A Musical Anecdote

I began playing violin at age eleven, and since we already owned it, I began my musical training with my mother’s old violin. Now, the age of a violin is not like the age of a car where the longer it’s been around, the worse it gets; rather, like a bottle of wine, a violin’s sound matures, deepens, and strengthens as it is played decade after decade. In those first few months, the voice of my mother’s violin, evoked as my tender hands sawed and screeched away, was a sound of delight and wonder to my tender ears. And as young boys tend to derive their self-worth from their toys (and later from their tools), I was rather proud of that instrument: its sound and appearance far excelled any instrument that my peers were playing at the time. This state of genuine felicity continued along excellently until my own hand brought it suddenly to a swift conclusion.

At the time of the disaster, I was twelve years old. It was November, and the day was cold and gray (as I remember it now). I was at orchestra rehearsal in the music classroom of Test Middle School, and we were in the process of having Mr. Burkhardt tune our instruments to begin practicing the exercises and pieces of the day. As I was exuberantly hustling down the concrete steps of the amphitheater-shaped room suddenly, in an instant, my maternal patrimony slipped out of my hands and crashed lifeless to the ground. The noisy room ground to a halt upon hearing the heart ripping crack that still reverberated, if not audibly, palpably in my own stomach. Mr. Burkhardt and I began to assess the damage, and I tried to delay my sense of hysteria until my mother came to pick me up.

The damage was extensive. A single long fracture had appeared along the face of the violin, originating on the edge nearest the chinrest and extending close to the whole length of the body. This fracture was accompanied by half-a-dozen other fissures parallel to it along the face, blending in with the fine, radiant grain of the wood. Then, along the side of the violin at the principal site of impact, the wooded ribbing was fragmented, and jagged cracks wound their way around the side of the violin, almost as if my chin had suddenly acquired super-human strength and crushed the thing in mid-performance. The damage, I said, was extensive: it would be better to say that the damage was total and, as I found out in the months ahead, irreparable.

As we talked with craftsman after craftsman about repairing my mother’s violin, I had at that age very little sense of cost or price or monetary value. I knew that the numbers in the air were, for lack of a better word, big. But what drove my soul into the ground every time I heard it was the verdict that every artisan gave us: even if my mother’s violin were repaired, it would never sound the same again. The violin I had known and loved for over a year had died that bitter November day, and I mourned the voice of creative beauty that would never, ever, sound again.

As I write, it is Holy Saturday, a Sabbath rest suspended in a sense between Good Friday and the Paschal Feast of the Resurrection. Yesterday in a naked church and in jet-black clothes, the existentially charged emotions that I carried, and in a sense still carry with respect to my mother’s violin, welled up inside of me. And I asked, as you well might, for what reason would these things have come to mind and found relevance on that day which is different from all other days?

I sense that, in some small yet personally vital way, the rupture of that musical instrument reflects the rupture in God’s creation that came at the moment of Adam’s first sin when, in that Garden and at the foot of that Tree, in him we all died. We so often make so little of sin, and yet his sin and our sin has brought a brokenness to all creation and to our own lives that, from our own sincere vantage point, is as irreparable as my mother’s violin. We can try to make repairs and smooth things over and grab a bow and saw away, but the fact remains: the Original Beauty and Perfection has disappeared forever.

And all our blithering mess seems to come to bear on Jesus at that moment when, alone in the Garden and lifted up on that Tree, he was silenced by death as well. On the cross God the Son, who had assumed our nature and flesh in all that these entail, was broken by our brokenness and extinguished in what is, in this world, an irreversible and irrevocable condition. And we can take down his body, we can wash off his blood, we can bind him and spice him and give him all the honors of a rich man’s burial. But when he gathered up the strength to shout out his last expiration, “It is finished,” he was dead and gone as much if not more so than the corpse of my mother’s violin. On the cross, the tragedy of death has worked its worst and greatest triumph in swallowing up the Person through whom and for whom all Beauty and Perfection in this world exist.

