The Family Hymnal

April 18th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Recently Tim Challies put out two excellent blog posts on “What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals” and “What

We Gained When We Lost Our Hymnals.” The posts are balanced (as the titles suggest) and thoughtful. I think he is correct when he suggests that it would be unwise to return to the hymnal on the one hand, and equally unwise not to think through the implications of losing the hymnal on the other. These two posts sparked me to consider our worship practices, so I plan to use my next few posts to offer some scattered reflections on worship, using Challies’ thoughts as a springboard.

 

Challies ends his list of what we lost when we lost our hymnals with the “ability to have the songs in our homes.” Most families of yore would purchase a hymnal to bring home with them (we have at least two old hymnals in our home, for example) so they could sing the same songs at home that they were singing at church. The words were there, the melody was there, and—if you had somebody who could play piano—even the music was there. Families could gather around the piano (or just around the coffee table) and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” or “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” during their times of family worship. Now no one gets to see the music (few of our musicians even read music anymore), much less take it home with them, which means we’re left with singing the melody (as we remember it) a cappella or putting on a CD Spotify or a YouTube clip. That is something lost, indeed.

 

Of course, the issue runs a bit deeper than this. It’s not just that we don’t have music in front of us anymore. After all, very few can read music, so what good would it be? (In fact, Challies argues that when we lost our hymnals, we lost the ability to harmonize. I’d quibble with him here, as I think we’d have lost our ability to harmonize regardless, because our culture no longer values Fine Arts owing to its narrow-minded focus on STEM education. But that’s a soap box, so I’ll step off and just rant in my own head.) No, the deeper issue is that we don’t really have songs to sing during family worship anymore. Most contemporary songs (and I’m an unapologetic defender of contemporary music, mind you) are difficult and boring when sung a cappella; they require instrumentation. In addition, like culture’s Top 40 chart, the songs rotate incessantly (more on that in another post). Just as soon as the whole family knows one, we’re onto the next.

 

And, of course, this means we vet songs much less carefully, so we always run the risk of teaching our kids a song that really isn’t worth singing. There have been some truly awful songs sung widely since the CCM movement began in earnest. It’s not that there weren’t some truly awful songs written in the 1800s too; it’s just that they were winnowed over time, thank God.

 

So what do we do? If family worship is an absolutely indispensable—though neglected—grace, and singing is an indispensable part of it, how should we proceed?

 

I think the answer is pretty simple, really. Get a hymnal, and use it at home. In other words, let’s not let this be one of the things we lost when we lost our hymnals. Despite being a big fan of the “latest and greatest,” I want my kids to learn the hymns of old at home. Why? I can think of at least three reasons.

 

  1. They aren’t learning them enough at church. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I’m certainly not wanting to stir up trouble—“Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own” (Proverbs 26:17)—but it’s true. I want my kids to have deep roots in the faith, roots that run deeper than their or my generation. I want them to feel a connection to Christians throughout the centuries—Francis, Luther, Wesley, Watts—and singing the songs of bygone generations is one of the best ways to do it. (Reading is an even better way, but that’s another soap box.) If I have any concern that they’re not going to learn the words well at church—well enough to draw on them in moments of praise, wonder, doubt, grief—then I’ll ensure they get them at home.
  2. I want them to learn vetted songs only. I’m fairly theologically astute, and I’m sure I could separate the wheat from the chaff easily enough, but I am also a product of my time and culture. I have blindspots that I’m unaware of—that’s what makes them blindspots—so I need the benefit of multicultural, multigenerational input. If I’m going to ensure my kids memorize certain songs, I want them to be the very best songs. I don’t want them to waste any time or brain space on transient lyrics.
  3. I want them to have a shared vocabulary with many other Christians. The songs we sing in church are so important because it is one of the primary ways we learn theology. Ask me about the incarnation, and I will immediately blurt out, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” Get me thinking about the wonder of the crucifixion, and I will tremble in awed whispers, “Alas! and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?” Throw me in the fiery furnace, and I will shout triumphantly, “When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie, my grace all-sufficient shall be your supply.” And the Christians around me will, in each case, nod understandingly, or perhaps even start to hum along. I want my kids to have that same experience (much more so than I did, in truth!), to be able to draw from the same well. That won’t happen with the flavor of the month song that happens to be playing on K-Love right now (not belittling K-Love or those songs, mind you).

