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In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. – Proverbs 3:6

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God’s Preferred Music

About 15 years ago I attended a wedding which was held in a large cathedral-like sanctuary. It was a new building, only a few years old, but it had been modelled after a Roman Catholic Church building in Croatia, with some modern features added. All the surfaces in the building were hard – drywalled walls and ceiling, marble floor, wooden pews. The ceilings were high, and the pews did not nearly cover the entire floor, leaving lots of exposed hard surfaces.

During the wedding, the couple had chosen to sing a couple of praise songs, led, rather surprisingly, by a nun playing an electronic piano. She was a good accompanist, and even though more than half of the people in attendance were familiar with the praise songs, the singing was abysmal. The problem was that praise songs have a rather upbeat tempo, but you can’t sing fast songs in an echoey building. It doesn’t work. The words and notes got all mixed up together.

In our sanctuary, there is little or no reverberation time. If someone claps their hands in the empty sanctuary of Nobleford CRC, the reverberation time is less than one second. (I tried it.) When the sanctuary is full of people, I suspect that there will be very little reverberation time at all. In that Croatian church, however, the reverberation time was 4-5 seconds. That means that if you clap, you will still hear it echoing after 4 seconds, even when the sanctuary was full of people. A praise song, which can have many as two or three syllables in one second, will fill the sanctuary with as many as 7 or 8 different notes. Singing quickly in a cathedral results in a terrible cacophony of noise that doesn’t sound beautiful in any way.

As we well know, in Europe they started building big stone churches well over a millennium ago. We don’t know must about the church music before then, for we have no recordings, but we can be sure that it didn’t take long for musicians and composers to develop music that sounded beautiful in the cathedral. The notes would have had to be long, and the singing slow. A few years ago, Helen and I joined a group of people singing in a stone church in Jerusalem which had a reverberation of time of almost 10 seconds. We sang slowly, and it was beautiful. When the song ended, we could hear the last notes dying away, and because of the nature of the song, those notes blended together into beautiful harmony. Doing the same thing in our sanctuary would not have the same effect.

As these huge churches were being built across Europe, they were also looking for instruments that could fill the space. Twelve hundred years ago, the Muslims of Asia and North Africa were the most educated people in the world (while the majority of Europeans were unable to read or write), and they were preserving machines and ideas from the past. Although it is unlikely they had invented the organ, they had preserved it, and Christians in Europe found it to be the perfect instrument for their every increasingly large sanctuaries. The organ was the most complex machine in the world at that time, and it was very expensive, and it became a competition among churches to see who could afford not only the biggest building but the most beautiful organ. The church with the nicest and most expensive organ was the winner of the prestige competition. True, they passed off their big buildings and expensive instruments as a sign of dedication to the Lord, but we can be sure that that was not their only or even first motivation.

It is not hard to understand how many today will say that truly reverent music must be sung slowly and accompanied by the organ. But slow organ music is not so much a function of reverence as it is a function of necessity and prestige.

And, thus, we have what have been called the “worship wars.” People who mistakenly believe that reverent church music must be sung slowly to the organ criticize those who long for more upbeat music led by guitar and piano, while those who prefer the faster songs complain about how boring the old music is. So, people get to arguing and bickering and complaining and sometimes churches even are divided over music preference.

Because that is all it is. It’s just preference, our preference. The question we have to ask is this: does it really matter what we prefer? I would prefer not to go to an opera because I prefer other kinds of music, and why waste money on a ticket to listen to music I don’t understand and have never grown to like? I know that many people in this area prefer country music, and they will pay big money to go to Calgary to listen to the latest and greatest country music artist. They want to be in that audience.

But let’s remember that in church, we aren’t the audience. God is. And he is the only person in the audience. So, what kind of music does God prefer? I don’t know, but I suspect that he was a little disappointed when people bragged about how big their buildings were and how expensive their organs were as they talked with the people from the neighbouring village who didn’t have quite as much to brag about. I also suspect that God is not entirely happy when he sees a group of people with all the latest instruments doing a “gig” at the front of the sanctuary while most of those gathered simply look on as they are entertained. I imagine that neither of those are high on God’s “preferred worship music” list.

What does God prefer? I suspect he prefers lyrics that are honest, biblical, true, and meaningful. I suspect that God doesn’t have a strong preference about how the music sounds, but I do suspect that he does like to hear voices raised, no matter what the style of music, as people honour him and praise him for all that he has done for us. In other words, I suspect that God prefers music that is true and that is truly sung from the heart. And he doesn’t much like it when we turn up our noses at a song and refuse to participate because we don’t “prefer” it.

