Monday, July 26, 2010

Evening Worship and Why I Like It

Ever since I was a child, I have enjoyed evening worship. Part of this is nostalgia, but this does not render it any less significant. Journeys with my father to old Fourth Reformed in Grand Rapids, perhaps stopping in to see my grandparents briefly before the "long" 20 minute ride home, conversations less important for their content than the fact they happened. Later in life, the sonorous Bronx accent of Charles W. Krahe, so striking to Midwestern ears, on the Seventh Reformed broadcast on the car radio on treks back to Hillsdale College after weekends at home.

Then, the delight of listening to John R. de Witt at the grand, long, full evening services at Seventh Reformed when I was privileged to serve under him: multiple weeks on the story of Blind Bartimaeus by the roadside begging, expositions of Genesis, chapter by chapter, and the singing of sturdy, old hymns.

In our present context, an informal setting, sometimes with heart-stirring spontaneous prayer, different hymn tunes and instruments than the morning, and folks lingering a good while afterwards in fine Christian fellowship and the cords of love.

I have pleasant associations with evening worship. Yet, that is not the only reason I like evening worship. I would greatly miss it if I served a church that did not worship, whether together, or in small groups in homes, on Sunday evenings.

1.) As many have noted, a Sunday without evening worship can, and often does, become the Lord's hour, not the Lord's Day. I notice this when I travel and stay with family. Our Sabbath evening ritual gives a nice balance to the day, keeps Christ in view, and prepares us for the week ahead.

2.) Evening worship has a different feel and flavor. Even if the format of worship is the same, the timbre of it has always differed at night. I have noticed this from my youth, to my days in seminary at First Presbyterian here, in Virginia, and our evening services at Trinity. Sunday morning has a majestic, rousing feel, and Sunday evenings have a softer, intimate feel.

3.) Compared to our ancestors, we sit under a paltry amount of preaching. Sermons have grown shorter and shorter, and services fewer and fewer. Most churches no longer have midweek prayer and preaching services (we don't either, though I often wish we did). Evening worship gives us another opportunity to hear from God.

I hope no-one will take this as necessarily an indictment against not having evening worship. It is more a plea for an old way that has fallen off in many quarters, and which I, for one, am sad to see go.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Standing Alone: More Lessons from Old Winnie

I read a lot of biographies, and, take my word for it, Manchester's 2 completed volumes on Churchill (The Last Lion) are without peer. I look forward to the third, which another must complete, Manchester having met his demise.

Of course, he could hardly have had a more interesting subject. The second volume is entitled "Alone." Alone Churchill was. Reading a chronicle of British leadership in the 30's would be comical, if it weren't so sad, and if it hadn't cost millions of lives. The portrait of Churchill is of a titan of a man --greatly flawed, as great men often are. Yet, he was a man of his convictions. He was miraculously prescient in regards to Hitler, and what he would do, when many British weren't so much cowering in fear, but gaping with admiration. The latent anti-Semitism of Britain, coupled with its own sense of defeatism, led Baldwin and Chamberlain, and the vast majority of their elite countrymen not only to kowtow to Hitler, but to help his cause. The Times suppressed the accounts of Kristallnacht, and accounts of the persecution of the church. Anything that did not fit the overriding narrative of peace, and even alliance, with Germany, was suppressed. Edward the Abdicator frolicked with the Fuhrer. The "Dear Vicar," PM Stanley Baldwin, refused to rebuild the nation's defenses while Germany rebuilt the Ruhr, and reclaimed and fortified the Rhineland, all to public acclaim.

Churchill was dumbfounded. Was this the Britain that had won the Great War? The one that caused the Kaiser's government to fall and sue for peace? Churchill had opposed Versailles, and its draconian demands on the German populace. Yet, he saw the same Britain, so merciless at Versailles, now aiding and abetting a country of 70 million people in central Europe, preparing once again to menace its neighbors.

The lesson is this: the right thing is seldom the popular thing. Sometimes it requires being ostracized and standing alone. The difficulty is in knowing when one's opinions are, indeed, in the right. But, as was Churchill's case, sometimes it really isn't that difficult to know. The difficult thing is to stand fast, despite all ostracism and ridicule. The civilized world may not have survived if it hadn't been for Winston Churchill. Because of him, it did.

The Heidelberg and Subjective Religion

One of the great things about the Reformed understanding of the Christian faith is its emphasis both on the objective (things as they are) and the subjective (what it means for me.) Sometimes, these poles cause friction against one another. Occasionally, people either operate out of reaction against one of the poles, or take one pole to an extreme. But, held together rightly, they are glorious, filled with both comfort and challenge.

Nothing short of Scripture holds the subjective and objective better than the old Heidelberg Catechism. Consider this:

Question 27. What do you understand by the providence of God?

The almighty and ever present power by which God upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but from God's sustaining hand.

Question 28. How does the knowledge of God's creation and providence help us?

Answer. We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from God's love. All creatures are so completely in God's hand that without the divine will they can neither move nor be moved.