 

In sum, this could be something we’d lose now that we’ve lost our hymnals, except we can’t afford to lose it. Get a good hymnal. Learn the songs if you don’t know them already. And—most importantly by far—sing them together as a family when you gather daily (or as near to it as you can muster) for prayer, study, and worship.

 

“Oh, that with yonder sacred throng, we at His feet may fall! We’ll join the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all!”



How to Train Your Teen to Be a Lifelong Church Consumer

July 11th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 2 Comments
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  1. Don’t make them attend church/youth group. After all, church is only for those who feel like going. If they are too tired or just don’t like it that much, assure them those are valid reasons to opt out of fellowship with other believers.
  2. Make sure they are entertained, not equipped. Priorities, after all: if all your youth group is doing is teaching them to follow Jesus, without sufficient fun saturating the event, it is time for a change.
  3. Speaking of priorities and attendance, let them skip church/youth group any time you have a schedule conflict. No one would argue that homework and extracurricular activities are more important than gathering with the saints. This will also prepare them for the future, when careers and hobbies will climb above church on the priority list.
  4. Don’t correct them if they complain about church/youth group. Complaining is only a minor sin, remember. (I can only think of one generation that God wiped out entirely because of it.) They don’t need loving rebuke; they need laughter and participation in their immaturity, else their self-esteem might suffer.
  5. In fact, when they complain, bring it to the youth pastor. That way they’ll learn the real problem is the leaders, and—more importantly—they’ll learn that they know more than their pastors about ministry anyway. (That bit about making it a joy for your leaders to lead doesn’t apply to youth pastors.)
  6. Ground them from youth group when they misbehave or get low grades. Church is like a cell phone—a distraction to be removed when behaviors get careless—not an indispensable means of grace. And if they struggle with obedience to the commands of God, the last thing they need is a community of believers facing the same issues and striving to grow in grace together!
  7. When all else fails, change churches regularly. Remember, it’s not about unfailing commitment to a local congregation because of your membership in the body of Christ; it’s about making sure your needs are met. The only way to make sure that happens is to leave every time you’re unhappy. I would recommend at least one switch, and preferably two, during their teen years. 


Family Matters

February 20th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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One hears it like a mantra today: “Family is more important than church.” It is said with such tendentious frequency that we rarely stop to ask whether or not it is true.

 

In a sense it feels a little bit like saying, “The Father is more important than the Son,” or “The Son is more important than the Holy Spirit.” It is contrived and unnecessary categorization. The family, after all, is merely a temporary expression of an eternal reality; the local congregation is the imperfect and visible manifestation of that eternal reality. We are parents only momentarily, in the same way that we marry and are given in marriage only momentarily (Mark 12:25); but if our children are appointed for eternal life and so believe in the finished work of Christ, then they will join the eternal family of the people of God.

 

In truth, balancing “church” and “family” is not unlike pastors balancing warning and assurance of salvation. Some have grown presumptuous in their faith and so need to be warned that they will not inherit the kingdom of God apart from genuine repentance (cf. Hebrews 6:4-6). Others, however, grow discouraged by the raging war between flesh and Spirit and so need to be assured that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ (cf. Romans 8:28-30).

 

In the same way, some neglect their families because they are so busy with church activities that they cannot find the time to instruct and train their children in the riches of grace. Men and women like this need to remember that the family is an expression of the church, that they are responsible to impress the truth of God on their children (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7-9; Ephesians 6:4). These are men and women after Eli’s heart, and they can expect to reap a similar reward (1 Samuel 2:12-25). Others, however, have made idols of their children, equating physical proximity with loving engagement, rejecting the primacy and authority of the church—and ultimately God—in the life of the family. Jesus had hard words for people like this, reminding them that we cannot be disciples unless we “hate” even our own children by granting God the first place in our lives—and thus our family’s schedules (Luke 14:26).[1]

 

Perhaps the balance would be easier to strike if we more clearly defined what we mean by “family” and “church.” I suspect we could eliminate much of the confusion by focusing passionately on our commission, making disciples. Our primary focus in participating in church activities (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 Corinthians 12-14) and spending time with our children (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7-9; Ephesians 6:4) is making disciples of all people—whether in the church or at home. Now we have a criterion by which to judge what we do in both spheres, to determine which is really more important at any given moment: is what I am doing going to make disciples, or is it mere activity in an occasionally holy place?

