Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Difference Between Birds and Bruised Offerings

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.

A Tale of Two Sons

A great king had two sons, who were come to the age where one should be named as the crown prince. The custom of that country was that the king would choose his heir directly, without weight given to birth-order. He was hard-pressed at the choice, for they both loved him and had noble and kingly traits. He decided to test them. Whichever son pleased him most in the test would become the crown prince.

He summoned his two sons to his throne room.

“My sons, you are both fine sons, more pleasing to me than all the wealth and splendour of my kingdom. I am torn at the thought of choosing but one of you to rule in my stead, but the tradition of our country knows nothing of two kings ruling on the throne, nor should it. One of you must rule; indeed, one of you must rule over the other.”

His sons stirred, but did not glance at one another.

“I have chosen to put your kingliness to the test. I will judge the winner according to my own counsel, and there shall be no debate entertained. As I could crown one of you this moment without objection from the other, so I may judge the winner of my contest by my own wisdom.”

His sons nodded, their gazes still down, as was the law in that land for one in the presence of the king.

“The test is this: you will gather as much fame for my name in one year as you can. At the end of the year, your efforts will appear before me, and I will judge one of you to be king after me.”

The princes departed, wished each other luck, and immediately sought counsel from the wise men of the land.

The younger prince consulted with the old men. “Your father is looking to have his name loved greatly. Bring him some people who love him deeply and truly, however many or few, and you will be judged the wiser son.”

The older prince consulted with the young men. “Your father is looking to have his name loved widely, for he is a great king, and greatly to be praised. Bring him throngs of people, by whatever means, and you will truly have brought him the fame he seeks.”

The younger prince travelled amongst the people, staying in one town for weeks at a time. There he taught the people patiently, every day explaining the glory of his father’s wars, his mercy with his enemies, his justice in ruling, and his kindness as a father. Some were taken by the descriptions of his father. Many were indifferent, and the young prince’s heart often grew discouraged. Often he felt like he was trying to kindle a fire in green wood. What would he have to show for his work? A handful of obscure people who loved the king dearly? He at times questioned the counsel he had been given. Nevertheless, he persevered.

The older prince travelled amongst the people, setting up fairs and stage-plays, tournaments and circuses, contests and puppet-shows in the name of his father. He knew how much people loved these things, and knew that they would be drawn to them. Once they found out that such were provided by the king, they would love him as well.

He was not disappointed. Crowds gathered wherever he went. People thronged his demonstrations, and enthusiastically took his invitations to appear at the castle on the day of the king’s judgement. Occasionally, he would question the sincerity of those who followed his train and eagerly awaited the next amusement. However, he dismissed such doubts, certain that it was better to present a large crowd of king-lovers than a thin one, even if a few were there for the wrong reasons.

On the day of judgement, the older prince filled the castle’s courtyard with hundreds of cheering people, with many others outside the walls. When the king appeared from the royal balcony, the crowd exploded in praise, and the younger prince sensed he had lost the contest.

The king proceeded to give an oration, climaxing with the promise that his subjects could forthwith have direct audiences with him in the throne-room upon request. The crowd seemed unimpressed. No applause was offered, and a silence settled over the courtyard. Here and there a shout echoed, calling for more jousting tournaments, cock-fighting and banquets. The shouts turned into disgruntled jeering. The crowd was now angry and hostile. The king ordered his soldiers to dismiss the crowd from his castle.

The king retired to his throne-room and sat down. The younger prince came in, bringing with him a strange group of unimpressive peasants: a little child, a blind beggar, a woman of the night, a leper, a cleric, a widow, an orphan and a soldier. They had been weeping during the king’s oration, and now prostrated themselves before him, along with the younger prince. The king rose, called for a meal to be set out for this group, and lifted up each one by his own hand. He led them to the banqueting table and served each one himself.

Which son had brought more love of his father? Which son had been more ‘successful’?

Which of the two did the will of his father? (Matthew 21:31)

Jesus So Totally Rocks

“Like, Jesus so totally rocks!” says Dude.

Dude is expressing his love for Jesus. He is expressing it in terms familiar to him, terms he uses for many other things that he loves.

We can agree on this much: Dude loves Jesus, and Dude is expressing it in his vernacular. What we do not agree on is if Dude’s exclamation is just a skateboarder’s version of love for God, or if it represents a sentiment entirely foreign to the Scriptures.

In other words, is Dude’s exclamation just another culture’s expression of love for Jesus, or has Dude completely misconstrued what it means to love Jesus? Is Dude’s statement merely a contemporary translation of the idea of a Christian loving Christ, or is it a transformation of Christian worship into something entirely different?

Of course, most today would rush to defend Dude’s statements as sincere love for Jesus expressed in a rather coarse, or some would say, sincere, way. They would say that the fact that he is aiming positive sentiments towards Jesus means he loves Christ, and probably just needs to be guided into a more proper expression of that love. Or not.

C.S. Lewis would beg to differ.

“If we say that A likes (or has a taste for) the women’s magazines and B likes (or has a taste for) Dante, this sounds as if likes and taste have the same meaning when applied to both; as if there were a single activity, though the objects to which it is directed are different. But observation convinces me that his, at least usually, is untrue…

Hence to say simply that they like one thing and we another is to leave out nearly the whole of the facts. If like is the correct word for what they do to books, some other word must be found for what we do. Or, conversely, if we like our kind of book we must not say that they like any book.” (An Experiment in Criticism, pp 1, 4.)

Lewis goes on to argue that the kind of love people have for objects (in this case, books and music) is entirely different depending on what the object is, and what people aim to do with it. One wants to use the object, the other wants to receive the object. The one who wants to use objects typically picks the kind of objects which can readily be used: simple, undemanding, obvious, swift-moving (read: entertaining). The one who wants to receive objects chooses those which present some form of difficulty and are not immediately apparent to a casual inspection, and which have the ability to transform the one who uses them. The kind of object determines the kind of love.

So in what way does Dude love Jesus? Since “so totally rocks” is a sentiment used of several other things, we can understand what he means. If I were to translate Dude’s statement into somewhat more recognisable English, it might read a little more like this: “Knowing Jesus is fun. The experience of Jesus is greatly entertaining, even thrilling. I recommend Jesus to others, because He is as exciting as bannister skateboarding, Playstation or a rock concert.”

Dude’s experience of Jesus is clearly of the kind that Lewis saw as using what it likes. Dude sees worship as something to be consumed. But here is the crunch: if Dude’s experience of loving Jesus is synonymous with adventure sports, console games and head-banging, what is his view of Jesus? Again, Lewis put it this way:

“The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, course or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful.” (Surprised By Joy, p220.)

If the object of Dude’s approval, which he calls Jesus, evokes the same affections as other forms of entertainment, it stands to reason that the object of Dude’s approval is another form of entertainment. Or to put it another way, he has imbibed a view of Jesus as an entertaining person. If the object of his approval were in an entirely different class of object (the transformative kind), he might, even in Dude-language, express his approval differently. In fact, he might find that Dude-language itself has become inadequate to express the affections he experiences when admiring an object far loftier, and more demanding, than what his culture had exposed him to up to that point. He might even conclude that much Dude-language has now become inappropriate to express what the Bible means by love for Christ.

This is what the gospel has done to every culture it has penetrated: opened blind eyes, transformed the inner man, and transformed the cultural forms (including language, art and music) that were hostile to the gospel. It has done this when its true message, made up of the true Christ and His true atonement, has been correctly translated to that culture, so that it could understand and believe on the true and living God.

Which leads one to the question: Has Dude truly heard the gospel?