Our Cultural Garden

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled last Friday that no State has the right to make it illegal for a man to “marry” a man and for a woman to “marry” a woman. This is on the heels of national news and controversy over a man changing himself into a woman (adding some female parts to his male parts). Some women are mad that this defines womanhood according to bodily features, and pink nail polish. There is also outrage over the Confederate flag presumed to represent motives behind the murder of nine people in Charleston even though no outrage is directed over the US flag which flies over thousands of murders day by day, all claimed it in the name of “liberty.” And, of course, our celebration of Independence Day is a couple days away. Do we, as those who worship the LORD God, Creator of heaven and earth, have a way to explain what we see? Do we have any message in the midst of this?

I took a (sort of) break from Genesis last Sunday to preach about these questions. In fact, I think the ancient chapters of the Bible reveal decisive answers for now.

Let’s start with an argument from greater to lesser. If man entertains the idea that he could be God, then it is less difficult for him to entertain the idea that he could be not a man. He could fancy himself to be a woman. He could figure he could do with another man what he could do with a woman. The step from heterosexuality to homosexuality is shorter than the step from humanity into divinity. Jumping between genders is easier than jumping into deity.

If a pot toys with trying to be the Potter, it is less surprising if a pot toys with trying to be a plate rather than a pot. A man who believes he could be God could believe he could be, or do, anything.

The greater sin is exactly what happened in the Garden of Eden. The woman believed the serpent when he told her that if she ate of the fruit, her eyes would be opened and she would be like God (Genesis 3:5). She would be free from His throttle and restraints. Whatever it was exactly that motivated the man to eat, when he did, he claimed by his conduct that he knew better than God. He put himself in the position of judging God. He was all the god he needed.

Where does that end? Once a man decides that he doesn’t need to listen to God, why should he listen to “nature,” or science, or history, or court rulings, or neighbors? He trumps God; who can trump him?

Abortion and same-sex mirage (as Doug Wilson can’t help but continue to call it) under government license, or ESPN giving Bruce Jenner a “courage” award, each of these sins are found in seed form in Adam’s rebellion. The sins in our cultural garden are not worse than the sin in the first garden. All sins stem from denying the Creator’s authority.

Romans reveals this same chain of sin. A man who rejects God the Creator, who will not honor Him or give Him thanks, exchanges the glory of God for that of man. “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28). Men worship and serve the creature, including themselves, and

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26–27)

This is part of the reason why our attention to Genesis changes culture, even if that is only visible in the little cultures/communities of our life together. Genesis 2:24 is a great definition of marriage, but we first need a great understanding of God, the One who gives life and makes marriage. Seeing Him as the creative Giver of all our good, and seeing the serpent as a subtle deceiver, changes how we listen to our options.

Living together, fornication, easy (no-fault) divorce, adultery, are all forms of covenant breaking that disregard God’s word. Though there have always been some abnormally immoral, we are now in a time when that sort of immorality is claimed to be normal. In one sense we’ve worked up to the extreme cases, in another sense we still haven’t done anything as stupid as try to be God.

The original sin went contrary to nature. What should have been more obvious than that man was not God? Man’s defiance was perverse (deviating from what was right and good), dishonorable (shameful, not exalting), and destructive. So it is with every sin, and some are more obvious. Men and women act contrary to nature–as defined by nature’s Maker–and this is the inevitable consequence when men do not see fit to acknowledge God.

More Fruitful Than Treebeard

I gave the following address at our year-end assembly last Friday.


If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, you no doubt remember Treebeard. He’s a great character, helpful, slow to decide and to speak and to move, but full of conviction. He also offered tasty things to drink to guests. I’m sure his beard was quite a beauty (it was part of his name after all) and have tried to model my beard accordingly.

Treebeard lived in another world but some seeds of his kind have been brought into ours. I’ve seen some of the seeds. I’ve even seen some of the saplings, though I’ve only seen a few full-grown trees. They aren’t exactly ents, but they are descend-ents. A few of these trees live in the woods though most are city dwellers. Unlike ents, these trees put down roots to stay. They don’t have mouths but they talk. Their branches don’t move but they go all over the place.

With the right care, over time the trees grow and their branches wind through the windows and doors of whatever building they’re near. Eventually the limbs will lengthen throughout a whole house, winding through hallways and up stairs and elbowing themselves into every room. You can try to trace the tributaries back to the trunk, but you can’t really tell the twists apart, nor, strangely, do you really want to. Rather than upset the owner or cause him to think that it’s time to prune the tree, the growth of the tree makes him happy. When the boughs get bigger it doesn’t squeeze the space, it actually seems to make everything bigger. The one’s I’ve seen have been quite magical.

