Sunday, August 31, 2014

Through Fiercest Drought and Storm

(an article originally written for our local newspaper, The Gleaner)

We have come to a significant anniversary in Northwood.  Seven years ago, on the 26th of August, a tornado that changed lives forever brought its devastation to the town.  Today our town stands as a model of resiliency, determination, cooperation, and neighborly care as we have recovered from that storm.  Northwood is stronger as a community having experienced the bond of shared adversity.  

This month I have been presenting articles speaking about faith through the lens of music.  I have referenced Ephesians 5:19, where the apostle Paul tells us to address one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, and to make melody to the Lord with our hearts.  There is so much power in the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual impact of music, it seems to be the very language of our souls.  When faced with great difficulty, what powerful words might we sing to remind us of the victory we have in Christ Jesus, and the power to overcome overwhelming circumstances?

I think of a song that is familiar to many, “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. This song is a modern “spiritual song” written in the style of a traditional hymn.  In the words of one of the composers, it was intended to “tell the story of the whole gospel” in one song.  Here are the powerful opening lines of this great song of triumph:

“In Christ alone my hope is found;  He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my all in all- here in the love of Christ I stand.”

The clear message of this soul-reaching song is that Jesus is the reason we have hope to make it through even the most difficult and trying times.  Whether those times be challenging emotionally, intellectually, spiritually or physically, our hope and trust to survive the “fiercest drought and storm” is found in faith in Jesus Christ.

How did Jesus provide us this hope?  The rest of this song explains that Jesus was God in the flesh, and He came as a gift of love to the ones He created.  In spite of the fact that we rejected Him when He was on this earth, He finished the work that He came to do.  He himself said that He came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10).  He did this by absorbing the wrath of God against sinful mankind as He paid the penalty for our sin on the Cross.

When it seemed as though death had its victory over the very son of God, Jesus rose from the dead as a declaration of His authority over death and the grave, and as a statement that His sacrifice was sufficient.  No more did God’s creation need to live in fear of death (2 Timothy 1:9-10)!

And now the song states the case for our victory:

“No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me…
No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand
’Til He returns or calls me home.  Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.” 

Whether your storm is a tornado, family strain, financial difficulty, spiritual darkness, or any other challenge, your victory may be found in Jesus Christ.  Turn to Him, and find your hope in Him who has loved you and offers you forgiveness, grace, and mercy.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Music in the Heart of the Believer pt. 3

The choir files in and takes their place on the risers.  A flutter of anticipation works its way through the audience as the conductor takes his place at the front of the ensemble.  They begin, and musical strains float through the air and into the hearts of audience members and performers alike.  Once again the near magic of musical expression invokes an emotional and even spiritual response.

It is my belief that God demonstrates throughout scripture that He desires to reveal Himself to humanity in the way He works and in the creation He has made.  Romans 1:19-20 echoes this idea:

"For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For His invisible attributes, namely His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made….”

When I see a choir performance and the audience’s response, I am reminded of the relationship between creator God and His people.  The basses rumble out the low foundation of the chord the way that God has set the background of salvation’s story against the power and creative majesty of the Genesis of life, the clamorous fall of Man in sin, and the rumblings of the Law on mount Sinai.  The altos and tenors fill in the colors of the chord, giving it character and definition just as the story of salvation develops over thousands of years of Israel’s history with its intrigues, captivity and miraculous deliverance.  

Finally the sopranos, with their soaring melodies, convey the appearance of the very object of our faith and affection, Jesus the Messiah!  The purpose of the song begins and ends with its principal melody just as the story of the Bible begins and ends with Jesus, His nature, mission, sacrifice, resurrection, and one day return!  As the song of His story plays out over the ages, the audience listens and stirs in response.

Some respond with indifference, recognizing the effort of the musician, yet not truly listening or being moved by the Music.  Others find themselves swept away in the beauty of the Song, held by its lyric, elated by its textures and chords, moved by its rhythms and responding with thunderous applause at its conclusion.  

What about you, audience member?  You have heard the song, its melody sounds familiar.  Are your toes tapping, your heart rising to meet the arc of the melody?  Will you sing along?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Music in the Heart of the Believer pt. 2

In Ephesians 5:19, the apostle Paul instructs his readers to “address one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs…”.  What does it mean to address someone in “hymns”?  I would like to suggest that hymns are different in the nature of their construction  than any other type of song, and therein lies the understanding we need to encourage and spur each other on in Christian faith. 

While some songs have a tendency to concentrate on one particular aspect of the faith, a typical hymn takes the time, throughout its many verses, to paint a much more detailed picture of its subject.  Take for example this hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” 

Listen to the melodic strains in your mind as you read these timeless lyrics:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; 
our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.  
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; 
his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, 
on earth is not his equal.

