Veneer or Solid Wood?

March 27, 2020

When I was a small child, I remember a dresser which had veneer. If you are wondering what veneer is, the dictionary definition of veneer is “a thin decorative covering of fine wood applied to a coarser wood or other material.” This dresser had seen better days, so some pieces of veneer were missing or loose. As a curious child I noticed the difference between the beautiful veneer and the coarse wood beneath. And truth be told, I wanted to pull on the veneer to see more, much to my Mother’s dismay.

As an adult, I have a couple of pieces of furniture from my family which are solid wood. The veneer dresser, by the way, is long gone. One of these pieces of furniture is an oak end table. I remember when it was purchased at an antique store. It too had seen better days. But being solid wood, the beauty of the oak was restored to its former glory, because it was oak all the way down. It was solid wood.

I cannot help but feel that we as Christians are being tested by the Covid-19 pandemic. If we can’t assemble together, will we worship God in smaller groups? God continues to be worthy of worship. In fact, our English word, worship, has as its etymology “acknowledgement of worth.” God is still our creator. God is still our redeemer. God is still the one who reveals himself through his word. God’s providence hasn’t failed. I still have blessings, and God still deserves thanksgiving.

What I fear is that this past Sunday, God received less worship, less praise, and less thanksgiving than the week before. And if my fear is true, it is not because churches weren’t trying to provide resources for their members. It seems to me that a crisis is exactly the time to turn to God even more devotedly. So I want to make clear the challenge for us.

On Paul’s Second Missionary Journey, he and Silas were arrested in Philippi. They were placed in stocks in the inner prison. Roman prisons had less creature comforts than our modern jails and prisons, and I wouldn’t want to live in a modern one let less a Roman prison. Not only were they in jail, but Paul and Silas were placed in the most secure part of that prison. Their feet were placed in stocks, a device to confine their extremities and make it impossible to escape. And I thought long flights in economy class were uncomfortable. I can’t imagine the discomfort felt by Paul and Silas. And yet, what did they do? “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25 ESV). Paul and Silas didn’t stop worshipping and praying when times were tough or even when they couldn’t be in an assembly with others.

So the question is a simple one. Will we continue to worship and pray? Is our Christianity more like a thin layer of veneer, or are we solid wood all the way down?

— Russ Holden

*Oxford Dictionary of English, see under veneer and worship.


Christian Living and Covid-19

March 20, 2020

Covid-19 has changed our lives. Most churches are cancelling their assemblies because of the CDC’s recommendation of not having a gathering of more than 10. These have been difficult decisions for church leaders. The kind of closings we are experiencing haven’t occurred since the Spanish Influenza of 1918. By the way, most church leaders closed church doors during that time, but they reminded Christians of the things we can continue to do. So let me remind you of the things we can do as we face this present crisis.

Christians Pray In Times of Crisis. Paul writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1–2 ESV). Our leaders certainly need our prayers at a time like this. And we should remember our church leaders as they struggle with these issues as well.

I’ve read articles asking whether Covid-19 is the plague of Revelation. My short answer is no. My convictions about Revelation is that it is written about the persecutions of the early church by the Roman Empire, so that Revelation 1-19 is dealing with Roman persecution and the Fall of Rome.

My longer answer goes something like this. God did use natural disasters and armed conflict to punish nations. We see this in the prophets. But it would be presumptuous of me to say that this crisis is a punishment from God. You need a prophet to say that. But I think it is wise to use any calamity as a time to examine ourselves spiritually. I’ve been saying for decades that we need to pray for spiritual revival in our country. So whether this is sent from God or not, this is a good time to pray for revival, to pray for the spiritual condition of our country and our world.

A crisis brings a certain amount of anxiety into our lives. So let me remind you of a couple of passages.

“casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7 ESV)

“do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6 ESV)

Scripture gives us prayer as an important way of dealing with worry. I don’t want to live a life of fear even now. Prayer and trusting in God’s providence is my way of dealing with life’s difficulties and this current crisis.

Christians Worship in Times of Crisis. We are facing a situation where many church buildings may closed for worship this Sunday all around our country due to Covid-19. But Christian worship is simple in what we do, and profound in what it means. So my hope is that families or a few people may get together and worship this Sunday minding the CDC’s recommendation about groups not larger than 10. I’ll miss the assembly, and I will want to get back to regular church life as soon as possible. But Christian worship scales down to where two or more are gathered in my name and scales up to the largest assemblies that we have. I think if a family has children, this will make a lasting impression on them. Christians always worship God. We worship God because he is worthy of worship. We can’t even let a pandemic stop our worship and praise to God.