And this, I think, is why I remembered and again felt so acutely yesterday, on Good Friday, the pain and loss of that dear fiddle. Yet thankfully, this is where the parallel ends. My parents resolved my pain months later when they purchased me a fantastic new violin, a violin that to this day I responsibly still call my own. But God does not so much replace as Restore, does not so much create again as Recreate. And on the third day, God began the Great Reparation, the Regeneration, the Resurrection from the dead, as he raised his eternal Son, the last Adam, Jesus Christ our Lord from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. What is for man impossible, for God is not only possible but has actually happened and still actually happens and will again happen for all time when that Firstborn and Firstfruits from among the dead returns to transform us and with us all of Heaven and Earth from glory into glory.

But I have already written much, bared much really, and this is now a theme that will be taken up better in church tomorrow, and in the Sundays ahead. I leave you with his blessing, the blessing of the One who was dead, and behold, who is alive forevermore. Amen.

On Cheeky Leadership

This week, I have been ruminating again about leadership, particularly in the church. There is, I suppose, a danger in overthinking these sorts of things; after all, it would be silly to think loads about leadership and neglect to actually do the leading. In addition to my own arrival as pastor of a new church, I have had plenty of other reasons this past week to ponder such high and lofty mysteries. Last weekend I participated in a (lively) diocesan synod, during which delegates from across Argentina strove manfully to pull our fledgling diocese together to confront the challenges ahead. And, what’s more, a good friend and former rector of mine has been nominated as a candidate for bishop in the Diocese of San Joaquin, and that has been present on my mind as well. It makes sense that I would be treasuring up these things and pondering them in my heart; but to be honest, my musings on leadership actually stem from something far less high-minded: I just recently finished reading a book titled How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious.

Yes, you read that right. The cheeky author of this very tongue-in-cheek book opens up to the young seminarian or recently ordained minister the true nature and character of church dynamics in an effort to help him get ahead in his career. The facetious thesis (say that ten times fast) of the book is that the secret to advancing in position, status, and salary in the church is to combine cutthroat secular leadership methods with a veneer of nonthreatening homespun piety. The trick is to view the church as an innately (and merely) human institution, then to cater to the felt needs of its members (i.e. keep ’em fat and happy), and finally to reap the hard-earned political winnings over the years. I laughed a lot as I was reading this book, but it also shook me up a bit: I realized that, humanly speaking, if a young minister were to do everything in that book, he probably would advance to a high position of leadership (if not salary) in the church. This, I think, is frightening.

The question in my mind is to what extent our style of leadership in the church should be any different from styles of leadership in any other human institution? To what degree can we as ordained and lay leaders of Christ’s body learn or borrow from the spheres of corporate management, marketing, the armed forces, or the political world of Washington D.C.?

There does appear to be some overlap. Many of the canons and techniques of leadership in the world around us simply reflect common sense, basic principles of human interaction grounded in the divine act of creation re-bolstered by common grace, principles which will apply equally for a small business and for a country parish. Just as someone who has the spiritual gift (charisma) of teaching in the church probably also has natural gifts in teaching other things in other places, so natural gifts and principles of leadership may yield dividends when put to use in, for and through the church. For this reason, as I read How to Become a Bishop, I was struck by the fact that many of his suggestions were truly good advice, even if they were for entirely the wrong reason.

However, I think we must do better. The Apostle Paul, whilst upbraiding the Corinthians for their unseemly divisions, warned them against being “merely human.”  Likewise, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr, cautioned in Life Together that there is a difference between human community and spiritual community, and that genuine spiritual community is always a gift given by grace through Christ’s death on the cross. The redeemed community is and will be different from all other human communities, and its leaders can and must be different from all other leaders. The title of a book by John Piper puts it rather well: Brothers We Are Not Professionals.

We must be on guard to put the grace of our Lord Jesus front and center in our leadership as in our churches. It is crucial that leaders in the church have a desperate dependence on the living God who alone can grant what he has promised. As lay and ordained leaders we must ingest and digest the words of Jesus to the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” We must depend upon the gift of this grace for and in the our lives; in fact, we must boast of it, because it is the same grace that powerfully creates and constructs that spiritual community, a community to which God has given us leaders as a gift.

And that kind of leadership, which boasts in its own weakness and in the weakness of the cross, will in fact begin to look rather like that of the God-Man himself, who went to that very cross for us. The more we depend upon and rest in the grace of God “who took the nature of a servant,” the more “that same mind” will be in us as leaders. As servant-leaders we may not advance in position, or in status, or least of all in salary, but we wait for our reward in heaven where Christ is seated: a crown of glory for those who have run the race set before them.

