Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Tribute

Other than the decision of how to respond to Christ’s call to follow Him, no other decision in life is as important as the choice whether/who to marry. Those who choose to marry invite into their lives an effect and influence that is beyond description.

By God’s grace I married a woman who is, herself, grace personified. I know without a doubt that her presence in my life is a major contribution to my salvation. I would tell couples in pre-marital counseling that marriage is a crucible for sanctification; Libby has lovingly encouraged my sanctification as a spouse for, as of now, almost 39 years.

One significant reason this is true of my wife is found in her mother, Mary Nell. Today is Mary Nell’s 80th birthday, and I am blessed to be part of her legacy. Three particular things which Libby has modeled to me –– which come from her mother’s example and nurture –– come to mind. One is her inclination to happiness; she lives life with a smile (and the source is the joy of the Lord). A second is her consistent attitude of seeing the best in a person or situation (which comes from trusting the Lord); she is positive and encouraging instead of negative and demeaning. The third is a kindness –– an empathy –– that seeks another’s good even when it is personally inconvenient to her (a beautiful model that embracing the servanthood of Jesus means serving others).

There are more qualities.... but these three are so dominant and exemplary in today’s world of self-assertiveness and personal gratification that they shine like stars in a dark sky. How could I not be blessed being married to a woman who has constantly encouraged me in these ways? And how am I not doubly blessed for this to be the legacy given from our “Mamaw” Mary Nell? Her children (and spouses and grandchildren and “adopted” children from all over) rise up today and give her honor.

Happy Birthday, Mary Nell Lindsey Vess!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Heavenly Bread

One of my delights over several decades of biblical study has been discovering various themes which are developed throughout the Scriptures in a way that shows the unity of divine authorship and a progressively unfolding purpose (even though the Bible has numerous human authors spread over hundreds of years). Some of the most popular among Evangelicals are “lamb” or “blood” as well as “light” and “glory."

One that received some recognition is “bread.” I still remember a major class presentation by one of my grad schools profs on “the Bread of Life discourse” in John’s Gospel. Yet now, upon reflection, I am negatively impressed with what was not perceived in the unfolding biblical theme of “bread.”

This has been a dominant facet in my thoughts coming into this Christmas season because, for some reason, I’ve been moved by the ancient hymn cited in my previous post, especially the lines:

Lord of lords in human vesture in the body and the blood,

He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.

Also, I’ve recently been part of a small personal dialogue on the nature of Communion. This was a major catalyst in my decision to move beyond my previous ecclesial community into the fullness of the Church –– the Eucharist is so central in the life of the historical Church that I am compelled to give my personal honor and obedience.

Bread of Heaven is a worthy theme for an extended sermon. Certainly it would develop the implications of what God did for Israel in the desert with the manna. A significant part of this is the matter (physicality) and the miraculous (there’s a third point I’ll save for the intended sermon).

My point for now is that it seems quite obvious that what God did for Israel as such a significant expression of His presence and purpose would have an even greater fulfillment in the New Covenant. And isn’t that what we have in the Eucharist? There is still real “matter” with Christ taking bread and telling his disciples to “do this” (Christianity is incarnational through and through). And again, for years I wondered where the ongoing demonstration of the miraculous was in the Christian community (and yes, I do recognize the “miracle” of changed lives, but that is personal not cultic; for Christianity to be the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, there needs to be more than individualistic expression).

In every Catholic Church, whenever the priest effects the Epiclesis, a miracle happens: ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood –– the very physical Presence –– of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as the Israelites received the food that would sustain them in the desert, our Lord gives Himself as heavenly bread to sustain us in this wilderness of sin until He brings us into the Promised Land of His Kingdom.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What Are You Giving For Christmas?

Last night’s church service was truly Christ-Mass. I was especially impressed (although I’ve thought about before) with this phrase in the Eucharistic prayer: May he make us an everlasting gift to you.

As the early Fathers of the Church said, “He became like us so we could become like Him.”

