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A New Year of waiting

January 11, 2016

This blog has suffered for a long time now from my abject neglect. One of my New Year’s resolutions (and prayers!) was to remedy that.  It seems appropriate to me to start my posts for 2016 with (a slightly edited version of) something I wrote for a freelance column for Christian Renewal:

Wild roses

Another year has gone, a new one has dawned. What better way to start it than to say with the old hymn by Frances Havergal, “Dear Father, let it be, in working or in waiting, another year with Thee.”

I’m sure we Christians all agree that in our daily work, inside our outside our homes, we want to “go with God.” That’s an old expression (a greeting, actually) that urges us to rely on God in all things. It implies that God is “going with” us as well, that his presence surrounds and sustains us.

But what about “in waiting”? Waiting? If that seems an odd word to use, we can, at least, suspect that Miss Havergal is not talking about waiting in line at the supermarket or sitting in a doctor’s office. Though hers is not a usage we’re accustomed to any longer, it was common in previous centuries.

Two examples immediately spring to mind. The best-known is the line from John Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness” which says, They also serve who only stand and wait. The other example I’m thinking of occurs in the last stanza of the beautiful, biblical Christmas carol “Once in Royal David’s City.” There, Cecil Alexander writes: Not in that poor lowly stable/ with the oxen standing by/ we shall see him, but in heaven,/ set at God’s right hand on high;/ where like stars his children crowned, / all in white shall wait around.

Servant-master relationship

It’s important to know that such standing and waiting in those examples must be understood in the context of servants and guards of a master or monarch. That kind of “waiting” may seem passive, boring, even directionless (just as listening seems passive and requiring no effort). But such waiting is entirely active; and crucial. It requires total engagement of the mind and heart. It requires patience, too, and constant alertness that allows an immediate response to the master’s command. It requires, in Jesus’s words, being “a good and faithful servant.” (Not incidentally, our calling restaurant servers “waiters” is a hold-over from this old use of “wait.” A good waiter is attentive and active.)

Knowing something about Milton (1608-1674) lets us better understand his famous assertion. He grew up in a prosperous Catholic family, but when he became a Puritan and supported Britain’s Commonwealth his father disinherited him. Most crucially to his life (and this sonnet), he was entirely blind by the time he was in his mid-40s, preventing him leading a normally active life.

On His Blindness” considers the implications of being blind in mid-life – “ere half [his] days” are past. Milton realizes that God has blessed him with a unique poetic gift. He believes, in fact, that it would be spiritual death to hide that talent. Yet he wonders (“murmurs,” he admits): Does God really require that he use his talent while blind? (“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”) He at first wants God to give him a pass because of his handicap. Yet he realizes that though God doesn’t need our service – he has myriad angels to do his bidding ceaselessly – we must serve him in whatever capacity we have. And we do that best by accepting from God’s hand whatever “yoke” he lays upon us – blindness, in Milton’s case. “Who best bear his mild yoke serve him best,” he confesses. After coming to understand that, he can then conclude (and he’s referring to himself, first of all), They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Cecil Alexander’s carol takes up the same usage of “wait”: Even in heaven we will serve God in “waiting.” But because Alexander uses the phrase “wait around,” many hymnals have altered his original phrase. Too many modern carol singers took that to mean simply hanging around doing nothing. They presumed Alexander had a faulty view of heaven as boringly static. But he intended to convey a wholly active, engrossed “waiting.”

Nothing passive about this waiting

All that said, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that “wait” is a Middle English word with a Germanic origin related to “wake,” and that it’s early senses included “to lie in wait for,” “to observe carefully,” and “to be watchful.”

Knowing that, I think, also adds a helpful dimension to the Bible’s speaking of “waiting for” God. “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord,” urges David in Psalm 27. Note his juxtaposition of waiting for the Lord with being strong and taking heart. That’s not our modern passive waiting, though it does take patience (as David himself admits in Psalm 40). Psalm 130 combines waiting for the Lord with hoping in him (also an active state), and both occur as the Psalmist heart-wrenchingly cries to God “out of the depths.” Later Isaiah assures us, “Blessed are all who wait for Him” (30:18). Milton came to understand and know the blessedness of that kind of waiting.

