City of Angels – God’s gracious warriors and guides

The film City of Angels (1998) presents a most intriguing and unusual portrayal of angels, which in some ways lines up neatly with the Bible (though not entirely). They are far-removed from most Hollywood and Christmas card offerings, of cherub-like babes who float about on clouds. And the concept that “every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings” (from It’s a Wonderful Life) is no where to be found (thankfully). These angels are not humans who have graduated to a higher plane. Rather they are God’s unique created beings, strong warriors, men in black (coats), who carefully observe humans and work together for good. Their most important task is to calmly escort recently departed souls to the ‘hereafter’.
Like the angels we discussed last week (Angels long to understand the story of grace) they long to understand why humans think and act the way they do. The main character, Angel Seth (Nicolas Cage) is even willing to make himself human (an irreversible act, an unbiblical concept!) in order to experience the range of human emotions. Now I’m not going to give much away about the plot, or the whole impossible angel-human romance between Cage and Meg Ryan. And while I’m not sure whether angels help all humanity, or just God’s children, I do love many things this film suggests about them. The angels in this film:
* watch over us, standing closeby or keeping a watchful eye on the city from billboards and rooftops.
* move among the living, hearing their conversations.
* hear people’s thoughts – and especially enjoy hanging out in libraries so they can enjoy the literature humans are reading.
* don’t fully understand why humans act and feel the way they do, having never been human.
* calm people’s raging emotions which could cause harm or distress to others, often by a simple hand on the shoulder.
* can choose to allow themselves to be seen by people (though generally they are unseen. I wonder if this why people in real life are able to “entertain angels unaware“? Hebrews 13:2)
* gather together on the beach at dawn and dusk, to listen to heavenly music. (I would love this one to be true, but it is perhaps just creative licence.)
* experience the beauty of creation that humans rarely stop to enjoy or even notice.

Whether these features are completely accurate or not, it is comforting to be reminded that God is concerned for and constantly watching over his creation, protecting and guiding us so that his purposes might be realised. His angels are not wimps, but powerful agents who do his bidding. And they celebrate when God’s purposes are achieved.
From His Word we know that there are five things that make the angels in Heaven rejoice:
The first was when God said, “Let there be light.” (Job 38:7)
The second was on the night of the Lord’s birth. (Luke 2:13-14)
The third is whenever a sinner gives His heart to the Lord. (Luke 15:7,10)
The 4th is when the Church arrives in Heaven. (Rev. 5:11-12)
And the fifth is when the Lord defeats His enemies on Earth and returns to reign. (Rev. 19:6-7)
Comparing it to those other events, you can see how important the salvation of each believer is to our God.

Praise be to God for the provision of His men in black – or white.

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Impossible to be silent

Although my 16 year old daughter is well acquainted with the distinctive features of different film genre, there is one filmmaking convention with which she cannot abide: the Hollywood musical – with the notion that normal people could just burst into song in the middle of a conversation. It doesn’t matter where they are or who they are with, they just sing! Now don’t get me wrong. She and I both love watching these musicals, Singing in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Sound of Music all being on our favourites list. But for her, this ‘random singing in real life’ just lacks all credibility. We have some hilarious debates about it!

Victor Hugo is credited with saying, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

In these film narratives the characters literally burst into song because they can’t help it! Simple dialogue just will not do for these characters (or for that matter opera singers and Broadway actors, or the composers and screenplay writers behind all these). Words cannot express the largeness of their thoughts and emotions. They are compelled to sing.
Is it any different in real life? We sing at the football (well I have heard people do!), at birthdays, to our babies. My husband sings strange songs to our girls at times, most often in the morning when trying to get them out of bed.

So is it any wonder that God’s gathered people must sing. How could we NOT sing?
The gratitude we feel because our sins are forgiven, the awe we have for God’s amazing grace, the freedom from shame. . . All this cannot be expressed adequately by mere words. The wonders of our God must be sung! He is beyond the limits of our spoken words and imaginations. So too the astonishing nature of his salvation plan for mankind. If I could find a statistic about how many new praise songs are written about and to God each day I would include it here – but Google was no help. Probably the number was beyond the grasp of Google’s search engines.

So think then….what is the effect of encouraging people to sing God’s praise, when they don’t feel like it? Or when they don’t really know God? Does this work in reverse? Does singing the words inspire the feelings that would have made us burst out into to song in the first place? And what about churches who do not sing when they gather? What does that say to them? to us?
Comments welcome, as always.