In the kitchen, the branches grow pomicultural pleasures. You can see reds, yellows, oranges. You can taste sweet like grapes, sour like lemons, and salty like tomatoes. The fruit can be squeezed into so many juices and baked into so many pies and sliced over so many bowls of cereal. Whether breakfast or dinner or snacks, the tree gladly shares its yield and makes the table a place of laughter and satisfaction.

In the family room, the tree blooms into many flowers with a medley of shapes, sizes, and smells. It’s an indoor garden, with scents that remind you of lavender and lilac but different. Your nose makes you think of rain on dirt, but somehow clean. It seems almost every day as if there are new subjects for entertainments, a new eyeful to see and study. Visitors and family alike enjoy the show.

In the bedrooms, the tree makes the most comfortable resting places. Sons and daughters have their own spots, soft like futons of feathers, with full-body leaf blankets that breathe for crispy-cool summer nights and warm on the wintry ones.

Of course, outside the house the tree springs to the sky; you feel like you can climb it into giant clouds. It also furnishes swank shade. The only tension under its care is in the hammock. Otherwise it’s a glass of lemonade, a novel, or a nap. The greatest parties are thrown under trees like these.

At this point I must confess that I’m so unskilled at thinking imaginatively that the story above is more of an illustration. I’m also so impatient of a fiction attempter that I feel the need to explain and encourage non-fiction style.

I have seen such trees, but we don’t call them trees. These trees are magical, though, maybe more accurately, they are supernatural. The seeds exist. Each one of you students have received this seed, but it is something inside of you that causes you to grow. You are the tree and your education as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ is the seed, the sunshine, the water. You are growing and your life branches out through all the house. As you leave these school walls for the summer, you will continue to grow and change every room you enter.

Your branches flower with Narnian colors. Your branches smell like Uncle Frank, Fat Frank the fairy, the Chestnut King, and Henry York’s baseball mitt. Your branches have walked with Pilgrim to the Celestial City and walked with Hitler into Moral Insanity. Your branches have attended to the principles of Independence and the perils of Revolution. When the breeze blows through your leaves it sounds like the song of Genesis through Joshua or man’s chief end. You’ve gotten moody about verbs and scrambled ham and eggs in Latin poetry. Your branches have sounded out phonograms, found 800 word essays on blank screens, chased levels of letters on a keyboard, read a book about How to Read a Book, and experienced a millions of dollars Music Project. These are great things that put Gatsby’s life to shame.

When you walk into the kitchen or sit down at the dinner table, you flavor family conversations. You tell stories and jokes and make observations and bring laughter all around. In the living room you play games and watch shows, but you add context that the Kratt brothers can’t. In your bedroom you go to sleep with dreams of great things. And outside you become a source of games and merrymaking. You aren’t the fussy or boring or bullying kid on your street. Others seek your driveway or front yard for protection and a party. Neighbors light up when you go out to play.

This is not a way to think about your life that is make-believe.

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
(Psalm 1:1–3, ESV)

So now is your summer break from school. But it is a season for you to continue to grow and flourish with more fruit than Treebeard.

Baby Kittens Harnessed to a Bobsled

I gave the following address at our school’s fundraising dinner last Saturday night.


“Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as he who takes it off.” This is either a proverb for soldiers or smack talk between them. It’s probably both and that’s probably why I like it so much. It’s wisdom, it’s snark, both of which a man can use on the battlefield. We could also use more sages and smart-alecks in the sphere of education, so tonight I want to tell the story surrounding this salty sound bite and then see if there is any application for us.

In 1 Kings 20, the King of Syria, Ben-hadad–also known as “the son of Hadad” (since Ben means “son” in Hebrew), or we might call him, “Jr.”–gathered his troops together and formed a coalition with thirty-two other provincial kings. They all marched south to take over some new territory, and Ben-Hadad and this motley military clobbered Samaria. Feeling pretty good about himself, Hadad sent messengers into the city to inform the King of Israel, Ahab, that he was next in line. Hadad told Ahab the sticker price of peace up front: “your silver and your gold are mine; your best wives and children are also mine.” That’s quite a toll.