 

Consider: Could you miss one of your child’s many cross-country meets—especially considering she is also involved in volleyball, ballet, musical theater, and pep club—in order to attend a training session on relational disciple-making at church? Should your child skip his small group in the church’s youth group, where the bulk of relational disciple-making takes place, because his coach told him he had to play club soccer in order to make the school team in the spring (and even though you both know full well he won’t play soccer once he graduates)? Or, conversely, would it be wise to skip the church’s Family Fun Night in order to spend some concentrated time discussing with your daughter Christian response to the interpersonal conflict she is involved in at school—including an extended time of prayer afterwards? Might you even routinely miss your thirteen-year-old son’s Bible Club because it is the only time you can meet together for your father/son Bible study on Proverbs?

 

You get the point. Blanket statements about prioritizing family ahead of church (or vice versa) probably reflect priorities skewed away from our commission anyway. It would be far better to consider both family and church as vitally important, and then to make individual decisions in the Spirit as you face them. Mere attendance at family and church functions is never enough, and so thorough, prayerful consideration of each activity—especially in our idolatrously over-scheduled Western world—is an absolute necessity.

 

May God grant us Paul’s wisdom, in understanding well the overlap between church and family, and his fervency, in making disciples as passionately as parents invest in their children (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12).



[1] I have heard some argue that God is first in their lives, but church activity is far down the list of priorities. All that is well and good, so long as we still separate out disciple-making from mere church activity (see below). Can you really have a thriving relationship with God—that is, are you loving him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—if you are not actively loving your neighbor by making disciples? Shouldn’t we categorize disciple-making as part of our relationship with God?



True and Godly Love

August 22nd, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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How does the Bible define true and godly love, the blessed intimacy and bond that unites a man and woman in the state of marriage? Here are some reflections on just this question, given as the charge to my younger brother and his new bride at their wedding last week.

 

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm;

for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.

It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.

Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.

If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.

(Song of Songs 8:6-7)

 

This text as much as any other in Scripture gives us a biblical definition of true love. People the world over have tried to define love. Every weekend at the theater a new movie opens promising to give us a fresh look at a weathered topic. For the most part, though, it seems all we can agree on is that love matters—more than money, fame, power—even though the search for many has proven futile. Love has fallen on hard times. Some have even gone so far as to declare the death of marriage, an archaic and oppressive institution. You stand here this afternoon against this unholy tide, for which I am grateful. For I believe the problem is not that marriage has failed love, but that our self-seeking, romanticized, and spurious love has failed marriage. Having slipped from the majestic vision of this God-inspired Hebrew poet, many have fallen for a cheap imitation. We need a return to truth, a way out of this romantic quagmire. The Song of Songs will give us just that.

 

Some will find it interesting that God has devoted an entire book of the Bible to defining true and godly love, but considering the contemporary condition, his wisdom is clear. God places a high value on marriage, as Scripture attests to uniformly. Jesus, in performing his first miracle, blessed the wedding celebration of a young couple in a tangible way, turning the water into wine and saving the new family social blushes. God himself performed the first wedding ceremony and gave the bride away. And in his infinite wisdom, God saw fit to establish as the first earthly institution not the state, not even the church, but the family. God created and blesses the marriage state. It is a sacred institution undergirded by the reflected love of God himself. In fact, the ultimate purpose of marriage is not a celebration of human love, but divine. Every marriage, whether wittingly—or even willingly—or not, proclaims the gospel of Christ Jesus. In the husband’s love for his wife, we have an imperfect reflection of Christ’s love for the church; in the wife’s devotion to her husband, we have an imperfect reflection of the church’s devotion to Christ. This is the profound mystery of which the apostle Paul writes eloquently, and this is why God devotes so much sacred scripture to the topic of love. So what does he say? What makes love true and godly? Our text today suggests at least three ideas.

 

First, true and godly love is invaluable. Our poet writes, “If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” True and godly love has no price. No material consideration enters the heart. In fact, within the Song we have this truth performed. The happy couple, reflecting on their courtship, remember a time when Solomon, the wise and wealthy king, sought to steal away the Shulammite bride for his harem. He promised her untold riches, but she refused because she loved her humble shepherd truly. True and godly love does not turn to marriage as a financial decision, not to provide security or tax breaks or comfort. True and godly love does not turn to marriage for any consideration other than love, really. If you are seeking affirmation or self-worth or satisfaction or thrills or whatever, you have come to marriage as a business transaction. And if you feel the other does not hold up their end of the bargain, things will fall apart. In this regard, let your way be the way of Christ. He loves his church through no merit of our own, nor to gain any end for himself, but simply because he chooses to love. When you love the other for their sake and not your own, you reflect his love. (And, I might add, when you see nothing lovable in yourself, and yet you see the other’s love, you will be forever reminded of God’s unmerited favor and relentless love.) True and godly love seeks only the other, because it delights in the other. The self and love, in contrast to much contemporary nonsense, are absolutely incompatible. Let your delight be in each other—you are delightful people, after all—and let that be enough.

