Sunday, September 28, 2008

Let's talk about...Sin?

Over the past week I have been listening faithfully to NPR to try to get a better handle on the current economic 'crisis'. I noted something interesting about these discussions that I mentioned in the adult Sunday School Class this morning and the subsequent discussion was quite interesting.

I am no economist. I'm not even terribly good at balancing my own check-book.
Listening to one economist explaining one facet of the current economic downturn, I noticed that as clear as he was in describing the problems, when pressed by the interviewer to pinpoint responsibility, he was very hesitant. He had just finished describing behaviors that have led to foreclosures, homelessness, etc. but he would not even describe the choices and decisions of those involved as 'wrong' or 'bad'. He actually said he didn't want to say that these were 'bad' people. Something suddenly seemed very wrong to me and that was the idea that our culture has lost its language for clearly describing (and therefore clearly teaching our children about ) right and wrong. He would say that many were caught up in a 'mass hysteria' but that seemed very unsatisfactory to me... it seems to remove responsibility from the equation.

Another show, 'This American Life' broadcast a simple explanation that I did understand (I think). The host also shared some listener feedback to the show. One of the listeners appreciated the fact that despite the severity of this issue and the fallout which adversely affected so many and will continue to affect so many, the lister appreciated the fact that 'no blame was assigned' in the show.

Sin has never been my favorite word, my favorite theological topic or my favorite sermon subject. Largely I suppose because I recall the use of the word sin in the church I grew up in. I was used so 'liberally' that it produced anxiety, guilt, and fear in many people. My first years as a pastor in church I experienced an interesting phenomena. I didn't use the word sin very much (still don't). Because I tend to focus my sermons and prayers on God's love, grace and forgiveness... those who had escaped church because of the fetish with sin language, could come back. Its not that I don't preach about sin by the way. Its just that I don't use the word.

Anyway, without a language to describe sin, or wrong, in our culture, how can we ever really recover from this economic crisis with any justice and any assurance that we will not repeat the same 'sins' over and over to the detriment most often to the poor. As much as I have found both energy and solace theologically in justice themes, I am more and more convinced that we cannot talk about justice without also talking about sin. If we cannot describe what has caused injustice and clearly give words to why it is injustice, how can we ever move through to redemption or healing or forgiveness?

Unfortunately sin has been used, in my experience, in abusive ways. It has been used to oppress peoples and cultures and as a tool of the ruling of one people over others, one culture over others. It has been used to establish and maintain the power of elites. This, of course isn't just my experience, it is a description from the gospels of the religious elites in and around Jerusalem. I, of course, understand that there are many legitimate arguments against viewing historical pharisees through the lense of the gospels, the description of the powerful elites using the word and concept of sin to establish and maintain control is convincing to me.

so, for now, I think that moderate to liberal churches like mine need to recover the use of the word sin, rehabilitating it from abuse, fear and guilt. but if we cannot talk about sin, we cannot talk about justice for the oppressed and redemption for the oppressor

