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The Parables of the Barren Fig Tree and The Ten Bridesmaids

The Parables of the Barren Fig Tree and The Ten Bridesmaids (or Ten Virgins) are two eschatological parables that our class treated together.

The Barren Fig Tree (from Luke 13) is brief: The owner of the fig tree hasn’t found any fruit on it for three years so demands that it be cut down. The caretaker replies: “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”

The Ten Bridesmaids (from Matthew 25) are waiting for the bridegroom. The five wise bridesmaids brought extra oil for their lamps. The five foolish bridesmaids did not bring oil, left to buy more, and were gone when the bridegroom arrived. “‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’” Jesus concluded: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

The parables address two different failures of discipleship. The Barren Fig Tree is about the failure to bear fruit. As Klyne Snodgrass says, “We do not know when we will be called to account for our lives. We need to recover some sense that our actions really are significant and remember that the gospel includes judgment, mercy, and a call for repentance and productive living” (Stories with Intent, p. 265).

The Ten Bridesmaids is about the failure to be prepared. As Craig Blomburg puts it, “Like the foolish bridesmaids, those who do not prepare adequately may discover a point beyond which there is no return—when the end comes it will be too late to undo the damage of neglect.” (Interpreting the Parables, p. 241)

Although Jesus used both parables to give warning to his contemporaries of imminent judgement, there are clear applications for his Second Coming.

Naomi’s drawing is one of my favorites. Rather than a wedding, the ten women have been waiting for a bus to “Future Boulevard.” The five wise women are climbing onto the bus. The five unwise women are scattered about the neighborhood: two window shopping, one buying coffee, and two at the door of a move theater. (The wedding theme of the four movies playing reminds us of the original setting.) The barren fig tree stands, ignored, on the street corner.

More Barren Fig Tree Art

I didn’t find much Barren Fig Tree art: Two by usual suspects Jan Luyken (The Parable of the Fig Tree) and James Jacques Joseph Tissot (The Barren Fig Tree) and another by Steve Hammond (The Barren Fig Tree).

More Ten Bridesmaids Art

Art illustrating the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is more common, most of it highlighting the differences between the two sets of women.

The only artist who gives every bridesmaid her own story is the Mormon painter Gayla Prince. According to her web site, “prints of her painting ‘The Ten Virgins’ have sold over one million copies. She has been invited to give over 500 presentations of that paintings symbolism to groups around the United States. She then developed a slide and script presentation that has been given by thousands of presenters to millions of people worldwide.” A version of her presentation is here; a larger version of the painting is here.

For this class we sang “Where Is the Kingdom” (And Jesus Said #1), which includes a reference to the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (“It’s like those young women with oil in their lamps”); “Heav’n Is Like Ten Bridesmaids Waiting” (AJS #54); and “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” (Singing the New Testament  #47). And Jesus Said also includes another Bridesmaid song “Waiting for the Bridegroom” (AJS #53) and two Barren Fig Tree songs, “Jesus and the Fig Tree” (AJS #23) and “A Fruitless Fig Tree” (AJS #24).

This is the seventh post in a series about the Parables of Jesus Sunday school class I co-taught at Trinity CRC in Ames. In each post, I make a few observations about the parable, share Naomi Friend’s original artwork she drew during our class, post links to other art about the parable, and share our favorite songs about the parable. Previous posts covered the Parable of the SowerThe Parables of the Mustard Seed & the LeavenThe Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great PriceThe Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, The Parable of the Lost Sons, and The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.

Is Chris Tomlin the “most-sung music artist in history”?

A recent article (“Chris Tomlin: On Top of the World”) in Christianity Today claims that Christian singer Chris Tomlin is the “most-sung music artist in history.” Could that possibly be true?

