Hurry Up and Wait

“Advent” means “arrival.” When someone we love or think important is coming to see us, we busy ourselves getting ready. We clean the house, mow the lawn or rake the leaves, fill the pantry, and get a haircut.

We’ve just enjoyed our annual national visitation at Thanksgiving, when our homes bustle with family preparations perhaps more than at any other time of the year. Now we’re moving into a different season that marks the coming of our most welcome and anticipated guest: The Lord of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christians prepare for our Lord’s coming from three vantages: First, we remember his historical incarnation and intervention—what the Bible calls “the fullness of time,” when as a tiny baby Jesus Christ slipped quietly and humbly into our lives in a back-alley barn in a small Judean village.

Second, we await his eventual historical return—what the Bible calls “the day of the Lord,” when a myriad of the heavenly host will follow in Christ’s train as he appears, not just as Redeemer, but as Ruler and Sovereign.

Between these two historical events—in this crease of history—we ask ourselves afresh what it means to welcome our Savior, not just to the world, but to each of us, and to the dark, needy corners and folds of our own lives.

Getting ready for a visit sometimes brings flashes of activity, but sometimes it calls for quiet, for stillness, for silence. Advent offers us a concrete part of our calendar to slow down, to listen, to reflect, and to ponder. It’s a good season to turn the old adage on its head: “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

As we prepare for the “coming of the Lord,” we do well to remember that for quite a while before Jesus was born of Mary, even God was silent. It had been 400 years since the most recent prophet was heard in the Holy Land. Malachi’s was the last Old Testament oracle:

Remember the law of my servant Moses,

The decrees and laws I gave him at Sinai for all Israel.

Behold, I will send you the prophet Elijah

before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.

He will return the hearts of the fathers to their children,

and the hearts of the children to their fathers;

Or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.

After that—silence—400 years of silence! Preaching and teaching, reading and learning, singing and worship continued in their courses. But apparently even God became silent in preparation for the coming Messiah.

But God did not leave himself without a witness. The sweeping revelation of the Old Testament draws our attention to the coming One in painstaking and striking detail in the prophet Micah:

As for you, O watchtower of the flock,

O stronghold of the Daughter of Zion,

the former dominion will be restored to you;

kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem…

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel,

whose origins are from of old, from ancient times…

And so it was, above those Judean fields, that God’s silence was broken, when the angel of the Lord and the gathered company of heaven heralded to frightened shepherds the glorious good news of our salvation:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace, goodwill to men.

Through 400 years of silence, for many the promise of God and the blessed hope of Israel had practically faded away. 400 years is a long time to wait. But when those bewildered shepherds heard the joyful power of God’s word in the night skies above their flocks of sheep, Scripture says they hurried to see what had happened!

Michael Denham

Pure Silver

Following Jesus in the storms of life was the focus of our sermon last Sunday—literal wind and weather storms, but also circumstantial, emotional, and relational storms of our everyday lives. All the way through I was reminded of something that was shared with me many years ago:

Sometimes God calms the storm.

Sometimes he lets the storm rage, and calms his child.

None of us really wants to be in a storm. Watching a storm from some safe vantage can be exciting, the kind of excitement we sense from being near danger, but not so much in danger. But if for some reason we find ourselves in the middle of a storm, well, that’s different. We’re not all like 19th century naturalist John Muir who, some say, during thunderstorms clamored up pine trees or redwoods just to get a better view. Most of us think tornados or typhoons can be terrifying!

What does it mean to follow God through a storm? How do we trust God in a storm? My guess is it depends on what we think of God as guide or shelter, and how dependable to us is his word.

The Psalms in various places liken God’s word to precious metals we have come to treasure. In Psalm 19 we read:

The precepts of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.

They are more precious than gold, even much fine gold.

Psalm 12 also draws the comparison:

The Lord speaks purest truth, like silver seven times refined.

These psalmists essentially declare that the word of the Lord is pure, without blemish or defect, unalloyed. It isn’t just any word or anyone’s word, but God’s word—without dissimulation, completely reliable and trustworthy.