 

Second, true and godly love is zealous. Our poet writes, “For love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.” True and godly love produces an unquenchable zeal for the marriage and for its beloved. It is passionate, like a mighty flame. As many wildfires prove every year, flames spread insatiably; in the same way should your passion for each other grow. We have largely capitulated to the idea that romance, passion, sexual desire all fade with time. Some foolish people even proclaim that marriage is the end of all the fun you used to have. This is a damnable deception. If a couple never experienced more excitement than the courtship, they never loved at all. True and godly love grows more passionate with each passing day. Kindle the flames of your passion unflaggingly. Have you ever seen an older couple out for a walk, still warmly affectionate with each other, holding hands, even flirting? May it be so with you. May your children and your grandchildren see you as tenderly and as passionately in love as we see you today. But this will not happen on its own; it will take work. You will have to sweep away bitterness at times; you will have to forgive real offenses; you will have to inject romance into the routine intentionally and often. But do so, because you love the other, you regard each other as better than riches, and because true and godly love is jealous. It is jealous for the health of the marriage, for the strength of the bond between you. Fight for it. Embrace passion. Remember the great lengths to which the Lord went in his pursuit of us, sending his son, his only son, whom he loved, to be a sacrifice for our sins. That is zeal for the other, loving passionate pursuit. Let this serve as a model of your own love. Kneel down and wash each other’s feet. Speak words of life and encouragement to each other, forsaking harsh, cutting, selfish words. Support and serve one another. Love one another zealously.

 

Finally, true and godly love is unending. Our poet writes, “Love is as strong as death. . . . Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.” We do not normally associate love and death, but they have this point in common: they both will persist until the end of time. With one startling exception, the dead do not rise to life; they remain in the grave. Well, one does not fall out of love any more than one falls out of death. No matter what comes—rising floodwaters, rivers of life’s vicissitudes and challenges—the flame of love continues burning. This is not today’s perspective, of course, but this is truth nevertheless. Let Christ Jesus serve as your model once more. Christ’s love never changes—it is unending and unconditional. And so must yours be. In Romans, Paul climaxes his argument concerning God’s grace with, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If none of these can separate us from the love of Christ, and you are to love each other as Christ and the church love each other, the question arises, what can separate you from your love? Nothing, the answer must be. In good times and bad, in imperfection and glory, today, tomorrow, and forever, you must love each other wholly and completely. The great prophet and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” Let the unbreakable covenant into which you are about to enter sustain you even when the choice to love—to sacrifice self, to forgive, to endure—becomes difficult, even impossible. What God has joined together, you cannot separate.

 

Invaluable, zealous, unending love: that is my prayer for you. At many points on your journey together you will fall short of this sacred ideal. We all do. But in those times remember the words we read together today, and renew your commitment to live it fully. Lift your eyes off yourselves—your imperfections, your trials, your sorrow, your pain—and fix them on Jesus Christ. We do not love as we ought because we do not remember the God who is love as we ought. Consider the cross, the strength of his love—its price, its passion, its endurance—and love each other as he loved us. To your happiness and his glory.

 



Two Easy Steps to Powerful Parenting

February 29th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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  1. Get down on your knees, fall on your face, and seek his will and wisdom, pleading for his grace.
  2. When the Spirit releases you, get up and go about your gospel-proclaiming, disciple-making business until he calls you to get down on your knees, fall on your face, and seek his will and wisdom, pleading for his grace.

 

Repeat as necessary.



Redeeming or Retreating?

February 20th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Most holidays suffer from insufferable commercialism and superficiality in these dark times. Occasionally Christians respond by retreating from the holiday as a whole. I wonder if this is really the best course of action, however, especially when young children are present; I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to redeem the holidays instead.

 

While not addressing the issue directly, Scripture does hint at the latter response. After all, Jesus encountered the same crass commercialism in his day. During the Passover—what should have been a time of joyful celebration of God’s continuing faithfulness—he enters the Temple precincts and drives out those who were all too clearly worshiping Mammon instead (Mark 11:15-17). The connections to our contemporary celebration of Christmas seem too obvious to draw. But notice that he does not then abstain from commemorating Passover, but instead invests it with new, rich meaning when he celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples. Can we do the same?