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Angels long to understand the story of Grace

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Whenever I’m feeling a little confused by God’s mysterious ways I find it comforting to remember that even angelic beings do not fully understand the mind of God. We imagine that since angels are in God’s presence, they would know why God is doing what He is doing. But they don’t. Peter spoke of this in his letter above. He says angels long to look into ‘these things’, to fully comprehend God’s mysterious plan of redemption, in which they SERVE us! What an amazing thought! They obey God, they follow the plan, without fully understanding why.

We humans are so privileged. Not only have we have been told the story of God’s grace, shown in his Son coming to redeem us and restore us to relationship with God, we also benefit from this grace! We have eternal life. Steven Curtis Chapman’s song, ANGELS WISH, develops these thoughts in a beautiful way. He looks forward to the time when he will sit down with his angel friends and explain to them the “story of grace”. I know things angels only wish they knew!
How privileged am I?

ANGELS WISH:

Was God smiling when He spoke the words and made the world?
And did he cry about the flood?
And what does God’s voice sound like when He sings, or when He’s angry?
These are just a few things that the angels have on me

Well, I can’t fly, at least not yet
I’ve got no halo on my head
And I can’t even start to picture Heaven’s beauty
But I’ve been shown the Savior’s love
The grace of God has raised me up
To show me things the angels long to look into
And I know things the Angels only wish they knew

I have seen the dark and desperate place where sin will take you
I’ve felt loneliness and shame
And I have watched the blinding light of grace
Come breaking through with a sweetness
Only tasted by the forgiven and redeemed

And someday I’ll sit down with my angel friends
Up in Heaven
They’ll tell me about creation
And I’ll tell them a story of grace
 

Great Christmas music to ease your planning stress

Around this time of the year, every year, music team/worship team/church band leaders everywhere get a strange kind of nervous twitch whenever they remember how many weeks it is ’til Christmas. By October you could describe them as rather nervous, by November totally stressed, and it’s panic stations by December – but only if they have not sorted out their Christmas music repertoire! Finding great NEW item songs can be tricky… and there’s only 96 days to go.

Well I have got some great news for you (though there are no free steak knives involved). I’m going to share with you my favourite Christmas songs. They are tried and tested (except the new one I’m trying this year) and true to the gospel, with a great festive feel that even non-Christian Christmas visitors will appreciate. So hopefully, while it is still only September, you can settle on some great Christmas songs – and feel most smug that you are organised so far ahead of time!

Here they are. The first 4 come from a great album by Sovereign Grace Music called “Savior: Celebrating the Mystery of God Become Man” (click the title to listen to all these songs. Find free lead sheets, guitar tabs and mp3s for all these songs here)

Hope has Come (fast and cheery – great with chimes or bells)

Christ the Lord is born today (great Christmas Day item)

Glory be to God on High (bright upbeat song)

Salvation is Born (a gentler feel – I used this with a choir, soloist in v1 and ending, arranged the chorus in 3 part harmony).

Is this not the Carpenter? from Emmanuel: A musical celebration of the Life of Christ
The One who made the world made this world His home
This child that grew to man came unto His own
But His own received Him not, Even looked into His eyes, yet never recognized Him, saying
“Is this not the Carpenter – is this not the Son of Mary?”

“Is this not the Carpenter – is this not the Son of Mary?”
Saying “This is but the Carpenter – it’s only Jesus, Son of Mary.”
It’s a sadness without measure, They had been with Him forever
And still not realized He was the very Son of God, saying
“Is this not the Carpenter – is this not the Son of Mary?” . . . read more

So Let Us Shine from Emu Live 2 (lyrics, pdf music and mp3 here)
For desperate people at their darkest hour, When fault and failure held us in its power
A babe was born – he said, “I am the way”.
He came to earth to turn our night to day, He came to earth to turn our night to day
So let us shine! And show the world his love
So let us shine! Because he first loved us
So let us shine! And show the world his love
This baby is the light of the world.

And this last one, is new to me, untested, but I envisage a string section and some groovy chimes and bells!
Shout for Joy by Paul Baloche – as recorded on his most recent CD “The Same Love”
(Note that the CCLI version of the sheet music has a different bridge. I’m going with the one on the album.)

Merry Christmas! (Just a little early)

Ps. Since writing this post I have included another which might be helpful – some new songs from Francesca Battistelli. Click here to read that post.

 

 

What is so amazing about “Amazing Grace”?