Christians Serve in Times of Crisis. Christians always serve others, but a time of crisis may present additional opportunities. Our congregation is making certain that people who can’t get out at this time have food and supplies. We are also cooperating with Feeding America to offer special food pantry days to serve the community. You may be able to find such opportunities in your own life. You may know neighbors who are in the high risk category who need help.

I have multiple myeloma. I underwent a stem cell transplant where they kill your immune system with chemotherapy and then reboot it with your own stem cells. I tell you this, because I know what it is like to be quarantined. It’s bit lonely, and you feel a little stir-crazy. I think all of us may be feeling that in the coming days. I want to emphasize how important phone calls were to me while I was going through my quarantine. One way you may serve others is reaching out to them with a phone call. You may brighten someone’s day, and you may find out other ways you can serve them.

Christians serve, and Christians certainly serve in times of crisis. When we do, it makes our faith real to us and real to others.

May God be with you through this time of crisis.

— Russ Holden


Why Sing?

September 27, 2019

Singing is an important part of our worship to God. We want our singing to be pleasing to God, and we want it to be meaningful as worshippers. One important way of focusing on singing is simply to ask its purpose. Why sing?

Dr. Everett Ferguson provides a good list in his book, The Church of Christ:

  1. Singing is a way of preaching Christ. Several New Testament passages are thought to have been early Christian hymns (e.g., Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16). 
  2. Singing is a confession of faith. “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge (or confess) his name” (Hebrews 13:15, ESV).
  3. Singing expresses the indwelling Spirit and word of Christ. Ephesians 5:18-19 associates singing with being filled with the Holy Spirit. The parallel passage in Colossians 3:16 encourages us to have the word of Christ dwell in us richly. How many things do you remember because you have repeatedly sung them?
  4. Singing as praise is a spiritual sacrifice. See the quotation of Hebrews 13:15 above.
  5. Singing shares in the praise of heaven. In Revelation we are brought to the throne room of heaven and given a taste of its praise (Revelation 4:8, 10-11, 5:8-12, 14:2-3, and 15:2-3).
  6. Singing is for instructing and encouraging one another. When we sing, we teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16). We must sing with our minds (1 Corinthians 14:15). When we sing, we are speaking to one another (Ephesians 5:19).
  7. Singing expresses the unity of the church. “…that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6, ESV — emphasis added).
  8. Singing involves the whole person. Scripture emphasizes that singing is to be with both spirit and mind (1 Corinthians 14:15). We are to sing with our hearts (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16) as well as with our lips (Hebrews 13:15).
  9. Singing expresses deep religious emotion. “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (James 5:13, ESV).*

Good singing has meaningful words that draw us closer to God. Let’s sing praise to God with our whole being.

—Russ Holden

*Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Eerdmans, 1996), p. 271


More than a Melody

August 3, 2018

It may be significant that Eutychus didn’t fall asleep during the singing (Acts 20:9). The song service for most of us is the easiest part in which to stay awake and involved. Occasionally, one will hear of singings until midnight, but when the preaching is continued until midnight (Acts 20:7), many of us would be like Eutychus.

This observation is not made to suggest that we do away with preaching, but rather to note that most of us enjoy singing. Music is powerful and brings us much joy. It has great appeal, but in worship we need to remind ourselves that it should be more than a melody.

In Your Hearts to God. Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 reminds us that the singing is not just for enjoyment but is directed to God. It is possible for an atheist to come in and sing our songs, and quite possibly enjoy the aesthetic of the experience, but that would not be acceptable worship. Singing is worship directed to God.

With the Understanding. Paul has repeatedly made this point in 1 Corinthians 14 (see verse 15 for the one on singing), because apparently the Corinthians coming out of their pagan past thought they could worship acceptably with minds disengaged. Understanding is an essential ingredient for Christian worship. Do you understand what you sing (“beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand,” “here I raise my Ebenezer”*)?