We should remember that Ahab was not a righteous king. According to chapter 16 Ahab did more evil than any previous king of Israel (verse 30). His wife’s name was Jezebel, that one and only Jezebel who cut off the prophets of the LORD, hunted Elijah after the fire showdown, and had Naboth murdered for his vineyard. Ahab himself abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals, including setting up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal in Samaria (verse 32). “Ahab did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (verse 33). Ahab was, however, king over God’s people and that’s important later.

For now Ahab agreed to Hadad’s terms. “As you say, my lord, O King, I am yours, and all that I have.” He offered zero resistance to Jr.’s list of demands. But, as usual with spoiled tyrants, giving in didn’t appease him, and Hadad served notice that he was going to come the next day, look around, and “lay hands on whatever pleases you and take it away.” Hadad was just rubbing Ahab’s face in a puddle of mean.

That was too much for Ahab. He called an emergency session of Israel’s congress and all the officials agreed that Ahab should not give in. Ahab sent word, “All that you first demanded of your servant I will do, but this thing I cannot do.” He’s still trying to mostly capitulate, but Hadad smelled blood in the weakness.

So with his most bloviating bravado Hadad sent the message back, “The gods do so to me and more also if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people who follow me.” He meant that he would pulverize Israel like such fine flour that there wouldn’t be enough for each of his soldiers to have their own personal scoop. It’s smack-talk oath style, with 33 armies worth of muscle to back it up.

I’m not sure what got into Ahab at this point. Knowing what Hadad did in Samaria and the resources at his disposal, Ahab picked up his spine and said, “Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as one who takes it off.” A Roman might have said, “Ante victoriam ne canas triumphum,” “Before victory don’t sing triumph.” An actor in an 80’s Naval aviator movie might have said, “Your mouth shouldn’t write checks that your body can’t cash.” Or, as country singer Kenny Rogers might have put it, “You never count your money while sitting at the table.”

Ahab’s confidence was about to thicken from there. A prophet told Ahab that the LORD promised to give the great multitude into his hands. Uncertain about how that could be, Ahab asked by whom? The prophet said not by soldiers but by the servants of the governors. Ahab asked who was going to fire first? The prophet said, “You.” They found 232 servants and backed them up with all the remaining men in Israel, only seven thousand.

Jr. Hadad was out having a pre-victory party with the other kings and they were drinking themselves drunk in the middle of the day. Even though Hadad escaped, the servants of Israel struck down the Syrians and Israel was delivered (for the time) just as the Lord promised. Hadad had indeed counted his chickens before they surrendered.

Does a war story like this have anything to do with a school story? On a feast night like tonight, should we be talking about a fight? And if the account does apply, at least by analogy, which side are we on? What are the unit objectives for us?

Since the Garden of Eden the seed of the dragon (or “serpent” if you prefer) and the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15), whom Paul identified as Jesus (Galatians 4:4), have been in conflict. Everyone on earth wears army boots for one side or the other. Neutrality does not exist on the Internet, in courtrooms, and certainly not in class rooms. There are more than two fighting styles but there are only two fighting sides. We’re with Jesus or we’re against Him.

If we’re with Jesus then we’re against an enemy that, from the world’s perspective, doesn’t just outnumber our resources, he makes us look like baby kittens harnessed to a bobsled right after a bath. We don’t appear to be able to pull much weight and our bite is not much of a threat.

We don’t have the facilities, the subsidies, the salaries, or the rules on our side. It may be lopsided but it’s still a fight that needs fighting. What God will be recognized by the school board or on the white board? What God/god gets credit for math, history, science, line diagramming and poetry? The nameless god of the state? The great god of the mirror, man? Or the Lord Jesus Christ?

Wisdom about war absolutely has relevant wisdom for a Christian school. Issues such as supplies, costs, personnel, tactics, aims, all overlap. So can we learn from the interaction between Hadad and Ahab?

When I first thought of this proverb as applied to our almost three year-old school, I read our part in the story wrong. It may seem as if we’re the ones who are putting our armor on, the ones who need to gird our lips with non-boasting duct tape. After all, what can we do? What have we done?

But the more I read the story the more I changed my mind. We have less reason to be humbled like Hadad and more reason to be feisty like Ahab.

Like Ahab, Christians have been willing to make too many compromises when it comes to giving our kids over to a godless system. Thankfully more believers are realizing that the State has overstepped it’s proper shoe size. Barak Ben-Obama cannot bully us into giving him whatever he wants. Even Ahab wouldn’t have sent his kids to a school accredited by Ben-hadad’s education commission.

