Thursday, 26 October 2017

Coming to terms with mystery

It’s as old as history, wanting to know everything about everything. But there is a limit. For example, we cannot know everything about God, although that did not prevent Adam and Eve trying when they ‘ate’ of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:6). This attempt to be 'like God' (see Genesis 3:5) naturally failed, but it is a salutary lesson to us that there are limits to what we can, or indeed should, know about God.

This is not to say we cannot know anything about Him. We know something of the extent of His love because we have seen it in Jesus, and Paul talks about his desire and prayer that the Christians in Ephesus grow in their knowledge of that love (see Ephesians 3:18). Will we ever get to fully grasp it? No, but it is so rewarding trying, and besides, that is how we grow, and will continue to grow throughout eternity. 

We can know something too of His wisdom, His power, His beauty and His grace, all of which can be seen in His Creation and His Word. But there will be large gaps in our knowledge because at the end of the day we are creatures and He is Creator, he alone is God, and we are not. What remains, therefore, is wonder, awe and mystery.

The Eastern Orthodox Church can teach us much about this. Look at the following quotes by one of its best spokespeople, Bishop Kallistos Ware:

“We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” 

In trying to explain how we can get close to God but not too close, we can, for example, cite the experience of Moses on the Mountain in Exodus 33:20.

Earlier on in verse 11, we are told that "The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend". But when later Moses asks God if he can see His glory - which I think is another way of seeing God. But God replies:

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (verses 19-20)
In other words, God is saying "this far and no further". He is setting limits on just how much Moses is able to 'see' or know about Him. As a result, the Orthodox like to make a distinction between God's essence and His energies:

“Such, then, is our God: unknowable in his essence, yet known in his energies; beyond and above all that we can think or express, yet closer to us than our own heart.”  (See Wikipedia)

His essence is His being, nature and substance, and that is what is being referred to when Exodus talks about God’s face. Your face is you, your substance/body. But we cannot look on this any more than we can look into the sun.

God’s energies, on the other hand, are what enable us to experience something of the Divine, at first through sensory perception and then later intuitively. Through prayer, revelation, personal experience and feelings.

And so the Bible can talk about knowing God and yet not knowing Him at the same time. Knowing God through revelation, and yet holding that in tension with the idea that He is also a mystery, so totally‘other’ that our puny and weak minds will never fully comprehend Him. And if we did, we too would be God.

But the wonderful gift of God is that we can know Him, and the most important thing about Him. His love. Kallistos Ware says:

“To know a person is far more than to know facts about that person. To know a person is, essentially, to love him or her; there can be no true awareness of other persons without mutual love.”

What is truly wonderful, miraculous and a great gift to us, is that through and because of Jesus, we can know the love of God, and God Himself, because as 1 John 4:8 "God is love". To know His love is enough to keep us eternally content and eternally satisfied.

As for mystery? Well, it keeps us wondering and worshipping, and that, surely, is how it is meant to be. 

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

The Key ot Revival

The Importance of Praise

The following article really inspired me to take another look at worship, especially praise. It is from the website www.desiringgod.org:

My understanding of the nature of worship was radically transformed by a fundamental truth I found in C.S. Lewis, who died 50 years ago this month. What Lewis helped me grasp is best explained by looking briefly at his own struggle with worship as he explained it in the essay titled, “A Word About Praising,” in his short book, Reflections on the Psalms, pages 90–98 in my worn, 1958 edition. In a word, Lewis enabled me to recognize that not only was it permissible to enjoy God in worship, it was absolutely essential if I was truly to honour him. He said it in this one profound statement: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses, but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” But there is a lot that leads up to this statement.

God’s Deep God-Centeredness
As a young man, Lewis was more than a little agitated by the persistent demand, especially in the Psalms, that we all “praise God.” What made it even worse is that God himself called for praise of God himself. This was almost more than Lewis could stomach. What kind of “God” is he who incessantly demands that his people tell him how great he is? Lewis was threatened with a picture of God in which he appeared as little better than a vain woman demanding compliments. Thanking God for his gifts was one thing, but this “perpetual eulogy” was more than Lewis could stomach.

