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Uncompromising Men
The book of 1 John is a man’s book.  It involves a church split in which some had denied Christ’s deity and had left (1 John 2:18-23).  Because of this, the apostle put the church on high alert (1 John 2:26-27).  They were to guard each other (1 John 3:11-15) and at the same time guard their doctrine (1 John 4:1-6).  The men needed to stand.

Part of John’s call involves his instructions to the three generations of men–children, young men, and fathers.  This is the subject of the two-stanza hymn in 1 John 2:12-14.  Each generation is valuable to the church, and each generation is given both an identity and a task.

To the youngest John writes, “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1 John 2:12 ESV) and, “because you know the Father” (1 John 2:13).  The message to the children is written at their level, as it ought to be.

Their identity lies in the forgiveness they have received.  Their task lies in remembering that they “know the Father.”  That is all they are called to do.  They are neither neglected nor pushed to be carbon copies of the adults.

As children grow into men, their growth is purposeful.  They do not “arrive.”  They become warriors.  John’s message to the young men contains the most martial language in the hymn.  “I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:12), and “because you are strong, / and the word of God abides in you, / and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:13).

The young men receive the most comprehensive instructions of the three.  Their identity lies in their strength and the confidence that they have overcome the evil one.  Their task lies with the word of God that abides in them.  They are to guard it.  John knows their eyes remain bright with their spiritual vision, and he calls them to press forward in the confidence that they will win.

For John, the warrior generation extends beyond single adulthood.  It includes all those who fight for family and the church’s purity and safety.

But no one fights forever.  As warriors grow into seasoned adulthood they become the church fathers.  The two stanzas directed to this group are identical.  John writes to them, “because you know him who is from the beginning” (1 John 2:12 and 13).

Fathers are not just men with children.  They may be childless, but their identity and task both lie in their knowledge.  Because they know him who is from the beginning, their spiritual roots dug deep into the soil.  And because they know him who is from the beginning, they are called to guide the children and young men.  Fathers are the mature church leaders, the wise men, the men who sometimes encourage and sometimes temper the younger men.  Their identity rests in their wisdom.  Their influence extends throughout the church.

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Doubt.  Anger.  Disbelief.  Ask the average Christian about them, and he or she probably will tell you they’re all signs of weakness.  Doubt is a sign of weak faith.  Anger is the loss of self-control.  Disbelief is faith surrendered.

He would be right only on the last point.

Doubting John
Matthew’s Gospel shows us a converging of all three.  In Matthew 11, while Jesus is teaching, a delegate from John the Baptist arrives.  John, the fiery prophet, has been in prison for some time (Matt. 4:12), and he has begun to waver emotionally.  He asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3).

Forget Doubting Thomas.  He asked only for proof he could see and feel.  “Unless I see the nail prints in [Jesus’] hands, put my finger into the prints, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

John’s doubt is massive.  He is ready to write Jesus off and look for another Messiah.  This is John.  How could he succumb to doubt?

Jesus’ Reaction to John’s Doubt
Jesus never chides him.  Instead he tells his messengers to relay what they have witnessed—the many who have experienced liberation from sickness, lameness, demons, and death; and the gospel being preached to the poor (Matt. 11:5).

Jesus finishes with a personal word to John, “Blessed is the one who will not be offended in me” (Matt.  11:6).  In effect the statement says, “I know you’re in prison, and I know it’s difficult.  Don’t give up in the hard times.”

Disturbing News
The context in Matthew 11 shows that the exchange was public.  The crowd who was with Jesus heard everything, and doubtless found it disturbing.

Matthew shows us two things in this context.  One, Jesus seizes on the event, as he often does, and makes a teaching moment from it.  Two, it is an angry moment.


Jesus’ gospel began in Matthew 5, with the Sermon on the Mount.  With the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:3-4), Jesus turned the religious world on its head.  He welcomed the humble and the hurting over the religiously proud.

But by Matthew 11, few have responded to the good news.  They have grown complacent with what they have heard.

