The Church’s Oldest Song Book

2143980427_c96f3ee879_m“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … ” When a minister recites these memorable words before a congregation grieving a tragedy that has struck them, that minister is repeating a psalm that has comforted God’s dear children for more than 3000 years.

Psalm 23 is attributed to David, the shepherd king, and has been recited across the centuries in public worship by those rich in faith or whispered in lonely places by the imprisoned, sick, forlorn or betrayed. The shepherd psalm has great power to inspire faith.

But it’s just one of 150 psalms, though likely the best known and most loved of them all. There are many more in this ancient collection that give renewed strength to go on. For example, “The Lord is my light and my salvation — / whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the stronghold of my life — / of whom then shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).

You may be curious as I am to know how God used humans to bring this collection of his inspired word into existence. No one knows for sure but one possibility is that Cyrus, ruler of Persia played a role. Late in the sixth century B.C. God moved him to give permission to the exiled people of Israel to return to their native land with the weighty task of rebuilding their demolished temple and restoring their practices of worship.

Certain Jewish patriots among them must have asked from whence would the worship music come for this rebuilding. It is possible that Ezra, the priest, saw the need and set about sorting the thousands of sacred poems of the nation to arrive at the 150 finally chosen.

Another possibility is that a company of cult-prophets may have anticipated the need and set into motion the search, and it was they who did the sorting.

Whatever the case, we know the psalter has selections from many sources composed across more than 1000 years. Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses. At least 73 of the 150 psalms are attributed to David, who lived three centuries later. It is believed some psalms were even composed after the exile.

In the 16th century A.D., Martin Luther called the Psalter “The Bible in miniature.” As such, it holds a special relationship to both Old and New Testaments. For example, there are 207 verses from the Old Testament quoted in the New Testament, and 116 of these are from the Psalms.

The psalms are unmatched instruments for worship. Consider how our Lord leaned on them for strength. At the close of his last meal with his disciples, he and the eleven sang together the Hallel, Psalms 113–118. From his cross, and feeling abandoned, our Lord Jesus chose to cry out in the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Despite all this history, we sometimes neglect the psalms, perhaps because they may not meet our sense of what poetry should be.

If this is the case for you, it may help you to understand that in their construction, Hebrew poems follow the major principle of parallelism. That is, a second line often repeats the sense of the first using different words: “I will extol the Lord at all times; / his praise will always be on my lips.” (Psalm 34:1). Or a second line may complete the first line: “Save me, O God, / for the waters have come up to my neck” (Psalm 69:1). There are other variations of parallelisms but this may give you a start.

The themes of the psalms are diverse, yet, diverse as they are, they are gathered together under one title. The word, “psalms” in the Hebrew language means “praises.” The psalms are meant to help us reduce to worship all of life’s experiences — the good and the bad — and in all circumstances to praise the Majesty of Heaven who is always accessible to his people.

It is always good for believers to say, “The Lord is MY Shepherd,” because the God of the psalms has declared himself a personal presence to us and has proven his trustworthiness throughout the ages. So we turn to this rich source of worship to “praise” the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whether our faith is ripe and growing, or life’s wounds have left us with situations we don’t understand.

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Have You Ever Wondered Why a Bride and Groom Stand at the Marriage Altar with Their Backs to the Congregation?

14157224552_d054b78e05_mThere are reasons for this stance and the account of Solomon’s dedication of the just-completed temple gives us helpful hints (1 Kings 8).

To understand fully, we must visualize this magnificent building. Built in a rectangular shape, it was entered from the east into a large courtyard where the huge brazen altar stood for the offering of sacrifices. Then inside the building proper was the nave, called the Holy Place.

The inner sanctuary was deepest into the building and called the Holy of Holies. Here, the ark of the covenant had yet to be placed. God told his people that he would live among them, and this ark symbolized his presence.

Before King Solomon could begin the dedication, the Ark of the Covenant had to be carried by the priests from its prior resting place in the city of David and into the Holy of Holies.

The procession moved slowly and the courtyard was filled with great numbers of elders from throughout the nation. Solomon led the priests carrying the ark of the covenant toward the Holy of Holies. All the while, sacrifices were being offered extravagantly.

