The Perils of Sacred Music

20181218_200824Two nights ago, we opened our Christmas gift to each other: we attended a superb performance of Handel’s MESSIAH at the National Arts Centre here in Ottawa. We are both very familiar with this magnificent oratorio, and hearing it live adds to the wonder of it.

This is not a concert review, but I do have to comment on a couple of things about the performance. There were a few disappointments.

Many people in the audience were clearly ignorant of either the piece or concert protocol. They insisted on applauding after every aria and nearly every chorus, which was distracting, to say the least. Embarrassing, actually.  Perhaps for the sake of time (due to the excessive and inappropriate applause,) the conductor deleted the chorus, “Lift up your heads.” Odd.

The soloists included a counter tenor, which was disappointing to me. I just don’t like counter tenors much. In fact, I don’t even like the idea of counter tenors, and I store them in the same locker with ballerinos. I have heard some good ones–the one who performed in MESSIAH last April on the day I landed in Israel was excellent, and he didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies. The counter tenor on our recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a master of the craft, no denying it. But I’d much rather watch a pretty  woman with a beautiful contralto voice than a pretty man with a pretentious manner and an annoying vibrato. “If you’re going to sing like a woman, then be a woman,” is what I say. The American soprano was terrific–she looked more like a young soccer mom than a highly-decorated international vocal star, and her voice was like a bell. The baritone had a great set of pipes, but his performance was a little wooden, I thought. The tenor was excellent–crystal clear diction, a very pleasing timbre to his voice, and an honest, humble approach to both the music and the text–little to no ornamentation, and facial expressions that reflected at least an appreciation for the text, if not a clear understanding of it.

Which brings me to my real reason for this post.

For a child of God, singing sacred works like MESSIAH is worship. For an unbeliever, however, even listening to such things is perilous. To expose oneself repeatedly to the Truth and to continue to deny it is to heap condemnation on oneself. Every performance stokes the fires of hell.

To expose oneself repeatedly to the Truth and to continue to deny it is to heap condemnation on oneself. Every performance stokes the fires of hell.

Before we went to the NAC the other night, we had prayed several times that God would use the text of MESSIAH to convict both the performers and attendees of their sin and their need for the One of Whom they were singing–“the “Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” Canada’s multi-talented Governor General was in the 80-voice choir again (she sang with the Ottawa Bach Choir in a performance we attended last February.) She has made some harsh and derisive public remarks about creationism, the Bible, and those who believe it. I observed on the way home that I can’t imagine how an astronaut (the Governor General was one) who denies the existence of the Creator can sing MESSIAH with a straight face. My wife replied that this is like the vain repetitions of the Jews against which Jesus taught, and the empty traditions with which she grew up as a French Roman Catholic.

National-Arts-Centre-177-DSAI-NAC-credit-doublespace-photographyWe wondered aloud about how many of the hundreds of people who filled Southam Hall on Tuesday night actually believed what they were hearing. We pray that God will use what they heard to assault their hearts in the night and give them no peace until they find it in the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords.

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the things for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55.9-11)

God, make it so with those Tuesday night concert-goers. Bring conviction, not more condemnation.


The Ante-Magnificat

four_col_Magnificat_MSI don’t celebrate Christmas. Not really. And I don’t say, “Put Christ back in Christmas,” because I don’t believe He was ever there. At least not in what our culture has come to know as Christmas. But before you paint me with pine tar and turkey feathers and run me out of town on a yule log, please hear me out.

What we call, “Christmas,” today is an event fueled by commercialism, secularism, romanticism, and paganism.  I have no problem with celebrating the birth of Christ. None at all. I love Handel’s “Messiah” and Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” I like turkey and cranberries. I give special gifts to the people I cherish. I value time with my family. I like the smell of balsam firs and freshly-baked cookies. I enjoy times of quiet contemplation and nighttime walks in the snow. I love reading O. Henry’s, “The Gift of the Magi” and “Gian-Carlo Menotti’s, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” But none of these things has any real bearing on the Incarnation.

So when December rolls around, I begin doing two things every year: studying the gospel account of the birth of Christ, and listening to Handel’s MESSIAH. Each of these activities helps me to focus on my real appreciation for this time of year, disconnected as it is from the more likely timing of the Incarnation around Passover. One of my goals as I undertake my annual reading and listening is to learn something new.

This year, Madeleine and I are reading Luke’s account of Christ’s birth together. In Luke 1, I was struck with two things.

The first is the fact that Zechariah, John’s father, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, ask the Angel Gabriel the same question: “How?”

Upon hearing the announcement of the barren Elizabeth’s delivery of a son in her old age, Zechariah asks, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (LUK 1.18) Gabriel tells him he will be mute until John’s birth: “…because you did not believe my words.” Zechariah’s question is related to the possibility of John’s conception.