Thursday, September 25, 2008

the Truth about Obama and Revelations

Yesterday I received this forwarded e-mail from my dad.
This will make you re-think: A Trivia question in Sunday School:How long is the beast allowed to have authority in Revelations?
Revelations Chapter 13 tells us it is 42 months, and you knowwhat that is. Almost a four-year term of a Presidency.All I can say is 'Lord, Have mercy on us!'According to The Book of Revelations the anti-Christ is: The anti-Christ will be a man, in his 40's, of MUSLIM descent, who will deceive thenations with persuasive language, and have a MASSIVE Christ-like appeal....theprophecy says that people will flock to him and he will promise false hopeand world peace,and when he is in power, will des troy everything..Do we recognize this description??I STRONGLY URGE each one of you to post this as many times as you can! Each opportunity that you have to send it to a friend or media it!I refuse to take a chance on this unknown candidate who came out of nowhere.
Do be perfectly fair to my dad, he often sends me the most outrageous stuff he finds on the web that he can because he likes to get a rise out of me. It is an on-going joke between the two of us.
This e-mail causes me to wonder if the people who created it, or others that are similar, actually believe this, or, are they more like cyber-graffiti artists who like to start these forwards to see how far they go? I would assume the latter if two interesting things hadn't happened in conjunction with this e-mail. My wife receive the same e-mail from her uncle in Georgia. Then, today on NPR, during a discussion of politics and the web, a man who monitors peoples web-searches and from that data attempts to discover what these searches might suggest about peoples feelings and assumptions about politics and the economy, mentioned the mass popularity of this e-mail. This suggested to me that maybe this isn't simply a joke, or it may be a joke with more influence that I had hoped.
My response to my father was quite simple:
1. It is the book of Revelation, not Revelations. A small detail no doubt, but one that causes me to question the depth of thought that the author of this e-mail utilized in its creation.
2. Revelation Ch. 13 makes no reference to a man in his 40's or of a man of Muslim descent. If my history is correct Islam didn't come to exist until about 500 years after the composition of Revelation.
My father responded with a question, 'why should he trust my OPINION about the meaning of Rev 13 over someone else?'
Which provides the long story of the whole point of this post... the Truth.
Christians generally proclaim that the Bible is the inspired word of God and as such authoritative in guiding Christian life and faith. Now I am a Biblical Liberal. Which is a short-hand way of saying that although I do believe that the Bible is inspired by God and the authority for my life and faith, I also see humanity involved in the creation of the Bible, so that the Bible also contains human inspiration along with divine. So I would not read Genesis chapters 1 and 2 literally for instance.
But still, if we are talking about the authority of the Bible, are we then not also talking about Truth. The Bible is the inspired word of God, a revelation of God's Truth. In our discussion of the Bible then, we are discerning truth and from the Bible we are being lead to truth. It isn't a matter simply of opinion.
This isn't terribly easy for me to write because as a Biblical Liberal and a child of the post-modern era, Truth is a difficult word to write. I am well aware that there is a wide diversity of cultures in the world and religions also. I am well aware that there is wide diversity of morals and ethics which are influenced by these diverse cultures, and that even within just one culture there is a variety of opinions on any given subject. We cannot speak about Christianity in a certain sense, but Christianities, for my experience of faith is very different from my Roman Catholic Priest friend's experience and from my fundamentalist mother's experience as well. Certainly there is more in common than that which separates, but still, our practice of faith and our concept even of who God is, what salvation is, and what Heaven or the End will be are all very different.
So I have tended to stay away from 'Truth' statements because 'truth' is largely a matter of one's perspective. And truth has often been used for oppressive and imperialistic ends.
More recently however I have come to reconsider the importance of truth while watching Stanley Hauerwas deliver an essay on Bonhoeffer's political theology. Hauerwas observed that Bonhoeffer was disappointed by the Ecumenical Movement in Europe in the 30's and in his seminary education in the US, largely because there was no dialog or debate about the truth. His feeling, according to Hauerwas, was that this lack of Truth, eventually lead to the rise of Hitler in Germany and the church's collusion in his program of genocide. The church did not know how to speak the truth because they had not been trained in the truth.
This has caused me to re-think 'truth' especially the truth of the Bible, the Gospel and Christ. While as a child of the post-modern I am unable to claim possession of the full truth, am I not still obligated as a disciple to discern the truth as best I am able? Should I not hold myself to a higher standard of discerning the Truth as the Gospel proclaims it and to think carefully about how the gospel illuminates the truth?
As foolish as this e-mail about Obama and the book of Revelation is, I think it exemplifies the cynicism that our culture feels about Truth. So cynical that either we purposefully spread lies either as a joke or to bolster our rhetorical position or we refuse to push ourselves to discuss truth because we do not want to seem judgmental or imperialist. Both of those are legitimate concerns when using the word Truth, which means that our approach to truth must be done carefully and thoroughly and that our use of truth must be humble. But if I cannot say that Rev 13 says nothing about Obama and that such a view is not a matter of opinion but truth, how can I then proclaim other Christian truths, such as the evil of war or the sin of greed? If we have no voice willing to sound the truth, even in part if not in full, what kind of witness will the church have or be? “without a church willing to proclaim truth, what kind of nation will we become?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Anniversary Thoughts

I'm stealing this idea from another blogger frankly, not only because it is my 1st anniversary to my wife this week, but also because I have been thinking about marriage and vows a lot lately.

this is a fairly random collection of thoughts, so watch out. Something that has always influenced the way I think about marriage came from C.S. Lewis. I remember (correctly I hope) reading Lewis reflecting on emotion and wedding vows. He suggested that while a relationship begins with a rush of emotion, love and passion, but these emotions, like any other, wane. And they need to. To live on a constant high of passion would not only be exhausting, but distracting. If we governed our lives totally on passion the basic necessities of life, like washing dishes, doing laundry and going to work, would not get done. Which is why, Lewis suggested, we have marriage vows. The give us a sense of stability for that time when our emotions and passions have subsided. While love is an emotion and therefore can blossom and fade as an emotion, Lewis suggests the love of a christian marriage is an action, the willingness to serve and sacrifice and remain faithful to another, always with compassion and respect, even when we don't feel emotinally like behaving that way, all of which provide the foundation for that passionate emotion to blossom again. (this is how I remember what Lewis said in Mere Christianity. Lewis scholars might differ with me and someone borrowed my copy so I can't really check.)

'My guts are full of shit!'
If you haven't had the pleasure of seeing the movie 'High Fidelity' with John Cusack, his sister Joan, and Jack Black in the funniest and strongest performance of his movie career, please go find it somewhere. It is brilliant and funny and poetic and poignant.

John Cusack's character has just experience another breakup with another girlfriend as the movie opens. He goes on a quest, finding all of the other girlfriends who have dumped him to find out why his is destined to be single. He finds out that largely it is his own fault, because while in one relationship he allows himself to wonder if a better one might be out there, and fantasizing about how much better it could be. His emotions were his guide in other words and he finally states his discovery of the mess his emotions have got him in by saying, 'I've been following my gut all these years and recently I have come to the conclusion that my guts are full of shit!'