It just dawned on me that though I have been blogging for almost a year now on the subject of music and grace, I haven’t even made a single mention of that most famous combination of music and grace: John Newton’sAmazing Grace“. It has been an anthem of hope and faith for generations.
But why has this hymn had such an impact? What does Newton point out about God’s grace that resonates with us so strongly? Is there something in the music which made it so popular?

At the time Newton penned Amazing Grace, hymnbooks did not contain music; they were simply religious poetry books. The first time Newton’s lines were joined to music was in 1808, in A Companion to the Countess of Huntingdon’s Hymns, set to the tune “Hephzibah” by English composer John Jenkins Husband. More than twenty musical settings of “Amazing Grace” circulated with varying popularity until 1835 when William Walker assigned Newton’s words to a traditional song named “New Britain”.

According to author Steve Turner, the joining of these words and melody was a “marriage made in heaven . . . There was a rise at the point of confession, as though the author was stepping out into the open and making a bold declaration, but a corresponding fall when admitting his blindness.”

Sing through the lyrics at the end (if you need them to test his theory). I think Turner is quite right. It is at this very point we can see why the hymn works so well in communal praise. As we sing this appropriately-shaped melody together, we step out into the open and make a public and communal confession of our wretchedness, our need for God’s forgiving grace. We declare we have moved from ‘lost’ to ‘found’, from hopeless to being filled with hope! As we declare this together, the Spirit works.

It probably has a lot to do with the truth which James expresses here:
“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” (James 5:16)

This hymn is a prayer! We pray together as we sing. We confess (our wretched need for God’s grace) to one another, and look with eyes of faith to the glorious future for us who are ‘found’. The power of this prayer-song transcends time, culture and place. I would predict that there are many more centuries of life in Newton’s hymn.

(Nb. If you are so young that you only know of Amazing Grace as being part of Chris Tomlin’s “My Chains are gone” then you should note how skilfully Tomlin has mimicked the rise and fall of the “New Britain” melody in his additional chorus. In this way he moves our focus to the flood of mercy experienced by all who are in Christ. Such amazing grace!)

Here are the 6 verses of the hymn:

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed

The Lord has promised good to me
His Word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures

Through many dangers toils and snares
I have already come
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home

Yea when this flesh and heart shall fail
And mortal life shall cease
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace

When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun

And Tomlin’s clever chorus:

My chains are gone, I’ve been set free
My God my Saviour has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy rains
Unending love, Amazing Grace!

If you want to think a bit more about this grace, watch the film trailer . . . or the whole film AMAZING GRACE (2006).

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A reminder of who we are by Grace

Greetings! Have decided to repost an excellent challenge from The Blazing Center blog. It’s one of those things you read and think “yes, exactly, I’ve been wondering what to do in that situation!” I hope you find it as encouraging as I did (especially if you are a small group leader): We are not slaves to sin!

It’s Time To Stop Being Authentic Christians by Stephen Altrogge on September 13, 2012

How many small group/home group/community group/cell group/care group meetings (did I forget any names?) have started out like this:
PERSON 1: I’m really struggling with [insert impatience, anger, lust, discontentment, and any other sin].
PERSON 2: Thanks for being so open and honest about your struggles. We can all identify with that struggle.
PERSON 1: Yeah, it’s just so hard to overcome. I feel like I’m struggling with this all the time.
PERSON 2: I can relate to that feeling. I feel the same way. In fact just yesterday I [yelled at my kids, looked at porn, wasted money, etc.] We’re all broken people. Thankfully there’s grace. Let’s pray and ask God to help us.
Now, is there anything wrong with this interchange? Not exactly. It’s good to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another. Plus, if there’s one thing the world hates, it’s hypocrites. So, in an effort to obey scripture and be “authentic”, we confess our struggles. And we drink fair trade coffee, listen to Bon Iver, and wear faded jeans. But I think in general, we as Christians need to be less authentic.

What I mean is, we need to identify more with who we are in Christ than our current struggles. We are not primarily defined by our anger, lust, impatience, or discontentment. We are defined by the fact that we are united to Jesus Christ, and that Christ himself lives in us!