I have a brother who is quite tone deaf. It’s a very unpleasant experience to sit beside him in church and even more to sit in front of him. He knows that he is tone deaf, but years ago he made the decision that he would sing anyway, and he does in full voice. It sounds horrible to us, but I suspect that to God it is some of the sweetest music he hears on a Sunday because my brother sings truthfully from the heart. I suspect God is happier with that than some of the on-key mumbling we might offer. God is happy with what he hears from my brother, I am sure, but I have wished in the past that my brother could at least get one note right. But that is my preference, not God’s. Reverent music is not slow organ-led music but, rather, reverent must be true and sung truthfully, if it is sung slowly in a large cathedral, quickly with electric guitars or off-key by someone who loves the Lord.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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The Interest of an Unbeliever

This past week a few words by author Georges Bernanos caught my attention. A Christian himself, Bernanos, who was writing from the perspective of an unbeliever, wrote this: “Unbelievers are extremely interested in you [Christians]. There are few of us who at some point in our lives have not made a tentative approach in your direction, were it only to insult you. After all, put yourselves in our place. Were there but one chance, even the smallest chance, the faintest chance, of you being right, death would come as a devastating surprise to us. So we’re bound to watch you closely and try to fathom you.” This is a rather surprising and somewhat refreshing perspective.

Usually we are encourage to gauge our feelings and attitudes toward those who don’t believe, and it is right that we do so. We are called to love them and express that love by bringing them word of God’s grace. We are encouraged to show interest in those who don’t believe, but we struggle with that, often times, feeling guilty that we have not done enough to bring the gospel to those who are around us. We castigate ourselves for not having done enough “to win souls for Christ,” to use a Baptist expression.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to our work of evangelism is that we have come to believe that unbelievers don’t care to hear the gospel. Who would be interested in what we have to say anyway? We are told repeatedly that the gospel is no longer relevant for today’s world, and we might wonder if it is true. Who wants to listen to something that doesn’t matter? Further, as Reformed Christians, we are firmly convinced that the Holy Spirit must first work in the hearts of unbelievers before they would believe, and we make the excuse, perhaps, that we don’t always know where the Spirit is at work, if he is indeed at work in this part of the world. Perhaps we convince ourselves that no one really wants to hear the message we have for them because the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be preparing receptive hearts.

Bernanos wants us to look at things from a different perspective. How do unbelievers see us? Again, we often chastise ourselves by saying that unbelievers see our problems, our divisions, our sins, and they draw the conclusion that they we are all hypocrites. That sentiment is out there, without a doubt, but unbelievers must really wonder why we do what we do? What motivates the faithful, each and every Sunday, some of them twice, to attend a worship service? Why do they do that? And they must wonder when we face illness and death and struggle with confidence and peace how it can be that we can be so assured in the face of difficulty. Many of them do not have much reason to hope. As Bernanos says, many unbelievers must have moments when they wonder about what happens after death, and they must have that twinge of fear that perhaps they are wrong in their belief, and if they are wrong, what awaits them is an eternity of despair.

It may well be a fact that there is more interest in what gives us hope and peace than what we might believe. Unbelievers may not be as hardened as we imagine. In fact, they may be more receptive to the gospel than we might have led ourselves to believe. We won’t know, of course, until we engage in conversations with those around us who do not believe. It is only then that we can discover if unbelievers are interested in what compels us to do what we do.

Over the years I have had opportunity to engage unbelievers in conversations, and, surprisingly, those conversations are usually started by them. Perhaps it’s because they discovered I am a pastor or because I mentioned church on Sunday, or perhaps it is something else that I said or did. I don’t recall how the conversations started, but, usually, there is a genuine interest in what we believe. True, sometimes people want to point out the faults of the church and have questions about the fact that we see so divided. I’ve only had one person ridicule Christianity, but I got to know him fairly well, and he tends to the kind of person to repeat what he has heard others say. Except in rare cases, I have discovered that there is a genuine interest in what being a Christian is all about, even if that interest is coloured with skepticism or disdain. But interest is interest, and we should make the most of every opportunity to talk about what God has done in Christ.

I must confess that talking about my faith with unbelievers is not always the easiest thing for me. I must also admit that the more I do it, the more natural it becomes. In other words, practice helps, something that I am discovering far too late in life.