Yes, Christmas is the celebration of the greatest Gift ever. But God gave us His Son so that we could give back to Him that which He intended –– that which He deserves as our Creator: ourselves, transformed by His Spirit into holy people (As He who called you is holy, so be holy yourselves.... 1Pet 1:15) This is the point of the phrase in the Eucharistic prayer..... May he make us an everlasting gift to you.

What are you giving God this Christmas?


After some problems with spam and inappropriateness I disabled comments. I have now enabled comments with some restriction (if I did it the way I intended – I am not very "techie").

On this Christmas Day, may each of my readers know the reality of the coming of the Son of God into our broken world so that we can be saved.

Friday, December 24, 2010

More Thoughts on Church Music

I’ve been thinking during Advent about the music that “contemporary Christianity” is missing. One ancient hymn most often on my mind is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. It seems that even the very title is antithetical to the typical approach in contemporary worship!

Because I fell in love with hymnody in my late teens and used their words (particularly Charles Wesley’s) in my spiritual formation, I used “old” music as an Evangelical pastor. In the closing decade of my pastoral ministry, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence would have been part of the standard repertoire going from Advent to Christmas. I must confess that for a number of years I sang some of those words with a veil over my mind:

King of kings yet born of Mary as of old on earth He stood;

Lord of lords in human vesture in the body and the blood,

He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.

In those words is the confession of the Church from the early centuries. Singing those words expands and deepens faith. Even though I didn’t “get it” until later, I look back at my early singing of this hymn as the Holy Spirit sowing seeds which would eventually bear the fruit of understanding.

It is said that when Christians sing they pray twice. Learn to pray well by singing the hymns which have been proven by the test of time.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some Thoughts on Church Music

Thinking about religion raises the subject of worship, and inherent in worship is the issue of music. The Music Director/Committee in the local church has been called euphemistically “the war department.” Probably in no other setting is it more true that “you can’t please all the people all the time.”

Certainly music has a legitimate affect on the worshipper. We are creatures of time, place, and sensory perception, and all of those combine in music to affect us in powerful ways. But this does not mean that individual taste, or even cultural tendencies, are the arbiters of what constitutes good church music; music in the church is offered to God, and it is not meant primarily for our entertainment. Selfish individualism and a hedonistic culture certainly tries to tell us that if something is not pleasurable we are not to be faulted to dismiss it, but such an attitude is antithetical to the essence of Christian Faith.

Inherent to Christian Faith is a confrontation to the world-spirit. To the degree that a given culture embraces things which are antithetical to the Spirit of Jesus (e.g., the kingdom values of the Sermon on the Mount), Christians need to learn to turn away from cultural expressions and give a counter-witness. All cultures fall short, yet some show more effect of gospel permeation than others. I am among those who believe that Western culture has embraced a post-Christian mentality with growing openness to paganism coupled with an acceptance of multi-culturalism that, in thinking all cultures are equally legitimate, denies the belief in the exclusiveness of Christian Faith that was foundational to the Western Civilization which formed the traditional American society we are quickly losing.

What does this have to do with music? Music is a key expression of culture and the pop-music of our culture reflects our post-Christian mind-set. Among other things, it feeds hedonism. So, when churches use the culture to offer people the alternative of kingdom values, how are those values to be perceived and how are people to know they need to change –– be converted –– if churches look and act mostly like the world? How does a Christian community teach the language of Zion if it does not “speak” it and model what conversion and transformation looks like? (How many Christians today understand the biblical allusion in the previous sentence?)

This is not to say that Christians (who, as I said above, are all creatures of time, place, and sensory perception) should not learn to use their own culture in the expression of Christian Faith (this has happened repeatedly through the history of the Church). I am saying, though, that Christians should not capitulate to the culture and so lose the wealth of what the Lord has worked into the Church through all the past years. Good music is not merely what pleases us; good music can both teach us in a way that contributes to our transformation and also offer to God something more than we could ever give Him when left to our own selves, time and place.