In Truth. Jesus’ words “worship in spirit and in truth” apply to songs as well. Is the song true and contain what is pleasing to God? Erik Routley in Hymns Today and Tomorrow states:

A congregation’s disposition toward right belief or away from it is subtly influenced by the habitual use of hymns. No single influence in public worship can surely condition a congregation to self-deception, to fugitive follies, to religious perversities, as thoughtlessly chosen hymns. The singing congregation is uncritical, but it matters very much what it sings, for it comes to believe its hymns. Wrong doctrine in preaching would be noticed; in hymns, it may come to be believed.

Thank God we have this powerful and joyful means of worship — our singing. May it always be to the Lord with understanding and in truth.

*Fain=gladly, Ebenezer = stone of help and is an allusion to 1 Samuel 7:12.


The Power of Habits

September 1, 2017

Habits are powerful. They are the things we do without having to think about them too much. They represent our routine. When they are good habits, they help us live the kind of life we want.

I’ve been working on healthy habits this year. I’m drinking more water and very little diet soda. I’m trying to eat right, which in my case involves counting calories. I’m walking daily and exercising. But I will confess that forming these new, healthy habits has not been easy, but it has been life changing. I wish I’d done it sooner

How long does it take to form a new habit? One number that is frequently heard is 21 days. This number doesn’t quite represent the original quotations from which it was taken. It would have been truer to say a minimum of 21 days. More recent research would such that it takes on average 66 days, but depending on the complexity of the behavior, it can take longer. But good habits are worth it.

Once you form a good habit, you do certain things routinely. Of course, the danger is that you will lose the habit if you keep breaking it. Habit formation doesn’t take perfection, but it does take consistency.

Spiritual formation also includes habits. I’ve learned important routines in my spiritual life, things that I automatically do. One of the habits I would like to suggest to you as we begin a new quarter in our Bible school program is participation in Bible class on Sunday morning and Wednesday night. For some of us, this is a habit. We don’t have to ponder whether we are going to go. We just go. We have formed this as a habit in our life.

Will every class meet a burning need in my life? Will every class give me a spiritual, mountain top experience? Probably not. I’ve had meals of physical food that were quite memorable. I’ve eaten food that didn’t appeal to me very much (for example, think about your least favorite leftovers), but was still nourishing. The same will probably be true as we attempt to provide spiritual food in our Bible classes. I’ve learned to find something worthwhile in the classes I attend and to be spiritually nourished by it. Besides another aspect of being together is fellowship and forming my identity with fellow Christians. This is even more important for our children.

I suspect in eternity we will not look back on time that we spent in Bible classes and say things like: I wish I’d slept in more. I wish I’d watched more TV. I wish I’d worked more. I wish I’d done more household chores, or whatever else we might have done with this time.

I hope that you will give this habit a try. Remember habit formation will probably take weeks to months. Consistency is important in forming this habit. But maybe at the end of that time, you will say what I’ve said about my new healthy habits: I wish I’d done it sooner.


Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

July 21, 2017

Speaking in public is not an easy thing to do. In fact, you may always get “butterflies” even if you do it well. The Book of Lists gives the fear of public speaking as the number one fear for most people. It comes in higher than the fear of death and disease. No wonder that most of us need a lot of encouragement to do it the first time.

Part of the fear of public speaking is the fear of making a mistake, but the truth is anyone who speaks in public will make mistakes. That’s not an excuse for poor preparation or failing to improve, but it is part of the reality of being human. Only God is perfect. One author notes that expecting perfection from ourselves will probably make us more anxious and likely to make a mistake. He goes on to write:

The essence of public speaking is this: give your audience something of value. … Even if you pass out, get tongue-tied, or say something stupid during your talk . . . they won’t care! As long as they get something of value, they will be thankful.1

I can vividly remember one such mistake. When I was a teenager, I was encouraged to lead singing. It was one of my early song leading experiences. I started the song, and we sang about two measures and came to a crashing halt. We were singing the same words, but the tune was very different. I tried again with the same disastrous results. I wanted to hide behind the pulpit. Fortunately, the preacher sitting on the first row figured it out.

My songbook was dog-eared. The page number I was announcing was actually for the page beneath the page I was on. Unfortunately, both hymns were based on the same Psalm so they had the same words. Once we were all on the same page, the third time trying the song worked. I was embarrassed by it, but that is a part of learning humility—another one of those lessons we don’t like, but that God wants us to learn. The people in the congregation were actually very kind and encouraging.

