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

Watched Over

Just last week our church family lost a cherished member, a relatively young man who leaves behind a loving wife and children, and literally hundreds of friends who felt loved by him, and loved him in return. His passing leaves a void in many hearts that only God in his mercy and comfort can fill.

Our friend was a singer—a soloist in every respect, but one who felt just as “at home” in the collective confines of the choir as he did on the leading edge of a concert platform. He was that kind of humble. He could sing Bach or bluegrass, highbrow or hoedown. That choice didn’t matter to him. He loved it all, and he sang in a way that helped us love it all. His heart was in his voice. He was one of those all too few singers whose gifts capture what a few poetic lines of Longfellow convey:

            God sent his singers upon earth

                 With songs of gladness and of mirth

            That they might touch the hearts of men

                 And bring them back to heaven again.

We first met fifteen years ago when our choir was preparing a Palm Sunday concert of Schubert’s magnificent Mass in E Flat. Part of the “Credo” of that stunning work unusually calls for two tenor soloists and one soprano to interface with the whole choir. One tenor had already been chosen. Since he was a member of the renowned United States Army Chorus, I simply asked him if he would bring along one of his colleagues to join him—one whom he felt would closely complement his own voice.

Little did I know then how their voices would mesh and meld in a whole that was far greater than the sum of its parts. One simply emerged barely distinguishable from the other, eventually joining with the soprano in striking trio to convey the musical and theological impact of our Lord’s incarnation”

Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine. ET HOMO FACTUS EST.

And he was made flesh by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,

and became fully human.

This central Christian doctrine was thus tenderly and memorably proclaimed.

Nor in those moments did I know that such a fruitful fifteen-year partnership and friendship were being inaugurated. He became part of our larger church family that very night, a follower of Jesus Christ who came to think dearly of our congregation as his church home. This is why his loss is such a loss. Those who love deeply hurt the most.

All this got me to thinking about Psalm 116.  Some of this psalm says,

            I love the Lord because he has heard my voice

                 and my pleas for mercy.

            Because he inclined his ear to me,

                 therefore I will call on him as long as I live…

            What shall I render to the Lord

                 for all his benefits to me?

            I will lift up the cup of salvation

                 and call on the name of the Lord.

            I will pay my vows to the Lord

                 in the presence of all his people…

            Precious in the sight of the Lord

                 is the death of his saints…

            I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving

                 and call on the name of the Lord.

            I will pay my vows to the Lord

                 in the presence of all his people,

                 in the courts of the house of the Lord,

                      in your midst, O Jerusalem.

            Praise the Lord!

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Here, “precious”not only conveys the sense of something “highly valued,” but also of someone “carefully watched over:”

            The One watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps.

Allen Ross reminds us that the Lord cares intensely about the death of his saints. It is never something the Lord considers cheap. God does not let his people die for no reason.[1]

There is always an element of praise in the Psalms, even in psalms of lament, even when we are pouring out our fearful or our broken hearts to God. The deliverance of a saint from mortal danger in Psalm 116 leads ultimately to God’s praise and to edification of all his saints for ages to come—even us today. The psalm thus ends with a “Hallelujah!”

It is because God “carefully watches over” us that even at the grave we still make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Michael Denham

[1] Allen Ross, “Psalms,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 877.

The Open Gate

“Look, teacher, what wonderful stones! Mark 13:1

As Jesus and his disciples are walking in the temple grounds in Jerusalem, one of them says, “Look, teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” For all Jews the temple was the defining center of their religious, cultural, and social identity. For Galileans like the disciples, Herod’s grand structure must have seemed all the more magnificent. Jesus’ countering comment puzzled and probably jarred them, when he said, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” This of course was borne out literally not long afterwards with the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 AD, but the disciples had no way of foreseeing this. It would have seemed impossible to them that something so evidently solid and central to their lives would be so short lived.

In a later private conversation on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are accomplished?” Jesus’ ensuing teaching focuses on the close of the age, the end of the world, but with a clarion call of hope: the Son of Man will come “in clouds with great power and glory.” He will “send out his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” We thus recall Charles Wesley’s striking second-Advent hymn,

            Jesus comes with clouds descending: See the Lamb for sinners slain!

                 Thousand, thousand saints attending join to sing the glad refrain:

            Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Christ the Lord returns to reign!

At the very least this points to Jesus Christ’s sovereign authority and principal role in God’s eternal plans. If there is any permanence to be found, it is not in the grand tonnage of the temple stones, but in his messianic person and work as cornerstone. The locus of divine revelation and human response is no longer to be found on the temple mount or—as the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 thought—on Mt. Gerazim, but in Jesus Christ himself.

The implication for worship is that no building, institution, or location defines the gate of heaven. This is now centered in the incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended, mediating, and advocating Son of God. He is seated “at the right hand” of the Father whose essential nature is spirit. To all who love, trust, and follow him, the gate is open.

Michael Denham