Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Semi-Random Musings (26)

Unless you come from a megachurch background where the primary influence on your Sunday praise fodder is the Hillsong catalog, you are probably familiar with the name Isaac Watts (1674-1748), lyricist of several absolutely wonderful old hymns. The three I know best are “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Jesus Shall Reign”.

Many of Watts’ hymns paraphrase psalms.

Watts attempted to express the thoughts of the great Hebrew poets in the language of his day, while making the lines scan and rhyme so they could be sung in English churches. That’s no easy task, but anyone familiar with scripture quickly picks up that “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is based on Psalm 90 and that “Jesus Shall Reign” comes from Psalm 72. Then there is this less-well-remembered Watts lyric, which finds its inspiration in the first three verses of Psalm 41:

Blest is the man whose bowels move,
And melt with pity to the poor,
Whose soul, by sympathizing love,
Feels what his fellow saints endure.

His heart contrives, for their relief,
More good than his own hands can do;
He, in the time of sighs and grief,
Shall find the Lord has bowels, too.

His soul shall live secure on earth,
With secret blessings on his head,
When drought, and pestilence and death
Around him multiply their dead.

Or if he languish on his couch,
God will pronounce his sins forgiv’n;
Will save him with a healing touch,
Or take his willing soul to heav’n.

Hey, don’t blame Isaac. He wrote 750 of these things. There were bound to be one or two clunkers. Anyone who can get through those first two verses poker-faced in 2022 is a better man than I am. I can totally understand why the poor man might “languish on his couch”, can’t you? But there was a time when nobody in the congregation found this the least bit funny ... say, around 1710. Then there is the fact that references to “drought, pestilence and death” fail to resonate with today’s North American audiences — at least, we hope that continues to be the case. And multiplying the dead? Let’s not go there until the Lord returns.

Circumstances change. Word meanings shift, morph, expand and even invert over time. There are good reasons all but the most hard-boiled traditionalists among us occasionally find themselves accepting some minor rephrasing of certain antiquated turns of phrase in our hymnology, and even the necessary abandonment of beloved old classics that contain so many anachronisms they can’t easily be updated.

But given Isaac Watts’ burden for communicating to his fellow believers in the language of the day, I’m quite sure even the great man himself would applaud the well-earned retirement of this particular piece.

*   *   *   *   *

I had the inestimable pleasure of watching seven baptisms on YouTube the other night. All the candidates for baptism were teenagers or early twenty-somethings. Don’t tell me local churches can’t be expected to attract young people in 2022.

A few church leaders I know are becoming more cautious about uploading sermon videos to YouTube. There is some wisdom in this: pearls before swine and all that. Not all Sunday messages are appropriate for the general public, though they may be perfectly fine within a group of believers where everybody knows everyone else and everyone knows what to expect. Moreover, unbelievers are a different target audience than members of the local church. They require the speaker to carefully consider his subject matter, vocabulary, and the manner in which he expresses truth. Not every speaker switches easily from teaching to preaching.

Another thing: certain topics are political dynamite these days. They invariably set off the haters. Any cost-benefit analysis that says getting a few accidental views of the first fifteen seconds or so of a sermon from two or three unbelievers is worth a potential visit to the Human Rights Tribunal is probably based on faulty math or ignorance of the Tribunal’s brutally punishing and expensive processes for those who find themselves charged with hate speech violations. Let’s just say these tribunals, federal and provincial, do not work like normal courts, especially with regard to the presumption of innocence. You could easily lose your church building over a video. If so, that’d better be one GREAT video ...

Yet another: increasing numbers of dedicated activists are starting to use YouTube and all the major social media sites to identify and harass people on their list of enemies. With all the political heat caused by the Supreme Court revisiting Roe v. Wade, we should not be surprised to find Christians are public enemy number one with more than a few of the more militant “pro‑choice” activists. Pro-life advocates with a vocal presence on social media are already finding themselves doxxed, swatted, disemployed, deplatformed or otherwise intimidated. (If you’re not familiar with those terms, they are worth looking up.) But these days, simply being Christian in the wrong place at the wrong time can paint a target on your back.

As a result, some of the more alert elders and church leaders are taking a good hard look at what gets linked on the church website and especially anything that gets uploaded to YouTube. Most are still doing it, but with the occasional judicious exception. I have nothing against Christians deliberately provoking the world with truth, but public testimony should be undertaken with the permission of everyone potentially affected and in full knowledge and acceptance of the possible consequences. Christians who truth-bomb YouTube unprepared for blowback from unsaved viewers may be surprised to find themselves in deep water financially and at odds with their employers in short order.

All the same, I hope these elders continue to exclude baptisms from any exercise in self-censorship. For one thing, baptisms rarely turn political. Never, in my experience. Moreover, water baptism is supposed to be a public event. It is supposed to offend people; after all, it is both a declaration of allegiance to the risen Christ and a declaration that the person being baptized has died to the world and is deliberately taking a course directly opposed to that of his neighbors, friends and sometimes even family. Baptism is a count-the-cost moment, or at least it should be. Yet for at least the last sixty years, almost every baptism I’ve ever witnessed or participated in has been inside a church building where the statement inherent in the act, while appreciated by fellow believers, loses much of its potential impact on the world.

However, these seven baptisms were uploaded to a public website where they could be shared and commented on by anybody. It’s the kind of spectacle most unsaved people have never encountered, and this one was well worth witnessing. I didn’t know anyone involved personally, but a couple of the brief, clear testimonies had me choking up. Should they choose to, these young, tech-savvy kids can share their moment confessing Christ as Lord with anyone anywhere. That’s a great way to kick-start a lifetime of standing for what you believe.

Kind of makes me wish I could rewind the clock.

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