Positively Davidic. Not pollyannaish. Realistic. Life is hard. Things go wrong, even (and maybe even especially) for the children of God. We are not unmoved movers, but flesh-and-blood being, subject to the tumult of experience.

We act, we suffer, we are morally culpable, and somehow God is sovereign over it all. God is sovereign over suffering --a hard truth that is, but also comforting; how much worse would it be if certain things were out of God's control?

What Christ gives us is hope. Hope for the despairing melancholy. Hope for the person who has made shipwreck of his life. Hope for the one caught in the clutches of thorny rebellion. If we are his he has saved us from the just consequences of our lives, and will save us from all that currently plagues us. If we are not yet his, his hand is out to us to bring us this resilient hope: nothing can separate us from the love of God: peril, tribulation, nakedness, famine, or sword.

Good news.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mercy, Justice, the Fourth Commandment and the Service Economy

In which he asks, "Has Sunday morning become a white-collar affair?"

I am struck, in our 24-7 world, at how difficult it would be to bring those who make their living in the service economy into the life of the church. The decline of the concept of a day of rest in our society and among the people of God has created a problem I hear precious few Christians addressing, namely, when is the person who makes his living at Home Depot or Burlington Coat Factory allowed the luxury of a day of rest and worship?

I remember when we were living in VA, an ancient blue law, never enforced, being mocked and ridiculed. The law guaranteed the right of the laborer not to labor on Sunday. In all the rights guaranteed to workers in this day and age, this one is not, and I wonder why the church remains largely silent on it.

We often treat the Fourth Commandment as a private affair: we are not to work, but to rest and worship. It is a gift, not a burden. But, the Fourth Commandment is largely addressed not to the individual, but the one who has others in his employ. It is not just that he is to rest, but his servants, his animals (those whose labor he owns) and his guests.

So, let's say the church does its job and shares the gospel with those in the service economy. When can we incorporate them into worship, into the life of faith? When do they get their day of rest? It is a rather callous response from the church to tell them to find another job --most jobs in the service economy do not come with weekends.

I suggest we do three things. First, perhaps churches need to band together to offer other opportunities to worship than the Lord's Day. This is not making the Lord's Day optional. It is a provision to thos whose schedule is not their own, just as the Christian slaves used to gather after sundown, when their workday was done. It is accomodating a society that has abandoned a day of rest.

Second, we need to speak prophetically to the culture. Christian business owners used to close on Sunday: Truett Cathy is the one remaining example, JC Penney and Sam Walton in not-too-distant memory. Christian workers deserve the freedom to observe their day of rest and worship. In a world in which every accomodation is made to every sort of religious practice and scruple, the First Day observance, joining in the corporate life, worship, and fellowship of the people of God is fundamental to Christian community.

Third, we need to teach on the Lord's Day. We need to present it not primarily as a list of don'ts. It is for man, not man for it. It is for rest, and for worship. Yes, there are things we must do, and things we ought not. But, primarily, it is a day for families to gather in the Family, around the altar of God, call on his name and hear his voice. We have let this great gift be trampled upon by society, and are the poorer for it.

Part of justice for those who are less in command of the culture is just that the church cry out for them to be given a regular Christian Sabbath. Remember the soul of the person who waits on your table next Sunday....

Friday, July 2, 2010

The General Assembly and the Glorious All-Sufficiency of Jesus

The tendency when one returns from a church meeting is to bewail those votes that did not go one's way, or to bewail the hijinx of one's opponents, etc.

Yet, as I reflected upon it, I am probably more grateful for the PCA now than I have been in awhile. Part of it was just being duly reminded of some great truths by Drs. Duncan and Keller in their presentation.

But, part of it is the glorious irrelevance of the GA. I do not mean that at all in the sense that we do not need each other, we ought not to be connected, etc. I mean it only this way: I will return home, love my family, repent of my sins, and try to minister in Jesus' name to my flock and those around. The man sitting in front of me who voted the opposite on everything will return home, love his family, repent of his sins, and try to minister in Jesus' name to his flock and those around.

And, maybe, just maybe, he learned something from me, and I from him.

That would not be true in many, many denominations. So, I am grateful for the PCA. Our denomination probably grates on all men in every camp from time to time. But, grating is not all bad. It is grating that smooths off rough edges.

I do have repenting to do. Skip Ryan gave a beautiful presentation on the effects of the bondage of sin in his life, and the root of those things being man-pleasing. I see so much of this in myself. I have this inherent desire to agree with whoever I am with at the time. I might agree on most things, but I need to be willing to disagree in love, on occasion, as well! Unity and uniformity are not the same thing. My fear for the PCA is that every group loses sight of this truth.

Jesus is all-sufficient. While I will not step the pulpit this Sunday, my brothers will. Many of them voted completely the opposite of the way I did this past week. Yet, the gospel was not at stake. It was not up for a vote. Policies, procedures, rules, and vision were. Those things are adiaphoral. Christ is pre-eminent. Oh, how I need him.