Anger…From Jesus? or the next twenty-four verses, Jesus seizes on the event to rebuke the people.  Two things are important.  First, by this point in the book, the people have been listening passively for a long time and have shown little change in behavior.  They are stuck up to their floorboards in passivity.  Second, Jesus is angry because passivity really is a sign of their disbelief.  The points in his sermon go like this:

  • Jesus’ eulogy for John is a rebuke toward the people: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see…?”  (Matt. 11: 7-15).  Many of the people have heard John prior to Jesus.  In their continuing complacence, they are doubly responsible for the content they have heard.
  • Jesus compares the people’s passivity to the theme from a child’s ditty: “We played the pipes and you refused to dance; we played a dirge and you wouldn’t mourn”   (Matt. 11:19).
  • The cities that have rejected Jesus will face darker final judgment than Tyre and Sidon, and even Sodom (Matt. 11:20-24).

The only way to interpret Jesus’ sermon is as an angry commentary on what he sees.  Some have acted in faith and have experienced difficulty, as John has.  They succumb to doubt.  For these, Jesus offers only a mild course correction.

But when people hear the good news over and over and sit on their hands, Jesus loses patience.  He wants authenticity from his followers.  Matthew brings three emotions that Christians typically question.  The first two are far less dangerous than

Doubt?  Yes, we all experience it, and Jesus treats it gently.  Rather than being the dangerous act of subversion we typically believe it is, doubt opens the opportunity to examine the truth more closely.

Anger?  Jesus is angry, and he is the ultimate man’s man.  Sometimes anger is called for.

Disbelief Unmasked
This is intolerable.  Jesus’ call, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…” (Matt. 11:28-30), occurs at the end of this angry message.  It is a call for the people to be liberated from their own disbelief and passivity.  The two are one in the same, and they are crippling.

Doug Knox

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Retired composer, arranger, and author Bob Burroughs recently posted an opinion column on entitled, “The sound of (congregational) silence.”  He cites an alarming trend in modern churches.  “Many worshipers just stand, look around, arms folded, shifting their feet and do not sing the hymns or praise choruses.”

An Alarming Silence
According to Burroughs,

Scripture tells us time and time again to “sing praises” as the people of God:
“Let all the people praise Thee!”
Not one place in Scripture does it say:
“Let only the pulpit musicians praise Thee!”

Burroughs is correct, of course.  He also offers a number of suggestions regarding phenomena that contribute to the decline in whole-congregational singing.  These include:

  • The absence of a felt need to participate in singing
  • Excessive volume
  • Unison singing, partly from screen lyrics that lack any musical notation
  • Lead vocalists whose voices are amplified above the rest

Deeper Causes for the Silence
These are all true, but I wonder whether they address the root cause for the silence.  At least three factors appear to enter that picture.  These are demography, content, and assumptions.

Demographically, contemporary churches cater to a different set of people than churches did a generation ago.  This is a fact of life.

Musical content has changed as well.  This also is undeniable.

The assumptions behind the change in behavior are perhaps most radical of all.  A generation ago, everyone sang.  A discussion like this would have been meaningless.  Now we live in an age in which we assume that singing is optional.  Something has caused this shift in our thinking.  Until we understand what allowed the shift to occur in the first place, we probably will not be able to come to any settled conclusions on a solution.

My Own Contribution to the Silence
To be honest, I am part of the problem.  I am 62 years old and have grown up on the hymns.  My intolerance for certain types of music has grown rather than diminished.  I stand with the silent group more often than before.

Before I go further, let me affirm that there are some lousy hymns out there, as well as some worthy praise music.  On the whole, however, I believe the shift to all praise music all the time leaves many either unable to sing, or at least lends to a greater degree of impairment while singing.  I believe there are definite reasons for this.

In the hope of generating dialogue, here are some of my personal observations on why I do not go gaga over Christian praise music.   My reasons for choosing to remain silent are both physical and philosophical.  I will list them separately.

One of these Praisey, Praisey Nights
Some reasons for silence fall back on simple physics.  Praise music is not comfortable to sing, for a number of reasons.