I have not quite found the line marking the balance in all of this, but I am running the risk of overthinking the matter of leadership, and the hour tells me I must go put it into practice. Sola gratia, my friends!

Small epiphanies

The other day, I had a curious thing happen to me. As I was sitting at the little table in my little apartment, eating my little breakfast (tomatoes, lentils, eggs, and coffee, I believe it was) and reading my little Bible (with tiny print), I had something of a little Lenten epiphany. The passage that I was reading at that moment from Deuteronomy spoke directly, naturally, and rather uncannily to a practical challenge that I was confronting in my life and finances last week. I laughed, chalked it up to God being cheeky and hilarious (as he often is), and had the situation sorted by sundown. But this was not actually the epiphany that I’m talking about. The little epiphany came upon further reflection on what had happened. First, I realized that this sort of über-specific message from the Lord rarely comes to me as I prayerfully spend time in God’s Word. And second, it occurred to me that this first realization, the fact of the rarity of it all, really did not bother me a bit.

By this point, I have probably shocked (perhaps even worried) you, the gentle reader of this blog. Can a pastor, nay a missionary, demonstrate true spirituality if he is not praying for, hoping for, and faithfully expecting the very voice of God to guide him regarding the details of the coming day as he spends “quiet time” with the Lord in his “prayer closet”, consuming “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”? To the consternation of some, I suggest that not only can a pastor and a missionary do so, but so can other Christians as well.

To begin, allow me, if you will, to reflect on my own experiences of the result of my spending time in God’s word on a daily basis. Frankly, most days are pretty average and ordinary. As an Anglican minister, I tend to select the passages of Scripture to read and upon which to meditate through the use of a daily lectionary, that is, a calendar that lays out a pattern for a group of people regularly to ingest a balanced diet of God’s word together.

Now, I happen to use Archbishop Cranmer’s lectionary, and yesterday evening, for example, we prayed together Psalms 147-150 and read both Joshua 1 and 2 Corinthians 4. These readings, I think everyone will agree, have nothing really to do with each other, except that they are in the Bible, and that (like everything in the Bible) they have to do with the Triune God, Jesus, and us. Similarly, these readings had almost no direct reference to the minute details of the day that I had just led or of the evening that was to come. Nevertheless, I ended my time in God’s Word refreshed. Why?

I left refreshed, in part I think, because reading a portion of Scripture that was not actually tailor-fitted to my day forced me to re-comprehend that day in the light and context not only of those passages but of the whole of the Bible’s story and perspective. It forced me to get outside of myself, outside of my head, and outside of the story that I had been telling about my life until 6:00 PM, and be confronted by God’s story, God’s priorities, God’s details, and God’s purposes. To make any sense of what God was saying to me, through David, Joshua, or St. Paul, I had to submit to his Word and hand over my immediate worries and preoccupations (of which I had more than a few) and sit for a few moments at the feet of the Man who would wash my feet by taking me out of the center of my crazy world by putting himself and his Message there in my place instead.

The purpose and reason for which I go before the Lord daily to pray and to spend time in his Word is precisely to have this kind of displacement, this kind of submission, with the hope that I will come out more alive, more oriented, and more prepared for whatever this world and its pomp may throw at me. Listening to God in a “quiet time” or in a “prayer closet” then is usually less like following the instructions of a GPS (no matter how cool it is to listen to the voice of Bob Dylan commanding you to “turn right now!”), and much more like time spent studying the map and polishing the compass (no matter how boring we may think Scoutmaster Blain and his mustache are). We may want direction for the moment, but time spent day-after-day learning the contours of the path will be even more valuable in the long run.

Not of course that I complain when God’s word is delightfully specific. And, even in the most seemingly unrelated passages of Scripture there is always “daily bread” to be had in one way or another if we have prayed for it. In fact, last night as well, the Lord gave me the sustenance of his re-orienting story, the precise words that I needed then and that I now impart to you, on the off chance that they may feed your souls as well:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

The Authority of a Servant

What a crazy random happenstance, to come to another culture and realize that you are seeing facets of your own, not so much diminished but magnified in the other. I rather suppose this must be the way Italians view pizza in America, particularly in our universities: “Well goodness, we thought the round disk of goodness tasted swell and everything, but is it really necessary to eat it four times a week for dinner?” “Not to mention,” I would add to this imaginary Italian’s comment, “it seems a pity to wash its magnificence down with Coke Zero instead of with some bottled vintage, deeply tinted.” But before I get too far down this rabbit trail, let me say that this is not today a reflection upon pizza in all of its glory, but on culture in all of its curiosity. And so we come to the area that has piqued my interest this week: that of authority.

