How much polish does God’s altar need?

During the initial stay-at-home orders associated with the COVID outbreak, there were a number of things that went around social media “to keep us busy.” Now that my college is fully virtual for the foreseeable future, believe me, I’m busy! Teaching online takes lots more time. But I digress. One of the activities keeping me busy at the time was the twenty-day music challenge. The idea was to post one album cover per day for twenty days. Each album cover was from an album that was significant to me. So the twenty-day music challenge had me digging into some music deep in my memory and record bin. I even pulled my vinyl out of storage. But replaying some of the albums, I returned not just with nostalgia but a more seasoned musical ear. It was interesting and enlightening.

Since much of my musical life was in church music, I returned, hopefully, with a more mature theology also. My son, who is interested in church music, and I often discuss current songs, their musicality or lack thereof and their theology. I had those same conversations internally also as I returned to the music of my youth. (Stop laughing, yes, I was young once.)

I hear now the nuance and ever so slight deviation from Biblical truth in well-framed and well-intended songs that I grew up listening to. Now to be fair, song lyrics are often analogy or glosses of scripture. So it isn’t fair to overly criticize them. (And I split the infinitive on purpose – This is English, not Latin). Gross error cannot be ignored, but near misses may be the nature of encapsulating a message in a pop song genre or even a hymn, though hymns generally do a better job.

On the other hand, error, even slight, for the sake of art would not have passed muster with our American (OK, English transplant) Puritan forebears in their Bay Psalm Book who for the sake of truth over artistry boldly proclaimed that “God’s altar needs not our polishing.” While a caricature of the Puritans is that of backward and ill-educated, in fact, many were well-educated, enough so to take on a translation of scriptures from Greek and Hebrew to create songs for their new home in America. But they refused to sacrifice doctrinal purity for the sake of meter or rhyme.

So what’s my point?

Lots of things, including we old timers need to get the musical log out of our own eye before we criticize the youngsters… although our music was clearly better.

But more importantly for believers, if you’re getting your theology from your songs, you’re courting disaster. Read the Word, search it, study it, know it, and “hide it your heart.” Why hide it in your heart?

That’s an allusion to a passage of scripture. Look it up! Then go back to singing, but not before.

Forsake Not Assembling Together, especially if there are pork chops with gravy

I had lunch today with a long-time friend who had come up because of the death of another Christian brother. As we broke bread, actually chips and salsa, I shared some thoughts that had been running through my head for several months regarding “not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together” (sorry, I think in KJV). Of course, the current situation with the COVID virus and prohibitions on public gatherings has sparked more than one social media conflagration about whether churches should hold services or not. And I’ll sheepishly confess I have been caught up in the machinations, going so saw far as to use the term whack-a-doodle. Yeah, that was mature of me. Anyway….

My thoughts really have little or nothing to do with whether my local congregation will hold worship services this Sunday or next. Instead, they go back to an article I read by a minister some months ago. In it, he discusses Hebrews 10:25. He commented that even when he took his family on vacation he made sure that they were in a worship service somewhere. While there is nothing wrong with this, I’m not convinced that’s exactly what the writer of Hebrews had in mind.  

I attend worship services weekly at my local church. We have numbers of gifted teachers who spend hours in preparation for their classes and deliver lessons that uplift and edify. My pastor’s sermons are biblically sound, culturally relevant, and frequently entertaining. The music pastor and his wife are the most musically gifted couple I have ever met, and they lead a choir and band that I would stack up against anyone. The services are powerful and moving. But for me, the most spiritually nourishing time, if you’ll pardon the pun, is the fellowship supper we share on Wednesday evenings.

Turning to scripture for a moment, consider the Acts 2:46 description of the gatherings of the first believers. They met daily at the Temple, probably observing the Jewish times of prayer, and in homes sharing meals with gladness. Far from the austere stereotype many have of believers, these first century brothers and sisters delighted in each other’s company.  This, likewise, is how I delight in the Wednesday evening fellowship suppers.  

I like seeing Michelle’s beautiful and welcoming smile when my kiddos and I walk in.