Like Ahab we initially cower when the world crows about their success. They are turning the tassels of their standardized test scores and drinking themselves drunk. They mock, threaten, and parade over Christian homeschool and private schools. But they’re the ones who don’t know what they’re doing, which is part of the reason for endlessly-new and improved teaching models, which is part of the reason they need more money. They won’t get the best laugh, let alone the last one.

Like Ahab we do not deserve deliverance. The Lord gave grace to His people and it’s only grace that does us any good, too. In the fight of education we are not perfect but we are on the side of the Lord. The Lord blesses His people even in spite of themselves at times so that we may know that the Lord is Lord.

We are also like Ahab in that the Lord often uses servants to do His fighting. The weak of the world defeat the strong, the foolish confound the wise. In fact, we are more like the unskilled servants than trained soldiers anyway.

Unlike Ahab, however, we look back at the biggest battle. Jesus said, “It is finished.” When we stand with the Lord, we stand on the winning side. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to Me.” He has taken off His armor, having defeated sin and death and risen to the fight hand of the Father. We are His messengers, and though we don’t know everything, we know that the victory is His. “Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as he who takes it off.” I’d like to imagine that one of Ahab’s God-fearing messengers had a sparkle in his eye when he told that to Hadad. So should we.

When our students sing and we eat meat and drink wine it’s in joy because the great victory is won. Tonight the Marysville Grange is our temporary Mead Hall where we feast because Jesus lives and Grendel and his mom are dead. Grendel’s modern day cousins keep attacking, and we wisely, and feistily, call them amateurs.

We also believe that He supplies His warrior-servants with equipment and training. We’re here celebrating what the Lord has been doing at Evangel Classical School, and we believe that more of His people want to see this feisty worldview enculturated to the next generation.

Every Lesson Is a Gift

What is missing most in most education? For me, my public schooling was more like a week-old donut hole: bite-size, dry, and missing much of the context. I missed many great books, in part because I didn’t read what I was assigned and in part because significant others weren’t assigned. I missed a definition of revolution and how our war against the British wasn’t properly one. I missed logic–formal and in blue jeans. These are just samples. But what I missed most was teaching to thankfulness.

We learned things but we didn’t have anyone to thank. To be consistent with the materialistic, evolutionary worldview that drove what we did, learning shouldn’t have been fun, it was merely in order to survive and advance. But if God created all things and sustains them by His Word, then every page of every lesson and every fact on earth is a gift. That’s how to get kids excited. Unwrap the present that is parts of speech and scientific classification and counting by tens and A Tale of Two Cities and see the tag “From: God.”

This is the advantage of Christian education. The Christian God gives. More than blindfolding students from unrighteousness in the world, teachers at a Christian school work to open eyes to see God’s glory in the world. We give thanks for Christ and through Christ and to Christ. Not anything that was made was not made by Him. It’s all His. He rules it. He cares about it. He gives it to us to enjoy and use.

So Christian education is not only learning the Bible but also learning how to see all the things we have to be thankful for. (And perhaps learning how to not end sentences with prepositions. Or split infinitives.)

How do we get all of it in? We can’t. We’re finite. But what kid rejects a gift because it is too big for his hands? We try to get a hold of as much as we can, and the process we use at our school is the Trivium. Here is the advantage of classical education as it follows the “three ways.”

The Grammar stage is nonstop collecting, ubiquitous capture, building mental shelves and loading them. During the elementary years we teach the ABCs and 1+1s and Genesis one and Romans one and details about wars and who won. The students drink up as much as possible from the ocean of knowable things. But it tastes sweet because it’s gift for which we can be grateful. The 10 Commandments, Egyptian history, Latin declensions, math investigations, Narnia, these are all notes and lyrics and parts for our songs.

At this age, one readily…rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. (Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”)

For example, this year our grammar students in Bible class are learning a ten minute song from Genesis to Joshua that includes events and dates and Bible chapter for the six days of creation, the call of Abraham, Joseph as a slave in Egypt, the plagues, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments. Our kindergarten students are learning a rhyming rap about counting by tens. Our second year Latin students are translating Green Eggs and Ham (or Virent Ova! Viret Perna!). This is a lot of work, but it is not burdensome because we receive it as good from God.

