Archive for June, 2010

Indwelling Spirit

June 30, 2010

Indwelling Spirit! Prized art Thou
If losing Christ be gain;
And having Thee within us now
Forever to remain.

The ceaseless flow of godly love,
The joy of God and Son:
This is Thy life, O Holy Dove,
The Third of Three-in-One.

Thou art the pulse of love between
The Saviour and and His Sire;
Thou art an ever-flowing stream
Of infinite desire.

Thou art the thoughts of God Himself
When He Himself admires;
Thou art the gaze of God on God
With zeal that never tires.

Indwelling Spirit! Blessed are we
To host such heav’nly lays;
No Jewish Temple had such heights:
Where God loves God in praise.

Indwelling Spirit! Bear with us,
For hearts with coldness shod;
Enflame our hearts with Thine own self:
The love of God for God.


A Prelude to Conservatism

June 18, 2010

There are many things to beat up about Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism today is like the goofy, unemployed and overweight 47 year-old who used to be the captain of the rugby/football team in his high school days. When he was popular and powerful, he had his way, and no one dared cross him. Now that his powers are fading and looking pathetic, just about everyone walks by and gives him a slap on the back of his bald head.

I could add my fair share of slaps, and probably have, more than I’m happy to admit. Some of the silliness, goofiness and outrageous behaviour is almost irresistible to lampoon (and I confess, I haven’t resisted that well). I could probably write pages about how so much in Fundamentalism taught me how not to do ministry, or treat people, or worship, and so on.

Nevertheless, I’m going to buck the trend here, and suggest some of the things about Fundamentalism which actually served to prepare me to embrace some of the ideals of conservatism. I’m not seeking to read back into my past what I know now, or romanticise a movement with its fair share of dirty laundry. I just want to be honest, and thankful, about some things which Fundamentalism supplied, which I’m not sure Evangelicalism would have done, at least in terms of the manifestations of these movements in South Africa. So here goes.

Fundamentalism taught me caution toward culture. Yes, there were silly taboos, and irrational bans, and the like. But from my earliest days, I understood that Christians are not to approach the cultural phenomena of this world uncritically. Music, television, dress, and other cultural matters were not meaning-neutral. Many of the evangelical Christians I meet in S.A. have almost no category for parsing culture for meaning, or being guarded about what they expose their imaginations to. Certainly, it created some philistinism in me as well. Granted, I had to go elsewhere to learn a love for culture. I needed to go elsewhere to read sensible arguments around music and modesty and the like. But I’m not sure if the Examined Life would have even made sense to me from within the milieu of Evangelicalism in S.A. Maybe I haven’t met enough people to be representative, but most folks who grew up in South African Evangelicalism are frankly aghast if you even bring up the questions. (“Haven’t you read Romans 14, brother?!”)

Fundamentalism introduced me to the case for separatism. Once again, it was often a movement-based, politically-motivated, personality-dominated separation, but it at least showed me that separation is a biblical command, and that its application includes professing brethren. South African Evangelicalism is some of the blandest Billy Grahamish stuff you can find, and the separatist mindset is hardly known, except in fringe groups and cults. I’d need to go beyond Fundamentalism as I found it here to understand the basis for and proper application of the doctrine, but no one I met outside of Baptist Fundamentalism here was even making a case for it.

Fundamentalism gave me a theological dogmatism. Now, there were enough Fundamentalists I met whose dogmatism was wrong-headed, immature, and sometimes, thuggish. However, when I first emerged from my Fundamentalist cloister and began speaking to the broader evangelicalism in S.A., my dogmatism was frankly shocking to many. I don’t think it was because my approach was belligerent or pugnacious, but rather because South African Evangelicalism has a hegemony of soft-pedalling the truth, and avoiding clear definition. My dogmatism had to be re-shaped and hammered into submission to sound exegesis and extended argumentation. I had to learn to hold truths with the certainty they merited. However, Fundamentalism at least taught me that an inerrant, infallible Scripture calls for definitive proclamations of truth.

There were probably other things as well. There were certainly loads of negative lessons. I bring these up because some of the things that make up a real conservative Christianity, like defending the gospel, believing and teaching the whole counsel of God, and parsing all things for meaning were at least given to me in seed-form in Fundamentalism, and I’m not sure I would have received them elsewhere. Perhaps folks in conservative churches that were not self-consciously Fundamentalist learnt the same things. I can only relate my own experience. Perhaps I might say that in my case, Fundamentalism wasn’t sufficient, but it was necessary. I accept the providence of God in using Fundamentalism positively and negatively to prepare me for a conservative Christianity that retains certain fundamentalist ideals, while trying to jettison the baggage of the Movement.