When the altar was finally placed in the Holy of Holies, and the priests withdrew, the Scriptures say, “… a cloud filled the temple of the Lord.” (1 Kings 8:10,11 NLT). Priests could not work because of this visible demonstration of God’s presence.

Now, notice how Solomon proceeded with the dedication. He faced the Holy of Holies with his back to the throng of elders. It was as though with mind, heart, and even position, he was focused first not on surroundings or the throngs, but on God as he prayed, “I have built for you a glorious house where you can live forever!”

Only then did he turn around to face the large gathering and bless them, following with explanatory sentences (1 Kings 8:11 -21 NLT).

Next, he turned away from the people and again faced toward the Holy of Holies and “with his hands lifted toward heaven before the altar of the Lord and before the entire community of Israel” he prayed a moving prayer for the nation (1 Kings 8:31 – 53 NLT).

But he also acknowledged with awe that the holiness and majesty of God were infinitely beyond any man-made structure, saying, “… will God really live on earth? Why even the highest heavens can’t contain you. How much less this temple I have built?” (1 Kings 8:27 NLT)

From that ancient time to the present, whether God is worshipped in lofty cathedral or humble frame church building, believers have taken their cue from Solomon’s dedication. At a wedding, for example, the bride and groom marry facing where communion table, open Bible, or mounted cross might stand as major symbols of the faith.

In a real sense, the officiating minister guides them as they exchange vows before God in his majesty and holiness. All of this explains why bride and groom face forward, with backs to the people, as though facing the “holy of holies” for their vows, and in a real sense saying: this is the house of the Lord, and by his living presence he is here with us.

In a Christian service, we who minister always hope the bride and groom will rise above the stresses of wedding detail and be moved to say their vows with an elevated sense of the presence and blessing of God.

And all of this is why the parties to a marriage stand with their backs to the congregation, looking forward, knowing in their hearts they are making vows in the presence of Almighty God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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Re-post: About Weddings and Such

Photo credit: Oh mon héros ! [Kenya express) via flicker.comI got a note yesterday from a longstanding friend in a midwestern city to remind me that 40 years ago this month she, her groom, and I stood at the altar in the Greenville church where I administered their wedding vows. The bride’s father, an ordained minister, assisted. Her note was warm to both Kathleen and me, with other comments about that special day and our visits together that led up to it, and how much it had meant to them across four decades. Ministerial moments like that create a bond for a lifetime.

It so happened that about one month earlier Kathleen and I had shared a celebratory mail with a couple here in Ontario, for the same purpose. In a restaurant overlooking beautiful West Lake, we remembered that I had led them in exchanging their vows in New Westminster, B. C. 50 years earlier that very month. In the glow of the late afternoon sun we had reviewed our memories of the wedding and certain features attending the event. Those memories too are precious.

In a sense, each wedding was a one-of-a-kind event, never to be duplicated. Each was planned by the bride and her mother. (Grooms often show little interest in the details of the wedding itself; they just want to get through it.) In another sense, both weddings were the same in that, from a Christian perspective, all weddings are the same. That is, they all celebrate the wedding couple’s entrance into the “institution of marriage.” We Christians believe that God himself set the standards for marriage when he brought Eve to Adam with the intent that “they too shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24b). That truth is declared at every Christian wedding.

Across our 67 years of ministry there have been many weddings, some private, some public, some joyful, some vaguely sad, some lavish some simple but beautiful. There was the wedding of the bride who had been abandoned by her father in her early childhood, and whom she had never seen again — until he turned up unexpectedly on the morning of her wedding. This brought on a paroxysm of tears, a panic, and, for her, it took the bloom from the day. Once, a couple came to my study to tell me that they had divorced four years earlier prompted by a foolish fight that got out of hand. Over time and with the cooling of their pride they had realized what a mistake they had made. A week later I took them into the Luzader Chapel along with their children to be the first couple married in that facility. It was a tender moment of reconciliation.