I suppose that as Americans we have always had a difficult time understanding and implementing a healthy framework of authority. Whether we were trying to escape medieval serfdom in Europe, or the Church of England and its bishops and prayer books, or (in the end) various taxations without representation, we have often prided ourselves in the United States as being free, independent, self-sufficient, and beholding to no one for our origin, our destination, or anything in between. (I am oversimplifying things, I know.)

As a result, an Old World view of authority has been long discarded among us in the New, and recently at least we have not really seen any need to place it with another. We have a kind of freedom, it is true, but we live now in a culture that is clueless in regards to how genuine authority works: parents struggle to implement their authority with their children, employers struggle to communicate their authority with employees, pastors struggle to assert their authority with their parishioners, and all of us struggle to recognize and obey the authority that exists over us. Few of us know what the centurion who pleaded for Jesus to heal his servant himself knew: what it means to have and to be under authority.

But as I was informed shortly after I arrived in Buenos Aires, the people of Latin America (and Argentines are no exception) struggle equally, if not even more so, with the concept of authority. Here in Argentina, to have authority is to have the power to command, and personal and collective identity tends to be understood in terms both of issuing commands that are obeyed and also of resisting commands that others have made.

To wit, as it was explained to me, each person here desperately wants to have authority, to be the person in charge, but yet each is also terrified and resentful of those who have authority over him or her and will do (if possible) whatever it takes to undermine that authority. This leads to an serious suspicion towards any person or group that tries to exert a modicum of authority, let alone command power and control. To be able to navigate any relationship, personal or professional, it becomes necessary that any sense of one having authority over another, or of one reporting to another, be soft-pedaled or eschewed entirely.

How ought we then as Christians to live and move and have our being in this cultural landscape, regardless of the hemisphere? Obviously, a biblical concept of authority does not begin with the question of “Who commands whom?” but rather of “How do we each serve each other differently in love?” Think about it: the Almighty Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Savior of the world, was given “all authority in heaven and on earth” precisely after he “emptied himself, taking the very form of a servant.”

Love and service. The basis of Jesus’ authority in all of creation consisted in his giving himself up entirely in obedience to the Father whom he loved and on behalf of us sinners whom he loved as well. Nor has he abandoned this love, but he continues to serve his Father and to guide, save, and intercede on our behalf. For this reason, he tells his disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master,” (to clarify, he is the Master, we are the servants), and in another place he adds, “The one who would be great among you must be your servant, and the one who would be first among you must be slave of all.”

Notice, Jesus holds up an extremely high view of authority, but it is a servant’s authority modeled after his own love, not a dictator’s authority modeled after the enslaving forces of sin. Despite all the abuses of authority, despite the pain and suffering that ill-gotten and ill-managed power has wreaked upon this world, as Christians we must stand up and affirm that authority does exist and must be recognized. We are not called to soft-pedal authority, but to re-declare its importance together with the importance of its proper use. What is more, we must acknowledge and submit to every authority when and where it is legitimate, just as Jesus submitted not only to his loving Father but also to callous Pontius Pilate.

But we must also show ourselves to be faithful stewards of the authority given to us; that is to say, when we are given authority, we should not use it for our own interests, or for our own ego, or for our own sense of fulfillment. Instead, when we are entrusted with authority, we must act as stewards of that authority, as servants who will have to give an account to our Lord and Master, the just Judge of all things.

I am still working on figuring out how to live life in light of these discrepant paradigms and realities. Pray for me, as I seek to lead as a servant, and to serve those who are leading me. 

