Books: What Language Shall I Borrow?

November 11, 2013

As chair of the worship committee at church, I look for resources to enhance our public worship. Most of our time as a committee seems to be spent on planning the logistics of the worship service ( e.g. who is the accompanist each week, who is doing special music), but I try to occasionally bring up topics about the meaning and purpose of worship.

What Language Shall I Borrow?, by Ronald Byars, intrigued me because it addresses the issue of whether to use traditional or more contemporary language in the worship service. I have attended churches that used traditional language and others that use contemporary language, and I see certain benefits in both.

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Why Lent?

February 16, 2013

A Facebook friend posted a link to this column by Tom Chantry, and adds this comment: “How come many (most?) Reformed Baptists get this and many (most?) Presbyterians don’t?”

I’ve never been a Reformed Baptist (and during the years I was a Baptist I had no idea there was such a thing), but I’ve been a Presbyterian now for over twenty years, and the wife of a Presbyterian pastor for the last fifteen, so I have some idea about what Presbyterians think. And the approach to Lent that is decried in this column is foreign to my experience.

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Why Ash Wednesday?

February 13, 2013

I took my usual lunchtime walk with a co-worker today. Remembering that she attends a Baptist church, I commented that I guessed they wouldn’t have an Ash Wednesday service this evening. She said no, and that it was too bad – Ash Wednesday is a tradition she appreciated when she belonged to a church that observed it.

I was a Baptist for a number of years, until I married a Presbyterian. I would see my Catholic co-workers come back to work after lunch on Ash Wednesday with black smudges on their foreheads, and I thought of Ash Wednesday as a Catholic thing.

(The Congregational church I grew up in had Ash Wednesday services, but I remember nothing about them. I didn’t really believe in Jesus back when I attended church there, and after I became a Baptist I dismissed anything the Congregational church did as empty ritual since they had not preached the Gospel clearly or cared much what people believed.)

The first time we attended a Presbyterian Ash Wednesday service where people were invited to receive ashes on the forehead, I declined. It was just too strange, too “Catholic.” I vaguely regretted not being able to bring myself to participate in that way, as it seemed meaningful to those who did.

By the time the next Ash Wednesday came around, I had come to appreciate Presbyterianism’s embrace of such traditions. Symbols are powerful in shaping our faith and our thinking, and an “embodied” symbol like a cross drawn with ashes on the forehead is that much more powerful.

A web page that does a good job of expressing what I find meaningful about Ash Wednesday is this Christianity FAQ. Another is this blog post, even though I would probably disagree with its writer, who calls herself a liberal Christian, on a number of theological points.

Interestingly, both point out that Ash Wednesday is one holiday that Hallmark will never co-opt as it has other Christian holidays. (I did discover, however, an Australian Hallmark website that not only includes Ash Wednesday in the list of holidays, but does a decent job explaining it.) Penitence and self-indulgent materialism just don’t mix. Perhaps that’s one of the best things about Ash Wednesday, and why we need it.

The meaning of salvation (part 3)

December 25, 2012

Several months ago, I purchased and read Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright. I had read reviews of some of his books and had been wanting to read at least one. When I read the description and reviews of Simply Jesus, I “simply” had to get it.

I did not immediately write a blog post about the book, partly because there is so much meat in the book that it is hard to do it justice, and also because I wanted to wait and see what long-term impact – if any – the book would have on me. Sadly, it’s very easy to be excited about a book that seems to change how you think about things, but then pretty soon to go on with daily life much as before.

I’ve been thinking about rereading the book, and then writing a blog post on it, but it was only reading another book that pushed me to do so. One morning at church when I had little to do (being a pastor’s wife means getting to church early and sometimes staying late afterward, and occasionally I forget to bring a book to read while I wait), I found an interesting book in the church’s small “library” (two bookshelves in the room used for fellowship and coffee hours).

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The meaning of salvation (part 2)

December 21, 2012

One of the first things I was told I needed to do as a new Christian was share my faith. Since I preferred the company of books to people, and I rarely expressed my thoughts to anyone if I didn’t have to, this was very difficult for me.

One of the first and most difficult conversations was telling my mother about my new beliefs, as I knew my parents had a pretty low opinion of fundamentalist Christians. (I don’t remember telling my father anything; I assume my mother told him about it.) They had always insisted that my sister and I were to make our own choices, however, and they were surprisingly accepting of my going over to the fundamentalist “side”, if not exactly supportive.

In his comment on my previous post, modestypress says he “would feel less aversion to Christianity (or other religious beliefs) if there were less obsession with guilt (about our imaginary original sin Adam and Eve ancestors) and with an imaginary Hell, and with condemnation of people who do no harm (e. g. non-believers and homosexuals).” I’m sure my mother’s aversion to the fundamentalist version of Christianity was for much the same reasons.