 

If our purpose as parents is to teach our children as much about God as we can in the short time we have with them, can we afford to spurn such wonderful opportunities to do that—all in the name of pious asceticism? Paul said, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). Here are opportunities to share something of God’s goodness and greatness in a way that speaks powerfully to children.

 

Consider Valentine’s Day, which passed by last week. Undoubtedly this holiday—like Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving—has descended into a pit of inanity and outright sin. But its simple message, uncorrupted by the world, proves biblical enough. To celebrate love—both human and divine—seems decidedly Christian. Why not redeem this holiday by teaching our children not about superficial, tawdry, spurious romantic love, but rather about the incomparable love of God—and the resultant love of Christians for one another? Our daughter, age three, loves Valentine’s Day because, like most kids, she loves celebrations. But the message she heard was the Lord’s: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). I would not want to miss an opportunity like that.

 

Scripture enjoins celebration (Exodus 23:15-16; Esther 9:28; Psalm 145:7; Luke 15:23). Throughout her history, Israel celebrated—occasionally wildly—God’s remarkable faithfulness (e.g. Exodus 15:1-21; 1 Kings 8:62-66). Let us take advantage of these days of celebration to dazzle our children with God’s goodness and grace. That is the power of redemption, not retreat.



The Goal of Parenting (Part Two)

November 15th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The goal of parenting is not to be the perfect parent.

 

The goal of parenting is that your children know God as the perfect Father.

 

Parents devote too much energy to the idolatrous pursuit of perfection in parenting: choosing the best method of discipline, sleep training, nutritional habits, devotional activities. While working through the possibilities and choosing the wisest course for your family is important, it is not the most important.

 

What happens when the cracks in the façade begin to show (and they surely will, as we are all steeped in sin and self)? Pursuing perfection means papering over the cracks, so that our children, our spouse, our neighbors, our Bible-study group can worship us in the splendor of our holiness. Pursuing grace means embracing our failures as a God-given reminder that we need Jesus—and he is more than enough for us.

 

And he is more than enough for our children. In the moment of our weakness, they can see his strength; in the moment of our sin, they can understand his grace.

 

Do not strive for perfection. Strive for the display of his goodness and grace in your life—even when you mess up. That’s good news. That’s news your children need to hear.

 

(For The Goal of Parenting: Part One, see here.)



The Goal of Parenting

November 7th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The goal of parenting is not to raise children who are good.

 

The goal of parenting is to raise children who know God.

 

We must be wary of any parenting philosophy that assumes, however implicitly, that we hold sovereign sway in our children’s lives—as if we could rear children so perfect they are not in need of God’s grace. This is heresy of the very worst sort.

 

Too many parenting approaches, even those offered by Christian authors, prove behavior-centered and discipline-driven. For those who have been redeemed solely by the substitutionary work of Christ, however, our approach must always be Christ-centered and gospel-driven. The difference is more than semantic; it is revolutionary.

 

What do we do when our children sin and disobey? If behavior-centered, we will insist on obedience and teach it as effectively as we can. But if we are Christ-centered, we will make the most of this opportunity by sharing the gospel fully—to show that Christ is the remedy for our sin, and not mere discipline. Obviously, parents who love their children will discipline them and will teach them to obey (Hebrews 12:7-8). But we will do more than this. We will love them enough to share the good news of God’s grace with them every time they sin. We will love them enough to ensure they do not become whitewashed tombs, perfectly obedient and painfully faithless, neither loving nor being loved by God.

 

Surely this is Paul’s point in his famous address to fathers: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Behavior-centered, discipline-driven parenting is palpably exasperating. We are called to a higher standard, to bring them up in the training (which surely includes, but is not limited to discipline) and instruction of the Lord. We are to teach them all that we know of God and his goodness. Do they learn about him only from the rod we apply to them? That would be a perversely distorted picture. Or do they learn it from our worship, prayer, humility, confession of sin—especially when we sin against them—seeking forgiveness, sharing the gospel once more? Do they see the cross stamped upon our lives, or only the law? Could we say to them, “Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it” (2 Timothy 3:14)—and trust that they would immediately think of the gospel, taught and lived by their parents? Or would we shudder to think of the picture we have painted of him?

 

The goal of parenting is to ensure our children know God as fully as possible when they leave our temporary care. What has your parenting style preached to your children?