Jesus’ conception was even more improbably than John’s, though they were both miraculous. When Gabriel tells Mary she will bear the Son of God, she also asks, “How?”  Her question concerns the process of Jesus’ conception, not the possibility: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (LUK 1.34) She believes the angel, but wonders how God will bring this about.

The same question. Two different reasons for asking it.

The second thing I noticed this year is Mary’s summation of her exchange with the Angel Gabriel. After he explains how she will conceive and tells her that Elizabeth is already pregnant, he reminds her that “…nothing will be impossible with God.” (LUK 1.37) In the next verse, Mary responds simply, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Would that God would give me Mary’s believing heart and submissive will!

The Other Side of the Gospel

I recently read the compelling testimony of Rosaria Butterfield. Once an outspoken liberal lesbian intellectual, she put her trust in Jesus Christ and her life was transformed. She cites a passage in John 7 that made a deep impression on her as she listened to a sermon on this text:

“If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” John 7.17

During the feast of Sukkot, Jesus was in Jerusalem and teaching in the temple. His wisdom and grasp of the Old Testament Scriptures astounded the Jews, and they asked themselves how He could be so learned without having had any formal education. On what authority could He say such things?

Jesus’ response in verse 17 has huge implications. As Rosaria Butterfield recalls her own experience,

“But God’s promises rolled in like sets of waves into my world. One Lord’s Day, [the pastor] preached on John 7:17: “If anyone wills to do [God’s] will, he shall know concerning the doctrine” (NKJV). This verse exposed the quicksand in which my feet were stuck. I was a thinker. I was paid to read books and write about them. I expected that in all areas of life, understanding came before obedience…But the verse promised understanding after obedience.” ~ Rosaria Butterfield

To many, especially those who fancy themselves intellectuals, the Bible seems illogical, unreasonable, untrustworthy, and even nonsensical. (Many of those who would level such charges have never actually read the Bible, but that is another matter.) Others say that a gospel which requires nothing for one to do is too simplistic to be true.

Jesus tells us that the questioning of His authority–and, hence, the authority of Scripture–indicates an unwillingness to obey God. The human heart is set against God, so anything that seeks to correct and redirect it is viewed as false and unreasonable. In his personal testimony of coming to Christ at Princeton University, Dr. John Whitcomb observed that if we seek to argue for the authority of Scripture on an academic level, we put the skeptic on an intellectual pedestal from which he or she will never step down. This is so true.

The issue of Jesus’ authority or the Bible’s authority is not an academic or scientific issue. It is not principally a matter of the head, but of the heart. If a person is sincerely interested in pleasing God, he or she will accept the authority of the Scriptures. To many, the Bible appears to defy reason. But, on the other side of the gospel, the new believer immediately realizes that it is the only thing that is truly reasonable. So many things quickly start to make sense–even the evening news.

A will to obey brings the ability to understand.

Love ‘n Hugs!


One year ago today, at just after 5 AM, my precious companion of over thirty-eight years slipped peacefully into the arms of the Saviour she loves. Donna had endured the ravages of pancreatic cancer with courage, grace, hope, humour, and a keen desire to finish well.

She did.

We all miss her, and we will never forget her. She provided a model for selfless love that few people I know have ever matched. The impact she had on people all over the world continues to amaze me.

14305437_10154572869324515_3178632645292685268_oYou may remember this photograph of a giant amaryllis we had in our home while Donna was ill. On the morning she died, I turned around to look at the plant and discovered that the fourth and final bloom had opened during the night. It seemed providential—a picture of what our Father is doing in the lives of His children. He tends us and nurtures us so we will flourish wherever He plants us, conforming us to “the image of His Son,” but we will not be in full bloom until the moment we see Him face to face.

DJ’s amaryllis illustrates the discipleship process for me. God wants to use me to help others bloom spiritually, and He wants to use them to help me do the same. This is our purpose in life. She understood that, and she accomplished it more effectively than most.

On behalf of my entire family, I want to thank all of you who have prayed for us, have expressed your love and concern in generous and practical ways, and have ministered to us with your many messages of comfort and encouragement. We could not have gotten through this difficult year without you. We are enormously grateful.

One of the verses that sustained Donna throughout her fifteen-year struggle with cancer was Psalm 94.19:

“In the multitude of my anxieties within me, your comforts delight my soul.” (NKJV)

I thank God for the wonderful years He gave Donna and me as companions, lovers, teammates, parents, grandparents, mentors, and siblings in the Saviour. And I am thankful that I serve the one True God, the “God of all comfort,” Who produces beauty from ashes, brings joy in the morning, and upholds me with His steadfast love.