There are other biblical examples. We are not to simply hang around trying to act interested until God finally acts. We are to be watchful, wakeful; to ceaselessly, carefully pay attention, looking for God to act. And so Frances Havergal can fervently pray in her hymn, and we with her: “Another year is dawning, Dear Father, let it be,/in working or in waiting, another year with Thee.”

May 15, 2014

Death is taboo in our culture. The more so among the healthy young who seem persuaded they are not mortal like the rest of us. Though God can require our lives at any moment, as we get older it’s natural – yes, wise – to consider our own death, preparing ourselves both spiritually and practically. Not long ago a middle-aged man, a larger-than-life presence in an Internet community I’ve been part of for 16 years, died in his sleep, shocking the group. In the previous six months two other members had died. They were not old: one had a bad heart, the other an infection that had turned lethal. What was deeply unsettling to me is that their attitudes seemed to show they were not Christ-followers (God knows, of course). They were witty, intelligent, generous – all marks of God’s common grace. But our works can’t save us.

 

Christ’s triumph has already mitigated death’s sting for those who confess him. Still, how many of us can say with Paul that we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8)?God created us for eternal life on a paradisical earth and so death wreaks havoc in this fallen world. Death is our enemy, the last one to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26).

 

There are many secular views of heaven, none of which are helpful; in fact, most are downright deadly. Let’s return to Paul instead. Just before he expresses his longing to be “home with the Lord,” he talks about that home: We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God… (2 Cor. 5:1-5).

 

When Christ returns we will rise, “clothed” with our glorified bodies like Christ’s. This old earth will pass away. The New Heaven and New Earth will emerge from God’s refining fire. That earth will be our eternal home, where God will live among us in a manner and with an intimacy we can’t now fathom (see Rev. 21).

 

This spring, during the five weeks of Lent, we focused on Christ’s suffering and death. That suffering has profound meaning for our suffering. If you yourself are suffering, no matter how deeply – physically, emotionally or spiritually – the realization that our Savior was a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, willingly suffering for you, for me, to a depth and in a manner we will never have to know, is blessed salve for whatever onerous burdens we bear. Here’s Paul again: If we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God (Romans 8:17-18).And then Christ rose – the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” And we, too, will rise. What a spectacular future awaits us!

 

Lord, let at last thing angels come,
to Abr’ham’s bosum bear me home,
that I may die unfearing;
and in its narrow chamber keep
my body safe in peaceful sleep
until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
that these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, thy glorious face,
my Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ! My prayer attend,
my prayer attend!
And I will praise thee without end!
 
 
         Text by Martin Schalling, 1532-1608, tr. Catherine Winkworth.  Tune: HERZLICH LIEB, Orgeltabulatur-Buch, 1577.

        A form of this post was first used as a column in Christian Courier, 3/24/14.

How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds!

March 25, 2014

Another Hymn for Lent by John Newton

In my last post I quoted “One There is Above All Others,” a moving hymn by John Newton (1725-1807), who most famously wrote “Amazing Grace.” In the latter, Newton doesn’t mince words: he was a despicable slave owner, but Christ can — and does, and did —  save even such a “wretch.” Would that all of us recognize the nature of our own wretchedness apart from Christ.

This past Sunday at church we sang another Newton hymn. He didn’t write it specifically for Lent, but in it Newton revels in the name and work of Jesus,  our Shepherd, Savior, Friend, Prophet, Priest, King, Lord, Life, Way, End. And so Newton prods us believers to think on the height and depth and breadth of Christ’s sacrifice and victory for us. (Interestingly, many hymnals alter Newton’s text slightly here and there, most notably making stanza 1 plural to avoid using the male first-person pronoun “his” — which of course, in Newton’s time was meant to be universal, not male only. I’ve changed it back to the way Newton wrote it.)

Newton’s hymn texts, I find, are highly personal. Despite the 18th century language (which some may stumble over), I find myself easily making Newton’s confession with him, and consenting to and joining with thanks the praise he offers. Perhaps you will too. (Click the link below to hear the hymn as you read the text.)

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole and calms the troubled breast;
‘Tis manna to the hungry soul and to the weary, rest.

Dear name! The rock on which I build, my shield and hiding place;
my never failing treasury, filled with boundless stores of grace.

[By thee my prayers acceptance gain although with sin defiled.
Satan accuses me in vain, and I am owned a child.]