Psalm 12 illustrates this with a metallurgical metaphor about the refining of silver through intensive, successive heating. I’m no silversmith, but I’ve heard that in years gone by skilled craftsmen heated silver to such a degree that impurities in the ore continually rose to the top of the molten metal where they were skimmed away until the artisan saw his own image reflected in the surface of the liquid. It was then considered to be pure.

Allen Ross writes, “Obviously the word of God was never at a stage where there were impurities in it. David is simply emphasizing how perfect the word of God is. It can be trusted completely in everything it says. It is the only word that can be so trusted… Because God’s word is pure, what that word has promised is certain.”[1] Some Bible translations here even render “word” of God as “promises” of God. We trust God’s promises because they are utterly dependable.

Whether God calms our storm, or lets it rage and calms us in its midst, we can trust God’s word that we will never be left or forsaken, that our Lord is with us always. Because of God’s pure word, never means never, and always means always.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,

Is laid for your faith in God’s excellent Word!

What more can be said than to you God hath said,

To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,

For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;

I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,

Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,

The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;

For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,

And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,

My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;

The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design

Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”

“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,

I will not, I will not, desert to its foes;

That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,

I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”[2]

Michael Denham

[1] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2011), 357.

[2] Author: Designated only as “K” in John Rippon’s A Selection of Hymns, 1787.

Thank You and Please

Rejoice in the Lord always…with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Philippians 4:4-6

Gracious God, we gather together during this season,

out of custom and a broad sense of national community,

to recognize your hand of blessing that has rested upon us for so long.

Yet we also come out of a sense of our own need—

some believing and rejoicing, some afraid or full of doubt—

many wanting and waiting for a word of hope from you.

May such hope well up inside us, even as we consider the words of the day:

your grace and our gratitude.

Parents want their children to be polite. “Please and thank you” is one of the first things we learn to say. But near the end of his letter to the early church at Philippi, St. Paul says, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Thanksgiving comes first, then our requests. It’s our childhood duty in reverse: “Thank you and please.”

Before he was a Christian, Paul was a very religious Jew. He knew the Hebrew Bible backward and forward. He knew that the Old Testament is full of stories about God at work in history—not only for Israel, but for the whole world. This point of view was part of Paul’s integrating worldview. He could see in Scripture an important and recurring pattern of God’s action and our reaction, God’s call and our response, God’s grace and our gratitude. The clear pattern is this: God acts on our behalf. God takes initiative. God intervenes. Then God invites us to notice.

Over and over in the Old Testament, Israel was challenged to remember what God had done for them. Not just so they could keep straight the facts, but so they could interpret and teach their significance and meaning from generation to generation. In Deuteronomy 29, near the end of his life, Moses told the children of Israel,

Secret things belong to the Lord our God,

but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever,

that we may follow all the words of this law.

Paul’s New Testament letters also emphasize that God clearly acts on our behalf, and wants us to clearly recognize those initiatives and benefits. It’s a matter of perspective. Noted preacher Earl Palmer, says that “for Paul, it’s the love of God that triggers human faith, not human faith that creates the love of God.” Paul presumes and preaches that God actually has done something for which to be thankful. Christians are marked chiefly by gratitude.

This isn’t a universally shared conviction. The late Ray Stedman, a pastor himself, told a story of a well-known minister who was awaiting his meal in a crowded restaurant. As he was being served, a man approached him and asked if he could join him. The minister invited him to have a seat, then as was his custom, bowed his head in prayer.

When he opened his eyes, the other man asked, “Do you have a headache? The minister replied, “No, I don’t.” The other man asked, “Well, is there something wrong with your food?” The minister replied, “No, I was simply thanking God as I always do before I eat.”

The man said, “Oh, you’re one of those, are you? Well, I want you to know I never give thanks. I earn my money by the sweat of my brow and I don’t have to thank anybody when I eat. I just start right in!” The minister said, “Yes, you’re just like my dog. That’s what he does, too.”

