Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How to Listen to Handel’s “Messiah”

A large group from our church will be attending the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Mendelsohn Choir’s presentation of Messiah this week. For many this will be their first time and I thought I might provide a little coaching on how to get the most out of it.

The first thing you need to realize is that classical music is not bad. George Frideric Handel died in 1759 after a long and productive life of writing operas, oratorios and the like at the height of the Baroque period. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry. All you really need to know is that he composed very beautiful, logical music. Listen carefully to how it progresses. In Messiah, it is aimed to closely match the meaning of the words. Happy thoughts come with happy music. Sober ideas get sober music. That kind of thing.

The second thing to note is that every word in Messiah comes from the Bible. Most often, this is done by directly quoting a Biblical text, but sometimes a phrase from another text is added to help complete the thought.

David said,

            I will meditate on your precepts
                        and fix my eyes on your ways.
            I will delight in your statutes;
                        I will not forget your word.
(Psalm 119:15-16 ESV)

Now you have the key to Handel’s Messiah!

The way to meditate on the Word of God is to take a verse or two and think on them for a period of time. You may, for example, read the verse out loud putting the emphasis on a different word each time. Or you may just read it over and over again carefully ruminating on each word. There are many ways to meditate.

Handel’s Messiah is a beautiful way to ponder the Word of God concerning Jesus. Handel takes us from the early prophecies of Christ, through the Scriptures concerning His birth, then on to his death, resurrection and the Final Judgment. In what may be, in my opinion, the most lovely section of the piece, he ends with the chorus of the angels in heaven from Revelation 5: “"Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power – and riches, – and wisdom, – and strength, – and honour, – and glory, – and blessing. Amen."  The “Amen” alone is worth the price of admission!

So, come to Messiah ready to worship. You will be blessed with a couple of hours of thoughtful, indeed beautiful, meditation on the Christ. Let yourself enjoy the musical arrangements. Listen for ways Handel was attempting to communicate via the music what he understood as the intention of the verses. And by all means, do not talk during the performance. (Okay, I had to get that in. People have forgotten how to attend concerts these days, whether at my kids’ schools or Roy Thompson Hall. Sit quietly, never even whisper except through applause breaks, and don’t stand up until the Hallelujah chorus.)

May God use your attendance and mediation and delight in Him and His ways to prepare your heart to worship Him with passion and joy Christmas Day.

P.S.  This is a paid concert. If you are late, you will not be shown to your seat until pre-scheduled breaks in the music. Depending on how late you are, that can be a long way into the performance. So, love your fellow concert-goers and arrive downtown early. There is lots to see in the lobby if you have extra time.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Challies, Walter and Getting Angry

Tim preached a helpful little sermon on anger last Sunday and that got me thinking about a letter old Walter wrote our church a few years back. You can read the whole thing here, but I liked this little quote:

It's a funny thing with anger. It feels like it must get vented, otherwise we will explode or something. Yet, quite the opposite is true. Vent it - and you'll be throwing gasoline on the fire! Suppress it - and the fire is snuffed out. Notice I said "suppress" and not "repress." I'm not a wordsmith, by any stretch, but there's a difference in my mind between those two terms. By suppress I mean, turn away from the anger and pray to the Sovereign. By repress I mean just get tight-lipped and fuming mad on the inside. I don't see much grace in the second of the two. I think what the Lord desires is for us to lose the anger on the outside and the inside - and we can, by His help.
 One encouragement in all this is to recall the respect God lays on the name of the man that controls his anger:
 Proverbs 29:11  “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.”

Friday, December 06, 2013

John Murray On What it Means to "Work Out Your Salvation"

This extended quote may be the most helpful and succinct commentary written on Philippians 2:12-13 in the English language. It is worth your time to read it slowly and thoughtfully.