I find the view of Bernanos fascinating, for I had never thought of things in that way. Perhaps we might find talking about our faith with others to be a lot easier if we understand that they are interested, even if it is only out of curiosity. As Reformed Christians, we don’t know where the Holy Spirit is working, but instead of assuming that he is not (an excuse to remain silent), we should assume that he is working in the hearts of unbelievers, and they might be genuinely searching instead of being merely curious. As Peter says, we should always be prepared to answer those who wonder why we have so much hope. I don’t doubt that unbelievers are interested in what makes a Christian tick. Sometimes that interest is rooted in disdain, but interest is interest, and we may have more opportunities to talk about what Jesus has done than we have traditionally believed.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Pictures and Words

Can we always trust what we see? I watched a clip of a video on the Internet the other day in which a woman was being held hostage by a man with a gun, and two police officers were standing with their guns drawn, trying to get him to let the woman go. As the scene unfolded, a soldier came upon the situation from behind and managed to sneak up on the man with the gun and subdue him. It appeared that he was a hero. He was not. A film crew was filming a scene for a movie, and what appeared to be a real hostage situation was actually a group of actors doing what they do best. What the soldier saw needed explanation. What we see can be deceiving.

Pictures, what we see, often need interpretation. A picture is worth a thousand words, we often hear said, and that is true. It’s far easier to draw a picture of a house plan than it is to try to describe it to the builder. Of course, if one has never seen a blueprint, they will not know what they are looking at without explanation. Pictures, while they convey a story, most often need to have an explanation so that we can understand that story.

The sacraments are a good example of this. If someone who did not speak English and who had no exposure to Christianity came to our church on a Communion Sunday and watched what was happening, what would they think? They would not think for a moment that a meal was being served, for the quantity of food and drink that is distributed would scarcely sustain a mouse let along a human being. They might conclude that communion is some kind of ritual, but they would not, from mere observation, conclude that what was being remembered and celebrated was a crucifixion that took place 2000 years ago, and they would never guess that that crucifixion served to save us from our sins. There is no meaning to communion without explanation, but with explanation, with words, the ritual takes on a deep meaning.

In Scripture, what people could observe came with explanation. Without that explanation, there would be no understanding. Thus, those who do not hold to the teachings of Scripture but who find historical record of things that Scripture tells us about, try to come up with explanations of what they see. Archaeology may tell of the destruction of Jericho but instead of seeing this to be truly an act of God (unlike earthquakes today which are the result of the movement of tectonic plates and not at all an act of God per the insurance company) – instead of seeing the destruction of Jerich to be God’s work, they find some other explanation, one that best fits what they see but which is incorrect. Likewise, David’s victory over Goliath cannot be explained by saying that this young lad was adept with a slingshot but, rather, that God enabled David to bring victory to the Israelites. If we are going to understand something that we observe, we need an explanation.

Of course, the explanation needs to be correct. The devil tempted Eve to eat of the tree, saying that if she did, her eyes would be opened. She took a new look at the tree and saw that the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eye. The devil reinterpreted a picture for her, and his interpretation led her to draw a false conclusion as to the value of the tree. Sadly, by being misled by false words, she began a process which drew her husband into disobedience as well, and that disobedience extended to the rest of humankind. Had Eve listened to her trustworthy God, she would not have sinned, and we would have been in a very different place today.

The lesson to be learned here is that we cannot trust what we see. We need an explanation, but we need to be careful to have the right interpretation. This is where God’s Word becomes exceedingly valuable, in fact, indispensable. We would not understand the world around us if it weren’t for the explanation that God provides.

Yet, increasingly, we are being led to believe that what we see is of great value and we should draw conclusions by that which appears before us. We are told that what appears to be good must be good. We might see two people appearing to be very happy, perhaps because they are in a relationship together. Everything appears to be good because it looks good. Yet, as we well know from Eve’s experience, what appears to be good might not be good. We need to evaluate that relationship in the light of God’s Word. A couple happily having dinner together at a fine restaurant could well be a boss, a married man, who is having an affair with his secretary. What appears to be wonderful might actually be wrong when an explanation is given, especially if it brought into the light of God’s Word. Appearances can be deceiving and often are.

It is often said that there are two means by which God reveals himself, creation and his Word. Creation appears before us as a wonderful picture, but we can misinterpret what we see. Many people look at creation and see no evidence of God at all. That sometimes comes as a surprise to a Christian unless we admit that what we see can be misleading. We need the word of explanation that God created all things, and if we view a sunset or a waterfall from that perspective, it is only then that we understand how creation reveals God to us.

We should always be wary, therefore, of what we see. Something may look wonderful, but if we receive the proper interpretation, we will discover that it is not so beautiful after all. The key word in the previous sentence, of course, is “proper.” We always need to return to God’s Word for a proper explanation, interpretation or evaluation of what we see. We can also have improper interpretations, and those make the situation worse than if there is no interpretation at all.