But even a dog nuzzles the hand of its master, and finds great joy in pleasing its benefactor. God’s children know that grace invites gratitude, and blessings invite thanksgiving.

Two New Testament words beautifully characterize this pattern of gratitude following grace. The first relates to God’s initiative, God’s intervention, and God’s invitation. From it we derive our words, evangelism and evangelical, because it’s the word for God’s message to us: the Gospel. The second relates to our response to God. It forms the basis for one of the words we use to describe Holy Communion: Eucharist.

Evangel conveys a sense of joy, news that cannot be contained, something to be heralded. Luke records the words of the messenger-angel: “I bring you good news of great joy…a Savior has been born to you.” Eucharist conveys a sense of grace or favor, leading to gratitude and giving thanks. Opportunity for rejoicing inherent in the word is why it has become one of our chief descriptors of the Lord’s Supper. Together Evangel and Eucharist beautifully capture the flip-side nature of God’s grace and our gratitude.

In one of his pithy “Rest of the Story” radio moments years ago, commentator Paul Harvey related the following story:

It is gratitude that prompted an old man to visit an old, broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night, until his death in 1973, he would return, walking slowly and slightly stooped with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, and he would feed them from his bucket. Many years before, in October 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 airplane to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour which would hurl Captain Rickenbaker into the most harrowing adventure of his life.

Somewhere over the South Pacific, the Flying Fortress became lost beyond reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched the plane in the ocean.

For nearly a month Captain Rickenbacker and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine feet by five. The biggest sharks were ten feet long.

But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. After only eight days, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred.

In Captain Rickenbacker’s own words: “Cherry—that was the B-17 pilot, Captain William Cherry—held a worship service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare I dozed off.

Then something landed on my head. I knew it was a sea gull. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew, too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expressions on their faces. They were staring at that gull. That gull meant food… if I could catch it.

“And the rest,” as Harvey typically says, “is history.”

Captain Rickenbacker caught the gull and it was eaten. Its innards were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes were renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically a thousand miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice.

Captain Rickenbacker and his companions made it. And he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset, on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast, you could see an old man walking, white-haired, bushy-browed, slightly bent. His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls… to remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without struggle… like manna in the wilderness.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!

This is no idle call to naïve, “Pollyanna” living. St. Paul does not say “Always be happy!” Happiness is an emotional byproduct of an act of the will. Rejoicing is that act of the will—anticipating and responding to the initiative and intervention of God, no matter what happens, as did Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his companions, lost and found at sea.

What a beautiful metaphor this is for us, in many ways lost at sea and in need of rescue. Our salvation has come through the advent of a Savior, uncharacteristically far away from heaven’s throne, to our little rafts, where otherwise we are without hope. News of his coming was a good word, the best word we could hear. How appropriate that this gospel was heralded by angels! Worship, and witness to this “good news of great joy,” are our best and most grateful responses to the seeking and finding grace of God.

Michael Denham


Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder.

James 3:4

When I was a young boy, my Dad offered me some fatherly advice that has stuck with me through the years. It has in fact “saved my bacon” more than once. He said, “Son, remember divine mathematics: God gave you two ears and one mouth.” What we say, how we say it, and whether we say anything at all are timely considerations.

James—the brother of Jesus—became leader of the early Church in Jerusalem. Laced throughout his New Testament letter is practical advice about living together in community, but near the beginning he shows his pastoral concern about how we speak to and of each other:

Know this, beloved: let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for human anger does not produce the righteousness of God.

A bit later James uses the nautical image of a rudder to emphasize his point about our speech: Rudders are by comparison quite small, but they control large ships. He couples this image with those of a guiding bit in a horse’s mouth, and the potentially destructive power of even the tiniest flame. For good or ill, our tongues can pack a punch!

James recognizes human frailty and propensity to “stumble in many ways.” But if we do not trip over what we say, how we say it, or whether we say anything at all, it certainly can indicate that we are in firm control of the rest of our lives.