So should we talk about our struggles and sins? Yes, of course. But we shouldn’t stop there. We need to remind each other that, because we are united to Christ, we will not be ruled by our sin. As Romans 6:14 says, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

We are united to the almighty Christ. That fact should completely transform the way we talk about our sins. We need to remind each other that our struggles with sin are NOT our authentic identity. Our authentic identity is as new creations in Christ. So our discussions should go a little more like this:
PERSON 1: Man, I’m just really struggling with anger this week!
PERSON 2: Thanks for being open and honest about your struggles. I can relate to that struggle too.
PERSON 1: Yeah, it feels like I can’t get past this! I’m always going to be angry.
PERSON 2: I know that it feels that way, but I want encourage you that this sin WILL NOT rule you. You are under grace. You don’t have to obey this feeling of anger that is rising within you. That feeling of anger is not your identity. You are in Christ and he is in you, and he will give you the power to overcome that sin. You don’t have to give in to it! Isn’t that good news? Now let’s pray and ask God to help you obey.

We are not slaves to sin. Our true, authentic, real identity is as Christians, united to Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. Yes we confess and repent of our sins. But we don’t stay there. By faith we embrace our identity and fight against the sin that wages war against us.

The great unveiling (2Corinthians 3:16)

open eyes“But whenever someone turns to the Lord the veil is taken away.” (2 Corinthians 3:16)

For this next verse in the Three Sixteen series I am going to say very little. God/Paul can speak for himself here. He does it so well.

I’ll start from a little way back, at verse 7, to give you a run-up to the standout verse, 16.
“The old way, with laws etched in stone, led to death, though it began with such glory that the people of Israel could not bear to look at Moses’ face. For his face shone with the glory of God, even though the brightness was already fading away. Shouldn’t we expect far greater glory under the new way, now that the Holy Spirit is giving life? 9 If the old way, which brings condemnation, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new way, which makes us right with God! . . . . . 13 We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away. 14 But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. 15 Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand.
16 But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.”

What magnificent grace! What privilege has been shown to us in Christ! We have received the grace of the knowledge of God, through the Spirit of Christ. We have had the veil lifted, unlike so many who still are stumbling in the dark. Even the Jews, who were the first recipients of God’s favour, they stumble over Christ. Both back then and now. The veil is not lifted.
Praise be to God! He has turned us around, back to himself, and removed the veil which kept him hidden from us! Now we can reflect His glory to others!

2 Corinthians 4:6 – “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

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Image created by Sarah Danaher with a Canon EOS 5D MkII

City on a Hill: Standing strong together

While writing the last post about 1 Corinthians 3:16, and thinking on the amazing way Christ lives in us collectively, I was singing along in my head to Casting Crown’s CITY ON A HILL. The song is based on Matthew 5:14A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Casting Crowns have such challenging and biblical songs, with beautiful lyrics and melody. Here is another challenge for our judgemental spirits: accept differences within the Body of Christ, particularly for the sake of our witness to the world. We are to be salt and light, and that requires many individual Christians to make hard choices, to humbly deny their pride and their ‘rights’, for the sake of unity. Keep shining for Christ, together! Enjoy.

CITY ON A HILL by Casting Crowns

Did you hear of the city on the hill?
Said one old man to the other
It once shined bright and it would be shining still
But they all started turning on each other

You see, the poets thought the dancers were shallow
And the soldiers thought the poets were weak
And the elders saw the young ones as foolish
And the rich man never heard the poor man speak

And one by one, they ran away
With their made up minds, to leave it all behind
And the light began to fade, in the city on the hill
The city on the hill

Each one thought that they knew better
But they were different by design
Instead of standing strong together
They let their differences divide

And one by one, they ran away
With their made up minds, to leave it all behind
And the light began to fade, in the city on the hill
The city on the hill
And the world is searching still

But it was the rhythm of the dancers
That gave the poets life
It was the spirit of the poets
That gave the soldiers strength to fight
It was the fire of the young ones
It was the wisdom of the old
It was the story of the poor man
That needed to be told

It is the rhythm of the dancers
That gives the poets life
It is the spirit of the poets
That gives the soldiers strength to fight
It is the fire of the young ones
It is the wisdom of the old
It is the story of the poor man
That’s needing to be told

One by one, will we run away
With our made up minds to leave it all behind
As the light begins to fade, in the city on the hill
The city on the hill

Come home
And the Father’s calling still
Come home
To the city on the hill
Come home

Stones or bricks: God lives in us together (1 Corinthians 3:16)

Exploring the Three Sixteens has taken us through some exciting stuff so far. We saw the Spirit of God descend on Jesus at His baptism, John the Baptist discussed Jesus’ sandals, the 12 apostles were chosen, God “so loved the world”, the Name healed the lame, and great misery pursued those who refuse to follow Christ.