Parts of Speech

Part of the joy of stepping into a different culture from time to time is that being there brings (at least for me) a heightened awareness of the details of cultural expression, particularly of language. Every day we are each of us immersed in words: words consumed and words expended, words wasted and words withheld. Ordinarily, we have no need to consider the minute significance, sound, or effect that our words have unless something goes awry, or we fear something going awry, or we happen to be a gaggle of poets (or whatever the word would be for a collection of poets) going awry. But when everything around strikes us as inscrutably foreign, especially the language in play, we can instinctively begin to catalogue and analyze the flow of words that pass us by. Though exhausting, the experience can be fun and even thought provoking at times. Which, I suppose, is why I am writing this little reflection.

One of the subtleties of language that has stuck out and resonated with me a lot in the last week has had to do with the prepositions to use when describing my missionary calling in Argentina. (Fair warning: things could get pretty nerdy here for a bit.) I have often reflected and remarked that the proper use of prepositions is, if not the soul, at least the imp of theological reflection. To give a proper example, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Similarly, we pray to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. I could go on. But it is not simply theological reflection that is reflected in the proper selection and use of prepositions; in fact, the whole scope of the Christian life and of our service before God in love not only informs but is also influenced by our use of prepositions.

The prepositions in question upon my arrival here are simple and well known: “to” and “with”. They appear innocent enough, but there is more mischief here than meets the eye. I arrived just over a week ago here in Buenos Aires, and after some rest and adjustment, I began sitting down with the leaders of the congregation here in the borough of Hurlingham. One of the things that we had to discuss right out of the gate was whether I had come on a mission to the church in Argentina, or whether I had come for a mission with the church in Argentina.

For decades, churches in what we could call the “Global South” have received missionaries from places like Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, or Australia who out of great love for the people of these churches and for the Gospel have made these churches the mission field, the goal of their labors and pains in the harvest fields of the Lord. Their mission was to these churches. But if that is where the ministry ends, if that is all that the paradigm entails, then these churches have been not only blessed but also impoverished by the efforts of these missionaries. What so many churches around the world have lacked, as part of the whole Body of Christ, is a sense of sharing in the call not only to be disciples but to make disciples, not only to be the mission but to be the missionaries themselves.

The effects of this way of thinking about and being the church have been disastrous. First, this kind of thinking tended to create a dependency of these churches on the mother churches in distant lands: with respect either to money, or to leadership training, or to gumption. Second, it has often led these churches to view themselves as second-class citizens in the City of God, blessed perhaps with fewer advantages but freed from other responsibilities. This in turn meant third, and most importantly, that these churches often lost sight of the Great Commission that Christ gave to his church (Matthew 28:18-20). He did not just give this commission to missionaries, nor to churches in the “West” (as we have traditionally called it): he gave the Great Commission to his entire Church, which means to every Christian congregation, which means to every Christian as well.

The congregation at which, in which, and with which I am serving here in Argentina was right to ask me that question: am I on a mission to them or with them? And I did not have to reflect very long to agree wholeheartedly that, while I may be on a mission to Argentina and Buenos Aires when considered as a whole, I am on a mission with the Church: with the churches of North America, and with the churches of South America as well. And I have to admit, I would not have it any other way.

At the end of the day (or until the End of the Age, however you want to measure it), I am on a mission with this church in the shady borough of Hurlingham, Buenos Aires precisely because, on a fundamental level, this mission is neither mine nor theirs: it belongs, as they and you and I all do, to Christ himself. And for this reason, I am rather keen on seeing how he, the One from whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things, continues to unfold his plan for his mission among us all.

Presentation and Departure

I find that making a genuine departure comes with its own unique difficulty. When we begin something new, we are confronted with sheer possibility, with the good or ill to come from our actions. What is unknown drives us to dream, plan, design, and live for something better yet to come. But departure is different. When we leave the place, tasks, people, pains and joys that we have lived and loved for so long, we are confronted not with the call of possibility but with the dismissal of powerlessness. And I have to admit that I (a sinner) do not easily come to feel peace without power.

Instead of peace, the impotence of departure tends to bequeath to us an anxiety which can be unendurable. On the one hand, we are powerless to mitigate the past. I once read over a grave in an English churchyard the chilling words, “What is done is what remains, and furious sorrow.” Convicted by our own faults and failings, by our former ignorance and current hindsight, by our own impoverished action and cowardly inaction, leaving we are left only with the gripping (even crushing) realization that we are powerless now to correct the past.