The CT story makes the claim in the first sentence and never brings it up again. The  words “most-sung music artist in history” are linked to another CT story (“Move Over, TobyMac: Chris Tomlin Tops Billboard 200 [Thanks to Passion]”) that says no such thing. The original version of the story is about Tomlin’s new album topping the Billboard sales chart. However, the story was updated three months after it originally ran with the following paragraphs:

Update (Mar. 11): CNN has profiled worship leader Chris Tomlin, calling his songs the “most widely sung music on the planet today.”
Not convinced? Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) CEO Howard Rachinski has done the math. “CCLI estimates that every Sunday in the United States, between 60,000 and 120,000 churches are singing Tomlin’s songs. By extrapolating that data, Rachinski says, ‘our best guess would be in the United States on any given Sunday, 20 to 30 million people would be singing Chris Tomlin’s songs.'”

The quote from the Newsweek story is accurate, but there is no evidence here that Tomlin is the “most-sung music artist in history,” only that he is one of the most-sung composers now.

The CCLI data raises a few more questions: Why is the range of churches allegedly singing Tomlin songs so large?  What math did CCLI do to get the 20-30 million figure? Does the calculation take into account the fact that a good proportion of people in churches that play Tomlinesque music aren’t actually singing but just watching the performance?

Assuming the 30 million figure is correct, does that even make Tomlin the most-sung composer now? How many people sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “Happy Birthday” in an average week? How many people sing “March of the Volunteers,” the Chinese national anthem? (To be fair, the composers of these songs are all dead, so perhaps Tomlin is the most-sung living composer.)

Could Tomlin be the most-sung worship music composer in history? Could he have already caught up with Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts? How about King David? I’m doubtful. In any case, Christianity Today should provide some evidence for its claim

Absurd statistics like this abound—one of the assignments for students in my Social Problems class is to find and analyze one—but the fact that this howler could lead off a Christianity Today story possibly says something about American evangelicals’ amnesia about worship music.

I don’t have much knowledge about Tomlin’s oeuvre—I saw him in concert a few years ago and have six of his songs on my iPod—but how could his music be so significant that 60,000+ churches are singing it on a typical Sunday? Was pre-Tomlin English-language hymnody so impovershed that his songs need to be played so often?

The problem isn’t the popularity of Chris Tomlin, but the fact that so many evangelical churches have tossed out a centuries-old musical tradition to play only songs written in the past couple decades. It’s possible to be a regular church-goer who is unfamiliar with “And Can It Be,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “Jesus Shall Reign” and the version of “Amazing Grace” that doesn’t have Tomlin’s superfluous praise chorus tacked on. It’s a real shame.

The CRC’s new hymnal, Lift Up Your Hearts, gets it right. Modern praise songs, including seven by Tomlin, join hymns by Watts, Wesley, Fanny Crosby, Martin Luther, John Newton, psalm settings, laments, seasonal music, and the whole range of Christian hymnody.

[Tomlin’s seven songs in LUYH are “The Wonderful Cross” (LUYH #176), “I Will Rise” (LUYH #468), “How Great Is Our God” (LUYH #574), “Forever” (LUYH #578), “Our God” (LUYH #580), “Holy Is the Lord” (LUYH #579), “Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)” (LUYH #693).]

Rote Corporate Confession?

Christianity Today has a new “open question” piece on “Why Confess Sins in Worship When It Seems So Rote?”

One of the responses is from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship director John Witvliet, who ends with a nod to the Psalms:

The church is blessed today with artists, musicians, pastors, and others who have a renewed vision for shaping honest, grace-immersed corporate prayer and confession. Many are doing so by returning to the Psalms, the Bible’s own school of prayer. Psalm 32 celebrates forgiveness, proclaiming, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven” (NRSV). Psalm 38, 51, 69, and 130 explore similar themes. May God’s Spirit bless these worship leaders with congregations willing to embrace their vision.

All three responses (the others two are by Kathleen Norris and Enuma Okoro) are worth reading, but I wish CT had  solicited an opinion from someone who is against corporate confession since that is probably the majority opinion among evangelicals.