I enjoy verbal jousting with Wayne, the guy who keeps the kitchen humming. His dad Marvin and my grandfather were friends. In fact, his dad was instrumental in my grandfather hearing and responding to the gospel. Rita, his sister-in-law, and Pam work the serving window. Pam’s daughter Autumn was my work study when she was eighteen or nineteen. She was and is THE gold standard for being a conscientious young adult. This year I had her daughter in one of my college classes. She is a sweetheart like her mom.

I enjoy chatting with Lisa. We’ve known each other for about ever. Her dad was a minister with my dad. Back in the day, I served with her late husband as his music pastor. Our sons are about the same age and friends. We share memories, the struggles of single parenting, and hopes for our children’s futures over loaded baked potatoes or meatloaf.

I’ve known Johnathan, our young adult pastor, his entire life. His dad and my Uncle Allen were extremely close growing up, and over the last four years, Johnathan and I have grown close.  He’s my accountability partner. Since I am a single adult Christian, I hold myself accountable to him, and he inserts humor when he checks on me. His wife Tammie is mission focused! I like to pick at her, telling her that she’s one of only two people in this world I’m afraid of. (My Aunt Susie is the other.)

I enjoy chatting with David, a new friend, who should have his own food-on-the-go blog. The man knows food and how to enjoy life! He knows sorrow, too, a type of sorrow we share.  

Finally, my pastor and his wife eat with the congregation. He’s not a celebrity; he’s one of us.

Lest it seem I’m viewing life through stained glass colored lenses, I’m not buds with everyone. Sometimes we have disagreements. (Remember my whack-a-doodle comment. Yes, I’ve repented for it.) We may disagree, but we’re still family. We love each other, even when we don’t like each other so much.

THIS is “assembling together.” This is communion and community. This is where iron sharpens iron. It is also where wounds are bound and healing takes place. This is where we share our joys and sorrows.

Though it is important to spend time together in corporate worship expression, it is equally and maybe more important to share our lives intimately with each other, to strengthen and support each other, “especially as the Day approaches.”

Oh and yeah, pork chops with gravy are my favorite.

To Sing or Not to Sing: A Theological Conundrum

My son Nick is graduating high school and looking toward college and career. While he is not likely to go into music as a vocation, he is considering taking music classes and using his musical talent in church music. He’s already active in our local church’s music ministry and is musically gifted…. plus he practices, which is vital. But, that’s a conversation for another day.  Anyway, we have been having discussions about appropriateness of music, lyrics, etc., for different worship settings. Those conversations with my son have me reflecting on an event in a church service from a few years back.

When working on my master’s degree in music at Samford University, I took a course in its Beeson Divinity School. I was required to take two courses outside of the school of music. I chose an education course, a mistake, and a religion class with the head of the school and a fantastic instructor, Dr. Timothy George. In one of the classes, he recounted how in seminary as a student he noted that in chapel professors would not sing on certain verses of hymns because they disagreed theologically with the content of the verse. As an aside, this says something about hymns. Hymns, true hymns, are traditionally storehouses chocked full of theological “stuff,” which is one reason among many that I bemoan that my church tradition actually sang few historic hymns of the church and why I fret that even those churches that once included them have begun to drop their hymns by the wayside. But this is not about my regret at the dearth of hymns. It is, however, about bad theology set to catchy tunes.

A few years back I found myself in a church service where Dr. George’s anecdote came home to me in a visceral way. As I was participating in the congregational singing, the worship leader led a song that troubled me. Two things stood out. For one, it used the first person pronoun I ten times in the chorus. (Now, to be fair, it was a contemporary praise chorus, so it’s not like it had that many different words in it anyway). Still, as the song progressed I found myself unable to join in singing, not unlike those seminary professors who found themselves faced with a theological impasse. I could not go forward. I would not sing the lyrics.

Two things about the lyrics troubled me. First, the emphasis on I seemed at odds with the idea that we were engaged in corporate worship. Of course, I understand that individually we must have a relationship with Christ. But the emphasis was not about an individual relationship with Christ but sounded more about me… my… mine. This was reinforced, not only by the profusion of first person pronouns, but by the remainder of the lyrics.