As the eye passes over the text, a flood of memories accompanies its lines.  You can no doubt hear the organ or piano of a church chording along with the congregation as they recite the familiar and comforting words of this great hymn of the faith.  You may even feel a sense of the space in which you sang this song in church when you were a child.  Familiar songs have a way of taking us back in the theater of our minds to significant times in our lives when we sang or played them.  They also carry with them a profound weight of meaning in their text.  

While this verse is most memorable as the opening stanza of the song, it leaves the singer in the precarious position of seeing our great enemy, Satan, as a cruel and powerful threat to our very existence.  It is in the second verse that our helplessness is further detailed, and our victorious King Jesus is brought in to ‘save the day’:

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, 
were not the right man on our side, the man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?  Christ Jesus, it is he; 
Lord Sabaoth, his name, from age to age the same, 
and he must win the battle.

The third verse gives us reassurance that even when the whole world seems to be set against us, and the powers of darkness bare their vicious teeth to tear our lives apart, we have cause to remain unafraid.  We know that in Christ we will see the ultimate victory.  What does one say, then, to the Christian who lives under religious or governmental persecution?  The answer follows in verse four.
...Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; 
the body they may kill; God's truth abideth still; 
his kingdom is forever.

Here we are encouraged to hold on to our possessions and even our relationships with others with an open hand.  Even if we endure persecution to the point of death, that is the limit of what Satan can do to us.  God’s word, His truth, and His power will remain long after we are gone.  Even though the enemy may rage and strive against us, his power is limited.  This world is not our eternal home, and we will one day find our final satisfaction and safety in heaven with our Lord.  

To speak to one another in hymns is to encourage and instruct one another with the weighty truth of God’s sovereignty and power.  It is to lay a historical foundation for believing the way we ought, and it is to rejoice in our recognition of all that God has done for us and still continues to do today. Thank God for the rich heritage of song that we have from great hymn writers, both past and present.

Music in the Heart of the Believer pt. 1

I love music.  I have enjoyed many different kinds of music throughout my whole life.  I grew up in a musical family, and I enjoy carrying on the tradition with my wife and our children.  There is just something about music that communicates in ways that neither the written word nor the spoken word are able.  An unknown author once wrote, “For heights and depths no words can reach, music is the soul’s own speech”, and Johann Sebastian Bach took it a step further by saying, "The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”  Music combines both the intellect and the soul, the seat of our emotions, into a singular expression of things that are much higher and greater than the sum of the parts of our existence.  

It is perhaps for this reason that the apostle Paul encourages the church in Ephesus to speak to one another in musical language.  In 
Ephesians 5:19 he urges them to “[address] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…”.  Paul instructs his fellow believers to communicate with each other in ways that not only address the intellect, but reach down deep into the soul of man and connect with his very essence.  In this months series of articles for the Pastor’s Forum, I would like to share about the topic of addressing one another in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs.

First, we are encouraged to address one another in Psalms.  The Bible book of Psalms is a rich treasure of song lyrics written by Israel’s second king, David, and others.  In it, we see the praises of God, the recognition of His handiwork in creation and in life.  We see the outcry for vindication and protection of His followers; we see the humble brokenness of the repentant heart.  Sharing the word of God with one another is a life-giving and life-affirming way of echoing the heart of God for His people.  It looks like a friend stepping in with a word of encouragement during a time of great struggle or loss.  It looks like a beautiful card given in gratitude or celebration to a friend at one of the peak moments of their life.  And sometimes it looks like tough love as one reminds the other of all that God has done on their behalf, and that He calls upon them for the surrender of their affections toward Him.  

However, I don’t believe that the apostle Paul was only encouraging believers to quote scripture to each other, but rather that we might speak to each other daily the way that scripture speaks to us.  One example of this may be seen in the way a psalm is often put together.  Hebrew poetry often uses a technique called "parallelism”.  Parallelism uses groups of two or three statements that either work together or contrast with each other to convey an idea.  In other words, a psalmist not only writes of God’s strength, but also the frailty of the enemy.  A psalm not only recounts the history of God’s work on our behalf, but also looks forward to the fulfillment of His promises.

In the same way, our conversation with one another as believers can take on a more meaningful tone as we consider how God works and moves in our lives.  Beyond pithy one-liners and social media memes, we have the opportunity to share in significant ways about how God is working, and why He is worthy of great praise and worship.  We gain a sense of awe at His sovereignty when we consider the preservation of His people amidst great adversity.  We sing the glory of God with our lives when we recognized Him in every aspect of our experience, and share the impact of that realization with others.  Let yourself take part in the great song of the ages as heaven and earth proclaim the glory of God’s handiwork, and His people proclaim the greatness of His love and care for us.