“Revive us again, O Lord” – history knows no straight lines

George Whitefield preaching

George Whitefield preaching

 

Will you not revive us again,
    that your people may rejoice in you?

Psalm 85:6 ESV

 

I once heard someone remark that history does not move in straight lines. We imagine that there is either general progress or general decline, and that pleases or discourages us depending whether we think one or the other is happening.

For instance, we imagine that our culture is becoming steadily less Christian. This can cause trepidation or panic in believers (“look how few people go to Church!”,  “Here are some sure-fire marketing techniques to attract and retain!”, “what about our young people?”).  Or it can cause gloating arrogance in the decidedly non-believing (“look how few people go to church!”, “it’s the triumph of science!”, “down with silly, bronze-age myths!”).

The truth is that history indeed knows no straight lines.  I once heard an offhand remark about American church involvement. I have no way of confirming but it did intrigue me. Around the time of the American Revolution (1776ish), only 17% of the population were involved in church life.  That’s way lower even than today.  But by the time of the American Civil War, about 90 years later, church-goers were almost 60%.  No straight line of decline.

So what happened in between?  A revival happened.  A revival of Christian faith that changed the face of the culture.  It can happen again.  This ought to keep the gloating of the secularist in check.  It should also encourage the believer who longs to see the world come to know God.

A little knowledge of Church history helps us to not be discouraged.  Times for Christian faith have been worse off before.  Read up on the 9th Century – it was arguably the most corrupt time in Christianity (for example)  And low church attendance (a good indicator of Christianity’s health in a culture) has sometimes dipped.  Apparently, on Easter Sunday, 17th of April, 1740 only 6 people were present for communion at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, England.  (source – mention made at approx. the 17-19 minute mark).  Times have been lean before.  History knows no straight lines of decline or increase.

No one knows the future but God alone. But we do know that we must be – and, by God’s grace, can be – faithful witnesses in the times which we’re given to live in.  And we can pray for God to “revive us again…”

 

 

 

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Do You Love God? A Test

Ever imagine your church as a lab for testing whether you love God?

Ever imagine your church as a lab for testing whether you love God?

Do you love God?  If we consider ourselves Christian, we know we ought to.  Greatest commandment and all…

But if we say we love God we could be lying.  After all, “God” is just a four letter word.  Almost like a junk drawer in the kitchen we can insert whatever we want and call that “God”.  We’re always in danger of this – inventing God for ourselves.

This danger – idolatry to be technical about it – is forever with us.  So we need some kind of test in order to know whether the God we say we love and believe in is the True God.  Do we really love God?

The Apostle John gives us such a test.  It’s not a theological exam like we might expect (although theological knowledge is important and helpful).  It’s not whether we can recollect certain Bible verses (although familiarity with the Scriptures is essential).  It’s far more simple and concrete than that.

It’s this:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.  1 John 4:20-21

The test is whether we love our brother (sisters).  It’s whether we’ll keep going to church and loving those we go to Church with.

God we can’t see.  Therefore our devotion to Him is always in danger of becoming abstracted.  Love can often become abstract – thus rendering it not love at all but merely an idea about love.  The peace activist may be motivated by a supposed “love for humanity” but when it comes to the real people she’s in contact with, she can’t stand them.  Humanity is abstract, humans are not.  Love for humanity is great but we don’t know if it real unless we love the humans who make up that great abstract of humanity.

It is the same with love for other Christian.  Sometimes people have very highfaluting talk about appreciation for “the Bride” or “the Body”.  But these are mere theoretical constructs unless we actually appreciate the people who make up such.  John doesn’t let us have abstractions or theories.  He wants to know if we love the brother that we can see.  That’s the person we go to church with.

This is why, although not mentioned explicitly, local church participation is so vital for following John’s logic.  Local churches, filled with imperfect and sometimes unattractive people, are the laboratory is which we test whether our love for God is real.  God I can’t see.  These people I do see, week in – week out as we pursue congregational life together.  They let me know whether I’m lying or not when I say I love God.*

The Real Jesus?

ChestertonWe have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character.  This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth.  The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful.  It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well.