Almost anyone who appears in public can tell such a story. I remember in a gathering of preachers, one of them told the story of the first time he baptized someone. He was very uncertain of himself. He had the person being baptized put on the waders by mistake. You can imagine what happens when someone wearing hip high waders is lowered beneath the water. The waders filled. He really had to struggle to get the person back up. After all it wouldn’t be good for the first time baptizing someone to turn into a drowning! Most of these experiences can seem humorous…afterwards.

Overcoming the fear of public speaking is aided by doing it, and realizing the goal is not perfection but edification.

1Morton C. Orman, M.D., “How To Conquer Public Speaking Fear”


A Living Sacrifice

May 15, 2015

Recently, someone said in the assembly, “We ought to be able to give an hour a week for worship.” I cringed at the statement, and I’ll explain why in a moment. I think I know what the speaker meant, so let me start there.

A recent headline highlights the concern: “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span than a Goldfish.” “The article explains researchers have found that the human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds in recent years. The goldfish comes in with an attention span of 9 seconds explaining the headline. The source of the problem is our digital life where we may have multiple screens providing us with information. This may make it difficult for us to concentrate on one thing and maintain sustained attention.

Yet, you are capable of much deeper thoughts than a goldfish, and you can have sustained attention if you try and practice at it. Worship is one of those places that needs our sustained attention. Reading books, especially reading the Bible, is another. Somehow thoughts about God ought to rank higher than our instant messages and Twitter feed.

I hear complaints at times that people are talking, passing notes, or on their phone during worship. Granted that a person may be reading their Bible on their phone, but this is not always the case. The suspicion is that people are distracted and not paying attention and being a distraction to others who are attempting to pay attention. I think that is where “the hour a week” comment comes in. Can we learn to give sustained attention to the things God has asked us to do? This may take some effort on our part, but it is a call to be different from the world around us. It is also a call to be reverent and respectful.

What made me cringe about the statement? I don’t want to convey the idea that Christian living can be pigeonholed into an hour a week. God wants your whole life not just a token hour. He wants you to be “a living sacrifice” daily. It means being a Christian on the job, at school, and in the home. I’m giving God all of my time as I use my entire life to glorify God.

When I give God my life, then the times of worship become a no-brainer. I don’t have to decide each time whether I’m going or not. Worship, whether in my devotional life or in the assembly, becomes a part of the rhythm of my life. Worship shouldn’t be something that I begrudgingly give to God counting down the minutes until I’m free. Worship should come from the overflow of a daily walk with God. My aim is to be a “living sacrifice.”


Learning How to Worship

November 1, 2014

Somewhere along the way, I went from being a child in the worship assembly to worshipping in the assembly. It was a learning process. The first step to learning how to worship is being in a worship assembly. I had my mother to thank for that, but being in the room where people are worshipping is not yet worship.

My first step was participation in singing. I learned to follow along in the songbook, and then, I began to sing as well. Songbooks have a learning curve to them. The person opening a songbook for the first time may need some help in being oriented to it. I had some advantages in that I had learned to read music. It made it easier. If you don’t read music, the easiest beginning point is to sing along with the melody. Many people can eventually learn a part by ear. In time, I tried to think about what I was singing. What did it mean?

How do you participate in a sermon? You listen, obviously. But my own experience suggests that’s not always easy to do. I remember as a teenager being very, very sleepy in some sermons. One Sunday it hit me. I liked the preacher. The bits I was hearing were meaningful. I realized the problem was I had stayed up until 1 a.m. (I suspect that the total cure for staying up too late is adulthood.) But I became more aware of my part in the sermon event.

Sermons also have a learning curve. When you first begin to worship, you may not know where books of the Bible are. That makes it initially difficult to find readings. A lack of Bible knowledge may make some things harder to follow. If we deal with the Bible in too simple of a way, the danger is the church will be biblically illiterate. That is one of the issues of our time. Hopefully, lessons can be accessible, but still challenge us to grow. I try to give outlines with the scriptures we will look at on it, so someone could always look up these passages again privately. The good news is that as we work at this, we become better at finding Bible references, and our knowledge of the Bible grows.

During a sermon, I want to have my Bible open. I like to have some means of making a note if I want. I take occasional notes, but most importantly, I’ve learned to mentally follow the lesson. As we grow in our knowledge of the Bible and our experience in worship, we grow in our ability to meaningfully and actively listen.

