Often a friend of mine tells the story about when his wife became a Christian, "She started reading the Bible in Genesis and began to get bogged down. I told her to skip all that and start with Matthew." Sometimes I wonder if his wife ever got horribly confused to begin reading the story three-quarters of the way through. It would be like reading The Magician's Nephew first on your initial reading of The Chronicles of Narnia. Yes, you would see how Narnia began, but the significance of many seemingly arbitrary pieces of the story would be lost on you until you read the rest of the series.
I've wondered if my friend's wife ever went back and read the old covenant parts of the Bible. Are there things that still seem puzzling or arbitrary to her—even now—because she is missing so much of the story? Sadly, I don't expect the church to have taught enough from that first chunk of Scripture for the connections to be made. Nor do I expect, with a husband battling cancer and two high-energy children, that my friend makes the effort to figure out the Old Testament on her own. She has been told it is difficult to understand, that it is boring and outmoded—why devote what little time she does have to something like that?
Many churches across America do Christians a disservice with these well-worn lines. From implying that—or saying straight out—"The Old Testament is boring," to playing only upbeat closing songs, churches are defrauding their members. They are giving people the Instagram version of God, His word, and the set-apart life. Too many churches focus on the sentimental aspects of God's character, read mostly the New Testament or “practical” Old Testament books, drive worship by emotion—rather than emotions by worship and thanksgiving—and offer no place of refuge, silence, and healing.
Real life in a fallen world includes cluttered minds, broken hearts, and deep sorrows. We cheapen words like “grief” and “tragedy” through hyperbole and overuse, and so have no language to lament with those who experience tragic loss when it comes. How does the church help people who are grieving? Pointing hurting people to professional counselling is good and loving, but what about training up a body of wise, kind, and honest counsellors to help one another? Churches could teach people truth—the good, the hard, even the ugly; they could teach people the value of life, the good of life, and what weather-all-Hell's-darts love looks like in daily words and actions.
What if churches taught God's story from the beginning? Then people would know how catastrophic the Ffall was; would see its sinewy hands reaching long fingers out into every part of God's story that it could; would see how desperately God's people tried and failed—and tried harder and still failed—and how utterly wretched they would always be until the promised Messiah came. Then we might understand why the Incarnation was so monumental, pivotal, in the narrative—because after bondage, struggle, failure, and darkness, the Light dawned, the captives were set free, and God's people were given a Saviour who would succeed. We might see that the Cross truly is the crux of the story, and that our lives and times flow directly out of that turning point in history. We might begin to understand that God is making all things new, which means this earth as well as human beings—and what we do now matters for eternity in a way that keeps us from being apathetic Nihilists.
What if churches allowed silence in their worship—no background music, no mere twenty seconds to pray silently—but minutes of silence to enter into the presence of God? What would people do if they had to be still—no phones, no talking, no noise to distract their minds? Would we come face-to-face with our mortality, with grief, with our own brokenness, with the overwhelming grace of God which is deeper than all our vilest sins? What if there were no distractions to console or ease our minds? Would we have to stand naked before God in wretchedness and let him begin to heal us?
What if churches regarded their enemies as a threat? "The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries,"1 said Pascal. Diversion—distractions and amusement—are where we seek solace for misery, and irony of ironies, we are made miserable by diversions. They drag our attention from the God who is there—present with us in every moment—putting our minds on what we don't have or making us feel emptier than when we first reached out for those glittering distractions.
Aside from the distractions we choose on our own, we are constantly occupying a space where spiritual hosts of wickedness rule and war. "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."2 What if churches reminded us frequently that we are in a battle; that we must take up the armour given by God; that we must seek refuge in God; and that we must use the word of God as a weapon on the battlefield of our minds, wills, and emotions?
In short, I am issuing a challenge to churches to rise up and take their calling seriously. Be ekklesia "called out ones". Don't be like the world or use its gimmicks—be a training ground for saints, helping us to be holy and presentable to God through Jesus Christ. Let the word of God—old covenant included—order the teaching, not the speaker ordering God's word to do as He wishes. Let us seek lament and silence and raucous joy in turn in worship. Remind us that our enemies are active and that we need protection and proaction. Teach us the truth, and pray for us to speak it with fierce boldness and tender love. Oh that we would see Jesus!
1. Pascal, Blaise, Pensées (Public Domain, Project Gutenberg) 49
2. Ephesians 6:12 (NKJV)