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” PSA 116.15


Make Yourself Comfortable


It’s MESSIAH time again, as it is at this time every year. I usually begin listening to Handel’s monumental work in early December, and play it many times before Christmas. It has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I have most of it memorized. I never tire of it, and every year I determine to learn something new, something of value to my soul that will help me to grow closer to the Subject of the oratorio.

It didn’t take long this year. After the intense orchestral prelude, the tenor sings:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” ~ Isaiah 40.1-2

That first word–“comfort”–hit me like a bus. It’s what I need this year. I began to think about comfort and Christmas, but especially about comfort and Christ.

Isaiah is speaking to Israel, but His words reach into the nation’s distant future, when her King will return to decimate her many enemies and establish theocracy as global governance with righteousness, justice, and peace. Given the state of God’s chosen people in Isaiah’s day (and ours) and the magnitude of their impending judgment, the promise of comfort would have come as a welcome reassurance to a believing Jew.

Comfort–real, lasting comfort–comes from God alone. Despite their best intentions, even the most dearly loved family members and most well-intentioned members of the Body cannot provide it without His help. Comfort is God’s domain.

Isaiah looks ahead to Israel’s restoration. Her geographical and political restoration have already occurred, as Isaiah and many of the other Old Testament prophets said it would millennia ago. Isaiah asks rhetorically,

“Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?” ~ Isaiah 66.8a

The unexpected answer is, “Yes!” On 13 May 1948, Israel did not exist. On 14 May, it did. At 4:16 PM on 14 May, Israel did not exist. At 4:17, it did. Regardless of what one thinks of the Jewish people, Israel is here to stay. God clearly stated in many Old Testament Scriptures that He would take them back to the land He gave them through their patriarch, Abraham. And there they are. He also promised that He would make them a righteous nation–one that would truly love and obey her Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah’s promise of comfort to Israel also comes with the promises of  peace and pardon–neither of which Israel enjoys now.

Still looking ahead to Israel’s final restoration, Isaiah writes,

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.”     ~ Isaiah 49.13

And again,

“I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the LORD, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets  himself to destroy?” ~ Isaiah 51.12,13

How can God offer comfort to His people? To anyone?

Paul of Tarsus, the Turkish Apostle, answers this question in his second canonical letter to the church in Corinth:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” ~ 2 Corinthians 1.3,4

Jehovah God is the “God of all comfort,” and the Lord Jesus–God in Flesh, Immanuel, “God With Us”–spent the bulk of His ministry comforting the afflicted. He healed the sick, restored hearing to the deaf, made the lame to walk, raised the dead, fed the hungry, reassured the sorrowful, and cast demons out of people possessed. After His resurrection, when He was about to return to the Father, He told His disciples that He would give them another Comforter–another Helper–who would be with them forever:

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”                       ~ John 14.16,17

Those who do not have the Holy Spirit, or do not even believe He exists–cannot know real comfort. The laws and trappings of religion, the traditions of families and cultures, even the ministrations of loved ones cannot approximate the comfort that comes from The Comforter.

Why is comfort on my mind this Christmas? This is the first Advent season in forty years that I have experienced without the marvelous woman I married in 1977. Only the “God of all comfort” has been able to treat the wound in my heart, which may seep for years to come. But His grace is more than sufficient, and the “comfort and joy” of which the familiar carol speaks has been our portion as we have celebrated this Christmas together without our beloved wife and mother.

But, as Paul says, comfort–like grief itself–is a stewardship. It is not something to simply receive. It is something to pass on to others who need it. Perhaps you need comfort this Christmas, as well. Seek it from the One Who can provide it because it His very nature. The Incarnation is not just about a Baby in a manger. It is more about a Saviour on a cross and a King on a throne.

Donna is not with us, but God is “with us,” and she is with Him. Together–she from there, we from here–we look forward to that glorious day in which the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will rule the earth with righteousness, justice, and peace.

Comfort and joy.

Hips, Thighs, and the Nanaimo Factor

15380497_10154880210114515_1394830291038030524_nMany thanks to my good friend Jeff Buckman for introducing me to the sport of snowshoeing. Having spent most of my adult life in the Great White North, I shouldn’t have needed a guy from Pennsyltucky to perform this essential function. Nor should I need a guy from Michigan to introduce me to ice fishing, but my colleague Joe Stinson will be doing that this winter. But I digress.

This morning I took off down a narrow, frosted trail near the Ottawa River on my new Red Feather snowshoes. I’m an enthusiastic cross country skier, so I wondered how I would enjoy trudging along at a much slower pace, walking like a toddler with a load in his Huggies.

Neither scenario proved to be true. My gait was pretty much as it usually is, despite the additional width of the shoes–and I don’t walk anywhere slowly, either with or without snowshoes. I have to say, it was every bit the workout that skiing is–a very different movement, but with poles, a great way to get some much-needed exercise. In Jeff’s words, “It is fun–just another way to enjoy the snow.” Jeff is an avid downhill skier, so he should know. And now I know, too.