Kathleen served as the wedding hostess at our weddings, coaching the bride and bridle party, and thus relieving their stress, and endearing herself again and again to the brides’ mothers. This was one of the most pleasant of pastoral duties for which we teamed together. Her services certainly made my part of the task easier. And by our generous services we signalled to the families that this event was very important to us – not just something ministers do on Saturdays.

I could not have foreseen all this as a challenging and enjoyable part of the work when as a 16-year-old boy I made my first affirmative responses to a call to the ministry. Nor could I have grasped the broad assignment of Christian ministry and the breadth of its challenges. Kathleen couldn’t have either when she consented to marry me. But recalling it now reminds us of what some young people will miss if they disregard or resist the call God places on their hearts to enter pastoral life in the service of the Master. It’s not just wedding and such, it’s entering deeply into people’s lives at their big transitional moments in life. What a rich blessing. Recalling it fills us with thankfulness to the Lord for the trust.

See my piece on how to conduct a wedding here: http://pclm.freemethodistchurch.org/

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What Book Should Come Next to the Bible?

Classic catechismHere’s a vote for the catechism!

A catechism is a summary of the doctrines of the Christian faith. It is usually set down in questions and answers, presented as simply as possible. The questions and answers are meant for memorization and cover the major doctrines of the church.

Throughout history catechisms have been used to instruct children of believers and in new fields new converts as well.

Catechisms have always been a part of the Christian Church from its earliest days. The Reformation produced Luther’s Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Larger Westminster Catechism, and on and on. I call catechisms embryonic theology.

Here are two examples of catechetical questions:

Question: “What is the first truth found in the Bible?”
Answer: “That there is a God.” (Genesis 1:1)

Here’s another: “If God is everywhere, why don’t we see Him?”
Answer: “Because God is pure Spirit and cannot be seen with bodily eyes.” (Exodus 33:20; John 4:24)

The Reverend Russell Veldman, pastor of the Free Methodist Church in Lawrenceville, Illinois, had an unusual reason for setting about to produce a catechism. Back in 2004 when he and his wife, Jennifer, were awaiting the birth of their daughter, Kiran, he was looking ahead to be sure there would be such a booklet to use for basic instruction in Christian doctrine when she was old enough.

Reverend Veldman had been raised in a congregation of the Reformed Church of America and had been “catechized” as a young boy. Though he is now a Wesleyan in theology, the importance of this catechizing had left a permanent impression on him.

The catechism he began developing was intended only for family use. But he found starting with a blank page made for a heavy task. Investigating, he discovered an original Free Methodist Catechism had been prepared for the young denomination by the four bishops serving the church in 1902.

He also found that this catechism had been republished in 1952, and for the next nearly half century had been a part of the curriculum for children and young people.

Working from the 1952 Free Methodist catechism as a base he updated certain words and replaced King James language with New International Version language. He also included a few further questions that seemed to him necessary.

When he tested his family project on adult Sunday School classes the interest this generated surprised him. Eventually the project was approved for use by the Free Methodist Church-USA, and published as the Classic Catechism.

Based on experiences in his own church he recommends that it be used for special Sunday School classes that encompass ages from early youth into adulthood. Or, taking three questions at a time, it can be used in Sunday evening services. Once the learners experience its value, he reports, they receive it with enthusiasm.

This valuable resource has not yet been fully discovered by North American pastors but churches in Asia are receiving it with enthusiasm. Bishop Narendra John from India came upon a copy and said, “This is what we need”.

Bishop John noted that in some places in India the only book a pastor has is the Bible, and he reported that he has been able to translate and publish 2000 copies of this catechism for a mere $700.

The Classic Catechism now exists in six languages in the Free Methodist denomination in Asia and more are being added.

How important is all this to an evangelical body of the 21st century?

Considering the special place catechisms have filled in a wide range of Christian communions across history, and the effectiveness with which they give understanding to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the claim may well be true that the catechism is the second most important book to the church after the Sacred Scriptures.

May Pastors Have Special Friends in the Congregation?

3888805992_ea38e68690_mPastors are not supposed to have favorites in the congregation. It’s a universal rule, but not always easy to follow.

When pastors break this rule, the effect is similar to that produced when the parents of four children regularly show special favor to one of them, or the schoolteacher shows such favor to one student that class members call that student “the teacher’s pet”.