G K Chesterton

The Everlasting Man

“These are God’s words…”

 

old hands bibleTraditions for the sake of traditionalism are not what we’re going for in worship.  There are, though, some traditions that bear contemplating upon. Recently, I’ve been using an old call-and-response to the reading of the Bible before I preach.  I read and say: “These are God’s words.”  The congregation is invited to respond: “Thanks be to God.”

The reading of God’s word, while beneficial when done privately, has long been a part of  Christian worship.  When Paul wrote to Timothy, encouraging him to the reading of Scripture, he wasn’t talking about private devotional reading.  And when Scripture is being read, who is it we are listening to?  Is it the preacher?  It may be their voice but the words are from God.  “These are God’s words…”

It is vital to know this because it’s not mere human opinion we’re listening to and being called to respond to.  It is God’s revelation to us.  And the challenge is then placed upon the preacher – their words may follow or be explaining the passage – but they’re not free to give their mere opinions.  They held to explaining, applying, encouraging with, warning by…  what God has first said.

And how do we respond when God’s word has been in our midst?  “Thanks be to God…”   Because that is the correct response to having heard God’s revealing speech.  We have such access to the Bible we can easily forget by such familiarity that we have just heard the Word of the Speaking God!  Where a command has been read – we have been commanded.  Where an encouragement is offered – we have been encouraged.  Where a promise is declared – we have been promised.  Sometimes God’s word cuts us, sometimes it heals us, sometimes there’s comfort, sometimes challenge.  Whatever we may receive, it is from God though and so there is only one response appropriate to such reading.  Thank you.  Thank you because we have just heard from God.

The tradition of the preacher declaring this fact and then the congregation thanking afterwards does not automatically work some kind of magic.  God’s revelation is his revelation whether we appreciate it or not. And traditions gone to mere rote can lose their life.  But we are reinforced by how God’s word is read publicly in the midst of our worship gathering, and by how we respond.  For they are God’s words, not ours, and we are thankful.

 

How did I know they were a church?

This wasn't the crowd I saw. But it was pretty much the scene, minus guitars.

This wasn’t the crowd I saw. But it was pretty much the scene, minus guitars.

What is it that makes a crowd, a church?  What is it that makes a gathering, church?  What are the signs amongst the people that they are indeed a congregation and not another crowd like a family reunion, neighbourhood get-together, or political rally?  I had opportunity to reflect on this on my last day of vacation.

I’ll set the scene.  My wife, daughters, and I were just finished a week out at the beach.  The rented cabin had been cleared out, the car was packed for the trip home, and we wanted one last trip down to the water before heading back to the city.

Next to our favourite spot there was a larger group of people gathered, 25-30 or so folks.  As we passed them I couldn’t shake a suspicion.  Those people are a church congregation.  Not a family gathering, not a community event, not a political rally, definitely a church.  Many know that a church isn;t the building, and these people were gathering outside at the beach.  Despite 99% certainty I was scratching my head for awhile as to how I knew.  I just knew.  After it was confirmed that they were indeed a church, I was still trying to figure it out my near certain suspicion.

Let me describe them.  There quite a few Filipino people (largest visible minority group in my part of Canada), a few others of Asian descent (Chinese heritage? Korean?), a fair number of black people (some spoke with African accents, some did  not), and white people as well.  There were old people, teenagers, young families with kids.  For a smallish gathering it was remarkably diverse.

That was it, the diversity, that’s how I knew.  Unlikely they were natural family, they must be supernatural family.  The Apostle Paul indicates this diversity as a sign of the Christian people:  Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11).  

Now not every congregation will be so diverse, community demographics play a part.  And neither should we demand or require a certain level of ethnic differences for a church to “be a church”.  Nevertheless, the diversity is a sign – a sign of the future reality when those from every tongue, tribe, and nation will be gathered to worship Jesus.  It was also my clue as to that gathering on the beach.

That’s how I suspected but how was my suspicion confirmed?  So simple, and also indicated by Paul’s Colossian description of church.  They started singing.  They sang some hymn I had’t ever heard and they praised God together.  Then one fellow stood up and read the Bible and encouraged the people from it.  Song and word:  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16).

 

 

What’s with the sign?

sign

Look, the sun’s shining down on it and everything.