Next comes the Logic stage, a phase that trains for attentive assessment. We do not often think of a junior higher as distinguished, but we can help him to be a distinguisher. Students learn formal logic, a thing to be thankful for itself, as a way to spot lies in what the world says to be thankful for (i.e., personal autonomy) and what the world says not to be thankful for (i.e., God’s laws). Students take the store of information they’ve collected and dissect it, debate over it, and come to some conclusions about thankfulness.

It will, doubtless, be objected that to encourage young persons at the Pert age to browbeat, correct, and argue with their elders will render them perfectly intolerable. My answer is that children of that age are intolerable anyhow; and that their natural argumentativeness may just as well be canalized to good purpose as allowed to run away into the sands. (Sayers)

The Rhetoric stage is persuasive presentation, not learning to dress up like an insincere salesmen but rather learning to adorn the truth and win others to thankfulness for it. Not only can students avoid being manipulated by advertisers and media propaganda, they can articulate the truth better.

The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious
and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
(Proverbs 16:23)

This year our older students have read works such as Pilgrim’s Progress, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and others to see what rhetoric looks like driving down the road. We recently read The Communist Manifesto and observed how it argued for a worldview of envy, not thankfulness.

Is this classical approach to education (the Trivium) particularly Christian? It is when it runs on the energy of gratitude and to the goal of gratitude. That said, we acknowledge that unbelievers can and do learn and teach many things. We even know how that’s possible.

Common grace is what happens when God allows non-believers to participate in and enjoy that which could not be true if their view of the universe were true. Common grace is the blessing that results when God allows non-believers to be inconsistent. (Doug Wilson, Why Christian Kids Need a Christian Education)

Non-Christians can give thanks, but they can’t give thanks consistently. And Christians can only give thanks consistently because of the evangel (a great name for a school). The gospel frees us from discontent and opens our eyes to see God. We are thankful for open eyes, and we are thankful for all the things our now open eyes see that God has given.

Thankfulness keeps us sharp, always receiving (from God who doesn’t stop giving), always discerning (from the world who doesn’t stop lying, or from our own sin that keeps whining), and always declaring. Following the Trivium we learn how to keep learning, in particular, how to keep growing in our appreciation for truth, goodness, and beauty.

Classical Christian education isn’t a bore or a chore. It keeps kids interested because it’s all for them and shapes their loyalties to the Father of lights who gives every perfect gift. For that we can be thankful.

To Force More Perfect Union

Abraham Lincoln did not have the chops to unite the Union peaceably. Part of his problem is that he loved the Union too much.

Caveats, qualifications, and disclaimer: I did not pay much attention in school as a kid. I am not a historian or a politician or a librarian. I have only read about 100 pages of Lincoln’s speeches in this collection. I did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect those of my employer.

So I said that Lincoln did not have the chops to hold (or reunite) the Union together apart from force. He used the tool he had, the Army, and set a precedent of Federal preeminence. His example also demonstrates the failure of secular philosophy to consolidate a diverse people.

Lincoln was not a Christian. He spoke about God but he did not worship the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. He valued religion only to the degree that it wouldn’t alienate voters. He said,

I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. (55)

His first inaugural speech as President revealed that he didn’t serve God, he served the Union. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have served God by serving the Union, but that wasn’t true for him. He valued the Union above all and he vowed that he would do whatever was necessary to defend it. He personally wished for abolition but, as long as the Union survived, it didn’t really matter to him if every slave was freed or if no slave was ever freed. Liberty was a great idea until it threatened his precious.

When his god was attacked he fought back. The sovereign Union punished any who questioned it starting with South Carolina. The Constitution framers wrote of their desire “to form a more perfect union.” Lincoln chose to force one.

He took over a country in tension and he knew there were problems. Yet he used his rhetorical skills to persuade his opponents only for a while. Because Lincoln did not worship the triune God of the Bible, he did not have faith or hope in a good God which would have enabled patient work for a resolution that may (or may not) happen decades later. He could not see far enough ahead to pray for worshippers who would be Christlike disciples who would educate the next generation.

Lincoln said that he knew the appropriate political process.

[B]allots are the rightful, and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. (314)

Apparently he didn’t even have time to wait for politics, let alone trust anything or anyone greater.

The idea of the Union was most important. He failed to appreciate that the Union consisted of States, and the States consisted of persons. He couldn’t see it, and ended up trying to build a Union around an abstract rather than on persons or God Himself. His “success” not only left us with a heritage of overreaching presidents but also of people expecting the Federal government to rule them regardless of the brutal measures used to enforce unity.

