Angels and Ambiguity

My faith was younger than my boots and the leather in my boots still squeaked. But my friend Joel knew Christ from childhood. As we snaked up a Colorado canyon in Joel’s Chevy, Rich Mullins blared from the speakers: “Jacob, he loved Rachel and Rachel, she loved him, and Leah was just there for dramatic effect.” Joel blurted out, “That’s terrible theology.”

It had never dawned on me to evaluate Mullins’ words, especially when I was thinking about fly-fishing, but Joel planted a seed. I began to listen with discernment, not only to Christian radio but also to the songs I sang in church.

No lack of critics chasten contemporary praise music. Often repetitious, shallow, and of sophomoric quality, the proverbial “Jesus is my boyfriend” genre provides ready-made fodder for denunciation. Traditionalists tout the theological richness of hymnody while others praise the devotional warmth of contemporary songs. The so-called worship wars remain, but most evangelicals reside in a demilitarized zone of tolerance. Some embrace the lyrical equivalent of Gerber baby food while others glory in steak and potatoes. Just don’t foist your preference on my church and we can still be friends.

Few critics have tackled a more foundational truth: Hymnody is not poetry and poetry is not hymnody.

Poetry invites personal interpretation. A poet suggests rather than declares, encouraging readers to participate in forming meaning. Poets weave ambiguity into their work, causing readers to strive for understanding. Poet and academic Joseph DeRoche suggests that a poem unfolds “without directly telling the reader what conclusions to draw.” Rather, “The poet selects images and places them together, and . . . the poem, like a small explosion, really occurs in the reader’s brain.”

Hymnody, on the other hand, must articulate truth rather than encourage mental detonations. In Colossians 3:16, Paul commands the church: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” In other words, singing in worship represents an extension of the teaching ministry of the church. A skillful hymn writer therefore crafts an orthodox message rather than inviting personal interpretation.

All worship songs reside on a spectrum. At one end stand theological songs—proclaiming truth, doctrine, and duty. At the other end stand devotional songs—capturing Christian experience, trials, and joys. Most songs boast both elements. But if rhyme after rhyme suggest biblical themes while establishing no clear meaning, the writer has blundered. The church should no more sing ambiguous lyrics than pastors should preach ambiguous sermons.

New songs often fail this ambiguity test, but so do old hymns. In “Blessed Assurance” Fanny Crosby penned, “Angels descending bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love.” Tell me, “What is an echo of mercy?” I’ve asked many Christians that question, and no two ever offered the same answer. The ambiguity of Crosby’s lyrics forces each worshipper to ascribe his or her own meaning.

But congregational worship requires unity. Believers pray, confess, and listen to the Word together. When a congregation sings of angels bringing “echoes of mercy,” one man may recall the angel who promised Jesus to Mary, foretelling God’s mercy to a sinful world. Another might conjure images of the angel of the Lord decimating Sennacherib’s army, granting last-minute mercy to Jerusalem. The woman one pew over might envision the angel who touched Isaiah’s lips with a live coal, granting mercy to the guilty prophet.

Scripture describes many angels and many acts of mercy. But no echoes.

Such lyrics do not teach. They invite private interpretation, for they establish no clear meaning.

Does your church sing words that extend its teaching ministry? Whether old or new are your worship songs clear and orthodox? Or does the sanctuary resound with muted mental explosions?

Rich Mullins may have been wrong but at least I knew what he meant.

Golf and Gags

Recently my six children and I played a couple rounds of miniature golf together. And while the first round was all business, the second degenerated into a convoluted series of ill-conceived trick shots, sophomoric antics, golf puns, and laughter. A lot of laughter.

I love hearing my children laugh.

Children today seem to have fewer opportunities to play—just play—than earlier generations. Sometimes, being goofy is the best, most important thing to accomplish.

Church matters. School matters. Work matters. But so does good, old-fashioned immature behavior at a mini-golf course.

The (Gun) Law of Unintended Consequences

I know very little about gun control legislation, but lately I’ve read two stories that seem to me to share a disconcerting connection.

Several days ago, Joy Behar, host of ABC’s The View, said that Vice President Mike Pence’s Christian faith is a “mental illness.”

At the same time, I read another article that wonders why evangelical Christians are slow to support seemingly common sense gun control measures, such as forbidding guns to those whom our government defines as “mentally ill.” Some have even suggested that Christians love guns more than children.

The 2nd Amendment is not vital to the Christian Church. If no Christian in America owned a firearm, the Church of Jesus Christ would still thrive. Jesus is building His Church, and He doesn’t need an AR-15 to do it. No Christian would lose any part of his eternal inheritance if Uncle Sam took away every gun and all the kitchen knives too.

But it strikes me that Joy Behar is not alone. The number of people who think like her is growing, including politicians. It’s not so fanciful to imagine a day when our government defines the Christian faith as a mental illness. And the gun control laws many are now advocating forbid mentally ill persons from owning a gun . . .

Maybe you’re thinking, “That won’t happen!” And you’re probably right. Maybe evangelicals should just get on board with more gun laws.