Jesus, my Shepherd, Savior, Friend, my Prophet, Priest and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End, accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought;
but when I see thee as thou art, I’ll praise thee as I ought.

Till then I would thy love proclaim with every fleeting breath;
and may the music of thy name refresh my soul in death!

(Tune: ST. PETER, by Alexander R. Reinagle, 1799-1877)

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gytGndHEMZY

The performance is by the York Minster Choir (York Minster Cathedral, York, England), which is particularly appropriate to the style of the hymn. The choir omits the stanza I’ve put in brackets.

A Lenten hymn: One There is Above All Others

March 17, 2014

There are hundreds of strongly biblical, devotionally powerful and musically rich hymns in the history of hymnody. I’m going to call some of them to attention in the next weeks and months.

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We sang this one in my church this past Sunday (Lent II). The text is by John Newton, he the 18th c. slave trader-turned disciple of Jesus, and author of “Amazing Grace.” The attractive, highly singable tune is of Swedish Lutheran origin (Andreas Berggren, 19th c., AMEN SJUNGE HVARJE TUNGA).    

  One There is Above All Others                                                                         

  One there is, above all others, well deserves the name of friend,
  His is love beyond a brother’s, costly, free, and knows no end;
  They who once his kindness prove find it everlasting love.
 
  Which of all our friends, to save us, could or would have shed his blood?
  But this Savior died to have us reconciled in him to God;
  This was boundless love indeed; Jesus is the friend we need.
 
  When he lived on earth, they scorned him, “Friend of sinners” was his name.
  Though the angels have adored him still he answers to that claim;
  Still he calls them dearest friends and to all their needs attends.

 

In the Cross of Christ I Glory

March 17, 2014

 

I don’t remember where I first heard of Lent. But I know it wasn’t in the Reformed circles our family was part of in northwest Indiana. We didn’t pay attention, much, to the seasons of the church year then – though our church did have a service on Christmas Day; and one on Good Friday in the afternoon, when (unbelievably now!) all the stores were closed from noon until three o’clock, and my dad was home from work.

(I remember one Good Friday when I was very young, probably four or so, being terrified to find my mother gone when I came in from playing, and my dad nowhere to be found either. I cried in fear, I recall. When my dad did appear and asked what was wrong I told him that I thought I was all alone. What had stabbed me with particular fear was that God wasn’t there, either. After all, it was Good Friday, so God was dead, my child-mind reasoned. I was ever so relieved – and my child-heart thanked Jesus – when my dad explained that that was not, and never could be, the case.)

Of course our church acknowledged Easter. How could one not? It falls on a Sunday! I don’t remember our Easter services being exceptionally joyful, but maybe they were. But there was one little material expression of joy, if one can see it that way: we girls and women wore hats then, and it seemed everybody got a new, festive-looking one for Easter Sunday.

I suspect that somewhere, during my childhood, I heard the word “Lent” when I learned that Catholics — those peculiar beings I had never personally met — refused to eat meat during Lent, and that Lent had to do with Catholics focusing heavily on Jesus’ suffering and death. My dad may have told me that that’s why they wore, and their churches bore, crucifixes rather than empty crosses. But as Reformed people we frowned on that. We briefly acknowledged Christ’s death on Good Friday, and then went straight to Easter.

Lent is a penitential season. Penitence requires confession of sin to Him who bore our sin in his body on the cross. None of us likes to examine our shortcomings, much less look carefully at, and then repent of, all the things in our lives that we will, finally if reluctantly, admit to categorizing as out-and-out sin. Observing Lent forces me to do that daily. It puts right there, in my face, how far I fall short of the glory of God and deserve his wrath. But it lets me see that reality in the prism of Christ’s blood, his agony in the garden and on the cross, culminating in his abandonment by God. We do that, of course, with an eye to Easter and Christ’s finished work; that’s a given.