Moving on to the seventh book in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians, another gem is revealed at 3:16. Here it is:
“Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? (NLT)
The NIV puts it this way: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?”

The Corinthian church needed Paul to remind them many times about the danger of division amongst God’s people. Paul speaks boldly here, explaining that as a Body of believers, WE ARE the temple of God where He dwells. He lives in us! He no longer chooses to reveal himself and meet with people in an earthly building (as he had done in the past, in Solomon’s temple, God’s house). Now he LIVES in us together. He reveals Himself in us. He has put His Spirit in us, collectively.

This echoes the words of Peter (1 Peter 2:5): “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

How this changes things for us when we think it’s okay to not meet regularly with our fellow believers, or to let petty differences divide. All of us are living bricks, living stones in the new temple made through the new covenant, through Christ. God has poured His spirit into us, giving us a new heart to know, obey and love Him. This is the unifying feature of the bricks of God’s new living temple!

Now some of us may be a bit rough around the edges, a bit off colour, a bit sharp or a bit broken. We have personalities and experiences which are so different from one another. But we are  God’s living temple, together. He is in us and we need to accept each other on the basis that we are all saved by Christ. It is awesome to consider how we sinful people, born as enemies of one another in this fallen world, can actually be at peace with others who are part of this same building! We have been cemented together by the bond of Christ.

Let’s work at seeing ourselves in this way. And if there should ever be some cracks in the cement, if some of the bricks have fallen aside or broken, let’s not give up on restoring and repairing this living building where God lives. Let’s work at reconciling ourselves with other bricks in whom Christ dwells.

All this reminds me of some great words from 1 John 4:11-13
“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit”.

Creation sings the Father’s Song

Our church family is going through a rapid period of growth at the moment. This is not due to our evangelistic efforts, but by God’s gracious gifts. Four babies were born in the last few months (Alexis, Benjamin, Jackson, Jennifer). What a great opportunity this presents to be reminded of our Creator – the miracle of God’s design in creating new little people. We see it too in the relationship of love and care which grows between parents and their children.

Think of the way a baby’s cry wakens parents in the night, to alert them to their desperate need for food or attention. Think of the way that cry prompts a physical response in mum, to “let down” milk which will sustain her precious little one. She doesn’t have to even consciously think about the process. (Perhaps there are a few unconscious dads staggering about making up bottles as well!) Think of the way human relationships develop between a husband and wife so that they can share the intimate and difficult moments of childbirth, and care for a newborn through the small hours of the night. Think of the inner strength God has given mums to endure days and weeks of broken sleep and other emotional demands. Think of the tender strength of a dad to help everyone hold it all together (and change nappies)!

A song I’ve been listening to lately contains a line which so aptly describes God’s command over creation: “He commands the newborn baby’s cry”. Without that God-given inbuilt response, a child would not demand food or be able to ask that any other need be seen to. Without all those ‘small hours’ moments, parents would not get to know the unique personality of their child so quickly and well, and form a lasting bond.

All these systems have been established by our loving God, to grow us physically and in relationship to each other – and in relationship to Him. They truly show His glory to the world, even to those people who choose to believe His truly amazing design is random and without purpose or meaning. May God help us to continue to be amazed at the wonder of His creation. Though marred by sin and human defiance, creation still points to God’s amazing mind that we cannot fully comprehend.

Make sure you keep your eyes open to the miracles of the God who is seen everywhere, but most especially in us! (Genesis 1:26, Romans 1:20)

Creation sings the Father’s Song (by Kristyn and Keith Getty & Stuart Townend)

Creation sings the Father’s song, He calls the sun to wake the dawn
And run the course of day Till evening comes in crimson rays.
His fingerprints in flakes of snow, His breath upon this spinning globe,
He charts the eagle’s flight; Commands the newborn baby’s cry.

Hallelujah!
Let all creation stand and sing,
“Hallelujah!”
Fill the earth with songs of worship
Tell the wonders of creation’s King.

2.Creation gazed upon His face; The ageless One in time’s embrace
Unveiled the Father’s plan Of reconciling God and man.
A second Adam walked the earth Whose blameless life would break the curse,
Whose death would set us free To live with Him eternally.

3. Creation longs for His return, When Christ shall reign upon the earth;
The bitter wars that rage Are birth pains of a coming age.
When He renews the land and sky, All heaven will sing and earth reply
With one resplendent theme: The glory of our God and King