The rule is broken when pastor and spouse single out one particular couple for special time and attention. They may be at one another’s home often, eat together frequently, or even go camping together in the summer time.

Though some members may not care, this special closeness doesn’t sit well with other members of the congregation. It makes some who are not chosen for this favor feel like second-class citizens, as if they don’t rate at the same level.

Those who disapprove of such chumminess may be called immature or jealous and may be ignored. Their opponents might ask, don’t pastors have a right to have friends too?

But there is a legitimate and crucial pastoral principle violated by such selective closeness. It is that he or she must be seen as pastor of all the people at all times. Some members may be more likeable than others but all members are equally deserving of the pastor’s love and pastoral care.

The rule doesn’t mean pastors must dole out attention with precision, like a pharmacist counting out pills. When a family has a crisis — a member is hospitalized with a serious illness, someone loses a job, a wayward child is causing distress — that family will naturally receive special pastoral attention to see them through their particular crisis.

The pastor may even give special attention for a time to newcomers to the congregation or to new converts. Mature members will understand the reason for this attention.

It’s the special attention meted out for nothing other than socially personal reasons that needs to be seen as inappropriate for wholesome pastoral care. Pastoral tenure at a church has sometimes been shortened by pastors’ lack of awareness in this regard.

Still, you may say, this kind of constraint is unfair because pastors need close friendships, just like anyone else.

Many years ago I heard the late Rev. Robert Fine address this question in a minister’s gathering. He proposed that pastoral couples with need for closeness with special friends might develop a friendship with another denomination’s pastoral couple in the community. Even then, the association should be discreet, not time consuming.

Although this counsel may seem severe, remember that it is a pastoral gift to project love and interest toward the whole flock without favoritism, and to sense needs and be motivated to serve them equally across the congregation.

The rule to work with is clear, and any pastor can measure himself or herself against it: “Am I equally pastoral to all of the people, all of the time?” If the answer is yes, love for the Lord and wisdom in caring for the whole flock will take it from there.

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What to do With a Screaming Child in a Busy Diner

On the news this morning, tucked between reports of world-shaking events both at home and abroad, a simple human interest story made it onto TV screens all across the country.

It was about a two-and-a-half year-old child’s behavior in a busy diner. To the dismay of all patrons, this little girl screamed incessantly for 40 minutes, without effective intervention from her parents.

The screaming, the reporter said, continued until the overwrought owner of the diner pounded her fists on the counter and shrieked, “This has got to stop.” The two-year-old went quiet.

The TV crew, who must have been nearby as this took place, made a feature story by interviewing the patrons one-by-one. Several gave forthright opinions about parenting strategies for such a situation.

One said “Ask the family to leave.” Another said: “Correct the parents, not the child;” another offered: “The manager should have stayed out of it.” No one advised, “Let the child scream.”

This morning’s television newscast reminded me of a lovely dinner my wife and I were a part of several years ago with young parents and their two children, ages four, and two-and-a-half. The setting was a scenic restaurant beside a river.

The younger child, a little girl, was at the same time delightful, precocious with language, and strong-willed, and she had a knack for trying to take command of a situation when its public setting put her parents in an awkward position. But they had figured out a strategy for managing such moments that we were able to witness.

Our host had made reservations by telephone for a table for six but had not said that two of the six would be children. They knew this information would have netted them a table out of sight of the river.

We arrived by car and walked a distance to the restaurant. The father, carrying the little girl in his arms, talked softly to her. He said quietly, “If you don’t do what Daddy says or if you make any fuss in here, I will carry you outside”. This was apparently not the first time he had said those words. He was repeating them quietly now as we walked toward the entrance.

We were hardly seated before the challenge began. My wife and I noticed that at the first contest of wills, long before anyone around us could possibly be disturbed, her father quietly picked the child up and headed for the door.

He told us later that his strategy, as she struggled and cried out of earshot of the diners, was to speak lovingly but firmly to her. When she quieted down, he would ask: “Are you ready to go back in?” To her nod he would say, “Okay, but what will happen if you don’t do what Daddy says? “Out,” she would reply.