In meditating on Christ’s suffering something else happens too: it puts our own suffering in a proper godly perspective. I believe the Bible teaches that God sends our suffering, as all things (and fulfills his purpose in it, as in all things). It then becomes a great solace to know that our Savior profoundly understands our suffering because he was himself a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. And just as God did not abandon Christ to the grave, he will not abandon us in our pain, no matter how deep.

crucifixThe cross. It is ironic that a Roman instrument of hideous torture should have become the symbol of triumph, of battle won, victory gained, of glory to come. God often uses that kind of irony. It is also ironic, but in a sad, paltry way, that the cross in our time has become a fashion statement. Many people do wear crosses as a sign of their faith, as I frequently do myself. But many others wear them or display them as mere décor, or as a sort of campy anti-symbol that is far removed from the meaning of the Cross. I used to shun crucifixes.  Now I see a place for them. It’s harder to trivialize a crucifix. We need not be afraid to think on, truly think on, Christ’s suffering, for us. The crucifix is a serious visual reminder of it, as the empty cross completes the story.

The cross that Jesus bids up take up if we are to follow him exhibits that mix of pain and glory. We may, should, expect hardship — persecution — from the world around us if we are to be His disciples, Jesus says. And, in fact, suffering for his sake is a privilege and should be a mark of joy, the apostles Paul and Peter tell us. Peter states matter-of-factly:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you;  but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-14).

I suspect that, rather than rejoicing, the instincts of most of us are to do all we can to avoid being in such situations.  Our society is as pain-averse as any society ever has been, and we’ve absorbed that attitude.

When I wonder how I might react to persecution for my faith here in North America (it is already happening on various levels),  I remind myself that the man who wrote those verses above was the man who three times denied he ever knew his Lord.  Yet in the end, Peter quite literally took up his cross and followed Christ: to his own crucifixion for Christ’s sake. We’re also assured that when we’re in tight spots, accosted, arrested because of our faith, the Spirit will give us the words to say. And the courage to say those words, boldly.

In the cross of Christ I glory, tow’ring o’er the wrecks of time.
All the light of sacred story gathers round its Head sublime.
 
 When the woes of life o’ertake me, hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me; lo, its glows with peace and joy.
 
 When the sun of bliss is beaming light and love upon my way,
From the cross the radiance streaming adds more luster to the day.
 
 Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure, by the cross are sanctified;
Peace is there that knows no measure, joys that through all time abide.

 Text: John Bowring, 1792-1872; tune: Ithamar Conkey, 1815-1867 (RATHBUN)

 Parts of this post will appear in Marian’s column in the March 26 issue of Christian Renewal.

 

 

 

Suffering saints (called to patient endurance)

April 7, 2013

We live in a fallen world of pain and woe, but none of us likes to suffer, in body, mind or spirit. Our society tells us: strive to lead a happy, pain-free life. That’s why pain relief and countless associated drugs (not to mention psychiatric services) are a multi-billion dollar industry.

Alleviating pain is a blessing. God has placed us in a time when much physical suffering can be abated, and we should thank him. Yet we need to beware of being averse to suffering, especially for our faith. Paul tells us, “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29). Granted to us? I daresay that most of us don’t see that as good news. Nor will we nod happily when Peter urges, “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Pet. 4: 16).

Why praise God for that? “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God” (v. 17). That is: persecutions we suffer for Christ’s sake are judgments sent us by God, to purify us, to bring us close to him. Our proper response? “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (v. 19). Hebrews reinforces this: the “author of our salvation” was “made perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10) – and we are his brothers and sisters.

Peter pointedly tells us, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (1 Pet. 4:12-14). Rejoice in suffering? That seems fanatical. Most of us have not suffered for Christ’s sake, and frankly, we don’t want to. But the apostles force us to ask: If I am not suffering at all for Christ’s sake, am I lukewarm? (Rev. 3:15).

God appoints specific gifts and burdens for persons, nations and ages. We’re aware that in most Muslim countries, many steadfast Christians are tortured, and/or beheaded. But that’s over there, we assure ourselves. So far, God’s purposes have allowed his saints in 21st century North America to bask in religious freedom, and dying for his name’s sake isn’t remotely on our radar.

Perhaps we have become complacent with that grace. Both Paul and Peter were brutally killed for Christ, as apparently were all the apostles except John. But in John’s Revelation, when the martyred saints cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord … until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” – God reveals the peculiar fact that they must wait “until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed” (Rev. 6:10-11).

Of the already martyred saints God assures us, “They overcame [Satan, the accuser] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev. 12:11). It’s not impossible that God has appointed some of us to be among that number.