In all of this there needs to be a true Christian attitude. Two esteemed voices have spoken to this in a way that is worthy of repeated exposure. The first is C. S. Lewis and the second is Eugene Peterson

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (esthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste –– there, we may be sure, all both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost (C. S. Lewis, Christian Refections, 96–97).

You say that you have almost nothing in common with these people. But isn’t that just the point? You have nothing in common with them; but God does. This just happens to be the way that God goes about making a kingdom, pulling all sorts and conditions of people and then patiently, mercifully, and gracefully making something of them. What he obviously does not do is pre-select people who have an aptitude for getting along well and enjoying the same things. Of course you don’t have much in common with them. The church is God’s thing, not yours.

....The church is not a natural community composed of people with common interests; it is a super-natural community. And the super in that word does not mean that it exceeds your expectations; it is other than your expectations, and much of the other is invisible to you as yet.

I’m sorry if I am sounding a bit sharp-tongued on this, but I don’t want you getting off on the wrong foot in this church business. Trust me, there’s a lot more going on than you will ever have in common with anyone there....

No, you don’t have to like the hymns. And yes, you do need to sing them –– hopefully in approximate tune and rhythm with the rest. It’s an excellent exercise in humility (Eugene H. Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other, 26–28).

Let’s be open to the music truly birthed by the Church. Let’s encourage our pastors and music directors to nurture us with music which expresses and teaches the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

That Loaded Word “Religion”

“Religion” seems to be a mostly pejorative word in our culture today. “Spirituality” is quite popular as it is far more conducive to an individualistic mind-set. I think this identifies the problem with religion. Religion by its nature is corporate. This implies common forms, which necessitates shared traditions. And who decides the shape of the forms and the source of the chosen tradition? The despised issue of authority begins to enter the discussion. Ah, yes, religion is a loaded topic.

Since spirituality is “personal” there is no need for an authority prescribing good ways to come to God and serve Him. This avoids the horror of any practice being “wrong” because getting rid of religion avoids any claim of –– heaven forbid (if you personally choose to believe in heaven) –– truth and right.

So I see ads for “churches” targeting people who are sick of religion –– people who want a church that is not church. In other words, come to Jesus (they are “Christian” ads) in a setting of your choice and offer to God whatever expression is most “meaningful” to you (since all that matters is the individualistic heart). Don’t get bogged down with a bunch of antiquated baggage. Find out how Jesus can give you “your best life now.”

These were some of the thoughts that came to me as I sat in a sanctuary a couple of weeks ago and looked at stately pillars upholding arches with painted images of our Lord, the Holy Family, the Apostles, and early Fathers of the Church. As I sat preparing for the service to begin, adding my prayers to the organ prelude, I was so aware of an “Other” –– so much greater than my little individual heart, yet drawing me into the greatness of what it means to belong to the People of God.

I want religion. I want to belong to something big that has a continuity with what God has been doing in redemptive history for thousands of years. I want a basis for believing that a particular expression is, indeed, true and right (Apostolic Tradition). I want a religion like that advocated by St James: pure and undefiled (1:27). I need a religion like that because I need to become pure and undefiled in order to see God (Mtt 5:8).

Give me that ol’ time religion....

Friday, December 17, 2010

Some Brief Thoughts

I have been "gone" too long, mostly from being distracted. Some of the distraction has been circumstantial, but true distraction is deeper than that. Distraction is, I think, mostly spiritual. It is allowing other things to crowd out "true center."

Some of not posting has been the vanity of waiting for something "profound" to say. Yet we are the most profound when we live simply unto Jesus. How hard it is consistently to practice that simple reality!

A verse from this morning's Office of Readings resonated in my heart: let not those who seek you be dismayed through me.... It is an incredible thing to own the name of Jesus. My prayer is, through grace, to honor that Name in all I am and do.... the essence of being a Christian.

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