He also recognizes that despite our best intentions we can be inconsistent or even duplicitous with what comes out of our mouths:

With our tongue we bless our Lord and Father,and with it we curse people who are made in the image of God.

In his address, “The Weight of Glory,” delivered during World War II from the pulpit of Oxford’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin, C. S. Lewis says,

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter [in heaven]; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his [earthly] neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

If this is so, if we are in some sense caretakers of God’s image in others—however faint it might seem to us at any given time—then we do well to take care how we speak to and of them. Not mincing any words, even our Lord in his Sermon on the Mount said, “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

In this awareness we turn to a prayer written by Eric Milner-White, once Dean of King’s College Cambridge and later of York Cathedral, with Anglican hymn writer George Wallace Briggs:

Set a watch, O Lord, upon my tongue,

that I may never speak the cruel word which is untrue,

or being true, is not the whole truth; or being wholly true, is merciless

for the love of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Michael Denham

On the Bench

I’ve been thinking recently about leadership in general and judges and judging in particular.

Judges lead by helping us sift and settle on what is right.  Justice is a key concern of judges. This is why we call them “Justices.”

We presume that judges are knowledgeable and wise. We want them to be able to weigh difficult decisions, to balance competing or conflicting interests, and to affirm, shape, or set principles that will guide us now and into the future.

We call judges “your honor” partly because they represent and embody the foundation and force of law, and partly because we want them to be honorable, above reproach and, as far as is humanly possible, incorruptible. We depend on their impartiality, and that their word is their bond.

We are deeply disappointed when a judge falls short of these characterizations. On the other hand, we may disagree with a particular ruling, but if a judge has reached that ruling fairly, we can still respect both the office and the person.

The controlling interest for judges in all levels of our courts is upholding the spirit and the letter of our Constitution and our other fundamental documents, but justice and fair judging are far more ancient concerns.

We sometimes hear people say, “We don’t want any of that ‘eye for an eye’ or ‘hand for a hand’ stuff anymore. We’re far more sophisticated than that.” But what is often misunderstood is that this ancient “law of retribution” was designed to deter retaliation on the level of an ‘eye for an insult,’ or ‘a hand for a loaf of bread.’ It was an early and positive attempt to balance justice, and make the punishment fit the crime.

The Book of Genesis simply presumes that its readers will understand God’s response when Abraham intercedes to him on behalf of any supposed righteous inhabitants of Sodom:

            Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?

Psalm 96 connects joyful worship with the confidence that God is both in charge and fair:

            Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

                 let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

                 let the field exult, and everything in it!

            Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord;

                 for he comes to judge the earth.

            He will judge the world in righteousness,

                 and the peoples with equity.

In his first letter, St. Peter writes:

            If you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each

one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your

exile here, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways of life

inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as

silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without

blemish or defect.

Scripture of course has much more to say than this about justice, and judging, and about authority, righteousness, and mercy. Yet it is good to remind ourselves that God is known to us in part as Judge because justice – putting things to right – is an inherent part of his person and plan.

Today our media headlines are filled with argument, conflict, controversy, and turmoil. We are uncertain and off-center about the future of our people and our nation. In some ways, the final verse of the book of Judges might aptly characterize us:

            In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was

            right in his own eyes.

Or Proverbs 29:18 may be the wise oracle we most need to remember:

            Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint.

No one leader or group of leaders has an exclusive market on vision. But the good news today and every day is that, even if our national outlook grows opaque, Jesus remains the clear center of Christian faith and focus. According to Hebrews 12, he cheers for us just across the finish line of the race we are running – seated at God’s right hand as pioneer, Savior, intercessor, and ultimate, merciful, and loving Judge.