But maybe laws are dangerous things. After all, laws set precedents. And sometimes a good law—like the 14th Amendment, which extended citizenship and voting rights to former slaves after the Civil War—becomes the grounds for a not-so-good law, like Roe v. Wade. Ponder that for a moment. A post-Civil War voter rights amendment that enfranchised millions of former slaves was—105 years later—hijacked to justify the murder of 60 million unborn children.

The legislation this present generation passes will affect our children and grandchildren. It may affect generations to come. Sometimes it will affect those generations in ways none of us can foresee.

At other times, however, the writing is on the bad-idea wall. Encouraging our government to define mental illness, and then making our Bill of Rights dependent on that definition, is a bad idea. If a mentally ill person—as the government defines such illness—no longer possesses the rights afforded by the 2nd Amendment, what guarantees that citizen any other right? What prevents the government from denying 1st or 4th Amendment rights to those citizens whom it defines as mentally ill?

What happens if, years down the road, the government defines your beliefs as a form of mental illness?

If the government can create a group of citizens for whom the Constitution offers no protection, then the government is no longer a government of law. It is a tyranny. And that frightens me.

So maybe at least some Christians have thoughtful reasons not to rush to implement new laws, especially laws that depend upon the government to define mental illness; laws that deny constitutional rights based upon that definition—a definition that can be altered to include the beliefs of any group that the government finds unsavory.

Or maybe every Christian is just a brainwashed, NRA junkie, child-hating, supporter of school shootings.

In fact, maybe we’re all just mentally ill.

Jesus, Billy Graham, and Eternity

Billy Graham has died, and yet lives.

The Bible teaches that when a Christian’s body dies his soul immediately enters the presence of God, consciously to enjoy his reward. Theologians call this disembodied existence the intermediate state.

God created man soul and body. Jesus possesses a soul and body. He died in His body to redeem our bodies.

The soul of Billy Graham will therefore not remain disembodied forever, for the intermediate state is not the final state.

Resurrection is coming.

Jesus promised in John 5:26-29, “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”

When Jesus returns, the bodies of all who ever have lived will rise immortal, imperishable, and incorruptible. Body and soul reunited, every person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

The righteous will inherit a renewed heavens and earth—a physical eternity—in which the spirit and flesh no longer war, where sin and disease no longer ravage the body, and in which God dwells with His people. We will walk and talk with Him as in Eden, having no shame for we shall have no sin.

Right now preparations are being made to commit the body of Billy Graham to his final earthly resting place. But it will not be his eternal resting place. That place will be a goodly land, in which all God’s people will run and be not weary; they shall walk and be not faint. For God will make their bodies just as immortal as their souls.

Mourn not for Billy Graham. He is, right now, rejoicing with His Lord. And one day soon, his tired old body, which finally succumbed to death, will rise—eternally young.

Jesus rose first.

Those who love Him will certainly follow.

Looking for Magnets

Recently I read yet another article that advises churches how to “attract” young people.

“Attraction” is not a biblical category. The Bible calls on churches to teach the young, to exhort the young, and to entrust the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the young. But it doesn’t tell us to attract the young. I think it realizes that we can’t.

In John 6:44 Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

So if the Church has no pool of spiritual magnetism with which to “attract” the young, what can it do?

Preach the Word. Administer the sacraments. Pray. Do these things faithfully, and trust that God knows who are His. He will give the increase, drawing unto Himself all those whom He delights to save through faith in Jesus.

Either the Holy Spirit, using the Word, sacraments, and prayer, is sufficient or He is not.

He has been sufficient for 2000 years.

But lately we’ve lost confidence in Him. So now it depends on us. And we’re looking in vain for magnets.

Sun and Rain and God

In the ‘burbs outside St. Louis, the heavens have let loose. Lighting scars the sky and thunder bounds from hill to hill. Rain pours.

I am reminded of Job. As the LORD replied to Job’s demand for an explanation, He asked Job:

“Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is, on the desert in which there is no man, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground sprout with grass? Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?”

Job could only answer:

“Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”

The rain testifies to the power—but also to the love of the LORD, for “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

In sun and rain, drought and tempest, He is God.

Effectual What?

Effectual calling. We don’t talk about this doctrine in church as much as we should.

Maybe because it’s a bit unpopular.

John Murray noted, “We may not like this doctrine. But, if so, it is because we are averse to the grace of God and wish to arrogate to ourselves the prerogative that belongs to God. And we know where that disposition had its origin.”

So what is this teaching, this doctrine that arouses our ire?

Simply put, when theologians speak of effectual calling, they are describing the work of the Holy Spirit, who calls each elect person into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The Spirit’s call contains the power to come and is “efficacious unto salvation.”

Why does that matter? Usually, the Spirit’s call comes through the outward call of the Gospel. When a minister rises to preach or a Bible study opens the Word, an outward call resounds to all who hear: Repent and believe in Jesus! Often the Holy Spirit accompanies that outward call with His inward, effective power.

That means that if you have ears to hear, the Holy Spirit gave them to you. If you, by faith, have come to Christ, it is because the Spirit first effectually called you.

So, thank God for His power in drawing you to Christ. And continue proclaiming the Gospel, outwardly calling people everywhere to repent and trust in Jesus.

The Holy Spirit uses that outward call inwardly and effectively to bring men and women to faith in Jesus Christ.