The Difference Between Birds and Bruised Offerings

June 5, 2010

Leviticus 14:21-22 But if he is poor and cannot afford it, then he shall take one male lamb as a trespass offering to be waved, to make atonement for him, one-tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering, a log of oil, 22 “and two turtledoves or two young pigeons, such as he is able to afford: one shall be a sin offering and the other a burnt offering.

Malachi 1:8 And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, Is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, Is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?” Says the LORD of hosts.

Often enough, those who seek to elevate worship from where it is in our era to something resembling biblical worship and worship worthy of the Self-Existent Creator are criticised for making worship ‘too high’.

I am a pastor and sensitive to this criticism. My role, partly, is to mediate between the world of abstract ideas and the grit and grime of hard-working, busy and distracted church members. My role is to read and study what my parishioners do not have the time or inclination to, and to present and teach what is necessary for their life and godliness. One of my roles is to be something of an interpreter, a simplifier (within reason) and an applier.

When it comes to planning and including the elements of corporate worship, I have a foot in both worlds. On the one hand, I have more time to read and understand some of the better hymnody of the Christian tradition. I could include some of it on a Sunday morning, and merrily sing it, to the bewildered expressions of those who have encountered it for the first time. In so doing, I would not be respecting the realities of life for my parishioners in expecting them to engage with a largely indecipherable hymn.

On the other hand, my responsibility is not discharged until I have urged the Christians under my charge to elevate their view of God, to grow in their understanding of a right response to God, and to expose themselves to the kind of hymn or prayer that is just slightly beyond their present grasp.

In this matter of worship, a tension will always exist between accessibility and elevation. What is accessible is by definition not above you; what is elevated is by definition inaccessible to you. And yet both are needed. Christians need a point of entry to understand and engage with God in worship. Simultaneously, they need to be pulled and urged to move up from their present understanding to a truer and loftier one.

In our age of radical egalitarianism, attempts to elevate the thinking and worship of others is seen as “aiming too high” or “returning to a liturgical mindset” or “leaving the simplicity of Christ”. It’s to this criticism that I enlist the Scriptures referenced earlier.

Clearly, God has mercy on poverty. His expectations of worship are not tyrannical. The poor Israelite could offer what was within his grasp. (I am certain that if the poor Israelite began to prosper, and continued to offer the poor man’s offering, God would have been displeased.) A poverty of knowledge regarding music, poetry or appropriate responses to God in worship might be winked at by God, at least initially. First-generation Christians are often bankrupt of ordinate affections when they first arrive, and God may receive unsophisticated and simplistic worship responses the way He received the turtle-doves and pigeons.

However, God has no tolerance for sloppy, lazy, and careless worship by those who know better. When Israelites were bringing Him lame, stolen, or diseased animals, they were committing blasphemy. They knew He deserved better, but gave Him what was cheap, leftover and worthless, because it suited them. In other words, they were worshipping themselves.

The difference between simplicity and shallowness is part of what guides me as I plan corporate worship. There are songs and hymns which are appropriately simple and unadorned in their quality. They represent an earnest but nevertheless biblical appreciation of truth about God without trivialising, cheapening, watering down or otherwise diminishing it. They’re simple, but not sentimental. They’re simple, but not shallow. They’re simple, but not trivial. And they’re necessary for God’s people to “sing with the understanding also” (1 Co 14:15).

On the other hand, there are songs and hymns which are not merely simple, they are shoddy. There are hymns that are not beautiful in their plainness, they are untruthful because they have cheapened the gospel into a kind of entertainment. They are foolish, comical, and lightweight. They treat the things of God too sweetly. These hymns are insidious. They are not turtle-doves and pigeons. They are bruised offerings. They are not the partial expressions of children or novice Christians. They are deliberately narcissistic and man-centred, crafted to gain a visceral response of pleasure. And no appeal to the need for simplicity in worship ought to lead us to use them.

As a pastor, my legitimate choices are between beautiful hymns that are simple, and beautiful hymns that are complex. Both are needed. The challenge is to discern, and to help others discern, where simplicity has become frivolity, and where profundity has become impenetrability.