What’s with the sign? Not the regular King’s Fellowship sign but the one below it in support of the Shoal Lake 1st Nation.  A little of the background on the needs of this community can be found here, here, and here.  (this is a local campaign/issue so if you’re not from Winnipeg it may not be of interest).  Why did we, a local church seeking to worship God in our city, put up this sign?

We were asked.  Steve Bell started the campaign and he asked so nicely for churches to get involved by putting up supportive signage.  The campaign seems sufficiently non-partisan in tone for us to feel like we ought to jump onboard.  Our congregation is certainly diverse in many ways but this local issue seems clearcut to most people.  We get our water from this community.  They can’t drink their own water.  It’s time for that to change.

Christians should care about the public good.  Evangelical Christianity focuses on personal relationship to God and that’s a great and necessary thing.  Following Christ has often been portrayed as and reduced to being a good person or a set of social causes.  We must resist that tendency.  Nevertheless, we also must resist the opposite mistake and forget that our salvation in Christ, while personal, should also turn our eyes and hearts outward to seek the good of our neighbours.  The prophet Jeremiah serves as an example.  We must care about the surrounding culture, society, community, and pray for them and their good.  Also, someone once said we should love our neighbours.  Let’s assume he meant it.  An implication will be that we care for the public good.  Having neighbours without drinking water should bother us.  Especially when our water supply is the cause of their problems.

We can be political without being partisan.  Many Christians are wary of voicing concern about specific issues lest we be considered political.  We are, in fact, called to be political – political in the sense of concern for the polis, the city in which we live.  This is different than being partisan – in bed with political parties or with one spot on the political spectrum.  If we go along with everything the people we vote for do or say, that’s probably not a good thing.  Christians are called to many public concerns.  We may be concerned for issues that are increasingly counter-cultural and unpopular with our neighbours (protection of the unborn, critique of contemporary views of gender/marriage/sex, concern over euthanasia/physician-assisted-death, and religious liberty).  But there’s so much we should care about that our neighbours do as well.  We gain credibility when we are also concerned with common causes; the less controversial issues where we may find common ground.  The lack of accessibility and clean water for a vulnerable community for example.  Peter even teaches how Christians are to be doing good even though we’re looked down on for other reasons.  This is the balance to strike. It is important that we seek, as per Jeremiah and Jesus, the good of all even as we are called to go against the flow.

And a sign isn’t much but that’s why it’s up.

 

 

The Unalterable Gift – or – Lord Grantham gets it (Jude in July)

JUDE in JULYWhen a thing belongs to us, originates from us,  we can do with it what we will.  When a thing is given to us, however, and we’re entrusted with it, we must treat it in an entirely different way. We don’t own it then, can’t mess with it, and need to guard it like a steward.

I saw this idea at work in, of all places, season 1 of Downton Abbey.  *** if you require a spoiler alert here, c’mon!, this was back in season 1 ***  Lord Grantham is walking with his daughter Lady Mary and she is upset that inheritance laws will keep her from getting a piece of the family wealth, title, estate.  She protests with him and his answer shows that whatever we might believe about peerage, aristocracy, or inheritance – we could stand to learn something about receiving an unalterable gift.  He tells her:

"Sorry, my dear, can't mess with what I've been given."

“Sorry, my dear, can’t mess with what I’ve been given.”

You are my darling daughter, and I love you, hard as it is for an Englishman to say the words… If I had made my own fortune and bought Downton for myself, it should be yours without question. But I did not. My fortune is the work of others, who labored to build a great dynasty. Do I have the right to destroy their work, or impoverish that dynasty? I am a custodian, my dear, not an owner. I must strive to be worthy of the task I have been set.

Lord Grantham gets it.  He didn’t create it, he doesn’t really own it, he must preserve it to pass on.  He certainly doesn’t have any right to chop it up into preferred pieces. This is true of Christian Faith as well.

In a world where we so often live according to our preferences, it’s only natural that we try to apply that to spiritual matters of faith.  Whatever our level of commitment to Christ may be, we’re inclined towards what we prefer and away from what we don’t.

But the Apostle Jude doesn’t portray a smorgasbord of spiritual things.  He portrays a package deal, a “common salvation” that was “once delivered to the saints” (vss 3-4).  It is not ours to change or chop up.  The task of the faithful is to keep the faith.