Sunday, November 22, 2009

Permission To Worship

I struggle to worship through singing, and have for a very long time. My definition of what the worship experience should be has been so narrow, I'm not sure I've ever even experienced it. At it's root is an admirable quest for authenticity and a meaningful, selfless, connection with God, but it has ultimately left me too skeptical to ever "let go" enough to have it.

I love live music, and always have since my first concert when I was 13 (It was Sting, I'm embarrassed to say). I used to go to concerts a lot. Work and fatherhood have put a damper on the rock n' roll lifestyle, but I still go when I can. Good live music can create good happy feelings, even elation, in people, myself included. I don't know the science behind why good music triggers the chemical reactions in us that make us feel good, but it does, and I'm glad. The problem is, it doesn't seem to matter whether it's secular music or worship music - the feelings are the same. I've mistrusted those feelings in worship, fearing that I could be equating a "good, deep worship experience" with a chemical reaction that seems to occur regardless or the content, or purpose of the music. I'm also concerned with the ways those feelings can be used to manipulate people. We can use music and song lyrics to trigger emotions in people and get them to respond. I've been so afraid of being manipulated, of being inauthentic, that I've lost the ability to even know what authenticity would look like.

This morning, while listening to / worshiping with David Crowder Band at the National Youth Workers Convention it hit me - the feelings that music can make me feel are good because music is good, because God made it good, and the feelings, even if they're just chemical reactions, are good, because God created that capacity in us. I can celebrate the things that God made good, and praise Him for those, and that is worship and it is authentic. That doesn't mean that music can't be used for bad purposes, and that worship music can't be used to manipulate people emotionally, but I admitted to myself this morning that David Crowder probably isn't trying to manipulate me, and the worship team at church isn't trying to manipulate me, and as long as I stay away from Benny Hinn conventions, most Christians in the circles I run in probably aren't trying to manipulate me. I can let it go. I can call it worship.

For as long as I can remember, my crap-detector has been set to 11. I'm not sure why, but I think it's the way God made me, but there are times it's very hard for me to put it aside and be in a moment without over thinking it. If I can't decide that manipulation and inauthenticity are a risk worth taking, then I'm going to miss out on experiences with God that can only be had when I let go of those fears.

Monday, November 10, 2008


My friend's blog has been bothering me lately. She keeps asking the question "what does Christian unity mean?" or, "is it alright to criticize other Christians?", or even to be angry at them? These questions have bothered me because I've rarely thought twice about criticizing Christians who I feel aren't getting it right or twisting beliefs I hold sacred. I've even pretty regularly read magazines dedicated to such criticism or listened to Christian music that often turns a satirical eye on its own community. But I guess deep down I believe that I'm both right and wrong in the way I do this and these questions about unity and criticism have forced me to realize I've never really set any boundaries in this area.

So I've done some thinking about what the Bible says on the topic. Jesus says judge not lest ye be judged. Jesus says take the plank out of your own eye before pointing out the speck in someone else's. Jesus spends a lot of time putting religious leaders in their place. Paul talks about being unified with other believers. Paul spends 1/2 of the New Testament telling other believers what they're doing wrong. This could be discouraging, but I actually find it encouraging.

What does it mean to judge? If I wanted to sound smart I'd dig into the Greek and all that, but I never took Greek, so I thought about the English meaning. A judgement is something final. It says "You are this" or "You are that" - you are guilty or you are innocent; you are going to jail or you are free. Jesus says that God is the only one who gets to make those kinds of judgements. Who we really are, in an absolute sense, is inside of us in a place only God knows. It is not for us to tell people "You are a bad person", "You are not loved by God", "You are not really a Christian", "You are going to hell", etc...

But at the same time as we're not supposed to pass grand judgements on people, I don't believe we're supposed to completely close our eyes and our mouths to things people do, just because they do it in the name of Christianity. Even when it's not some huge glaringly obvious wrong like killing or abusing people, I don't think we have to bottle our sensibilities in the name of unity. During my time in the retail world I got to take a short management class where I learned some basic skills for talking to unhappy, or soon to be unhappy, employees. The suggestions are really good for any interpersonal relationships and I think for how we deal with our fellow believers. The main guideline - use "I" statements: "When you do this, it makes me feel this way", "What you are doing does not fit in with my beliefs about Christianity", "When you handle snakes on Sunday morning, I fear for your life and wonder if we're reading the same Bible", "I read your Left Behind book and it doesn't fit in with my beliefs about good writing or good theology". You get the picture. These types of statements don't pass judgement on a person - who they are deep down, what their relationship with God is, or what their eternal destiny might be. When we keep the conversation focused on our feelings and our beliefs, it leaves room for both parties to dialogue, and learn about each other. I know there's a fine line between "I" statements and backhanded criticism (and one or two of my examples certainly walk that line), but this approach goes a lot farther than telling someone "I can't believe you would do that and call yourself a Christian", etc...