Whenever I use the words, “hips” and, “thighs” in the same sentence, I recall an incident that Donna and I still laughed about many years later. We were in the waiting room of our doctor’s office in Nova Scotia one time when a schoolgirl came by selling Girl Guide cookies. We bought some, but the lady next to us said to the girl, “My mouth says, ‘Yes,’ but my hips and thighs say, ‘No.'”  Donna borrowed that quip many times over the years.

Medical researchers and practitioners alike tell us that as we age, men and women collect our excess weight in different places. In men, fat goes to the gut; in women, it goes to the butt. Diagnostic imaging at Walmart will confirm this.  (If Donna were reading over my shoulder, she would have just slapped me lovingly on the back of the head and said with her delightful giggle, “Rob–delete that!” But she isn’t, so I won’t.)

So ladies, if you’re interested in firming your hips and thighs, etc., I highly recommend snowshoeing. (I know some of you will be, especially after all those holiday goodies. I call this the Nanaimo Factor. If you’re not Canadian, you won’t understand this medical jargon and will have to come up with your own factor.) That’s the region of my body where I really felt it today–far more so than when I ski. You’ll feel it there, too–of this I have no doubt. In fact, after shoeing a few kilometers, your hips and thighs may be on their knees begging you to go home.

Snowshoeing seems like a great family activity, as it can be mastered immediately by anyone who can walk. Poles help with equilibrium and lend an additional aerobic element to the motion. The sport can be enjoyed anywhere you find snow–no grooming is required, or even desirable. (I’m talking about the trail’s grooming, not yours. But wait until after your shower, which you will need.) It’s about blazing your own trail, exploring uncharted territory, and all that. A word of caution from a seasoned professional–don’t attempt using your snowshoes in a hard-packed, icy parking lot as you’re going back to your car. The teeth of the crampons may grab the ice and stop the shoes dead, resulting in serious injury to your face, your pride, or both.

One final comment about snowshoeing. Cross country skiing is a very enjoyable and therapeutic solo activity for me–especially at night, under a full moon. Somehow, snowshoeing seems different. It’s a little like drinking mate, the tea that is such an integral part of the South American cultures I so dearly love. It’s okay to do it alone, but I think it would be much more enjoyable with a partner.



Memories of My Kitchen Diva


She would have loved this day–a snowy, blustery morning presaging the brutal winter we’re supposed to get this year, which she also would have loved.

1622144_10152217882154515_1070802655_nBut days like today were made for her. She would have been in the kitchen–one of her two favourite rooms in the house–all day long. There would be something bubbling or simmering on every burner. One pot would undoubtedly be filled with butter and applesauce for her amazing fruitcakes–my mom’s recipe, and the only fruit cake I’ll eat.

The oven would be cranking out raisin tarts, Nova Scotia oat cakes, sugar cookies, sour cream cookies, lemon squares, date squares, Nanaimo bars, shortbread, biscotti, and a few other things she’d “like to try this year.” The CD player would be blasting Il Divo, The Tenors, Sarah Brightman, Celtic Woman, or The Barra MacNeils, and she’d be singing at the top of her lungs. (She’d probably be begging to put on some Christmas music a week early.) The counters would be covered with pans and canisters, spices and tools and measuring cups. The sink would be piled high with items needing to be washed, and, if I were home, she would be calling up to my office every time there was something I could lick. At every opportunity, she would sit down right where I’m sitting, on the high leather chair at the end of her “baking centre,” and conduct multiple conversations with her family, her many Facebook friends, or her international daughters who needed encouragement, advice, or a “good talking to.”

Never again.


As I try to implement Donna’s look-ahead-cook-ahead policy today, I am feeling so grateful for her legacy–a legacy of good food, but also of the sheer joy she had in preparing it for our family, for our many guests, and for me. We didn’t eat out of boxes or cans. Our children grew up eating their mom’s home-baked, honey-whole wheat bread and real food made with fresh ingredients in her own kitchen. My daughter and daughters-in-law cook the same way for their families, and I know this made Donna very happy. The thought of eating processed foods almost nauseates the whole lot of us.




But for me, there is a downside to this blessing–the death of my Kitchen Diva. Now, I’m fending for myself in a space that was hers for so long, an incompetent interloper struggling to eat well and still do my work. And now, her work, too.

If you are reading this and you are a man who is married to a good cook, thank God for a precious gift. Bless her often with praise and frequent hugs and kisses. Appreciate what she puts on your table and the huge effort she makes to put it there. Get her the tools she needs to do it to her satisfaction. Join her in the kitchen–it’s her playroom. Help her clean up. Remind your children just how good they have it. Brag her up to the whole world.

And learn to cook.