I suspect this strikes us as problematic, as it did Lewis because we want to think that God is preeminently concerned with us, not himself. We want a God who is man-centred, not God-centered. Worse still, we can’t fathom how God could possibly love us the way we think he should if he is so unapologetically obsessed with the praise and glory of his own name. How can God love me if all his infinite energy is expended in the love of himself?

Part of Lewis’s problem, as he himself confesses, was that he did not see that “it is in the process of being worshipped that God communicates his presence to men.” Even in the old-covenant sacrificial system, it wasn’t so much that the Israelites gave bulls and goats to God “but that by their so doing God gave himself to men.” God is, after all, the creator and owner of the cattle on a thousand hills. If he were to become hungry, so he says in Psalm 50:12, he would hardly need to tell us!

Enjoyment Overflows to Praise
Lewis is addressing, somewhat indirectly, the question: Why do you worship a God who needs nothing? Indeed, how do you do so? If God is altogether self-sufficient and cannot be served by human hands as if he needed anything (Acts 17:24–25; Romans 11:33–36), least of all glory, why does he command our worship and praise of him? This is where Lewis turned the light on in my brain and stirred the affections of my heart:

"But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses [Romeo praising Juliet and vice versa], readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . . Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. . . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value."

What Lewis is touching on here is how the love of God for sinners like you and me is ultimately made manifest. God desires our greatest good. But what greater good is there in the universe than God himself? If therefore, God is truly to love us, he must give us himself.

Praise Completes Our Joy
But merely giving us of himself is only the first step in the expression of his affection for sinners. He must work to elicit from our hearts rapturous praise and superlative delight because, as Lewis said, “all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.” That’s the way God made us. We can’t help but praise and rejoice in what we most enjoy. The enjoyment itself is stunted and hindered if it is never expressed in joyful celebration.

Here’s how Lewis explained it:
"I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with."
So, Lewis is telling us that God’s pursuit of our praise of him is not weak self-seeking but the epitome of self-giving love! If our satisfaction in God is incomplete until expressed in praise of him for satisfying us with himself (note well, with himself, not his gifts), then God’s effort to elicit my worship (what Lewis before thought was inexcusable selfishness) is both the most loving thing he could possibly do for me and the most glorifying thing he could possibly do for himself.

For in our gladness in him is his glory in us.
The Consummation of Joy by Sam Storms on desiringgod.org

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Holy Communion every week?

The following is an article from one of the blogs I read called Anglican Pastor. It is called: "Why Every Church Should Have Weekly Sunday Communion Like the Anglicans Do" and he makes a good argument for something I have come to firmly believe in. Like him, it wasn't a Roman Catholic or High Church argument that won me over but the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, evangelical Anglicans (the Puritans) and the Early Church that convinced me. But that's enough about me. read what Greg has to say:

Why Every Church Should Have Weekly Sunday Communion Like the Anglicans Do.
There was a long period where many Anglican churches didn’t have communion every Sunday. They would have morning prayer for a few weeks, and then a Holy Communion once a month or so. But a movement called Parish Communion successfully restored the tradition around the world. Today, most (but not all) Anglican churches celebrate Holy Communion every week on Sunday. And so should you.

Rote Ritual?
I’ve heard a few arguments against weekly communion, but the “rote ritual” argument is the primary one from evangelical churches.

For me, this is really a non-argument. All churches do a lot of things every Sunday, such as singing, praying, and preaching. Any of these things can become rote or seem mundane. Yet we find ways to stay connected. The same goes with Holy Communion.

Examine Your Hearts
A historic argument against weekly communion is the “people are too bad” argument. This was the reason why most lay people did not receive communion during the Middle Ages. The lowly, sinful, tainted lay people were not so holy as the clergy, it was said. So they had to prepare for Eucharist every year during Lent, and then receive only on Easter Day. That way they wouldn’t risk the damnation that would come from receiving with an impure heart.

Ironically this argument was coming from the Pope and the Roman Catholics, not the Protestant reformers. The Reformers were actually arguing for more frequent communion. Their internal debate was whether it should be weekly or monthly.