While we are constantly dependent upon the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, we must also take account of the fact that sanctification is a process that draws within its scope the conscious life of the believer. The sanctified are not passive or quiescent in this process. Nothing shows this more clearly than the exhortation of the apostle: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). The salvation referred to here is not the salvation already in possession but the eschatological salvation (cf. 1 Thess. 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 1:5, 9; 2:2). And no text sets forth more succinctly and clearly the relation of God’s working to our working. God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or co-ordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing. And this working of God is directed to the end of enabling us to will and to do that which is well pleasing to him. We have here not only the explanation of all acceptable activity on our part but we have also the incentive to our willing and working. What the apostle is urging is the necessity of working out our own salvation, and the encouragement he supplies is the assurance that it is God himself who works in us. The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.

            The exhortations to action with which the Scripture is pervaded are all to the effect of reminding us that our whole being is intensely active in that process which has as its goal the predestinating purpose of God that we should be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). Paul says again to the Philippians, “And this I pray that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all discernment, so that ye may approve the things that are excellent, that ye may be sincere and without offence unto the day of Christ, being filled with the fruit of righteousness which is through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11). And Peter, in like manner, “Yea, and for this very cause adding on your part all diligence, in your faith supply virtue; and in your virtue knowledge; and in your knowledge self-control, and in your self-control patience; and in your patience godliness; and in your godliness brotherly kindness; and in your brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, they make you to be not idle nor unfruitful unto the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:5-8). It is unnecessary to multiply quotations. The New Testament is strewn with this emphasis (cf. Rom 12:1-3, 9-21; 13:7-14; 2 Cor. 7:1; Gal. 5:13-16,25,26; Eph. 4:17-32; Phil. 3:10-17; 4:4-9; Col. 3:1-25; 1 Thess. 5:8-22; Heb. 12:14-16; 13:1-9; James 1:19-27; 2:14-26; 3:13-18; 1 Pet. 1:13-25; 2:11-13, 17; 2 Pet 3:14-18, 1 John 2:3-11; 3:17-24). Sanctification involves the concentration of thought, of interest, of heart, mind, will and purpose upon the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus and the engagement of our whole being with those means which God has instituted for the attainment of that destination. Sanctification is the sanctification of persons, and persons are not machines; it is the sanctification of persons renewed after the image of God in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The prospect it offers is to know even as we are known and to be holy as God is holy. Every one who has this hope in God purifies himself even as he is pure (1 John 3:3).

John Murray (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Eerdmans, pp 148-150)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

An Economy of Fantasy and Moods - Wendell Berry

"Increasingly over the last maybe forty years, the thought has come to me that the old world in which our people lived by the work of their hands, close to weather and earth, plants and animals, was the true world; and that the new world of cheap energy and every cheaper money, honored greed, and dreams of liberation from every restraint, is mostly theater. This new world seems a jumble of scenery and props never quite believable, an economy of fantasies and moods, in which it is hard to remember either the timely world of nature or the eternal world of the prophets and poets. And I fear, I believe I know, that the doom of the older world I knew as a boy will finally afflict the new one that replaced it.

The world I knew as a boy was flawed, surely, but it was substantial and authentic. The households of my grandparents seemed to breathe forth a sense of the real cost and worth of things. Whatever came, came by somebody’s work."

From Andy Catlett, p 93
By Wendell Berry

Thursday, October 24, 2013

On Controversy - John Newton Offers Wise Counsel to Anybody Who Wants to Publicly Disagree with Another

John Newton (pastor, poet, friend, counsellor) offers a brother some wise advice on how to enter into controversy with another. Contextually, the fight du jour was between Arminianism and Calvinism. But the precepts Newton gives fit every occasion where a Christian senses the need to publicly refute error. Would that more Christians heeded his advice.


Dear Sir,

As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper, my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side; for truth is great, and must prevail; so that a person of abilities inferior to yours might take the field with a confidence of victory. I am not therefore anxious for the event of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph, not only over your adversary, but over yourself. If you cannot be vanquished, you may be wounded. To preserve you from such wounds as might give you cause of weeping over your conquests, I would present you with some considerations, which, if duly attended to, will do you the service of a great coat of mail; such armour  that you need not complain, as David did of Saul’s, that it will be more cumbersome than useful; for you will easily perceive it is taken from that great magazine provided for the Christian soldier, the Word of God. I take it for granted that you will not expect any apology for my freedom, and therefore I shall not offer one. For method’s sake, I may reduce my advice to three heads, respecting your opponent, the public, and yourself.

