Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Preaching The Song of Songs


I've been preaching Christ from The Song of Songs this term. It's a daunting task and I feel my own weakness and limits faced with the task. Still 10 of 11 weeks done, one to go.

My interest in The Song stems from reading the affectionate puritan Richard Sibbes' sermons which are devotionally rich and deliciously Christ-focussed. Thanks Mike Reeves for steering me to Sibbes.

I edited and self-published some of Sibbes 20 sermons a few years ago. They’re for sale at cost price via Lulu or you can ask me for a PDF copy. http://www.lulu.com/shop/search.ep?contributorId=1051001

Resources on The Song vary considerably depending on the approach to the text. Some read it as simply about human relationships, some as exclusively about Christ and the church.

My approach has been a both Christ & the church and human relationships approach and that shapes who I've found most helpful. The text isn't easy to work with, and most people have never heard it preached before. Some struggled to see that it was about Christ, others have loved spending time with a long cherished friend. I've sought to be a bit artsy, evocative and poetic in handling a poetic text, to paint verbal pictures, to weave the intertwining themes of relationships, what it means to be human, and the gospel together. Some sermons have leant more one way than the other.

No claim to have mastered the book, but I hope the Lord has mastered me a bit more through it.

We bought and showed Andrew Wilson's This is About That video a couple of times in the series to emphasise the connection between marriage and the gospel.
https://vimeo.com/213720278

Most older commentaries tend towards just being about Christ, and occasionally get very speculative. Charles Spurgeon's sermons which are free online are a really positive example from 150 years ago.

If I was limited to three books the following are my friends. They all work through consecutive passages of the Biblical text. Amazon Wishlist Version http://amzn.eu/b7a7ers

1. Charlie Cleverly. Hodder & Stoughton. 2016.
This is a warm, devotional, pop-level read more than a technical commentary. There’s good engagement with the text and some great insights, and a keenness to let the Song shape our prayer life. This was the last book I picked up in preparation for my series and it’s been a good help and an enjoyable read.

2. Robert Jenson. Interpretation. 2005.
I’ve read and re-read this commentary over the past few years. Each section is clearly structured to engage with the text, then apply to Christ before applying to relationships. Jenson’s style is refreshing and often draws out deep biblical themes that others might miss and has sparked joy for me at several points. Also, under the floral dust-jacket is the brightest green hardback you’ll ever own. While occasionally obscure, Jenson captures the playful evocative feel that a commentary on poetry should have.

3. James Hamilton. Christian Focus. 2015.
This is well structured and careful to observe biblical and theological threads that run through the book. His notes on the theological themes of the lovers songs about each other are eye-opening and brilliant. Points for clarity over the other two, but a less gripping read. The book is basically his 2012 sermon series with some additional material and application questions. The sermons can be downloaded here http://www.kenwoodbaptistchurch.com/resources/sermon-audio

Additionally I’ve found Ellen Davis' 2004 commentary particularly insightful in places. This book is more technical, and comes in a volume covering Solomon's other wisdom books, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Her impressive scholarship makes some assumptions I disagree with but is detailed and thoughtful and illuminating.

The excellent Ros Clarke bears significant responsibility for my interest in The Song of Songs due to her thesis on it. http://beginningwithmoses.org/oldsite/articles/songofsongs.pdf, so also Barry Webb's Five Festal Garments (NSBT) which got me reading The Song, Esther, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Ruth which if you're allowed favourite bible books...

Worth playing Bernard of Clairvaux's 12th Century hymn based on The Song of Songs as you read the text.


