From the Pastor

Using Old Hymns to Pray

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Prayer is notoriously simple and difficult at the same time.  It is simple because we are speaking with and to God the Father (Matt. 6:9).  And when we find ourselves in painful circumstances, it seems  natural to turn to heaven for help.  Suffering can bring clarity to our need of the aid of our Creator and give us words to speak.  "Ouch, this hurts!  Make it stop!" or "How long, O Lord?" (Psalm 13:1).

However prayer is often difficult, especially when we are comfortable.  It becomes a neglected discipline.  We think we are better than we are.  Success causes us to lose sight of our selfishness.  Spiritual conversation with our Heavenly Father dries up.  Or we pray like the Pharisese, "Thank God I'm not like that guy!" 

Thus, what we sing matters!  Hymns are often written as both praise and prayer in imitation of the Psalms. 

And like the Psalms good music will confront you with the reality of being a finite and frail human being who lives in "my Father's World."  Our Father is the infinite and holy God.  "O let me ne'er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong God is the ruler yet" (Maltbie Babcock, "This is My Father's World).  Like the Psalms, quality spiritual songs call us to believe in God's word, God's grace and God's presence and they bring our emotions along for the ride. 

One of my newfound favorite hymn writers is William Cowper (pronounced Cooper).  He was an 18th century hymn-writer and poet who was good friends with his pastor, John Newton (the author of Amazing Grace).  Cowper was well acquainted with his own weakness, having struggled with depression and despair nearly all his life.  In the heart of this song writer was both the insanity of unbelief and a fragile faith in the mercy of Jesus Christ.  He also had an imaginative vocabulary to describe what it is like to be trapped in the depths and lead us to faith and wonder (John Piper, The Hidden Smile of God, 84).  This is where he helps people like us pray through song:

Listen to the chorus of his song, "Heal us, Emmanuel." We will be singing it this week. 

Heal us, Emmanuel, here we are
We long to feel Thy touch
Deep wounded souls to Thee we fly
O Savior hear our cry 

It's a prayer for the Jesus in the gospels to work the miracle of faith in us today.  He is Emmanuel.  He's near even if we can't feel it.  Then Cowper call us to turn in faith to Jesus.  Belief calls us to look outside of ourselves for rescue from sin, sickness and suffering.  We are 'deep wounded souls.'

Our faith is feeble, we confess
We faintly trust Thy word
But will You pity us the less?
Be that far from You Lord!

Remember him who once applied
With trembling for relief
“Lord, I believe,” with tears he cried
“O help my unbelief!"

The first two verse call us to meditate on Mark 9:24, of the father who cries out: "I believe, help my unbelief."  It's a gloomy picture.  We are barely hanging on.  Yet he reminds us of mercy.  Will you pity us any less?  Come near, Emmanuel!  The hymn gets us to cry out for help and to be confronted withe our frailty and weakness. 

She, too, who touched you in the press
And healing virtue stole
Was answered, “Daughter, go in peace
Thy faith has made thee whole.”

Like her, with hopes and fears we come
To touch You if we may
O send us not despairing home
Send none unhealed away

The last two verses call us to be as desperate as the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years who tried to sneak a miracle (Matthew 9:18-26).  We come having run out of resources and full of hopes and fears.  Jesus, don't ignore me!  Make me whole too! 

Cowper teaches us how to pray.  Confess your need and unbelief.  Then cry out for a compassionate rescue from Jesus, Emmanuel.  He won't pity you any less.

Unbelief is a form of insanity which plagues us all.  The old hymns have a poetic way of waking us up, to re-enchant our hearts with God's world and His grace.   So when you find yourself lacking words, pray the Holy Spirit inspired songs in the Psalms.  And do not ignore the power of singing prayers on Sunday morning with God's people.  "Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings. It is the Lord Who rises with healing in His wings" (Cowper, "Sometimes a Light Surprises."

**We are singing a new song this week, written by William Cowper:   "Heal Us, Emmanuel"

Here's another link to a different meditation on this song, if you are interested:  http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-song-for-the-weak-and-broken

 

General Assembly 2017

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I promised a report from the PCA General Assembly in Greensboro, NC.  I've had a month to gather my thoughts and they are still scattered. 