Because Lincoln did not worship the triune God he could not see all men of all skin colors as image-bearers of God. Slaves were still property to be priced and restitution provided to their owners. Slaves only counted as 3/5th of a free man for representation purposes. Free men themselves served to fight. If they were ground up in war on behalf of the Union, so be it.

Lincoln talked about using tools other than force in order to avoid more bloodshed (363) but he couldn’t pull it off. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ and His Spirit can create true and willing unity. We will not have a perfect union apart from submission to the Lord first. This means that obedient Christians are free to be the best citizens whether the Lord grants us obvious success, sooner or later or never. Lincoln had no such confidence.

The Laziness That Be

Reading the Foundational Documents and seeing how natural it is for some men to take advantage of others, I ranted a bit in our last Omnibus auditors’ session. For weeks we’ve been observing (and kvetching) about our current political slough of despond, and the question comes up, “What are we doing about it?” Are we just reading and watching cable blues and fussing? Maybe praying more for Jesus’ return?

It is true that we have much more to do, hopefully–in the future–changing the kind of characters who are on our ballots, let alone enculturating the kind of Christians who cast ballots. But as we dream about repealing laws, or even push to practice consistently the good laws we already have, we’re trying to train students how to be good citizens of two countries, both heaven and earth. How are we doing that?

First, we teach them to love God with all their hearts and to believe in Jesus Christ as the only Savior. God is sovereign. He rules the nations. We must submit to Him. Because His nature is Triune, He calls us to relationship and family and society and calls it good. We must bear His image in these bonds. When we sin and break fellowship, His Son offers forgiveness and peace. That is the evangel. We must repent and believe and receive and walk in Christ. Any attempts at peace among men without Him will not work for long.

Second, we teach them history. We’re learning where we came from and the many blessings that we all enjoy because men in previous generations worked and served to give us a good foundation. As Samuel Johnson put it,

A contempt of the monuments and the wisdom of the past, may be justly reckoned one of the reigning follies of these days, to which pride and idleness have equally contributed.

We benefit from their wisdom, watching them work through why they wanted what they did and what problems they envisioned. It profits us to read their arguments about states and nations and what forms of government would make a better union and what challenges come to those governments.

But beyond the content of the curriculum, we also make them read a lot of it. We ask them to memorize Latin and write multiple papers each week and participate in the discussion. And then we tell them that they are not entitled to a good grade even if they work hard. They are not entitled to graded papers which are red ink free zones. They are not entitled to have everything exactly the same as their fellow classmates. This isn’t mean, but it is surprisingly political. This is part of what it means to be free.

The solution to our national woes starts with the Spirit. We can glean wisdom from history. And the responsibility for it is individual. We cannot keep expecting others, especially experts or professionals or legislators or judges or presidents, to fix it for us. We must work on what is in front of us, be faithful in the little we’ve been given, and a generation of willing workers will, by God’s grace, at least challenge the laziness that be.

The Rounds Are Live

Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher wrote in 1704:

Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws. (quoted in Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed, Location 99)

Well then, no wonder we are so weak. We war over worship songs instead of having war songs for worship. Our music reveals our relative thinking and irreverent affections rather than faithful roots in truth.

The goal at our church is not to sing only Psalms. It is our goal to not not sing any Psalms. That is, we want to at least add some to our arsenal for sake of applying Colossians 3:16. I’ve now preached through the first 13 Psalms (and plan to preach more in the future) in order to encourage and persuade and better prepare us for edification when we sing them down the road.

What sort of inheritance do we want to leave for our grandchildren? What sort of preparations should we make for standing around the hospital bed of someone who is dying? Yes, take Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, the Gettys, and maybe even Lecrae with you, okay. But take more. Take Psalms.

May these songs become an always playing soundtrack behind our theology, worldview, corporate worship, private devotion, prayer, singing, and art. The rounds are live, the blood is red. Let’s turn the volume up.

Is any (among you) merry? Let him sing psalms (ψαλλέτω). (James 5:13, KJV)

Down with Dualism

I have read the Psalms a couple dozen times, and parts of some Psalms probably hundreds of times, just as many of you have. Yet as I read them again recently and read a few introductions to prepare for a preaching series, I have been gladly surprised by a number of things. Here’s one of the most surprising surprises.

I’m surprised at how touchable the Psalms are.