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Books: The Wisdom of Father Dowling

November 7, 2012

The Wisdom of Father Dowling is actually the second volume of Father Dowling short stories I have read. The first was The Compassion of Father Dowling, which I came across in the “new books” section of the library. I thought the name Father Dowling sounded vaguely familiar, though I didn’t recognize the author, Ralph McInerny. Now that I have heard of him (First Thoughts has an article summing up his life) and read some of his stories about Father Dowling, I look forward to reading more, especially the novels.

These stories are unlike most mysteries I have read in that relatively little of the story is devoted to tracking down clues. Father Dowling is, first and foremost, a priest, and he spends his time counseling parishioners, celebrating Mass, and whatever other duties go with the Catholic priesthood (something I know very little about). To the extent that he goes out to talk to people who may know something about the crime, it is to minister to their souls, or to get information that will help him better minister to someone else. Often, it seems that the people come to him, not to help solve the crime but to get relief from a guilty conscience.

Each story stands alone, as best as I can tell. That is, there are no references in one story to the events of another story, so there’s no way to assign them to any chronological order. I find myself wondering just how plausible it is that one parish priest could encounter so many murders among people of his flock or connected to them. Of course, the same is true of a lot of mystery series, though usually they try to give an explanation for this (easy when the protagonist is either a police or private detective) or at least acknowledge how unusual it is.

I have read reviews saying the stories are not very exciting – which is true. Whether because of the (short) length of the stories or because it is simply McInerny’s style, there is little suspense, though there certainly is mystery. The focus is more on the people than the storyline, but I have always liked stories where the characters matter at least as much as the plot. Naturally in a short story there isn’t a great deal of character development, and there were none that I felt sorry not to learn more about (as often happens in novels), but the characters are interesting.

I don’t know if the intended audience was people who had already read novels featuring Father Dowling, but I found some things a bit confusing until I had read several stories and figured out more details about the main characters and the town. McInerny also has a habit of tucking in brief flashbacks with no real transitions, which confused me at first but I got used to it. There is some understated humor, which I enjoy, though also some that I didn’t quite get (that is, I suspected there was humor involved but I wasn’t getting the point).

I was interested to note, on the flyleaf, that McInerny was a scholar as well as a novelist, and a prolific and successful writer in both arenas. I see he wrote quite a few books dealing with the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, which doesn’t greatly interest me, but I might try something like his A Student’s Guide to Philosophy. First, though, I’ll read one of his novels – of which our library has quite a few.

Lessons from Wee Kirk

October 4, 2012

We just got back from three days in Indiana at the North Central Wee Kirk Conference. (Wee kirk means “small church,” and it’s a conference for leaders of small churches.) I’ll probably write more posts about it over the next few days, but I wanted to write down a few thoughts while they’re still fresh in my mind – and before I slide back into the usual routine and forget them.

When we first got there, Tuesday evening, I wasn’t exactly in much mood for the opening worship service. I was tired from driving six hours, and wondering how a conference less than 48 hours long (from Tuesday evening to Thursday noon) could really make much difference spiritually. I remember previous Wee Kirk conferences when the worship leader’s manner of urging people to enter fully into worship felt – to me – more like scolding me for not being emotional enough in my worship.

I was very grateful when this year’s worship leader told us we didn’t have to sing all the words of the songs if we came upon some that just didn’t fit with where we were at the time – other people with us would be singing and together we would all be praising God. I wish someone like her had been leading worship those other years at Wee Kirk, and at some other times in my past when words that were supposed to describe my joy in Jesus simply stuck in my throat.

By this morning, the songs of praise flowed easily. Was it the wonderfully gifted speakers who preached to us, four times over the course of less than two days? Was it that they were able to preach for considerably longer than the twenty minutes that seems to be the expectation at many Presbyterian churches, limiting how deeply they can develop the message they are bringing to us?

Was it the total amount of time devoted to thinking about God, worshiping God, enjoying fellowship with other Christians? Was it simply being away from the usual daily routine for three days? Was it the prayers of many people, during the months of preparation for the conference as well as during the conference itself?

I think either of the two plenary speakers would have said that any of those things could have played a part, but first and foremost it was the sovereign grace of God. The theme of the conference was supposed to be “The Joy of the Hurting Church” from Philippians 1. Certainly the speakers talked about that, but to me the repeated emphasis was on the sovereign grace of God. (The joy of the Christian, whether in times of hurt or otherwise, is ultimately grounded in that truth.)

I was somewhat disappointed that there was not more in the way of practical ideas for ministering in small churches, as there were in previous Wee Kirk conferences we attended. (The last one we went to, before this year, was in 2004.) But perhaps what I needed more this year was not about what I could do in the church, but what God wants to do in me.

Some of the phrases running through my mind, which I will try to address in the next few blog posts, are these:

  • getting “blown about” by God’s Spirit (based on John 3:8)
  • it’s not good to learn truth faster than you can live it
  • seeing how God works in unexpected ways and by unexpected means