Let’s be wary, then, that we do not draw conclusions about what is right or wrong by what we see. Pictures and images can often be misleading unless we are told what they mean. God’s Word is the final authority for explanation, and all other explanations must conform to that. If something does not conform to divine explanation, chances are we have misunderstood what we have seen and are being deceived. This is why it is important that we know God’s Word so that we can properly understand the world around us.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Shaping the Building

To Winston Churchill is attributed this saying: “We shape the building, and the building shapes us.” Practically speaking, we know this to be true. Even something as simple as the (mis)placement of an electrical outlet may determine where we put our TV, and the location of the TV will almost certainly affect the dynamics of the household. Or, when a farmer makes the feed alleys too narrow in his new barn, he may find himself doing more work by hand than he anticipated. Or, since we have stopped building houses with front porches and instead fenced in our backyards, we no longer interact with our neighbours as we did in past decades. Neighbourhoods rarely exist anymore, at least not in more recent housing developments. When we shape a building, the building will shape us. It is important, then, that we design buildings that will shape our lives so that we learn to live in ways that reflect our values and our needs.

Recently I read a chapter in a book which outlined a development in western thinking that has led many to believe that the gods (and God) are designed and built by human beings. There is some truth to that, certainly with respect to the gods of the nations in biblical times. The people of long ago sensed that there was a divine power/person who they could not see or hear but who yet somehow involved himself in earthly life, and they tried to imagine what that god would be like. They created a variety of images that they believed represented the god or gods. They shaped the gods, but, in turn, the gods shaped them. In the western world, about 200 years ago, a number of influential thinkers proposed that the same was true of Christians in relationship to the Lord. These thinkers said that we, like the pagans, created a god who we claimed to be the one true God. Further, they said that the Bible is nothing more than our projection of what we think this God should be like. So, like the nations of the Old Testament, the truth we hold so dear is something that we created ourselves and, according to them, we are living under an illusion if we commit ourselves to serving God.

What these “deep” thinkers proposed was that we envision a world where there is no God (or gods). Instead of being constricted by the commands of this powerful God, because there is no God, they said that we should feel free to live as we please. They said that Christians (and all who believe in divine beings) created their God because they wanted a sense of security and hope, but with it they also created a God who restricted their lives. Among these thinkers of the 19th century there were those who wanted to throw off the fetters (God’s rules) that bound them so that they could live freely. Living without stricture, they believed, was the highest human good, and the concept of God got in the way of that kind of life. Only those who live freely, they said, can be truly happy.

What they were doing was shaping a building, the world, in which there is no God, but that building began to shape them and those who came after them. By eliminating God from their lives, they were able to live freely, but they began to discover that freedom to do whatever they wanted led to unintended consequences. On of the last of that kind of “thinker” was a man named Frederich Nietzsche who declared that God was dead. He began to live as he pleased, and as a result of having multiple sexual partners, contracted a disease which led to his insanity and early death. The building shaped him in ways that he did not suspect, much as the building where there is no God is shaping our world today, and most of what results is not as expected or desired.

But where those thinkers right in saying that we created God? I do not doubt that the gods of the nations of the Bible were created by the people. Those gods were often no more complex than the blocks of stone meant to represent them. But when we consider the God of the Bible, we find someone who is far more complex, more intricate, more profound than any human being could conceive. If it is true that we created the God depicted in the Bible, we are far more intelligent than we seem, for we would then have created a God who is beyond our understanding. As Isaiah 40:13 says, “Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counsellor?” The God of the Bible is far more complex and more profound and more infinite than any God a human being could create. That and that alone convinces me that the thinkers of the 19th century were wrong when they said that God is our creation. He cannot be, for we are not capable of such depth. We did not shape a God that we wanted, but God revealed himself to us.

We shape the building, and the building shapes us. But if we do not shape the building, the building still shapes us. And that is the way it is with God. Even though we did not create him (for we couldn’t), as long as recognize him, honour him, trust him, and serve him, or, in other words, acknowledge his presence in our lives and world, he will shape us. The shape of our lives is determined by the fact that we live in God’s creation and in his presence. Those who have tried to shape a world without God are learning that such a building is not good for humanity. And, as we can see from history, any time we try to shape the building (our world) without God, it refashions us in ways which are not beneficial. It is only in God’s building, in God’s world, that we can be shaped in a way that causes us to thrive and live. We may not have shaped God, but he does shape us.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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