I certainly don't mean we have a free pass to express every feeling we have about anybody or anything the second we have it - we should be slow to speak about these things, looking for the planks in our own eyes on the matters, deciding whether dialogue on the issue is necessary or potentially fruitful. This is where I fail constantly. This is where I need boundaries. We are called to speak the truth in love, and I think the boundary I need to work on is not speaking if it's not in love, not out of real concern for a person or a situation. Not speaking when it's only to say "look at those idiots". I think the bottom line is that "unity in Christ" means the ability to love in spite of differences. Not the ability to put them all aside and pretend they're not there and never speak of them.

Monday, July 7, 2008

More Words Than Deeds

Sermon series at church this month on prayer. And while I appreciate what the pastor has to say (currently looking in-depth at the Lord's Prayer), it strikes me that we Presbyterians can spend more time in a worship service talking about prayer than actually praying. I think it would actually be scandalous if the pastor got up and said "today instead of sermon about prayer, we're just going to spend the time praying" and lead us in a time of directed prayer. Or have us spend time praying with and for each other (but this might be uncomfortable for the guests and the "seekers"). People always respond when you break the mold - that response may be to get up and leave and write nasty e-mails, but at least it's a response. If the pastor and the leadership always only play it safe in their roles and their faith, how can they expect the congregation to go to new places?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Dirty Hymns

Was just transferring a bunch of stuff to my new IPod and found something kind of curious when I got to David Crowder. "Come Thou Fount (Live)" from "Passion: Our Love Is Loud" is labeled as "clean" (it was purchased from ITunes). If there's an explicit version out there, I'd kill to hear it.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Lord's Boot Camp

I spent the summers of 1991 & 1992 (summers after my jr. & sr. years of high school respectively) on short term mission projects with an organization called Teen Missions International, based out of Merritt Island, FL. In 91' I was on a work project in Tanzania, and in '92 a part work/part evangelism project in Barcelona, Spain. Both summers I spent two weeks at "Boot Camp" in Florida before the trips began.

CBS just aired a documentary about Teen Missions called "The Lord's Boot Camp". Having seen the filmmakers previous documentary "Jesus Camp", I had a pretty good idea what to expect, and was mostly right - a well done, no narrator, no interviewer, (just a few informational title screens), somewhat balanced presentation of an organization doing what it does. I don't believe the filmmakers to be overly sympathetic to Christianity, at least not the evangelism end of it, as both of their major works have delved into particularly evangelistic youth ministries. At the same time though, they don't go out of their way to be particularly damning. Teen Missions looked like a bastion of sanity compared to the ministry profiled in Jesus Camp, and Bob Bland (Founder of TMI) even came off as somewhat thoughtful and not particularly over-the-top. I didn't expect that watching this might increase my respect for him.

I've long said "Teen Missions changed my life - I would never recommend it to anyone". I believe, my first summer at least, was an incredibly positive experience. I'm thankful for what I got to see and do in Africa, I'm thankful for the relationships I still have with my teammates, and I'm even thankful for the Boot Camp experience - it really is intense; I'm not sure the film got across just how primitive and intense it is. The combination of all these things changed my life for the better. God certainly worked through Teen Missions in my life as I'm sure he does every summer in other teenagers' lives (I believe Bob Bland when he says that they're more interested in the impact the experience has on the kids than in the impact the kids have on the people they're ministering to). Teen Missions is though incredibly Fundamentalist - as a born, raised, and still practicing Presbyterian, I don't have any experience that matches it (not even Moody). I don't know what strain of Fundamentalism it is. That's why I don't recommend it - my theology, particularly my concepts of mission and evangelism, are nowhere near in line with Teen Missions anymore (if they ever truly were...I think they were). Yes, God can and does work through organizations like Teen Missions, but I think we can do better.

As for the film - any documentary that doesn't hit you over the head with the filmmakers' perspective (like say a Michael Moore movie) presents its case through editing and story. What is the story they're telling? What are they emphasizing? What did they leave out? The message in this documentary is clearly in the contrasts - the Indiana evangelism mission versus the Zambia Aids Orphan Mission. The girl in Zambia who doesn't go because of any deep faith, but still serves and loves the people there, versus the girl who is there because of her faith. The girl who comes back from Indiana and changes the way she dresses and acts versus the girl who comes back from Zambia and slips back into her old life of drug and alcohol abuse.