Worship is a learned experience. It needs our participation. We must be mentally active and not passive. It is something that we grow in our ability to worship and our appreciation of worship.


Please, Silence Your Cell Phone

November 8, 2013

I have to admit that I was distracted last week. An electronic ding sound occurred periodically during class and even during worship. It was a familiar ding by the way. My phone and laptop make the same sound when a new email message arrives.

Of course, that was part of my distraction during class. I had the laptop plugged into the sound system so that we could view a video together. I was afraid that I was the source of the distraction. I even went up front during class to make certain that I had set notifications to “Do Not Disturb.”

I guess I had heard that ding too many times, so that by the sermon time when it happened, I stopped and mentioned it. I had more than one person confess afterwards that they thought it was their cell phone. One confessor even suggested that we mention each week to silence your cell phone.

Silencing electronic devices is not always easy. Years ago we had an alarm that was going off during the sermon time. It had happened at the same point in the service a number of weeks in a row. I finally stopped one Sunday and said, “I can fix that if you let me have it.”

Afterwards a retired gentleman sheepishly came forward and admitted that it was his watch. It was an electronic watch that had a lot of settings and somehow the alarm was set, and he didn’t know how to to turn off the alarm. (By the way, I immediately felt more patient with that beep-beep sound.) I was able to figure out the watch and turn off the alarm.

Last year, a similar case made national news. A New York Philharmonic performance was stopped when the marimba alarm sound continued to go off from a man’s new iPhone. The man was described as being between 60 and 70 years of age. His company had just replaced his phone the day before. He had no idea of how to turn off the alarm. When reporters eventually caught up with him, he admitted that he hadn’t been able to sleep for two days after the event, it shook him up so much.

Let’s remember that the noise of our electronic devices can be distracting to the people around us. If you are not certain on how to silence a device, ask around. I’m sure someone knows how. And if you see someone looking at their phone or tablet during church, remember they may be reading their Bible. Be patient with one another. (And if you’re not reading your Bible, remember the purpose of being in worship.)

I was at a church event on the other side of the state recently. They began with “Please, silence your cell phone.” These days the message is repeated before funerals, weddings, church services, movies, seminars, and many other public events: please, silence your cell phone.


The True Audience

April 20, 2012

We live in the age of entertainment. Most of us spend hours every week being in the audience of some performance via television, and that experience may distort our view of worship. Søren Kierkegaard noted the problem in the nineteenth century. His parable is worth considering.

It is so on the stage, as you know well enough, that someone sits and prompts by whispers; [he is hidden;] he is the inconspicuous one; he is and wishes to be overlooked. But then there is another, he strides out prominently, he draws every eye to himself. For that reason he has been given his name, that is: actor. He impersonates a distinct individual. In the skillful sense of this illusionary art, each word becomes true when embodied in him, true through him—and yet he is told what he shall say by the hidden one that sits and whispers. No one is so foolish as to regard the prompter as more important than the actor.


Now forget this light talk about art. Alas, in regard to things spiritual, the foolishness of many is this, that they in the secular sense look upon the speaker as an actor, and the listeners as theatergoers who are to pass judgment upon the artist. But the speaker is not the actor—not in the remotest sense. No, the speaker is the prompter. There are no mere theatergoers present, for each listener will be looking into his own heart. The stage is eternity, and the listener, if he is the true listener (and if he is not, he is at fault) stands before God during the talk. The prompter whispers to the actor what he is to say, but the actor’s repetition of it is the main concern—is the solemn charm of the art. The speaker whispers the word to the listeners. But the main concern is earnestness: that the listeners by themselves, with themselves, and to themselves, in the silence before God, may speak with the help of this address.


The address is not given for the speaker’s sake, in order that men may praise or blame him. The listener’s repetition of it is what is aimed at. If the speaker has the responsibility for what he whispers, then the listener has an equally great responsibility not to fail short in his task. In the theater, the play is staged before an audience who are called theatergoers; but at the devotional address, God himself is present. In the most earnest sense, God is the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to: hence here the customary audience is wanting. The speaker is then the prompter, and the listener stands openly before God. The listener … is the actor, who in all truth acts before God.*

The leaders of worship are prompters. Those in the assembly are the actors on the stage of life and eternity prompted by those who “whisper” the word, and God is the true audience.

*Thomas C. Oden, editor. The Parables of Kierkegaard, pp. 89-90.