What really stuck out to me was the assumption in CT‘s question: Why Confess Sins in Worship When It Seems So Rote? Who says confessing sins seems rote? Our services at Trinity have a section called “We Are Renewed in God’s Grace” that typically includes a confession of sin and assurance of pardon, but what these consist of varies from week to week. (The CRC’s Worship Sourcebook contains eight possible elements of Confession and Assurance, viz., call to confession, prayers of confession, lament, assurance of pardon, the peace, thanksgiving, the law, dedication, with dozens of examples of each, many keyed to the church year.) Sometimes we use a hymn as a confession; if not, we sing a hymn of response. There’s no need to be repetitive without reason.

But there is nothing wrong with repetition either. Here’s the confession we used at the beginning of the worship service each Sunday when I was a kid:

Most merciful God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

(This is from the Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 56. Lift Up Your Hearts #640 is a variant of this prayer taken from The Book of Common Worship.)

These words  may be “rote” if we say them without thinking. But if we take them seriously and enter imaginatively into them, they should inspire us to honestly consider the many ways we have failed and to reflect upon God’s grace. Believing they are “rote” seems like a failure of imagination.

Why Earth and All Stars?

This blog is an outgrowth of the ministries I’m involved at Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Ames, Iowa, especially the adult Sunday School classes I’ve taught the past two years with Andrew and Naomi Friend.

Currently, I am teaching with Andrew a class called Psalms for All Seasons, which uses the hymnal of that name as its primary text. Each week we take one Psalm (working our way through the Revised Common Lectionary but several weeks ahead), read it, discuss it, and sing multiple settings of it while Andrew accompanies on piano or organ. So an immediate purpose of this blog is to record what we’re learning about the Psalms and their musical settings each week and to be a place for us (and anyone else who is interested) to discuss them.

I also hope to use this blog to share what we learn in other ministries I’m involved in, including:

• The Sunday School classes I’ve taught with Naomi (more on that later)

• Worship planning (with plenty about Lift Up Your Hearts)

• Children & Worship

• Summer Book Club

• Areopagus (our campus ministry based at Iowa State)

It may also touch upon some of my other interests: gender & the Bible, the intersection of religion and academia, CRC synodical meetings, and such.

The blog is named after one of my favorite hymns, “Earth and All Stars” (LUYH #271/PH87 #433/HFW #225), which is personally significant to me for several reasons.

I sang the hymn growing up from the Lutheran Book of Worship (#558); the lyrics were written by Lutheran pastor Herbert Brokering, a graduate of Wartburg College in Iowa (my current state of residence). I encountered the song again in the Psalter Hymnal when we started worshiping at Hessel Park CRC in Champaign, Illinois, during graduate school and then here at Trinity.

The lyrics are in the spirit of Psalm 148, where all of nature and humanity is called upon to praise God. The Psalter Hymnal Handbook refers to it as a “catalog text, inviting us to join with a whole host of natural and cultural phenomena to ‘sing to the Lord a new song!’” Other examples of this hymn type include “All Creatures of Our God and King” (LUYH #551/PH87 #431/HFW #41/SWM #14), “Praise the LORD, Sing Hallelujah” (LUYH #6/PFAS #148C/PH87 #188/PH57 #304), and other hymns based on Psalm 148.

The first four stanzas cover the heavens (1), weather (2), musical instruments (3) and technology (4). The fifth stanza is about university life:

Classrooms and labs! Come boiling test tubes!

Sing to the Lord a new song!

Athlete and band! Loud cheering people!

Sing to the Lord a new song!

Brokering wrote the song for the 90th anniversary of St. Olaf College, and because of its academic theme, we often sing it during the beginning of the school year.

The sixth stanza’s line “Children of God, dying and rising” make it appropriate for funerals. We sang it at our son’s funeral and I’ve requested that Andrew play it at mine (with all the stops pulled out).

Lift Up Your Hearts includes an Easter variant called “Alleluia! Jesus is Risen” (LUYH #204) with lyrics by Brokering and using the same tune by David Johnson. I’m looking forward to singing it.

Who might be interested in this blog?

• Members of our Psalms for All Seasons Sunday School class

• People interested in incorporating art and music into adult Sunday School classes

• People fascinated by Christian Reformed hymnody

• My parents (maybe)

• Justin Struik and Fred Haan