The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork. (Psalm 19.1; NKJV)
Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!
For His mercy endures forever.
To Him who made the great lights,
For His mercy endures forever –
The sun to rule by day,
For His mercy endures forever;
The moon and stars to rule by night,
For His mercy endures forever. (Psalm 136.1,7-9; NKJV)
Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead. (Romans 1.20; NKJV)
Scripture teaches that creation constantly bears witness to its Creator. We know that unbelievers suppress this knowledge in an effort to resist God’s claims upon them (Romans 1.18). However, are we believers not often guilty of taking for granted the wonders of creation and failing to appreciate the revelation of God all around us?
I know this is the case for me. That is why I found it remarkable to be caught up short this past weekend beholding the rising moon. I wrote the poem below, which I share as my own testimony and as an encouragement for all of us to be more attentive to the witness of creation.
On Our Evening Walk
Rounding the corner, she stopped
and dropped my hand to point
and to declare:
“Look! The moon!”
I saw it rising between the rooftops –
full, glowing, seemingly-swollen
to three times its normal size.
We gazed in wonder,
caught up in this unexpected glimpse of glory.
Walking on, we called first to a neighbor
and then to our children,
“Look! The moon!”
And, together, we marveled.
© 2017, Steven C. Wright
Later this month, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving Day with festive family gatherings recalling the rejoicing of our Pilgrim forebears. It is a wonderful tradition I joyfully anticipate each year – especially the prospect of roast turkey with oyster dressing! With this theme of thanksgiving in mind, our psalm-of-the-month for November is Psalm 92. In our Lord’s Day morning worship, we will sing Isaac Watts’s paraphrase known by its opening words, “How Good It Is to Thank the Lord.” Thanksgiving was important in ancient Israel, and not just once a year. The opening verses of Psalm 92 provide helpful orientation to how we should weave thanksgiving into our lives throughout the year, especially in corporate worship.
Psalm 92 bears a superscription: “A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath Day.” Clearly God intended this psalm to be sung by His people in weekly worship – worship that is to be marked by a spirit of thanksgiving. This is a worship song that tells us what good worship song is all about.
It is good to give thanks to the LORD
And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High;
To declare Your lovingkindness in the morning,
And Your faithfulness every night,
On an instrument of ten strings,
On the lute,
And on the harp,
With harmonious sound.
For You, LORD, have made me glad through Your word;
I will triumph in the works of Your hands. (Psalm 92.1-4, NKJV)
Here are a few brief observations from these verses. (1) Offering thanksgiving to the Lord is a good thing! It is ethically the right thing to do, and therefore it is not merely an optional activity for the Christian. While lack of thanksgiving is the hallmark of unbelief (Romans 1.21), the giving of thanks is to characterize the lives of all true believers. (2) Singing praise (sometimes with instrumental accompaniment) is a fitting way to offer thanksgiving. Ordinary speech isn’t enough. Lovers sing of their beloved, which is what we do when we sing to the Lord in corporate worship. (3) Our thanksgiving flows from hearts made glad by God’s Word and lives blessed by God’s work. We sing God’s praises because we have been the grateful recipients of His grace.
Thanksgiving is a suitable activity all day every day (v. 2: “in the morning … every night”), but it is most fitting on the Lord’s Day. As C.H. Spurgeon observes:
Devout praise is always good, it is never out of season, never superfluous, but it is especially suitable to the Sabbath; a Sabbath without thanksgiving is a Sabbath profaned.
In the spirit of Psalm 92, let us seek to make every day Thanksgiving Day unto the Lord. And let us especially prize the opportunity to offer our praise corporately with the saints each Lord’s Day. Let us not be lackadaisical in this regard but really sing out with joy the praises of our great God. When we thus honor the Sabbath and the Lord of the Sabbath with thanksgiving, we please Him and edify one another. It truly is good to give thanks to the Lord!
October 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg — a signal event often viewed as launching the Protestant Reformation. Many churches will be commemorating and celebrating this anniversary, but this strikes some as odd. A Roman Catholic friend once asked me how it was that Protestants could celebrate one of the greatest schisms in the history of the Church. I replied that we don’t celebrate separation. The Reformation was a tragic necessity given the condition of the Church at the time. We celebrate the fact that the Reformation was a time of recovery and renewal in doctrine and practice. Nowhere is this more evident than in the matter of worship.