Consider Your Opponent
As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.
If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: “Deal gently with him for my sake.” The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.
But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit), he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.” But you know who has made you to differ. If God, in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been as he is now; and he, instead of you, might have been set for the defence of the gospel. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes, and not his.
Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy: but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose. “If peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.” If you write with a desire of being an instrument of correcting mistakes, you will of course be cautious of laying stumbling blocks in the way of the blind or of using any expressions that may exasperate their passions, confirm them in their principles, and thereby make their conviction, humanly speaking, more impracticable.

Consider the Public
By printing, you will appeal to the public; where your readers may be ranged under three divisions: First, such as differ from you in principle. Concerning these I may refer you to what I have already said. Though you have your eye upon one person chiefly, there are many like-minded with him; and the same reasoning will hold, whether as to one or to a million.
There will be likewise many who pay too little regard to religion, to have any settled system of their own, and yet are preengaged in favour of those sentiments which are at least repugnant to the good opinion men naturally have of themselves. These are very incompetent judges of doctrine; but they can form a tolerable judgment of a writer’s spirit. They know that meekness, humility, and love are the characteristics of a Christian temper; and though they affect to treat the doctrines of grace as mere notions and speculations, which, supposing they adopted them, would have no salutary influence upon their conduct; yet from us, who profess these principles, they always expect such dispositions as correspond with the precepts of the gospel. They are quick-sighted to discern when we deviate from such a spirit, and avail themselves of it to justify their contempt of our arguments. The scriptural maxim, that “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God,” is verified by daily observation. If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service of the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit. The weapons of our warfare, and which alone are powerful to break down the strongholds of error, are not carnal, but spiritual; arguments fairly drawn from Scripture and experience, and enforced by such a mild address, as may persuade our readers, that, whether we can convince them or not, we wish well to their souls, and contend only for the truth’s sake; if we can satisfy them that we act upon these motives, our point is half gained; they will be more disposed to consider calmly what we offer; and if they should still dissent from our opinions, they will be constrained to approve our intentions.
You will have a third class of readers, who, being of your own sentiments, will readily approve of what you advance, and may be further established and confirmed in their views of the Scripture doctrines, by a clear and masterly elucidation of your subject. You may be instrumental to their edification if the law of kindness as well as of truth regulates your pen, otherwise you may do them harm. There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only showing a becoming zeal in the cause of God.
I readily believe that the leading points of Arminianism spring from and are nourished by the pride of the human heart; but I should be glad if the reverse were always true; and that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind. I think I have known some Arminians, that is, persons who for want of a clearer light, have been afraid of receiving the doctrines of free grace, who yet have given evidence that their hearts were in a degree humbled before the Lord.
And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility, that they are willing in words to debase the creature and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of. Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit. Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savour of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.

Consider Yourself
This leads me, in the last place, to consider your own concern in your present undertaking. It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. If ever such defences were seasonable and expedient they appear to be so in our own day, when errors abound on all sides and every truth of the gospel is either directly denied or grossly misrepresented.
And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honourable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?
Your aim, I doubt not, is good; but you have need to watch and pray for you will find Satan at your right hand to resist you; he will try to debase your views; and though you set out in defence of the cause of God, if you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your own cause, and awaken in you those tempers which are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct communion with God.
Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who “when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.” This is our pattern, thus we are to speak and write for God, “not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that hereunto we are called.” The wisdom that is from above is not only pure, but peaceable and gentle; and the want of these qualifications, like the dead fly in the pot of ointment, will spoil the savour and efficacy of our labours.
If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honour nor comfort to ourselves. If you can be content with showing your wit, and gaining the laugh on your side, you have an easy task; but I hope you have a far nobler aim, and that, sensible of the solemn importance of gospel truths, and the compassion due to the souls of men, you would rather be a means of removing prejudices in a single instance, than obtain the empty applause of thousands. Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts that you are taught of God, and favored with the unction of his Holy Spirit.

From The Works of John Newton, Letter XIX “On Controversy.”