  1. Praise music does not usually have a predictable arrangement of verse-chorus.  Instead it contains anywhere from two to five plug-in sections.  We older worshipers, who are used to knowing what is to occur, have a low tolerance level when we have to wonder where we will bounce to next.  Our frustration grows when we see the praise teams fumbling with the same problem.
  2. A number of tunes move straight from the Christian Top 40 to the church stage as pre-packaged, pre-recorded live performances in their original keys.  Because these generally originate from young singers, they occur in a high register and tend to be breathy in nature.  Choruses like these are just very difficult to sing.
  3. In addition to the high musical register, we often have to crane our heads to read the overhead screen.  This strains our vocal chords and is very hard on an older singer.
  4. More and more choruses appear to be ending on notes other than the tonic (the same note as the key signature).  This destroys any sense of completion in the song.  The singing ends on an other-than-tonic note, and a few moments later the music stops altogether.  We do not feel like we have finished the chorus.  We are just done.
  5. Praise music can be incredibly repetitious.  Personally, I have no desire to sing the same phrase anywhere from four to sixteen times in a row.
  6. As Bob mentioned, louder does not translate to a greater level of Spirit filling.  Particularly for older people, louder music means a greater strain on our ears and a lessened ability to understand the words and concentrate on the message.

What is Praise?
On a deeper level, I believe the line of demarcation follows the abandonment of hymns for praise music.  The differences here are far more ideological.

  1. Some in the praise music only camp argue that the shift from hymnody to praise music has taken place without a significant loss of content.  A side-by-side comparison of the two will show that this is not true.  Contrary to the way some in the praise-music-only camp argue, praise music as a whole offers very little content when compared to the hymns.  Think of the praise songs that feature two-, three-, or four-syllable plug-in phrases on the same repeated tune.
  2. Praise music seldom declares what the Lord has done to deserve praise.  When it does, the discussion is brief and lacking in detail.  It is often praise for praise’s sake.
  3. As a corollary to the previous point, praise music is more about my own act of offering praise than it is about the God who is worthy of my praise.

In my discussions on blended music in churches, I have not met a single person who has been able to make a of the two synthesis work.  Our church has practiced blended music, but in recent months the number of hymns has dwindled to almost nothing.

I believe this point returns to ideologies.  Hymnody and praise music communicate far different sets of content.  Millard J. Erickson makes this observation on postmodern-era music in general:

One other indication of postmodernism can be seen in music.  Some contemporary music, both secular and sacred, seems to deemphasize the intellectual or cognitive dimension.  Volume is so loud as almost to overwhelm the individual’s consciousness, and sometimes includes an actual physical vibration.  The content is often minimal, is of the most concrete or basic form, and often is repeated numerous times, in some cases in almost mantra-like fashion.  This is sometimes accompanied by a shift of key.  The effect is to bypass the reflective or critical dimensions of experience.  One simply feels, rather than thinks about what is happening.[1]

The point of the quote is not to flog potential opponents, but to demonstrate that I am not alone in my observations.  I am beginning to believe that blended music may prove to be impossible, precisely because of the ideological differences between hymnody and praise choruses.  For me that is a tragedy.

Doug Knox

[1] Millard J. Erickson, The Postmodern World: Discerning the Times and the Spirit of Our Age, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2002), 32.

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Truth Rejected and Truth Received
On the third day of our recent mission trip to Haiti, a local pastor, Matthewe Celestin drove his scooter into the compound where our team was staying and asked me to go with him to see his church.  While we were there, he introduced me to one of his longtime friends and asked me to share the gospel with him.

I did.  Since I had spent my morning working on a sermon from 1 Thessalonians on the Lord’s return and the resurrection of the believers, I took Matthewe’s friend there.

In the end, he dismissed the message.  He could not believe in Jesus, he said, because someone had stolen his couch.  If Jesus were real, he would not have let his couch be stolen.

Later that evening, with the help of a Haitian translator, I delivered my sermon to a group of Haitian believers.  They took it in as though they had not had water for days.

Why did some receive this word while another rejected it?

Because God had prepared them to hear it.  Here are some of the truths that the believers could see while others remained blind.

The Comprehension of a Bigger Hope
At the beginning of the sermon I told my audience I wanted to concentrate on the subject of hope.  In order for a person to have hope, three elements must be present:

  • The person must believe in a big story.  For the Christian, the cosmic story begins with the creation.  It becomes corrupted in the Fall but is redeemed in Christ’s death, resurrection, and return to heaven.  That is not all, however.
  • The story must have a happy ending.  We who believe the biblical message understand that the story will be complete when Christ returns to take his chosen people home to be with him forever.  Yet even that is not the end.
  • By themselves, the first two points are academic.  In order for hope to be hope, we must believe that we will be included in the ending.

The dear people in the church understood the big story, and because of that they were able to look beyond their circumstances to the promise for the end.