The strongest contrast is certainly between the two trips - the Zambia team, regardless of what religous impetus they might have, is clearly serving the people and meeting real physical needs. The Indiana group (proseltyzing at a County Fair, using a survey as their jumping off point with passers by) is pretty clearly wasting their time (though at the end they claim 300 souls saved). Even if you believe in the importance of that type of evangelism, which group is really doing God's work?

The contrast between the two girls on the Zambia team begs the question "Does it have to be God's work - do we need all the religious hoo-ha to get kids to do good deeds"? (I say it's God's work whether you acknowledge God or not).

I think in the end, the outlook isn't great for any of the girls. The Indiana pre-teen will probably be the happiest, if she maintains her black and white religious outlook and evangelistic fervor. It truly broke my heart when the Zambia girl went back to her drug and alcohol abuse - as jaded as I am, I wanted the happy ending on that one - I wanted the trip to have changed her in that way. The third girl (blonde Vegas girl) had the least in the way of story arc, and I'm not real sure what the filmmakers were trying to convey, but I think in the end we're supposed to be a little afraid for her and her boyfriend and their get married-right out of high school plans.

Overall, I'm glad for the film. If nothing else, it took my back to my own trip to Africa in a way little else could, and I think it's a nice progression for the filmmakers - away from the stomach wrenching type of ministry that was profiled in Jesus Camp, to a more balanced and thought provoking approach.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bad Religion Meets Dorky Professor

Finished a book that was a quick interesting read - The poorly titeld "Is Belief In God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant?: A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism, and Christianity" by Preston Jones & Greg Gaffin.

Gaffin is the lead singer of Bad Religion, and a fairly recent PHD in zoology with a dissertation on naturalism, atheism, and evolution (he defines himself as a "naturalist", but not the no-clothes wearing kind). Jones is a professor at John Brown University (a Christian College). As a fan of Bad Religion, Jones just on a whim e-mailed Gaffin and got a response, and what ensued was a friendly discussion of Christianity and Naturalism. The short book is a reprinting of the e-mails that went back and forth between them over the span of a few years.

The book is published by Intervarsity Press and is unique for Christian literature in that there is no resolution. Gaffin doesn't become a believer. Jones doesn't successfully back him into any theological corners. If anyone looks like a winner here, it's Gaffin. Gaffin is gracious throughout the discussions, but clearly not in the least bit moved by any of Jones' arguments. (As a naturalist, Gaffin is a staunch atheist). To his credit, Jones doesn't seem to particularly be out to evangelize Gaffin, and often comes off as a dorky old fan who's just thrilled to be having any conversation with a celebrity.

There is nothing methodical or thorough about either participant's presentations here, but it does serve as a good introduction to naturalism and many of its arguments against religion. Many other books are referenced, and I hope to check some of them out (including Gaffin's dissertatino). On the Christian side of things, while I wouldn't exactly want Jones to head up my debate team, it does serve as a refreshing example of 1) A Christian with good taste in secular punk music (he even uses it in his classes) and 2) an intelligent Christian with the ability to have a reasonable discussion with someone he disagrees with, while actually thoughfully considering the other persons' opinions and in general not looking like a complete idiot. Jones kind of strikes me as what my dad might be like if he was into punk music, but kudos to him for putting this book out there without having won the argument.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Happiness is Next To Godliness?

So the first line of today's Prayer of Confession at FPCE was something about Jesus having given us the key to happiness (but us not taking it or something). My stomach almost turns when I hear a line like that! It is so unscriptural and so contrary to life and experience. Christianity and faith do not exist to provide happiness - Jesus and the apostles said quite the opposite. There's way more talk about poverty, suffering, and persecution than about feeling good.

This reminds me of a poster on the wall in the PYGS lounge that drives me nuts - it's divided in half with one half a sad face that says "life before Jesus" and one side a happy face that says "life after Jesus". Incredibly trite, incredibly wrong. For one, there are plenty of people who don't know Jesus who live pretty happy lives. Sure, they may have that God shaped hole, or whatever you want to call it, deep down, but on the surface they have their great days just like anyone else. (If you're not sure about this, read Ecclesiastes.)
Second, this poster sends the message that if you're not happy, you must not know Jesus, or there must be something wrong with your relationship with him. It is too often our tendency as Christians to spiritualize the ups and downs of our days - I had a bad day today, it must be because I didn't have my quiet time; I'm sick, I must have some sin I haven't repented of. In this view, God is meting out good times or bad times for us based on our spiritual works - an idea which grace is completely opposed to. God's blessing in our lives is not based on our deserving of it, or even our ability/willingness to notice it or thank him for it (thus those who don't know God can still be blessed by him!)