My son, fifteen years old at the time, was in the same service. After church, he said something about how the song bothered him because of the emphasis on being so blessed and blessed every day and everyway sounded to him too much like Joel Osteen (his words, not mine). It was very much a sentiment that “I’m a winner. No worries. It’s all going to be rainbows and sunshine.” I cannot help but wonder why no one has set Romans 8:36 to music for a contemporary praise chorus: “For your sake we are killed every day, and we are accounted as sheep for slaughter.” (For the record, Romans 8:36 quotes Psalm 44:22, so it has been set to music at least once by our ancient Jewish forebears.)

I have to wonder, where is our sense of sacrifice for the sake of Christ and the gospel? How would our brothers and sisters facing persecution and martyrdom at the hands of Islamic extremists in the Middle East or at the hands of a communist government in China respond to the I-I-I-am-blessed-and-blessed-the-best songs that we glibly sing? Or what of Hus, Polycarp, or the Apostle Paul? What would they who willingly laid down their lives say about our we-are-all-winners-everyday theology?

I wonder if they would sing along or remain mute.

L’Dor V’Dor

I was at the college recently chatting with my colleague Jimmy and his English class. I don’t recall the specifics, but he commented something jokingly to the class about Dr. Rizzo’s great-great grandfather. Knowing I’m something of a family historian, he confessed he was trying to stump me. So I rattled off about two hundred fifty years of one of my family lines: my father Fredrick “Bucky” Rizzo, his dad Fred, his Nicolo, his Matteo, his yet another Nicolo, and his yet another Matteo, and finally back to the 1700s to Calogero Rezza in Contessa Entellina, a small village in the mountains of Sicily that was settled in the mid 1400s by Albanian refugees fleeing Islamic armies. (Like I said, I’m the family historian.)

But the significance of generations struck me in a different way last Sunday when I saw two smiling faces singing during the altar service.

My pastor, Victor Massey, had preached from the book of Ruth. (Incidentally, if you’ve never heard my pastor preach, you should. He’s good.) In the closing of his sermon, he referenced Ruth 4:21 & 22: “And Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David.”

The David mentioned is King David, who was the first king of Israel and the ancestor of Jesus. But there’s much more to unpack. Salmon’s wife was Rahab, the woman who hid the Israelite spies in Jericho and in doing so saved herself and her family. Of course, Ruth was the wife of Boaz. She was a Moabite, descended from the incestuous relationship of Lot and one of his daughters, yet because of her faithfulness to her mother-in-law after her father-in-law and husband died, she ultimately became the wife of Boaz. Both women, who otherwise were outside of the covenant between God and Israel, nonetheless, became ancestors of Jesus the Messiah. Their actions not only affected their lives, but their families and successive generations.

L’dor V’dor  is the Hebrew term that translates “generation to generation.” As Pastor Massey expounded on the passage, I couldn’t help but think about the idea of generation to generation, particularly as I noticed those two smiling faces singing together. The two smiling faces belonged to my son Nick and my cousin’s daughter Ashlyn. Both Nick and Ashlyn do, indeed, have beautiful smiles. Both have also dedicated their lives to serving the Lord, leading worship in song each week at the Sumiton Church of God. In that moment in my mind’s eye, however, I saw not only their smiles but envisioned the generations that came before, all a part of this one congregation.

Nick and Ashlyn share great-great grandparents Travis and Gladys Burton, who were members of the Sumiton Church and served faithfully some seventy plus years ago, which is a conservable part of the congregation’s history of just under one hundred years. Counting Ashlyn’s beautiful kiddos, there are now six generations of my family who have been part of this congregation – L’dor V’dor! Of course, you can’t bequeath salvation like you can a farm or a car. Still, it is each generation’s responsibility to pass on the faith, to live an example, to teach the scripture, from generation to generation.