Understanding the Difference between Deferred Hope and Lost Hope
The three points that make up hope lie at the heart of Paul’s message in 1 Thessalonians 3.  Historically, the believers at Thessalonica looked for Christ to return within their lifetimes.  When some of their members began to die, their belief system was shaken.  They were not sure if they would see their loved ones again.

Paul wrote to them to explain the whole picture.   The believers who had died would not be left behind at Christ’s return.  They would rise from the dead to join the living, and all of them would meet Christ together in the air.

Christian hope does not involve immediate gratification.  As often as not, it calls us to wait.  The Haitian believers understood this.  Pastor Matthewe’s friend did not.

Hope, Grief, and Joy
I explained to the gathering that hope does not mean the absence of grief.  Eleven years ago, I mourned the death of my wife, Marie.  I told them that they certainly carried their own tales of grief.

I explained that I looked forward to seeing Marie again, and that promise gave me the strength to go on.  Hope generates a sense of joy because it looks beyond the grief to the happy ending.  Joy does not signify the absence of grief.  It is the proof of hope in the midst of grief. They understood.

The man whose couch was stolen had no joy, because he could not look past a lost present-day to a guaranteed future.

The Incompleteness of Hope in the Incomplete Story
Toward the end of the sermon I could sense that the people understood the message on a far more profound level than I had expected.  I decided to relate a recent personal discovery.

Before our team left, my wife Patty insisted that I write her a letter that she would read if we did not return.  As I wrote, I began to feel the tension between two focal points.  I wrote as one still living, but my projected point of view was from heaven, as one already with the Lord.

This offered a significant insight into two truths.  The first is obvious.  We who experience the loss of loved ones on the earth mourn their passing because we have become incomplete with their departure.  We grieve the loss.

The second became clear from my projected point of view.  Those who die and go to heaven to be with the Lord obviously find the joy of being with the Lord.  But they do not find completeness.  For that they must wait for the rest of God’s children to join them.

This is the meaning of the pivotal passage at the end of Hebrews 11, the chapter that describes the faith Hall of Fame.  “And all these [Old Testament saints], though they have been commended by their faith, wait to receive the promise, because God has provided something better for us.  For without us, they will not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40).

The commendation means that their jobs are done.  Christ has welcomed them home and has recognized their contribution to the faith.  But they remain incomplete because the history-long relay race continues.  The writer of Hebrews uses this metaphor.  Immediately after these verses, reminds his readers to remember the cloud of witnesses that surrounds them and to run their race with endurance (Heb. 12:1-2).  When I wrote the letter to my wife from that perspective,that truth drilled itself into my consciousness.

I related the story at the meeting, and my translator went on for a lot longer than what he needed to go from English to Creole.  Then the audience laughed.  Probably because of the romantic American.  Fortunately the shouts of “Amen” gave weight to the humor.

Witnessing the Power of Hope
The people got the message.  They understood the critical call in Scripture to look beyond the immediate to the eternal.  If we try to find completeness in this life, it starts to become cluttered with things.

Like couches.

That sounds funny to us, but mainly because of the scale factor.  Poor Haitian—if he only knew.  Now if we were to toss in a six-figure career, the latest Ipad, a cushy 401-K, and a new hybrid vehicle, we could get serious.   Except that our more serious posture would be only a bigger and more populated version of couches.  We look just like the poor Haitian.

There is nothing wrong with any of those things.  Each is a blessing brought about through the creative ingenuity that God gave us.  When things begin to eclipse the eternal weight of glory, however, they become idols, and that is the problem.

But not everyone is fooled.  I know some believers in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere who are rich.

Doug Knox


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An Unexpected Opportunity
On the third day of our Haiti mission trip, a Haitian man drove his scooter into the compound where our team was staying.  He introduced himself as Pastor Matthewe Celeste, and asked if I would be willing to drive with him to see his church.  His English was accented but otherwise excellent.

I was preparing a sermon for a revival meeting that evening and was the only person in the compound.  The visit looked like what many Christians are fond of calling a God moment.  When the opportunity for encouragement comes, we take it.  I said I would go.

I hopped on the scooter with him, and we drove off.  After about an hour’s drive on the main road, we turned off on a dirt-and-stone side street in what I believe was St. Louie du Sud.  That took us to a less traveled road that led out of town and into the hill country, where the terrain looked like an arid version of the Appalachian foothills.  Matthewe turned onto a cow path and followed it for about half a mile and then drove up a hillside.