The words of a modern Roman Catholic can help us understand the necessity of the reformation of worship in Luther’s day. Josef A. Jungmann, one of the leading Roman Catholic liturgical scholars of the 20th century, outlined the state of late medieval European piety in a 1959 journal article entitled, “Liturgy on the Eve of the Reformation.” While noting some external signs of vibrant liturgical life (active participation in events of church calendar, multiplication of gothic cathedrals, etc.), he acknowledged many signs of weakness and decline.
One key problem was the shift from worship by the people to worship by and for the clergy: “the liturgy was a liturgy for the clergy … [even] in the churches in which the worship of the faithful should have been the primary concern.” Literal barriers entered the sanctuary, such as the rood screen behind which the clergy conducted the mass. Then there was the language barrier, with the services conducted in Latin that the people could not understand. Jungmann admits, “The role of the laity was to all intents and purposes that of a spectator.” One example of this was the lack of congregational participation in the music of worship. He notes disapprovingly that there was “a choir of clerics singing the music belonging to the people!”
Participation in the sacrament of the eucharist changed from partaking of the elements to merely gazing upon them: “Because the faithful no longer wanted to communicate or dared to (the clergy did not encourage frequent reception, to put it mildly), they wanted to see the sacred Host.” This led to the practice of eucharistic veneration and a similar visual fascination with relics of the saints. An increasingly superstitious approach to worship developed which “stressed mere physical presence at Mass in order to gain its fruits.”
In such a state of affairs, Jungmann admits:
It was not hard for Luther to strike a destructive blow against such a system. At least at the outset, he and the other reforming influences already at work in the Church were undoubtedly moved by genuine religious concern. Luther demanded a return to a more simple Christianity.
While the Roman Catholic Jungmann was no apologist for the Protestant cause, he evidenced clear insight into the conditions that spurred the Reformers into action.
John Calvin, for example, made the reformation of worship a top priority. When addressing the question of “by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence among us,” he answered, “a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped.” In Geneva, Calvin restored worship to the congregation by conducting services in the language of the people and urging their participation in prayers, praise, and the eucharist. He redressed superstitious practices involving the saints, relics, and theatrical ceremonies. True worship, he reasoned, was to be based on God’s Word and not human whims. Calvin wrote of worship, “We may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of Him who alone is entitled to prescribe.”
The Reformation recovery of Biblical worship and the renewal of proper congregational participation in the liturgy are things worth celebrating. We should not take for granted faithful preaching of Scripture in a language we can understand and the privilege of praying and singing praise to God together each Lord’s Day. These things had once been denied to God’s people, and they are among the many gifts that have come down to us from the Reformation. Let us celebrate this heritage, and, more importantly, live in light of it. Let us enter into worship with hearts and minds fully engaged in honoring God, learning from His Word, and being assured at His sacramental table. When we do so, we will carry on the great legacy of the Reformers. Soli Deo Gloria! To God alone be the glory!
Join us for our Reformation Conference, October 28th – 29th!
I remember entering through the glass doors and immediately seeing Adam. One couldn’t miss his hulking figure dominating the painting — well-lit and obviously meant to be the focal point at the gallery’s entrance. The exhibition entitled, Andrew Wyeth: Close Friends, featured works by Wyeth relating to African-American neighbors in his community of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Adam Johnson, the titular subject of this particular painting, mowed grass and did odd jobs for the Wyeth family over many years. Adam was Wyeth’s last portrait of the man. His fur cap and heavy overcoat over a denim jacket indicate a winter setting. Adam stands in the foreground, looking downward with eyes almost closed, before one of his work sheds. With hands at his sides, perhaps he is walking away from a job just completed. Bob Dylan once sang that dignity has never been photographed, but I think this painting and others in the exhibit show Wyeth rather successful at painting dignity. Or, more accurately, of painting with dignity folks like Adam Johnson who led a hardscrabble existence. Other Wyeth works feature Adam’s house as well as sheds and fences showing signs of his activity — an overturned basket perched on a post, a jacket folded over barbed wire, hay stacked as winter fodder. Adam is thus present in paintings even when his figure is absent. He has touched this landscape, changed it, made it his own.
The exhibition catalog includes a quotation from Adam referencing himself and his painter friend: “Andy — he’s got the glory of painting and I got the glory of cuttin’ grass, and we ain’t gonna get nothing else.” One could take that in a negative sense, as if Johnson laments his lot in life. But would he use the word “glory” to express such a sentiment? I think that Adam, who was said to be deeply religious, saw that there really was glory in “cuttin’ grass,” just as there was glory in painting. There was something good and right and even revelatory about finding one’s calling in creation and pursuing it with gusto.