On the other hand, at the point of departure we become powerless to mitigate the future. Some fear being forgotten, but for most of us something much deeper threatens our peace. In our absence, who will love, protect, and care for those whom we love? Apart from us, who will promote and defend the purposes for which we have labored? We ordinarily have no answer, and leaving we are left only with the sinking realization that we are now powerless to affect the future.

I have really been mulling over these dynamics a lot lately, mostly because I have come to a series of radical departures in my life. Beginning at the end of December, I began the long process of uprooting myself from California and from the United States. I moved out of my apartment, ended my day job, was commissioned as a missionary, and have been begun the process of saying farewell to friends. Letting go will come of course to a gigantic climax when I board a plane in March and head to Argentina to begin a new life there. And this anxiety of powerlessness in departure, of regret for the past and uncertainty in the future, has been a real temptation for me.

But Simeon, that elderly man in Luke 2 who found himself face-to-face with the redemption of the Redeemer in the temple, gives me some hope for departure in peace: “Peace,” as our Lord says, “that the world cannot give.” Simeon, a righteous and devout man, had been “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” that is, waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises to bring his Kingdom and to manifest his glory to Israel and to the entire world. And for some reason, in his infinite wisdom, God had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Christ.

And then finally, after years of waiting, the “Lord himself,” as the prophet had said, “suddenly came into his temple.” Without warning (perhaps) this Lord came clothed in human flesh, wrapped up as a tiny baby boy in the arms of Mary and Joseph to be bought back from God by an impoverished sacrifice of two pigeons. The three of them slipped unobtrusively into the temple to consecrate the Son of David, completely unrecognized by all with the exception of the now ancient Simeon who, completely overwhelmed with revelation and emotion, just could not stow his enthusiasm or his hands. He interrupts these dutiful parents by grabbing the boy and offering praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God in a Song, of all things, about departure.

Simeon bursts out, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word;” oddly enough, he finds the most peace precisely at the point where we naturally find the most anxiety: at the point of departure (from this mortal coil). He fears neither death nor the fate of his people nor his own sentence on Judgment Day. Simeon not only is at peace with his departure: he actually departs in peace. What in the world could have given Simeon this confidence, this boldness, and this courage?

Simeon continues, “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.” Simeon held in his arms God’s Salvation and God’s Savior, God’s answer to our past regrets and future fears. This baby, “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel,” terminates Simeon’s anxiety, our anxiety, and the despair hanging over the nations of the earth. The cooing, drooling, wailing Jesus had come in miniature to bring the totality of God’s purposes, promises, and plans to completion to such an extent that departure would have no more anxiety, death no more sting, and judgment no more condemnation.

This Child silences regret for the past by crucifying our past to his own cross, the pain of which would “pierce the heart” of his own mother. Safe in his scars, his perfect life overwrites our wretched lives, not only to redeem our ignorance, sin, and error but also to interweave them perfectly and tightly into the marvelous fabric of God’s plan for all things. What is more, this Child quenches anxiety for the future in his own almighty ascended glory by securing “the rise and fall” of all. United to his resurrection by way of his sufferings, we can rest assured that the one whose death gave him all authority in heaven and on earth will be able to bring to completion the good work that he has begun in his creation. As the Apostle John says, “perfect love casts out all fear,” and there is no greater love than his.

I am indeed preparing to depart, and it is not without some pain, not without the unknown, not without a cost. But I nevertheless depart in peace, peace which abides despite the tumult around and within my soul, peace which rests securely and only in the words of our Lord: “Take heart: I have overcome the world.” May that very peace of Christ be with you this day and always.

Connecting with the Psalms

A couple of days ago, as I was perusing ye olde internet, I landed on a resource for which I had been searching for a long time: a complete metrical (i.e. rhythmically translated) Psalter in Spanish! Though I own a metrical Psalter in English, I had never found one in Spanish like this for sale, so of course I excitedly ordered my own copy right then and there. Purchasing this Psalter however has given me another opportunity to ponder why so often our churches seem unwilling or unable to sing the very songs that God gave us in his Word to sing right back to him.