Michael Denham

Community Choir

Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another…

1 Peter 5:5

Long-time music educator and theologian Harold Best writes,

The effectiveness of a liturgy lies in its humility, in the absence of self-proclamation – “I am the liturgy, notice me.” The Word of God is the gathering point for all the content and all the action. If there is a high point or seasonal emphasis in a liturgy, this is to be subject to the scriptural wholeness within which all actions and emphases take place. IN Christ means IN the Word made flesh, and this means that the centrality of Christ guarantees the centrality of the Word, even as we sing or pray or preach or celebrate the Eucharist. It is because of this centrality that all liturgies, whether traditionally framed, denominationally created, or “experimental,” will stand or fall in direct proportion to the centrality of the Word of God (Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts, 2003, 73).

Resonant with St. Peter’s apostolic and pastoral plea above – clothe yourself with humility – are similar words from St. Paul in Colossians 3:12, “…put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Interestingly enough, this comes four verses before what likely is the most-cited New Testament verse relative to music: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (3:16).

The controlling interest in this latter verse is less about just what kinds of music are “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” and more about inculcating in our lives the “word of Christ.” The contextual emphasis leading up to it is concern about and deference to each other. God is less concerned that we get our music just right than that we treat our relationships with tender care.

“Dwell” comes from the root word for “house.” It can mean pretty much what it means on the surface: To live somewhere. Or it can be more nuanced to mean having an idea, some conviction, or even faith become stronger and more infixed in us: “housed.” If the “word of Christ” is “at home” within us, and attended to luxuriantly (richly) among our community of believers, it becomes the basis for and content of our life together and our corporate expressions of worship.

Life together is key: day by day interaction filled with challenges, stresses, frustrations, and failures, but seasoned with forgiveness, mutual concern, caring support, and the unity of love and peace. Wonderful as these latter things are, they don’t just happen by accident. They come at least in part by acting humbly toward each other.

I was privileged to know Harold Best as Dean of the Conservatory of Music during my years at Wheaton College. One of my cherished memories from those days was learning a hymn I hadn’t known before, “May the Mind of Christ, My Savior,” set to the tender tune St. Leonards, named after Leonard of Limosin, a 5th century French bishop.

Something about it touched me, not unlike in kindergarten when I first heard the tune Slane, an ancient Irish ballad named after the now greenly lovely village where 5th century missionary St. Patrick first lit fires of Easter worship. Even as a child, I fell in love with “Be Thou My Vision” and other things Celtic.

More recently, with apologies to Kate Wilkinson, author of the wonderful original text to St. Leonards, I recast some of its words as part of my own reflections on what it means – in our human frailties – to be clothed with humility as we make music and minster to one another.

May the Word of God dwell richly in our hearts from hour to hour,

so that we may truly triumph only through God’s pow’r.

May God’s beauty rest upon us, full of truth and full of grace,

so that all may see the image of Christ’s holy face.

May Christ’s light and life shine through us, never hidden, never dim,

to the glory of the Father visible in him.

Michael Denham

Just a Glimpse

It seemed to me wearisome, until I went into the sanctuary of God.

Psalm 73:17

None of us really knows what brings people through the doors of the church. The range of interests and needs at any given time is too wide and too hidden to gauge.

Only God knows the secret places of the heart. But this is good news, for it’s the heart of the matter that arguably most interests God. In worship, as elsewhere, he’s at work at the seat of our inner life, the controlling interest within us. The heart is apparently where the Holy Spirit focuses God’s engaging and transforming work. “Our lives,” writes Eugene Peterson, “are after all, the stuff that is being formed” (Peterson, Eat This Book, 23).

In Psalm 73, Asaph brings his troubles to the Lord. He believes that God is “good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.” But his statement of faith, his bedrock foundation of belief, seems at odds with what he sees all around him: The wicked in fact are prospering! Why wasn’t he prospering? He was one of the good guys. He was on God’s side.

Because of this, he laments, “my feet almost stumbled; my steps nearly slipped.” Asaph was tempted to chuck his convictions and run with the crowd. But even in his weakness he saw the duplicity in that choice. So in an act of sheer faith, he went to the temple to worship. There he regained perspective from the glimpse of God he saw.