My sermon series for Beeston Free Church.
A FIRE KINDLED FROM HEAVEN

1. Love Desires (Song 1:1-8)
http://www.beeston-free.org/audio-catalogue/?download&file_name=20170423pm.mp3

2. Love Delights (Song 1:9-17)
http://www.beeston-free.org/audio-catalogue/?download&file_name=20170430pm.mp3

3. Love Tastes (Song 2:1-7)
http://www.beeston-free.org/audio-catalogue/?download&file_name=20170507pm.mp3

4. Love Together (Song 2:8-17)
http://www.beeston-free.org/audio-catalogue/?download&file_name=20170514pm.mp3

5. Love Treasures (Song 3:1-10)
http://www.beeston-free.org/audio-catalogue/?download&file_name=20170604pm.mp3

6. Love Feasts (Song 4:1-5:1)
http://www.beeston-free.org/audio-catalogue/?download&file_name=20170611pm.mp3

7. Love Lost (Song 5:2-8)
http://www.beeston-free.org/audio-catalogue/?download&file_name=20170618pm.mp3

8. Love Wins (Song 5:1-6:1)
http://www.beeston-free.org/audio-catalogue/?download&file_name=20170625pm.mp3

9. Love Renewed (Song 6:1-13)
http://www.beeston-free.org/audio-catalogue/?download&file_name=20170709pm.mp3

10. Love Allures (Song 7:1-8:4)
http://www.beeston-free.org/audio-catalogue/?download&file_name=20170716pm.mp3

11. Love Divine (Song 8:5-14)
Forthcoming (Scheduled to preach on 23rd July)

Monday, May 01, 2017

Our Own Hymn Book


I appreciate the thoughtful words of others. I enjoy books like The Valley of Vision and perusing through old hymn books. I find that others help to form my heart and give me words to express things better. Pursuing this, I found myself looking at Charles Spurgeon's Own Own Hymn Book online recently. Free PDF via Google Books here. 

The 19th Century 'prince of preachers' had a remarkable ministry in London, which gathered vast crowds and led to the planting of many churches.

In the introduction he explains 
"The providence of God brings very many new hearers within the walls of our place of worship, and many a time we have marked their futile researches and pitied the looks of despar with which they have given up all hope of finding the hymns, and so of joining intelligently in our words of praise. We felt that such ought not to be the state of our service of song and resolved if possible to reform it."
The driving factor to produce a hymn book - which Spurgeon explains was a last resort after much research - was to serve the very many guests who came into their gatherings who couldn't find song words and so couldn't participate. Today hymn books gather dust as very many churches prefer to project lyrics - which raise all kinds of different challenges. But, looking back, I love that they put in great research and effort to be sensitive to newcomers as well as to serve the church.

To what lengths would we go? How might our practices - which seem straight-forward enough for 'regulars' be confusing, and put looks of despair on the faces of those who come through our doors to explore faith? We all have jargon on our practice as well as our language. We all have things that are inconvenient that we put up with because of our prior commitment to the church -- but asking others to put up with that may prevent them from "joining intelligently" in what we're doing. What would a mystery-shopper notice? What would love for the newcomer notice - and invest time and money to change?

A hymn book is unlikely to be the answer!

Look further into Spurgeon's case: The result of their efforts is a deliberately widely sourced collection of 1059 hymns covering a wide range of subjects. A substantial publication. They'll have been paired with easy to sing tunes and I doubt whether every song got an airing. Worth noting that 15% are Psalms - largely Isaac Watts' versions.

A few observations...

1. I think I know 30 of the 1059 hymns. Others might score much higher! Nonethless, it  doesn't feel like much. I suspect I might not do much better with the 1998 Spring Harvest volume (my first songbook). Each generation has it's songs, and few last. A significant proportion of the ones I know are to tunes that have been written more recently. However, the pairing of melody to lyrics is looser historically. Hymns in the book have metre references which would allow multiple possible melodies.

2. The Hymn Book was published in 1866. Included in the book is Before the Throne of God Above - also called The Advocate or Jesus pleads for me. I note this one because it's widely known today - with a new tune by Steve & Vikki Cook. But also because in 1866 it's lyricist Charitie Lees Bancroft (attributed to her maiden name Cherrie Smith) was just 25 years old, and the song itself just 3 years old. Not counting a few that Spurgeon penned for the publication it's one of the newer songs in the collection. Today it's a classic, there it was brand new.