What would have happened if one generation had failed in the charge? That’s something, frankly, I don’t want to think about because the potential consequences are too disconcerting. At the risk of invoking syrupy echoes of “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” I cannot emphasize too much how this is a charge that is our responsibility to the next generation, whether family or friend.

So from Boaz, to Obed, to Jesse, to David…

Or the Apostle John, to Polycarp, to Irenaeus…

Or from Travis and Gladys, to my Grandfather Buel and his brother Lowell, to my mother and her cousin June, to my cousin Kevin and me, to our children and grandchildren and generations to come…

L’dor V’dor!

Victimae Paschali Laudes

(This is a little note I posted on social media Easter 2011. Without going into the details, 2011 was one of the most difficult years of my life. Only the passing of my dad in 2016 surpasses it for shear grief and struggle. But even in the tough times, God is faithful – He gives hope – and is to be praised.)

I picked up the lamb for Easter yesterday, and I’m going to pull fresh herbs today and start working on the rub for it. I also got some Easter bread from Nabeel’s Market. It came with plastic eggs to put in it, but we’ll be boiling real ones for it. (By the way, yellow onion skins make an amazing and dark red dye for the eggs.) There will be more Easter goodies for Sunday. The family is coming to the house to celebrate. All this is heritage and tradition and celebration, but it’s meaningless without first of all acknowledging the true and resurrected Passover Lamb. Without Him, all else is meaningless.

The hymn Victimae Paschali Laudes, which is almost a thousand years old, presents the simple yet profound faith of believers from the first century to the twenty-first, a faith based on one person, fully man and yet fully God, who was crucified, raised from the dead, and who will one day return to judge both living and dead. Without Him, there is no hope, but through Him, and through Him alone, we have hope – we have access to the Father. To Him be praise forever.

Latin Text:

Victimae paschali laudes
immolent Christiani.
Agnus redemit oves:
Christus innocens Patri
reconciliavit peccatores.
Mors et vita duello
conflixere mirando:
dux vitae mortuus,
regnat vivus.
Dic nobis Maria,
quid vidisti in via?
Sepulcrum Christi viventis,
et gloriam vidi resurgentis:
Angelicos testes,
sudarium, et vestes.
Surrexit Christus spes mea:
praecedet suos in Galilaeam.
Scimus Christum surrexisse
a mortuis vere:
tu nobis, victor Rex,
miserere.
Amen. Alleluia.

English Translation:

May you praise the Paschal Victim,
immolated for Christians.
The Lamb redeemed the sheep:
Christ, the innocent one,
has reconciled sinners to the Father.
A wonderful duel to behold,
as death and life struggle:
The Prince of life dead,
now reigns alive.
Tell us, Mary Magdalen,
what did you see in the way?
I saw the sepulchre of the living Christ,
and I saw the glory of the Resurrected one:
The Angelic witnesses,
the winding cloth, and His garments.
The risen Christ is my hope:
He will go before His own into Galilee.
We know Christ to have risen
truly from the dead:
And thou, victorious King,
have mercy on us.
Amen. Alleluia.

Eternity Began Tonight (from August 16, 2009)

It was so special tonight seeing my babies baptized. Nick was funny. He’d listened to Pastor Rick and my dad about locking one arm with the other hand and holding his nose. He walked up to the baptistery in this position. In fact, we could hardly get him in the water because of the pose. I wanted to roll. Olivia was nervous. She told her mom something about being so nervous that she wasn’t sure she could walk to the baptistery. But they both made it into the water, down, and up again. It was precious and humorous, but it was more than that.

Baring Christ return, at some point we will be separated from each other, but it will be temporary because of Christ death, burial, and resurrection that we were portraying in the baptismal experience. We will never be separated from Christ. He will never leave or forsake us but will go with us all the way.
During praise and worship, somehow it was different tonight. I sensed Christ in such a unique way. He was Savior – from the foundation – for me. I knew I would see Him someday, that I would, indeed, be in His presence. My children had accepted Him as Savior. We would be together in His presence forever. My dad had baptized them. As a family we would enjoy His presence forever. These are things that I knew, and had known, but had never put them in the same context. It wasn’t abstract. It was real. In reality, eternity had begun already.