I’m still not sure that touchable is the best word to name this observation, but think along with me. The Book of Psalms is a book of songs. The Greek name, psalmoi means “songs sung with musical accompaniment.” The Hebrew title is tehillim, meaning “songs of praise.” We think of it as Israel’s worship book, and we’re right.

But when we (21st century, Protestant, epistle-loving church-goers) think about worship, we think about spiritual realities, about heavenly glory, about God’s transcendence. Yet the omnis aren’t the only stars in the Psalms. There are praises about God’s great glory, followed by thanks for great crops.

We observe numerous types of psalms: thanksgiving, lament, and praise. We see royal psalms, Sabbath day psalms, psalms about creation, about the exodus from Egypt, psalms seeking deliverance from gossips and liars. There are Psalms confessing sin, others seeking forgiveness. Psalms utilize standard poetic conventions such as parallelism, acrostics, laying down patterns like embroidery, stitch by stitch. We find knees and hands and laying down prostrate.

We see David on the run from Saul. David on the run from Absolom. David’s guilt after adultery and murder. National captivity. Want for justice. Dangers, defeats, doubts, depressions, and delays.

In other words, the Book of Psalms deals with the terrestrial, with earthy needs and troubles and gifts maybe even more than it does with celestial, incorporeal truths. There is more about nature and nations than the temple. Or, better, God’s people sang about nature and nations in the temple.

God made it all. He holds it all together. He causes time and the sun to run their courses. God is no dualist. His people know and rehearse and rejoice in His supernatural attributes, yes. They praise attributes such as His holiness, His mercy, His judgment, and His steadfast love. But these qualities are always connected to something tangible that He has done, that His people can see or that they have hope to see. God is active, and the psalmists who complain about His inactivity do so because that’s not normal for Him (Geoffrey Grogan, Prayer, Praise and Prophecy, 73).

We’ve begun to learn to sing Psalm 128 as a church.

Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house
;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table
.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!
(Psalm 128:1-6, ESV)

Too many of our (post)modern songs fail to promote worship in the flesh. We have a lot of songs that are fleshly (in lyrics or in style), in that they cater to the flesh, but they are not fleshy, that is, addressing life here and now. The Psalms care about the soul and body, about forever and today, about heavenly handwork and rich soil. This is one reason to sing entire Psalms. Songs that borrow lines from certain Psalms are fine, but the appropriated lines are usually only the sacred lyrics.

Worship should always be a preparation for living the Christian life in the real world and not simply a means of temporary escape from it. (Grogan, ibid., 8)

God glorifies Himself, God makes and fulfills promises, God loves His people in time and space. The Psalms have handleability, and it’s good to get our lips and hands working together.

Not 149 More Doctrinal Bullet Points

In my last post on Psalms I gave some reasons why our use of the Psalms is flat. That needs to change. It should BOOM.

By boom I mean literally: make a loud, deep sound. And by boom I mean figuratively: make a dent in the ideological walls of unbelief and rebellion.

Why should we use the Psalms? Here are three reasons for pulling the pin from the Psalter grenade.

1. Psalms are spiritual.

Knowing, speaking, and, yes, singing Psalms is spiritual. That is, it is an evidence that the Holy Spirit is controlling us. Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers,

do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Ephesians 5:18–19)

A drunk man may get loud and rowdy and sing his songs off key for the entire bar. He can’t keep it to himself. A man filled with the Holy Spirit can’t keep it to himself either. According to the verses above, a spiritual man will be focused on others and inspired Psalms are part of his vocabulary. Spirit-filled men speak in ψαλμοῖς (psalmois)—many Old Testament psalms, in ὕμνοις (hymnois)—many hymns with religious content, and in ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς (odais pneumatikais)—many songs having to do with the divine spirit. Psalms aren’t the only way we can encourage each other, as if we were playing a party game where we could only speak in lines from Psalms. But lines from Psalms are the only inspired song lyrics we have.

The psalmists were not writing to believers who were filled with the Spirit, but Paul told believers who were filled with the Spirit that the Psalms were appropriate subject matter. Paul also gave this exhortation to a congregation of mostly Gentile believers. He expected that the Spirit would translate the prayers and praises of one nation into many tongues.

2. Psalms are biblical.

This was one of those observations that, once I heard it, I’ve not been able to forget it. The letters of Paul to the Ephesians and Colossians are similar but each contains some distinct emphases. In Colossians 3:16 we see almost the same results of Ephesians 5:18-19 but from a different cause.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)

Biblical people, the kind we most certainly want to be, are stocked with Scripture and, in particular, the Psalms.