For those who are new to the PCA, General Assembly is our denomination's annual meeting.  Ideally, both ruling elders and teaching elders are free to attend.  However, due to the time commitment required for travel, the majority of the men attending are pastors.  As one elder told me, "I had to tell my wife that I was going to use some of my vacation time to spend a week with my pastor."  It's a challenge.  But over 1500 men were in attendance.

The theme this year was "Come to the Table", with an emphasis that Jesus calls people from every tribe, tongue and nation to the Lord's Supper where we all get to feast on the grace of Christ.  The theme was reinforced by the three different preachers:

George Robertson, First Presbyterian Church; Augusta, Georgia  Irwin Iynce, City of Hope Church; Columbia, MD                         Duke Kwon, Grace Meridian Hill; Washington, D.C.

This year was the first time in the 45 year history of our denomination that a non-white moderator  was elected.  Alexander Jun is a ruling elder in California, who was also the first moderator to rock the man-bun. 

We sang songs in English, Spanish, and Korean.  There was a variety in musical style and instrumentation each night as well:  bluegrass, black gospel, Korean choir, and traditional hymns.  Here is a brief recording of a Korean song, "Ososo (Come now, O Prince of Peace):

Below is the poem that was read to start the Assembly.

Come to the table my son, my laughter,

Take wood and knife and let us walk away

Up into His provision.” When Isaac calls after,

“Without a lamb? Do we only go to pray?”

 

Come to the table stand packed and waiting

Holding your staff, eating pilgrim’s bread

List’ning to the stories of God’s emancipating

Which leaves the darkened kingdom’s firstborn dead.”

 

“Come to the table; long have I waited

To celebrate this Passover with you;

Which I give and pour in love consecrated:

The meal of my body, my body to renew.”

“I am the narrow door, the ram provided, the lamb slain;

 

Come you humble, to my table, be filled, rejoice and reign.”  

What do we do at a General Assembly?  As mentioned above, we gather together in worship to hear the proclamation of the gospel. We also have opportunities for professional growth through a variety of seminars.  I selected three:  Church Planting in Small Town, Working Class Communities, Only Human: Facing the Emotional Challenges of Ministry Life, and the Roles of Women in the PCA. 

And there is the business of the church.  The PCA is unique in that while everyone adopts the Westminster Confession of Faith as a wonderful summary of the teaching of the Bible, not every church looks the same.  There is what I think is a healthy diversity in our denomination.  There are those who have a very strong robust doctrinal emphasis who we need in our denomination.  There are those who have a very strong emphasis on the priority God's grace for sinners, who we need in our denomination.  And there are those who are leading the way in mission and social justice and church planting, which we need in our denomination.  

Diversity within our denomination also means there will be some disagreement.  The main topic of discussion this year was regarding the roles of women in the PCA.  Last year, the 44th General Assembly put together a study committee so that we have a clear document on what ordination is and what women are called to do by God in the Scriptures within Biblical bounds. 

You can read the full report here:  http://www.pcaac.org/ad-interim-committee-women-in-ministry/

Here are the recommendations that were made:

 Recommendation 2 - That sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly recognize that, from the founding of the PCA, there has been a variety of views and practices regarding the ways in which women may serve the Lord and the church within scriptural and constitutional parameters, without ordination, and that such mutual respect for said views and practices continues.

Recommendation #3 - That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly strive to develop, recognize,  and utilize the gifts, skills, knowledge, and wisdom of godly women in the local,  regional, and national church, and particularly consider overtures that would allow qualified women to serve on appropriate committees and agencies within the church.

Recommendation #4 - That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men.

Recommendation #5 - That sessions consider how to include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church so as to maintain faithfulness to Scripture, as well as utilizing the gifts God has poured out to His entire church (see exegesis of 1 Corinthians 14:26 in 3 Chapter Two).

Recommendation #6 - that sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women of the congregation to assist the ordained leadership.

Recommendation #7 - That presbyteries and the General Assembly consider an overture that would establish formally the right of sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly to establish the position of commissioned church worker within the PCA for qualified 22 and gifted unordained men and women.

Recommendation #8 - That sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly consider how they can affirm and include underprivileged and underrepresented women in the PCA. 

If you have any questions please feel free to ask.  It is joy and a privilege to be apart of a denomination that stands firm on the truth of the Scriptures and the good news of the gospel!  Continue to pray four denomination's faithfulness to our God and our love for one another. 

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