Today many evangelicals make a similar argument against weekly communion. If people received every week, they might receive in the unworthy manner that St. Paul warns us about. So we should not have communion too often so that people will be careful to examine their hearts.

This way of thinking is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Holy Table of Jesus Christ. It is a table of grace. This is not to say that we should approach it lightly or frivolously. No. But it is to say that the Holy Communion is the place where baptized believers come to taste and see that the Lord is good. Communion is for sinners, saved by grace.

When we were children, we were helped to wash our hands before each meal. We weren’t sent away because our hands were dirty. So our heavenly Father will wash us and feed us.

Evangelism
Another argument against weekly communion is evangelistic. It is said that non-believers or seekers won’t understand or have time to sit through a full Eucharist. They might be confused by it.

The early church used to dismiss seekers before the communion. They would allow outsiders to hear the word read and preached, and some of the prayers. But they dismissed everyone except baptized believers before the communion. Keep in mind that these seekers and catechumens were being offered small group classes that explained Christian beliefs and told them what the Eucharist was about. This was no secret society.

In a way, we still do this today. We “fence the table,” which means we announce that the table is for baptized - or in some churches confirmed - believers. We then are able to offer a blessing to all who will not be receiving. Adults take classes before baptism and children who are baptized later take confirmation classes.

In practical terms, I’ve found the communion to be something that interests people. Eating and drinking are fundamental parts of human life. Observing people who are eating and drinking at God’s Table is beautiful to most people. Explaining what we are doing and why is a chance to share the gospel. Paul even said that we are proclaiming the Gospel every time we take the bread and cup (I Corinthians 11:26).

While the Holy Communion service might not be quite as simple as a prayer, praise, and preaching service, it doesn’t have to add hours of time. It may only add a few minutes overall. But in terms of our witness, it adds an invitation to receive Christ himself.

The Biblical Record
There are quite a few biblical reasons to hold weekly communion, where it is possible to do so.

First, Jesus rose again on Sunday, the first day of the week. Every Sunday is a mini-Easter. At the inn at Emmaus, the Risen Christ reveals himself to the disciples in the breaking of the bread. Of course, this was after he had shown them how the Christ was prophesied in the Scriptures. This same risen Christ reveals himself to us every Sunday in the breaking of bread.

When we receive the spiritual nourishment of the Eucharist, we are refreshed for the upcoming week. We gather on Sunday to see the good things God has done and is doing, and we are sent out into the world to love and serve him. The communion is our holy food and drink, a way of resting in God’s presence. Time stands still and we are fed.

Second,  the earliest churches gathered on Sundays, and they “broke bread” when they did (Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:2).  They believed that communion was a participation in Christ himself (I Corinthians 10:16) and so their worship included communion in order for people to be with Christ in that unique way.

Third, Jesus himself instituted the Lord’s Supper. He said to do this often (I Corinthians 11:25). I think we have it on the highest authority that the holy meal is to be a regular occurrence.

Church History
The Holy Communion has been held weekly on Sundays by most churches in most place from the earliest recorded history of the Church. It has followed the service of the Word, and the two services (Word and Sacrament), have been an integrated whole.

Personal Experience
Weekly communion is the centre of my spiritual life. I have experienced Christ there, been fed by him, and have gone away full. I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.

Does it become mundane?  Yes. Mundane is good. Mundane means that Jesus has entered into the regular, normal, everyday human part of my life. But it is also profound. Jesus has made himself present to me in the breaking of the bread. I feel that I could not leave behind weekly Eucharist. I feel like I would starve to death!

As a priest and pastor, I have observed and talked with a lot of people about their experience of weekly communion. Some have shared with me that they received communion as a child, but no one ever explained it to them. It was seen as a religious ritual with no meaning. But with the proper reverence and with Gospel-centered teaching about the Eucharist, their love of communion comes alive.

Often a church member will be visiting family or on vacation and will attend a non-eucharistic church on a Sunday or two. And often they will tell me how strange it seemed to pray, sing, hear a sermon, and then… go home. Someone once told me it is like sitting down to dinner, saying grace, talking for a few minutes, and then standing up and walking away without ever eating.