His church, a 30 x 60 foot cinderblock building, sat on top of the hill.  He showed me the interior where, he said, he ministered to about a hundred fifty people.  His impoverished congregation had been able to make crude benches for perhaps thirty.

Connecting with the Haitian Countryside
When we went back outside, I paused to look at the country.  The scenery was breathtaking.  Steep hills and V-shaped valleys retreated toward the haze-covered mountains inland.  Single-family dwellings and mortar sarcophagi dotted the countryside.  Trees grow sparingly, and few were little larger than bushes.

Matthewe interrupted my thoughts.  “Would you like to see more?  We’ll have to walk if that’s all right with you.”

All right?  The area made me drool.

I told him in my most polite voice that I loved hills, and I loved to walk.  We walked down the hill on which the church stood and started up another.  Along the way, Mattewe hollered to a couple farmers, who waved and called back with the now familiar title, “Pastè!”

A Call to Share the Gospel
A third man, working by a small fire, responded but did not call him Pastor.  Matthewe said, “He is my good friend, but he does not believe.  When we come back I want you to talk to him.

I told him I would.

Matthewe showed me his mother’s house, and then his, a little farther down the path.  He wanted wanted to go on.  I had neglected to grab a bottle of water from the coupound, however, and was beginning to feel the effects of dehydration in the direct sun.  We started back

He walked me over to the friend he had told me about earlier.  The man sat by a loose dirt mound about four feet high.  A light stream of smoke wafted from a foot-and-a-half-wide hole in the side of the mound.  Matthewe said his friend was making charcoal from mahogany saplings.

Then he turned to his friend.  A short dialogue took place, and then Matthewe turned back to me.  “I introduced you and told him you are a pastor,” he said, “Go ahead.”

Preaching the Gospel to Those Who never have Heard
I began in Genesis, where I introduced the creation, Adam’s original relationship with his God, the Fall, and the promise for redemption with God’s animal sacrifice to cover the man and woman’s nakedness.  A brief walk through Old Testament sacrificial practice followed.  All the while my monologue looked to Jesus as the major turning point in God’s redemptive history.

Matthewe translated sentence by sentence.

When Matthewe drove into the compound, my sermon preparation had been in 1 Thessalonians 3.  There the Apostle Paul reminded the Thessalonian believers about the hope of the resurrection.  After explaining Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, I concentrated on that subject for Matthewe’s friend.  Then I concluded with Christ’s final return to judge the living and the dead.

“Why Should I Believe?”
Matthewe translated, and another discussion took place.  After a while Matthewe turned to me and said, “My friend said he does not want to believe in Jesus.  Someone stole his couch, and he said if Jesus were real, he would have gotten him a new couch.”

Matthewe’s friend began to grow restless, and Matthewe explained that he needed to retrieve the charcoal.  We shook hands with the man and left.  As we walked back down the path, Matthewe said, “I tried to explain to him that we must put our hope in more important things than couches, but he wouldn’t accept it.”

I thought about Matthew’s friend’s thinking, serious in some respects and foolish in others.  On the one hand, scale comes into play.  In the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, a couch probably is not a necessity.  It likely was a high-grade luxury whose loss cut deeply into the man’s self-concept and possibly even into his standing among his neighbors.  His sanctity as a human being was violated.  Where was God when this happened?

The Deeper Reason We do not Believe
On the other, it is much like our thinking in the West.  We can fill in the blank.  God failed to do ___________ for me, so I refuse to believe in him.  The line of reasoning is the same, regardless of whether the person is a poor peasant or a university professor.  The god I believe in would not allow such a thing to happen.  Therefore he must not exist.

If that were all the reasoning involved, it might work.  But in the case of Matthewe’s friend—not to mention educated atheists—the argument comes with emotional baggage.  I am upset at God, so I refuse to believe in him.  We might as well tell God, “I’m angry at you for letting me lose that couch, so I refuse to believe in you.  I hope you’re listening.”

Some face difficulty and stumble, while others who face the same circumstances take root in what they hear and flourish.  Later that night I would speak to a group of faithful Haitian Christians who had come in the rain to worship.  Their faith showed a depth of faith that humbled me.

(To be continued.)