The beginning of the end of our “comfort” is now arriving. Ever more enemies of the Gospel tell us the Bible is rampant with “hate speech,” the Bible’s God is despicable and we believers are bigots. Christian groups and schools are increasingly unable to “discriminate” by hiring only Christians.” Some pastors and priests among us will surely be forced to solemnize same-sex (or even polygamous) “marriages” or face prison. A refusal will be seen no differently than racial discrimination.

The screws are tightening. Ever more people will worship “the beast,” says Revelation, until, apart from those whose names are written in the Book of Life, “the whole world” will follow him: the beast who “was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them.” That is terrifying. It calls, we are told more than once, “for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (Rev. 13:10, 14:12).

But there’s good news: this isn’t happening because Satan has somehow wrested control from God. It is God’s design. And “if God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). When we are asked to “give account of the hope that is in us” and must suffer grave consequences for it, we must put away fear. Our sovereign God assures us that the Spirit will give us the right words to say. The slain Lamb will draw close to us in our suffering. And our suffering-death for his name’s sake – should he require that of us – will be precious in his sight.

As we persevere, let us remember to pray daily for our fellow believers who are already suffering and dying for our Savior’s sake.

Father, give us Jesus’ courage
which His own apostles knew
after Jesus’ Holy Spirit
filled their lives with courage too.
So, rejoicing, counted worthy,
they endured such suffering;
for there is no other channel
that revival glory brings.
Father, please repeat the hist’ry
of Your Church in other lands,
where the blessing has come painf’lly
as Your sovereign will has planned.
May we too endure the suffering,
sacrificing our desires,
ready too to enter glory
through the persecution fires.

Hugh G. Wetmore, from The Suffering Song

A shorter version of this post will appear under the “From the 11th Province” column in Christian Courier, April 22.

‘On my heart imprint your image’

March 26, 2013

So far in 2013 I’ve spent a lot of time in bed!  Not necessarily sleeping, but resting and praying fervently; trying to recover from several nasty viruses.  The flu laid me low, and I took a long time to recover.  Not long after I caught some other virus resulting in bronchial/sinus/ear infections. I’m just now emerging from that, thanks be to God. (And the sun is shining — literally as well as metaphorically.) During all those days and weeks, many friends and relatives and church members were attending me with their prayers (and still are doing so). And our cats (often three or four or even five of the six at a time) attended me with their warm furry bodies. As an old college friend of mine humorously called it on my Facebook page, “the laying on of paws.”

The good thing about such illness — and there IS a good side, hard as it was to ferret it out — is that it gave me time to read good stuff: the Bible, of course; but also a book on prayer by Paul Miller, which I highly recommend; and a book on the sovereignty of God by Mitchell Chase, which I also highly recommend. Those two books seemed particularly appropos to my condition, when it seemed that day after day in my illness God was not very near and had no discernible purpose in my suffering. I became acutely aware (again) that God also uses suffering to draw us close to him, to require us to fall upon his mercy and only his mercy for our very breath; for every single asthma-laden, chest-congested breath.  It takes some of us a while to “get the message”!

Throughout this last bout, I was somehow (answers to prayer, of course) able to go to church and play the services I’m supposed to play. That was a blessing; and in fact last Sunday the congregation gave me a hand-knit prayer shawl (a ministry of some women in the church), anointed me with oil and laid hands on me. Another woman, about to have major surgery, was given the same “treatment.” It was a powerful reminder of the Spirit’s uniting of fellow Christ-believers and of their concern, lest I (or she) had thought I (or she) was being forgotten.

During Lent, that Lutheran congregation  uses several hymns from their Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) in place of the normal sung liturgical responses at specific points in the service. The texts are stunningly appropriate, and, wedded with great old Lutheran chorale tunes, they make a great spiritual impact.  For now, I’m going to leave you with one of those texts. It was a prayer and confession that was a boon to me during my illness, and will be helpful things to read and reread during this Holy Week.

On my heart imprint your image,
blessed Jesus, king of grace,
that life’s troubles nor its pleasures
ever may your work erase;
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus, crucified for me,
is my life, my hope’s foundation,
all my glory and salvation!      
 
           Text: Thomas H. Kingo, 1634-1703; tune (DER AM KREUZ): Johann B. Konig, 1691-1758