Weekly Sunday communion is our holy meal. Taste and see that the Lord is good!
Greg Goebel on Anglican Pastor

Thursday, 5 October 2017

A snealk peak at the New City Catechism

The New City Catechism

The (Welcome) Return of Catechism

When I was about 11 my parents sent me to a Convent School in Clydach for about a year. It was run by a Roman Catholic order of nuns who taught, kept discipline and generally ran the school. Although I was from a Protestant (Anglican) background, I was one of a number of similar children who were allowed to attend on the basis that we attend Mass with everyone else, and join in the classes on religious instruction.

With regards to the latter, this meant learning the Catechism off by heart. All I can remember from those lessons is the very first question that the Catechism addresses: "Who made you?" Answer: "God made me." The impression left was one of boredom and what the whole point of it was, alongside the vague memory of some kind of punishment if I got it wrong (although nothing heavy-handed).

Since then I have had a rather negative image of any religious education associated with the word 'catechism' and, what I saw then, as pointless rote learning, with its emphasis on remembering over and against understanding.

But it seems that my criticism is both premature, inaccurate and unfair for the following reasons:
First, to do with the word 'Catechism'. It is from the Greek and means, simply "to learn orally". Although it tends to be associated with one part of the church - chiefly the Roman Catholic Church - it is an idea that was prevalent in the first four-five centuries as the Church sought to educate and teach those who were unable to read. Questions and answers were learnt off by heart and then discussed so that the meaning of what was taught by the method would be well and truly understood.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, this degenerated in some parts of the Church into just learning answers in order to say you have "done the course". Understanding took second place to getting the answers correct.

Second, is to do with who used the catechism. If you look up the word in the dictionary some definitions associate it only with the Roman Catholic Church. This is inaccurate as we have noted that from the start the one united church practised it, in one way or another, until the Great Schism in the 11th century when the church split into two - Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. But both continued with the use of a catechism, only with their own particular doctrinal emphasis.

This continued until the Reformation in the 16th century when the Protestant Churches were formed following the teaching of Luther, Calvin and others. But what is interesting is that the idea of a catechism for teaching the faith continued with Luther, for example, producing his 'Small Catechism' which can be found here. This contains within it teaching about The Ten Commandments, The Apostles' Creed, The Lord's Prayer, baptism, confession, Holy Communion, Daily Prayer, a Table of Duties, and Christian Questions with their answers, which was a means of preparing a person to receive Holy Communion.

In 1560 the other great reformer John Calvin also produced a catechism called the Geneva Catechism which you can look at here.

And so you can see that the idea is not limited to just one part of the Church but has been used over the centuries by most of the major denominations who wanted to ensure that its adherents were properly taught about the Christian Faith.

Third, although the catechism became associated with the preparation of candidates for baptism and/or confirmation, it has more important and wider importance than that. In fact, you could say that it's association with baptism/confirmation is partly responsible for its abuse and eventual neglect because those wanting to be part of the church and/or being able to receive Holy Communion sometimes fell into the way of learning the answers to the questions just in order to achieve their aims. In other words, the catechism became a means to an end and not an end in itself - which was to believe and learn the Christian faith.

But, as someone once said, "the answer to abuse, is not misuse but right use". Just because it was abused it doesn't mean it was wrong (the same can be said of liturgy in Anglican and other churches). Before throwing it away, try using it properly and see why, in the first place, it was so widely used.

And so what we see today is the recovery and rehabilitation of the catechism. So, for example, the Church of England and other Anglican churches have produced their own catechism. And in more recent times the Gospel Coalition in America - fronted by Tim Keller - have produced 'The New City Catechism' which you can access here, and which can be downloaded as an app on your phone or tablet.

The Anglican Church in North America with the help of such people as Dr J.I.Packer (of Knowing God fame) has also recently produced their own called "To be a Christian" and which can be downloaded here.

The point I am making in all this is that perhaps it is the time we took another look at the idea of a catechism as something to help the people in our churches learn about what it is they believe and why? It can be both a means of being able to share and defend the faith.

In the next few posts I have included videos introducing some of the new (Protestant) catechisms mentioned earlier.