3. Notably absent are some of today's classic hymns. Be thou my vision wasn't translated until the early 20th Century so isn't there, and there are a good number of hymns still sung today that are less than 150 years old. There are a number of Wesley's hymns included, but there's no place for And Can It Be? Also absent is John Newton's Amazing Grace.

There are some great lyrics worth picking up again and as with CS Lewis' charge to read old books, we might do well to sing some of the older songs of the church. My guess is that the translations of Be thou my vision and O Sacred Head, now wounded are about as old as most of us get - unless we're singing Psalms.

We probably should also recognise that songs do come and go. Some of my favourite songs today are rearranged versions of old lyrics - but there are songs that were formative and cherished in my early Christian life that I've now not sung for years. When I survey... And Can It Be... Love Divine... Come Ye Sinners were one new-fangled songs (in 1707, 1738, 1747, 1759 respectively.) We used In Christ Alone at our wedding 15 years ago when it was relatively unknown, which is hard to imagine now.

Everyone finds it hard if they don't know any of the songs but church music is also designed to be easy to pick up. Spurgeon's concern was that newcomers were struggling to find the words among various volumes of hymnbooks. One suspects that even if they then didn't know the tune he'd be glad that they were now able to read along. Seeker insensitivity addressed and answered in his sitiation.

What do we need to do?

A further detail to note: Spurgeon hoped that their endeavours might not just serve themselves but might also be of some benefit to the wider church. Churches with resources at their disposal have such an opportunity - not to impose on others, but to support them. That still happens today though there might be more ways we can learn from and equip one another. Other people have probably already asked the questions we need to be asking.

Image: William - Creative Commons.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Songs we're singing in Church

Christians are a singing people, it's part of what we do when we gather.

Our church meets morning an evening on a Sunday - normally using 5 songs in each service. So, over the year that's about 520 song-slots available. The report from the database system we use (http://planningcenteronline.com/) tells us that in the past year we've sung about 150 different songs.

Our current most used song has been sung 11 times in the last year, just under once a month. Our top 10 are used about every 6 weeks. By #30 we're talking about songs used every two months. The tail is long and includes loads of classic hymns from across the centuries, plus other songs from the past 40 years, that we have used around once a term or less.

1. Rejoice - Dustin Kensrue



2. Come Praise & Glorify - Bob Kauflin



3. Man of Sorrows - Hillsong



4. Cornerstone - Hillsong


Rejoice was a song I didn't previously know, along with a couple of others that have quickly become firm favourites for me: Christopher Idle's 20th Century hymn Yes Finished The Messiah Dies and Bernard of Clairvaux's medieval O Sacred Head.





We mix older hymns and newer songs together. Songs are picked by our senior minister and myself in collaboration with our five band leaders and music coordinator - a team of 3 men and 5 women, seeking to serve the church with songs that will allow them to express their faith and to form their hearts.

We aim to introduce about 1 new song a month - some of which 'take' better than others. Our recent new song list looks like this...

December 2016 - When my heart is torn asunder by Phil Wickham



January 2017 - Come Ye Sinners - an old hymn reworked by the Norton Hall Band.


Febuary 2017 - This I believe - the apostles creed set to music at the bidding of Michael Jenson by Hillsong



March 2017 - Come behold the wondrous mystery



April 2017 - Where O Grave, a new song from the British Co-mission church group in London



May 2017 - Love came down by Ben Cantelon


June 2017 - You died for me - Sam Cox's meditation on the cross



We try to pick diverse songs and only new songs that add something to our choices, to give a good balance of musical styles, clear and understandable theology and themes, teaching songs, laments, celebrations, reflections, confessions... Our choices, as well as our musicians, take their place to serve the gathered congregation in singing.

