lefebvre nails it when he compares the psalms to contemporary worship songs:

"Unlike modern church songs which are primarily about ‘getting right to the point’ and declaring praise, the Psalms are designed to help people who don’t always feel like praising begin by meditating on the mess the world is in, and only through a full and robust process of meditation, to come out with praise."

Again, I'm not saying contemporary praise songs are wrong, neither am I saying that declarations of praise are not fitting and right, I am just reflecting on another reason why I have found the singing of psalms to be incredibly refreshing.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Worship in 'Spirit and Truth'

Tomorrow, God willing, will be my fourth Sunday worshipping  as a 'visitor' at the Free Church of Scotland in Portree.

Having become a Christian through the Brethren, worked for YMCA; trained in Youth Ministry at an interdenominational evangelical theological college; studied theology at a Baptist College; and have been associated with the charismatic movement for most of my Christian life: I am no stranger to diverse expressions of Christian worship.

Yet, despite this reasonably broad experience of Christianity, the Free Church is different.

One of the major differences is the singing of Psalms in the Sunday service (a Capella). The various churches that I have been involved with for the last 10 years have all followed the same worship model. The service will begin with approximately 30 minutes of mostly uninterrupted  choruses (with perhaps the odd hymn) led by a praise band.

This approach to worship is so ingrained in the DNA of many modern christians, that to depart from this model is to move into strange territory indeed. Some (particularly in the charismatic camp) would question if it is even spiritual. Worship in 'Spirit and truth' seems to have become so identified with the contemporary praise band that its absence is equated with a departure of the divine.

So, how am I finding worship at the Free Church?

Incredibly  refreshing. And here are some reasons why:

1) You can't get more spiritual than the psalms

The very best of hymns, choruses and contemporary songs can't really be compared to the Psalms because the Psalms are the very words of God, given by God, to his people, for the worship of God. To sing the psalms is to sing the very word of God: words that are 'God breathed' 2 Tim 3:16.

2) Singing the Psalms keeps us connected with the Church of the past (Old and New covenant)

God's people have always sung the psalms, it was only in the 1800s that hymns started to eclipse the Psalms, and it has only been since the 60s/70s that choruses have eclipsed hymns. In other words, the modern approach to worship is exactly that: modern. Don't misunderstand me, I love praise and worship. I love many contemporary praise and worship songs, I love the redemption hymns, I'm not knocking them. However, in recent years I have realised more and more that the evangelical church is drifting further and further from its historical roots. As secular culture increasingly defines our Church communities, our ministries and our worship, we are losing the sense of historicity that connects us to the church of the past. When this happens, it will not be long (and has already happened in some places) where 'evangelicals' will cease to be identified with the historic Christian faith.

I could add more reasons to this list, but I hope to blog some more on these issues in the near future.