We should never discount what can happen to someone whenever they come to worship – whether that’s every day, every week, or just on holidays. Even a glimpse of God can be a powerfully transforming vision. It’s been said that one of the wonderful things about being God is that you don’t need a lot of help!

We can’t know the deep personal circumstances of everyone who walks through our church’s doors. Only God knows. But we can be faithful and purposeful in depicting as clear a picture as we can of God who loves us, and calls each of us at the very point of our need to walk with him.

We never know just how God can and will use us week in and week out in someone’s life, but we can be bolstered by Ken Medema’s words:

We come to church with expectations small,

but Jesus comes to stand the broken tall.

Michael Denham

The Main Thing

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Romans 12:1

Here St. Paul comes to the “continental divide” in his greatest letter. His journey so far has taken him and his readers in Rome through God’s gracious intentions and provisions on our behalf. Standing now on that high crest where we can see at once where we’ve been and where we can go, he says the journey ahead is worship.

This is not a “Lewis and Clark expedition” following our noses across a vast wilderness in hopes of discovering something we know not quite what. It is in fact a well-charted excursion documenting our course to date and our clear destination.

When Paul makes his appeal to us “by the mercies of God,” he well could have said “in view of God’s merciful acts and activities.” It’s a phrase gathering or summing up not only the apostle’s argument in the preceding flow of his correspondence, but the whole of God’s merciful dealings with humankind. This includes the whole background of Old Testament worship and its recapitulation for believers living under God’s new covenant.

The astute scholar of Romans C. E. B. Cranfield writes,

The Christian’s obedience is his response to what God has done for him and for all men in Jesus Christ. Its basic motive is gratitude for God’s goodness in Christ. This means that all truly Christian moral endeavor is theocentric, having its origin not in a humanistic desire for the enhancement of the self by the attainment of a moral superiority, not in the legalist’s illusory hope of putting God under obligation to himself, but simply in the gracious actions of God (Cranfield, Romans, 292).

Anglican theologian and devotional writer W. H. Griffith-Thomas sums up:

It is because we are already recipients of the mercies of God that we can and must live the true life. We work from salvation, not for salvation (Griffith-Thomas, Romans, 324).

Worship is the only reasonable response to God’s breathtaking blessing and provision. It’s an all-encompassing response of our whole selves in every facet of our lives. Worship is the most important thing any of us will ever do.

Michael Denham

Handwriting on My Wall – 1

Pinned to a wall board right above my computer screen are some orienting momentos – photos, poetry, verses of Scripture, pithy comics, prayers. We all have them: “remembrances of things past,” celebrations of the present, hopes for the future, tucked away between the pages of a book, folded up in our wallets, tended to in the secret gardens of our hearts.

Some things revolve on and off my wall, others are purposely fixed more permanently. If it’s been there more than a few months, you can bet it’s pretty important to me. Often someone’s steak is another’s cake, but trusting that there is broader appeal to some of these treasures, I offer them to you expectantly.

We begin with ancient words of Job who, in the midst of significant personal suffering, means to clarify his “friend” Bildad’s perspective:

Behold, these are but the edges of his ways; how small a whisper do we hear of him; but the thunder of God’s power, who can understand?

Job 26:14

We also note a sonnet of Michelangelo Buonaroti, penned in the 16th century, and translated from Italian to English in the 19th century by fellow poet William Wordsworth. It peeks into that crease between between inspiration, illumination, perspiration, and communication so central to crafting worship:

The prayers I make will then be sweet indeed

If thou the Spirit gives by which I pray.

My unassisted heart is barren clay,

Which of its native self can nothing feed.

Of good and pious works thou art the seed,

Which quickens only where thou say’st it may.

Unless thou show to us thine own true way,

No man can find it: Father! Thou must lead.

Do thou, then, breathe those thoughts into my mind

By which such virtue may in me be bred,

That in thy holy footsteps I may tread.