We covers a complete age range though I guess put our average age is a little under 30 years old, around 80% British, with 20% international students and scholars - largely from China and Malaysia. Most people in the room are believers, many of them having moved into the area having come to faith elsewhere, though some have come to faith locally. We find there are always some guests in the room who are exploring faith. Those who are believers bring a wide range of songs they know, and those from other cultures or who are just exploring faith may know very few songs. Thankfully the best church music is necessarily written to be easy to understand and learn, to sing together and to hear others singing.

See also Olly Knight's Word Alive 2017 list.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

"In these stones horizons sing..."

[19] Then Joshua said to Achan, ‘My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and honour him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.’ 
[20] Achan replied, ‘It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done...    
[24] Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 
[25] Joshua said, ‘Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.’ Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. [26] Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since. (Joshua 7:19-26)
For a 21st Century European it's hard to see why anything deserves a death penalty, but the Old Testament law establishes this as part of the community ethos. You forfeit your life if you betray God and his people in certain ways. Perhaps not your eternity, but certainly this life.

In a culture terrified of death and determined to leave a lasting legacy this is hard to comprehend, but we still want justice for wrongs done. And if some wrongs should receive some sort of sentence, then why should offence against the Lord not have serious consequence.

Achan's death sentence is "trouble from the Lord" against this confessed sinner (v20). And he becomes a monument of trouble. His grave marked as The Valley of Achor - Trouble Valley. The stones that bury Achan warn his community, but also must be read in a wider context.

Many pages and centuries later, Hosea later prophesies that it's the Lord's intent - driven by love for people who have betrayed him - to take this Trouble Valley and make it into Hope Door - (Hosea 2:13-15). The Lord will take the stones of trouble and subvert them, upend them, transform them to build a gateway through which sinners find hope.

The Lord's story then is one in which the place of wrath is turned into mercy, trouble to hope. In Hosea's preaching, a byword for betrayal becomes a place of beautiful betrothal. Thus stands the cross of Christ - not  a pile of stones but a man pinned to a tree. Hosea's story is the story of the Lord Jesus - one who had no sin to confess and received a death sentence in our place.

Such is the Father's divine romance, orchestrated with the Son and the Spirit, to bring mercy to sinners. Let the stones cry out...

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, 
Weak and wounded, sick and sore; 
Jesus ready stands to save you, 
Full of pity, love and power.


Image - Bernard Spragg - Creative Commons

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Why good people are divided by politics and religion.


Why do we speak past one another? Why do we think those who differ with us are evil?

Jonathan Haidt says that fundamentally it’s because we’ve built our understanding of what matters to us on different foundations. It’s not just that we come to different conclusions but that we get there for different reasons. We can’t see why someone would see the world a different way because their perspective is based on values that we don’t hold, which may even conflict with ours.

I’d seen psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book cited in several articles and I engaged with that here. But, I’m really glad I followed up the footnotes to get a copy.

In the end, Haidt is appealing for us to seek to understand one another better, not to demonise those with whom we differ, and even to work together – each bringing our different strengths to the table.

The book is compelling and accessible if not brief – 375 pages plus 125 pages of footnotes and bibliography. I’m reminded of the Malcolm Gladwell book’s I’ve enjoyed in recent years. But, this feels better constructed, less anecdotal and more rigorous. Written in three parts Haidt outlines in his introduction the key idea of each section.
1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness.
3. Morality binds and blinds. 
Each part is illustrated by a central metaphor. Each image is easy to understand and illustrates the point clearly. Take note fellow communicators! And consider the message of each of them too...
1. An elephant and its rider – the rider is influential for where we go, but the elephant more so. Influencing the rider is important, but more so the elephant...
2. Tastebuds – our moral decisions are shaped by our ‘tastes’ – six foundations. Appeal to tastes people don't have and they wont bite...
3. Our human chimpishness and beeness. A hive mentality is part of being human. We form communities. Essentially to emphasise our groupishness and the way that the groups we're part of shape and strengthen our beliefs, and even the importance of an in-group to improve our attitude to those who aren't part of our group.
Lots to ponder from these observations alone, before getting into the detail!