He told us that this approach had allowed them to go out on occasion for more than fast food, and they were very careful that their children did not spoil anyone else’s evening.

After a while the two reentered, the little girl’s cheeks wet with tears. There were no further challenges at that meal. We enjoyed a quiet repast together, and it turned out to be a happy time, even for the little girl.

As we were leaving, patrons eating nearby commended our host and hostess for their well-behaved children. Our hosts told us later that on other such occasions, diners had said things like “How on earth do you do that?” Or, “When you arrived, we thought that our meal would be ruined!”

So, what should parents do with a screaming child in a busy restaurant?

Here’s how I see it. You can’t reason with a two-and-a half-year-old child in the midst of such an emotional storm. The child will have the high ground. But a warning in advance that a certain behavior is sure to bring a certain consequence and then a calm but certain carry-through makes for quick learning, even if the treatment has to be repeated several more times as the weeks go by.

Back to the performance in the diner featured on television: a couple of calm trips outside with the child in the father’s arms taken within seconds of the start or restart of the screaming could have worked wonders – for parents, for child, for neglected older brother, and for diner patrons.

Both while watching this incident and afterwards at home, we felt for the parents. And, what a waste of a wonderful teaching moment for the child in the diner. The message to her out of the event should have been that her parents loved her and for that reason couldn’t allow her even at that age to misbehave so as to intrude on other people.

Still, in our culture, there is no clear agreement on this matter. Opinions range from extreme permissiveness and lack of consideration for others in public settings to over-exacting sternness.

But, this much is clear to me at nearly 90 years of age: Parents who set loving boundaries, and children who have been taught to recognize them – even in a crowded diner – raise happier children who live in happier families.

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Re-post: What Really Makes the Church Grow?

Photo credit: AdamSelwood (via flickr.com)I have believed for many years that the local church grows — when its growth is genuine — from the pulpit outward.

That does not mean that all a church needs is good preaching and the rest will care for itself. A local church is a complex body and there are many other standards that must be met for the church to increase both in spiritual depth and numerical strength.

Nor does it mean that the whole burden for the growth of a church is upon the pastors and if their performance in the pulpit is exceptional the church will thrive in every other respect. The growing church must also have a core of lay workers who bear the spiritual burden for growth and outreach along with the pastor.

It does not even mean that brilliant preaching is necessary for the church to grow. As G. Campbell Morgan so clearly summarized, real preaching must only meet three basic criteria: it must be true, clear and anointed.

What it does mean is that the center for spiritual nourishment for the congregation is the pulpit, and if the pulpit lacks authenticity either in content, clarity or unction, even an increase in numbers of people will not equal genuine congregational growth.

We have all seen hummingbirds hover in air, wings ablur, while they sip from feeders filled with a red liquid — sugar and water. I’m told that if the mixture is made up of saccharin and water they will continue to come and feed with equal thirst, but gradually they will become weak and unable to fly. The taste of saccharin is sweet enough to fool them, but it lacks the calories they need.

In a similar way, what is delivered from the pulpit must not only appeal to the ear of the listener; it must nourish the spirit. That is, it must speak the word of God to the deep hunger for soul-food that God puts in his people.

What can move pastors everywhere to come before their people with a well formed word from the Lord? I know of nothing but the commands of the Scriptures, and the best place to seek that prompting is in the Pastoral Epistles — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These were first century pastors who were assigned to oversee young established congregations. And what did the Apostle Paul say to them in writing?

“…the overseer must be…able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2)” “Command and teach these things” (4:11). “Until I come, devote yourself…to preaching and teaching. Do not neglect your gift” (4:13,14). “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (4:16).

Also in Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). And, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2:15). We take such exhortations as Spirit-inspired also for us today.

I cannot write this way without remembering that on many occasions I have fallen far short of doing what I believe is so needed. But God is merciful. He forgives and keeps the passion alive. So, “forgetting what is behind,” I call any pastor who reads this to join me in seeking renewal in Spirit — anointed preaching to the pressing needs and hungers of today — for the edification of the Lord’s people and the genuine growth of Christ’s church everywhere.


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