The fetters of my tongue do thou unbind,

That I may have the power to sing of thee,

And sound thy praises everlastingly.

Michael Denham

A Good Book Book

I’ve been re-reading a wonderful book by American historian Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired.

This is quite a weighty title. You might not expect it, but for quite a while it appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. This was surprising and intriguing enough for me to read it the first time, but this second time has been even more engaging.

Bobrick traces the genesis of the English Bible from John Wycliffe through William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale through figures like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, France, and Ireland. Most of us know (only a little) about him principally because of the Bible version that bears his name.

There were of course many other nearly equal or lesser names intimately involved in the striking drama of how English Bibles came to be, particularly the work known as the Authorized text – the King James Bible. For those details I simply recommend Bobrick’s book.

If you read it you’ll be compelled to take a broader view of the Holy Spirit’s prevenient work. Within the context of political and theological conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants, between high church Anglicans and Puritans, and between British monarchs and Popes, you’ll discover that people were literally burning each other at the stake over matters of Bible translation! Apparently the Lord can use any of us anytime, anywhere, in any way to accomplish his purposes.

Bobrick begins by saying, “The first question ever asked by an Inquisitor of a “heretic” was whether he knew any part of the Bible in his own tongue. It was asked of a man who belonged to a dissident religious sect known as the Waldensians. They emphasized Bible study, lay preaching, and the priesthood of all believers. In time, the same question would be asked of thousands of others before the course of history would render its dark and cruel implications null and void.”

Bobrick goes on to say, “Next to the Bible itself, the English Bible was (and is) the most influential book ever published. It gave every literate English-speaking person complete access to the sacred text. This helped to foster a spirit of inquiry through reading and reflection. These in turn accelerated the growth of commercial printing and ever-widening circulation and production of books. As one contemporary put it, ‘Books formerly imprisoned in the libraries of monasteries were redeemed from bondage to freely walk about in the light.’

Once people were free to interpret the Word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of the inherited institutions, both religious and secular. This led to reformation within the church, to the rise of constitutional government in England and elsewhere, and to the end of the divine right of kings. Although efforts to translate the Bible into English had actually begun in support for England’s monarchy and its independence from the Pope, in the end it contributed to and justified defiance of the monarchy itself.”

The value I think of Bobrick’s argument rests only partly in its historical weight and plausibility. There’s also a deep appreciation in it for the (sometimes barely perceptible) role of the Holy Spirit in and over human affairs.

The story of the English Bible is frankly as shocking as it is beautiful. It’s filled with moments of deep faith and courage, but also debilitating, discrediting pride, and demonstrable wickedness. To help make sense of it all, we remember the first verse of Proverbs 21, “The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord; like rivers of water he turns it wherever he will.”

The King James Bible that ultimately evolved and emerged was indeed used by the Holy Spirit to convey the truth of the gospel in ways that changed the hearts and minds of many and, in many ways, the course of history.

Whatever currency this venerable version still has in our own lives, we do well to conclude here with portions of the preface to early editions of the KJV. It was written by Miles Smith, one of the translators and editors, for the group as a whole. It goes some distance in revealing the heart of the matter that these all-too-human but faithful scholars at least tried to bear in mind:

But now what piety without truth? What truth without the Word of God? What Word of God without the Scripture?

The Scriptures we are commanded to search…If we be ignorant, they will instruct us; if out of the way, they will bring us home; if out of order, they will reform us; if in heaviness, comfort us; if dull, quicken us; if cold, inflame us.

Tolle lege! Tolle lege! Take up and read! Take up and read! But how shall we meditate on that which we cannot understand? How shall we understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue?

…Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light; that breaketh the shell that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well that we may come by the water…

Ye are brought unto the fountains of living water which ye digged not; do not cast earth into them… If light be come into the world, love not darkness more than light; if clothing be offered, go not naked, starve not yourselves…

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when he setteth his word before us, to read it; when he stretcheth out his hand and calleth, to answer, here am I.

Michael Denham