We sang a Hillsong chorus “Worthy is the Lamb.” There’s a line in it that always moves me, but more so tonight. The Son, very God of very God, eternally existing with and eternally loved by the Father, was the “Darling of Heaven.” He was loved above all by the Father, but He came and the Father allowed Him to be abused and hurt and maligned and so debased that I don’t have the words. He, in the form of sinful man, could have with a whisper ended it all; instead He suffered the pain and indignity for my babies, for my dad, for me, for whosoever will.

How could I not bow and love Him, worshipping at His feet? How could I avoid those eyes of love? Why would I?

God “ain’t” through until He says so.

God “ain’t” through until He says so. Society can tell you that you’re finished. Your family can tell you that you don’t matter. Your body might even tell you, no. But don’t listen to anyone except the One who called you according to His purpose.

Gideon was from the small tribe of Manasseh. His family was poor, and he was the least among them. Yet he became an innovative military leader and delivered Israel.

David’s father didn’t even think enough of him to call him in from the field, yet the prophet could not crown a king of Israel until the least in the family was presented to him.

Joseph’s brothers threw him out, expecting never to see him again. But God exalted him to power and through him saved the family that had discounted and discarded him.

Abraham and Sarah became the parents to the child of promise when they were well beyond the age when their bodies should have allowed them to become parents. But God’s Spirit made alive that which was dead in the flesh and gave them a son and made them the ancestors of Messiah.

Don’t count yourself out when God hasn’t.

I have somewhat against thee.

2:1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; 2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: 3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. 4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. 5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. (Rev 2:1-5, KJV)

I almost began with we, but I should speak only for myself and say I. So…

I can be guilty of doing all the right things, of being orthodox in my beliefs and correct in my values, of even being passionate about doing the right things and “contending for the faith,” but at the same time forget to be passionate, not just about my faith, but about the one who is the “Author and Finisher of my faith.”

Now, since I am passionate about truth, I acknowledge that this passage is addressed to a church, not just an individual believer, so I won’t address the warning of removing the candlestick, whether this can be applied to an individual’s salvation in the same way it can to a corporate body of believers. What I will say is that I am guilty and need to repent, to turn around, and draw closer to the one that has promised to in return draw close to me. Father, forgive me. Holy Spirit, teach me. Savior, help me walk with you daily, whether into battle or beside the still waters. I crave your fellowship. I love you, Lord, my first love.

I know that sometimes public declarations of private passion are saccharin or self-serving. Well, I’m running the risk because confession is good for the soul – my soul.

New Cars

I hate it when the new and shiny wears off. The first dint or ding is the worst. But, after that you quit worrying about the image and focus on what counts, transportation. If it gets you from here to there, it has done its job. Maybe you have to pull through tall grass or mud or even gravel or new asphalt on your journey. If you continued to worry about the smooth shiny surface, you might take the road more traveled by and instead of the one “least traveled by” and would have missed “all the difference.” (My apologies to Mr. Frost for messing with his poem.) So, thank God for dings. It’s His way of saying get beyond the surface and get to traveling. (Proverbs 27:17)

Daddy, why’s this sock in my drawer?

“Daddy, why’s this sock in my drawer”? I love it when they call me Daddy. I’ve learned more about the love of God and how it mediates His righteous anger in the few years since I became a dad than I did in the almost 40 years before. (Yep, I started late.) It’s not that I don’t get angry – and with cause. See, for example, my note about wanting to put them on e-Bay after they filled their room with beanbag pellets. But I took the picture of the room, all the while still very unhappy, to say the least, knowing that eventually love would overcome anger.

Isn’t that what God does for us? He picks us up out of our mess – that we’ve made – and He’s not always happy about it, I’m sure. But He picks us up, knowing His love will overcome His righteous anger and that He’ll clean up the mess, just like I did with the beanbag pellets.

I figure God likes being called “Abba Father” even more than we like saying it, as awesome as that is, for the same reason I love hearing silly, little questions like “Daddy, why’s this sock in my drawer?”