For me, this is weird. On the one hand, almost nothing could be clearer about Christian worship from Scripture than that we ought to sing the inspired words of the Psalter. Psalms formed the backbone of worship in temple and synagogue, sung by God’s people from Moses to Jesus himself (who sang every psalm in the scroll). Then after the Resurrection, the Apostle Paul urges believers to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” In fact, the psalms serve as a musical prelude to Paul and Silas’ jail-break, as the texts for sermons (e.g. Acts 2, Hebrews, etc.), and as the inspiration for apocalyptic Lamb-centered worship in Revelation. It seems so obvious: God is glorified in our songs of praise most particularly when we sing his inspired words of worship back to him.

But, on the other hand, almost nothing could be clearer than that, in Western Christianity, we have largely abandoned the psalms as the “bread and butter” of our worship. Long before organ-lovers and guitar-lovers began waging a mutually toxic battle for dominance in our churches, English-speaking churches ditched the previously common practice of singing the Psalter in favor of sexier fare (e.g. Watts and Wesley hymns). In fact, hymns so completely replaced psalms in worship that hardly anyone today realizes that psalm-singing is a possibility. And although some contemporary worship music has borrowed isolated lines from certain psalms, a believer in most American churches can go a lifetime without once singing a psalm in its entirety.

So, what prevents us today from singing the psalms? Some hurdles are obvious: relatively little attention has been paid recently to making psalms easy to sing (really, chanting?), Old Testament imagery might be a bit illusive (“on Moab I cast my shoe”?), and they can be super short (e.g. Psalm 117) or long (e.g. Psalm 89). But after reflection, I have come to believe that much more is getting in the way.

It is not that we simply prefer not to sing psalms; rather, for the most part, we have rendered ourselves incapable of singing the psalms. Our priorities for worship, for singing, and really for the Christian life are at variance with those of the Psalter. To what exactly am I referring?

  1. Psalms Are Completely Human. In worship we tend to like to focus on things that are happy, and on what is internal to us (heart, mind, feelings, etc.). However, the Psalter in its entirety focuses on the whole sphere of human existence. In the psalms, worship involves the whole body: with heart and with lips, with bodies prostrate and with hands upraised. In addition, worship involves the full range of human emotions: joy and sorrow, faith and doubt, courage and fear, pardon and wrath. So, singing the psalms requires us to be more consciously human than we usually prefer.
  2. Psalms Are for the Community. I have often had people complain that they were too happy to sing a sad psalm, or vice versa: we want to sing only what we think applies to us alone. Yet the Psalter was intended to be sung by the Assembly, not just by individuals. When we sing psalms, we join our voices with Christians around the world, brothers and sisters for whom what we are singing may apply more acutely than for us. So, singing the psalms requires us to be less individualistic than we usually prefer.
  3. Psalms Are Centered on Christ. Many westerners expect to be able to connect immediately to God on their own terms through what they sing. Yet, almost none of the psalms can be sung this way; in fact, singing some of their lines can seem downright inappropriate! To sing a psalm, we must sing as we live: in Christ. Think about it: our Lord took his people’s worship on his lips when he became like us. He sang (and, I believe, sings) on our behalf every single psalm in the Psalter, each fulfilled in his own life lived on our behalf. So singing the psalms requires us, contrary to our sinful nature, to come to God always and only through our only Mediator, Jesus Christ.
  4. Psalms Look to the End. We dwell in a culture of instant gratification, and we often expect instant gratification in worship, fully experiencing the totality of God’s presence and blessing automatically when we sing to him. The psalms however force us to wait: to wait for his blessing, to wait for our inheritance, to wait for the Lord himself. Whether singing reward for the righteous or vengeance for the wicked, we can only sing psalms in light of the End of the Age and the coming of our Lord Jesus. So, singing the psalms requires us to have hope and to be patient as we take up our cross and follow Christ.

These four reasons help explain why singing psalms often just does not “connect” with our congregations. How then do we become fully-embodied, community-oriented, Christ-centered, future-looking Christians? The paradoxical answer, I believe, is that these priorities are best acquired by singing the very psalms that may not now seem relevant.

When songs are set in our lips, we have a tendency to swallow them. Songs get in our gut, and singing songs inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit will change us inside and out. I have seen the fruit of the psalms in my own life and in the lives of others, and I commend them to you now. May God indeed grant that the Word of Christ might dwell richly among us through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in our hearts to God.