Ruminating on this painting and quotation sends my mind back to another Adam, the first Adam. Like Adam Johnson, he was a worker — placed in the garden of Eden “to tend and keep it” (Gen. 2.15). This Adam lived in a wonderful, unfallen world, but he was not supposed to leave it as it was. Pristine wilderness was never the divine plan for all of creation. There was latent glory waiting to be developed as Adam explored the world, learned to work with its resources, and put his stamp upon it in God-honoring ways. This was his duty and his privilege. As my Old Testament professor, Meredith Kline, once wrote, “Invited to be a fellow laborer with God — that is the dignity of man the worker and the zest and glory of man’s labor.”
I do not know whether Andrew Wyeth would have thought in such theocentric categories. But as an image-bearer of God with keen artistic vision, he had a richly human understanding of such things that he captured well in his portrayals of Adam Johnson and his world. Many people justly praise the glory of Wyeth’s paintings. But if we view them through his eyes,we just might come to understand something of the glory of cutting grass and of any of the myriad other callings not often celebrated in our society. We might also be led to reflect on the glory of our own callings and to consider the next way we might put our stamp upon our world for the honor of our Creator.
Image: Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), Adam, 1963, tempera on panel, 24 1/2 x 48”. Brandywine River Museum of Art, Gift of Anson McC. Beard, Jr., 2002. © 2017 Andrew Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS)
In a recent sermon entitled “Unity in the Church”, I quoted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic treatment of that theme in his book, Life Together. That volume grew out of Bonhoeffer’s experiment in Christian community with his seminary students in Finkenwalde in the 1930’s, but he says in its preface that the pursuit of Christian community is “a responsibility to be undertaken by the church as a whole.” It is in that spirit that I reflect upon some of Bonhoeffer’s observations that are worthy of consideration and application in our day (and in our congregation).
The Apostle Paul asserts that spiritual unity is a God-given reality:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
It is important to remember that the heart of Christian community can never be found in human endeavor. As Bonhoeffer notes, “Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” The call to community is not a call to create something out of whole cloth. It is a call to live in light of God’s revelation of what He has already accomplished for us through Christ. That is not going to be easy. We are a bunch of sinners. We will need large doses of humility, gentleness, longsuffering, and forbearance in love if such unity in community is to become an ever-growing reality.
In affirming God’s ideal for the church, we will have to let our own ideal views die away. The fact is that each of us has our own view of what the ideal church would look like. My ideal is not the same as yours. That is why Bonhoeffer gave very good advice when he wrote:
Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become the destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.
If you hold back from full commitment to this local body because it isn’t perfect according to your standards, then you damage the body. You bring disunity, rather than unity. God in His good providence has placed you in this place with these people and called you to live in light of your calling to make the unity of the church manifest . That means you’re going to have to try to love the person you don’t always like. It means you’re going to have to deny yourself in the interests of others. It means we’ll all have to look at ourselves less and our Lord more.
Let me close with another challenging statement by Bonhoeffer:
I have community with others and will continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more everything else between us will recede, and the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is alive between us.
May such Christ-centered unity in community become a hallmark of Covenant Presbyterian Church in ever-deepening reality. Such community will be a beautiful witness in a fractured world.
In a culture that celebrates the spectacular and extraordinary, it can sound a bit behind the times to say our church is committed to the ordinary means of grace. What is so exciting about that? The answer is that it is exciting to avail ourselves of the powerful tools God uses to save people from sin and help them grow in godliness.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism identifies the Word, sacraments, and prayer as the “ordinary means by which Christ gives to us the benefits of redemption.” In a Tabletalk article, Ligon Duncan provides a helpful summary of what this means in the life of the church:
Ordinary means ministry believes that the key things that the church can do in order to help people know God and grow in their knowledge of God are: First: emphasize the public reading and preaching of the Word; second, emphasize the confirming, sanctifying, assuring efficacy of the sacraments, publicly administered; and third, emphasize a life of prayer, especially expressed corporately in the church.
All of this takes place preeminently in morning and evening corporate worship on the Lord’s Day.
At Covenant Presbyterian Church, we are committed to ordering our worship with a focus on these ordinary means of grace. Expositional preaching, mostly through whole books of the Bible, is at the center of our worship. But the Word informs every aspect of our service such that it may be said that we read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, and sing the Bible. We partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper weekly in morning worship, as God renews His covenant with us and assures us of His grace. And we punctuate our worship with prayers of praise, petition, and commitment, confident that our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, bears our prayers before His Father’s throne of grace.
We may speak of the ordinary means of grace, but we know that God uses the Word, sacraments, and prayer to do extraordinary things in the lives of His people. Come join us for worship this Sunday!