When people "don't get" what we're saying how much is that because we were speaking to the rider not the elephant, that we hit the wrong tastebuds, or from the strong influence of their community... how could we convey the same message but to the elephant, to a different tastebud, and how much might community influence. What's the place of the inter-relation between believing, belonging and behaving (or "doing", as Haidt's diagram on p291 has it)?

My basic assumptions, religiously differ from Haidt's atheist/Jewish background though politically we both lean left. What’s fresh for me is his desire to understand where the two branches of right (libertarian / social conservative) are coming from and to value the perspectives of others.

I can’t always be bothered to do that, and I’m challenged by Haidt’s own journey and his scholarship to work harder.

He quotes the secret of Henry Ford’s success: 
the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own. 
Haidt applies this, self-consciously to the way he writes early on in the book (p59-60), in his use of stories, to deliberately address our intuitive elephant rather than shooting first for our reasoning rider. His professional experience means he's excellent at painting scenarios that probe deeply and bring out what we think and feel and believe.

Reading Haidt I find an interpretative grid falling over my facebook feed. I was reading it during the week Martin McGuinness died and Haidt made sense of the varied responses my friends made. See also status updates and tweets about US politics or the triggering of Article 50...

I’m querying my own views too.
How have I come to these convictions?
Why do I hold them? What shaped them?
What are the unintended consequences of my views?
Who do I need to learn from?
What might I discover?

I feel the need to go back over some sections to dig into the detail because the book delivers on its blurb claim that this “book will help you to understand your fellow human beings as never before.” The book doesn’t give a complete understanding of humanity – how could it? But I hope it will help me to be more diligent in seeking to understand others.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What's GOOD in this foreign country?


In the latest edition of Primer, Ed Shaw's article on Life in a foreign country notes the following matrix on the foundations of our morality, from The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt:
1. Care vs. Harm
2. Liberty vs. Oppression
3. Fairness vs. Cheating
4. Loyalty vs. Betrayal
5. Authority vs. Subversion
6. Sanctity vs. Degradation
He notes that evangelicals prefer the categories down the list and seem like people in a foreign country - defining what's good differently to the culture around us. Where we look to the bottom half of the list, our culture is intellectually and emotionally more persuaded by the top of the list.

The gospel of Jesus however can easily be articulated in the higher up the list categories... In Galatians 2, for example, an appeal could be made to authority - though there's a downplaying of those held in 'esteem' but also Paul's clear commitment to the authority of God's revelation to him of his Son Jesus.

We could speak of Paul's bringing of divine authority to bear, but he's just as much demonstrating in the gospel...
  • A commitment to the extraordinary care of God for sinful people in sending his son to rescue us. Paul will not tolerate harm being done to Titus or the Galatians, especially not to exclude them from sonship in God’s family. Christ means us no harm and is the greatest care.
  • An unwavering commitment to defending the liberty of people to live as sons in God’s family. The oppressive of slavery to the destructive authority of idols is intolerable. The Christian gospel is really not enslaving... it's everything else that is slavery compared to sonship.
  • An unbreakable commitment to the gospel that doesn’t discriminate on outwards things and so cheat people of the gift that could be theirs, but rather with utter fairness offers life to all and any in this world. Christianity isn't going to cheat anyone - though it's claims are exclusive, they have a deep fairness, a super-fairness in reality that goes way beyond fairness to grace.
None of which is to say that actually we don't think well in terms of loyalty/betrayal, nor authority/subversion, nor sanctity/degredation -- we think we don't think those are important but we probably know they are.

The challenge is that if an evangelical appeals that our good news is good because of God's authority, because of an appeal to loyalty or an appeal to sanctity/purity, that is deeply unpersuasive... whereas when good news is articulated as care, liberty and fairness we feel very different. I think the Bible uses all six to explain and persuade, but I'm aware I lean to some more than to others.

LISTEN - Mere Fidelity podcast - Andrew, Alastair and Derek talk about Haidt's book.