Psalm 1, a psalm about delighting in the law of the Lord and meditating on it day and night, introduces 149 more psalms, 149 more songs. It does not head the list of 149 more doctrinal bullet points. A melody set to meter would enable meditation and enhance memory. It might even be enjoyable. Songs help us delight more. When we get a song stuck in our head, is that not part of what it means to mediate day and night?

3. Psalms are vital.

Our English word “vital” comes from the Latin vita = life; so it describes something that is absolutely necessary, indispensable to the continuance of life. Vital signs are life’s minimum. God’s Word is vital for life, so says the introduction to the Psalter itself: Psalm 1.

Blessed is the man
[whose] delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
(Psalm 1:3–4)

The law of the Lord is to be delighted in, and there are few better ways to do that than singing. Psalm-love encourages us to be planted for sake of life, even when the culture waters dry up around us. For the thirsty, my attempt to explain Psalm 1 is here.

The end for the meditator is that in all that he does, he prospers. The picture returns to the man, not just the tree. There is a solidity, a sweetness, a sap to his life rooted in God’s Word. And note that the contrast is not with a shallow-rooted, brown-branched, barren tree. The contrast is with a hollow husk of chaff. The chaff is dead. But our hearts should be alive with the sound of Psalms.

The Season of Our Desuetude

There is a medley of reasons for our desuetude of Psalms. Not only are they my observations, they also are my experience.

Our use of psalms is flat. What I mean by flat is that we lack interest in the Psalms. We don’t give much energy to them. Likewise, if a musical note is flat, the sound is below the true or normal pitch. Our use of Psalms is well below the pitch God’s praise calls for.

Why is our use of Psalms flat? Here are four types of dissonance (lack of harmony or tension) between us and the Psalms.

1. Lyrical Dissonance

We are not used to the style of writing. As a culture we don’t have much familiarity with, let alone appreciation for, poetry. The Psalms are 3000 year old poetry. They are also Hebrew poetry, and translation is typically the toughest on poetry. A frequent setting for these poems is a dessert, sometimes the temple, other times the palace. We don’t find ourselves in similar places often. Shepherds and soldiers and priests and kings wrote these poems. None of us hold any of these occupations. The poetic devices, other than alliteration and maybe chiasm, are things we are not comfortable with.

And when we do give these words our precious time
most of these inspired lines don’t even end the same way (or rhyme!).

2. Musical Dissonance

Who knows what the original songs sounded like? In order for us to get the English into a sing-able format, it usually sounds odd to us, like a six year-old forcing everyday conversation into tune. Men in monasteries in the first few centuries used to memorize and chant the Psalms. More men during the Reformation and Renaissance wrote new melodies to compliment the Psalms in their respective languages. But it actually seems that most of church history has not used these inspired songs because it was hard.

It is a challenge for us today. There are some who will take the time to learn, to appreciate, maybe even to play the more difficult stuff. Many would prefer to have catchy, easy tunes. There is a reason that popular music is popular.

3. Theological Dissonance

We are not sure what to do with Israel. Our Presbyterian and Covenantalist brothers would say that Israel was the Old Testament Church and the Church is the New Testament Israel. But that by itself doesn’t solve all of the issues. What about Israel’s King and immediate theocracy? What about all of the national themes? What about all of the military battles? We are not Israel. Jesus is our King, but that works out differently in the United States in the 21st Century. Can we find anything for us in the Psalter? Will we be able (or give the effort) to think through the steps to make proper application?

That said, don’t forget 1 Corinthians 10:6 and Romans 15:4. The Psalms are undoubtedly included for our instruction and encouragement to endure, even if that takes effort to appreciate.

4. Postural Dissonance

Not only are we uncomfortable with the Jewish distinctives, we are also uncomfortable with the upfront lows (though we may not get cozy with their highs, either). We prefer our piety a little dishonest; keep the hard parts of your life to yourself.

There are discouraged, weary, if not depressed and borderline bitter cries in these songs. It isn’t that we don’t ever doubt, we just wouldn’t say it out loud in church company. We certainly wouldn’t write it down in a song, or think that others should sing it in worship. If we heard a man praying like certain psalmists we might confront him afterward. Maybe he needs to be corrected. But maybe he needs us to keep singing the next verses that follow the frustration, the verses renewing hope in the Lord.