Notice the commone theme. Emotions are not the best guide for our decisions and behaviors, especially in marriage. I'm not trying to describe some victorian novel marriage based on convenience and economic and social standing, but I think I have come to the conclusion that emotions do not always lead us toward happiness.

In my first year of marriage (well, my second marriage, her first) I have learned how to manage my emotions in the safe container which is my wedding vows. I have been happy and angry, exstatic and sad, passionate and exhausted, calm and stressed, whimsical and cranky and I have learned that largely that all of these emotions come from within me and not from my lovely wife. I say that because I have worked with some men in my ministry who were unhappy and who decided that their unhappiness was largely because of their wife and their marriage. But once they left and divorced, they were no happier!!! I have worked with married men and women married who met someone else who made them 'happier.' Happier until that relationship became less of a hobby and more of a career if you catch my meaning. When it ceased to be a fun distraction and became the prime focus, it wasn't any happier anymore.

so I have learned that emotions don't guide me well. My wedding vows protect me from my emotional highs and lows. We work out our emotions together, manage them as a team and speak honestly about them, because we know they are not the only thing holding us together, our wedding vows are too.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Kids these days (in worship)

I haven't had any more responses to my thoughts on worship, but doggedly onward I go.

Marx once suggested that religion was the opiate of the masses, (or something close to that phrase). A recent conversation with a person in their twenties quoted this to me and it made me think about worship. Could twenty-somethings be offering some guidance to our worship and discipleship conundrum by quoting this phrase. Because this person quoted also believes in God and does not consider Atheism or Agnosticism an adequate descriptor of their particular relationship to God. It isn't God that is the opiate, but church. But notice what this person is implying they want. They don't want to be distracted or coddled or entertained by church/worship, they want to be challenged. At least, that is how I interpret this.

Could it be that there are some twenty-year-olds out there who would be just as dissatisfied with praise bands and hymns as they are with a tradition they don't understand because both are opiates, because neither option is challenging the participant to live just, robust and meaningful lives, but simply molifying them through life and making them feel a little better about death?

What surprised me about this conversation was that the twenty-something person enjoyed the traditional aspects of service, passing the peace, reciting the lords prayer etc, because they were done with passion and integrity. During the passing of the peace, people really did renew relationships and affirm their devotion to and love for one another. They meant it, in other words. And the Lord's prayer, which calls for faith, justice and a commitment to the poor and needy is recited so as to strengthen the body for a life of discipleship, which is discussed in the sermon. The sermons are challenging, this person said. Did you hear it? they liked a challenge and they appreciated a liturgy that put the challenge into practice and strengthened the body to go out and live that challenge.

Perhaps what young folks, (some anyway) want more than entertainment is to be challenged to do and be more. Perhaps they want a weekly practice that reminds them of the more they are created to be and do and a community that reminds them that they are God's children created to live lives of peace and justice and supports them in those endeavors.

I was amazed at the depth of insight shared with me by this twenty-something.
And I was given hope. Hope that we don't need to entertain younger generations to attract them to church. Hope that the church doesn't need to mirror a fairly shallow and disposable culture in order to reach people for Christ.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

My friend Jonathan wrote

I think we need to constantly ask ourselves about the purpose of worship. To a degree it is an "insider" event for those who profess a faith and claim to be a part of the story. Yet at the same time an element of worship needs to reach out to other, to be "seeker" oriented. Currently we seem to be stuck in an either/or dialetic. Where is the both/and?

I think that both ends of the dialectic are faulty because both focus on what we are recieving from worship. The church, protestant/non-denominational, has made humanity the center of worship and when we make ourselves the focus, we have to basis upon which to assess the appropriateness or faithfulness of our liturgy, whether traditional or progressive. In the Bible, worship is something that humanity offers to God. Praise and thanksgiving, submission and petition all directed toward God, is the biblical witness and yet most of our consideration about worship is more concerned with what will interest and entertain, either the old faithful or the young and unchurched.

While it may sound like I am a guardian of tradition, I think that ref-ocusing on God in worship would challenge the 'praise' movement in ways that would make it more effective. The bible offers many examples of exhuberance and joy in worship; Moses and Miriam singing after the crossing of the Red Sea, David dancing with all of his might before the Ark. Offering God thanks for the power and strength to act faithfully and justly in the world would give praise hymns a depth and substance that is sadly lacking. It would change our focus from entertainment models in worship, to thinking artistically and creatively. Instead of putting up movie screens we would be using our creative talents to express thanks for the presence of God in our lives and in the world.

As it is, both traditional and progressive worship are weakened because we are the focus more than God. Traditionalists that don't want to change anything because they are just comfortable with the same old hymns, the same old prayers and the same old liturgical actions are more focused on themselves than on a creative expression that ushers the community into the presence of the living God.

As an example, the music minister at the church I serve told me a progressive and non-traditional liturgical act at a church he served in the mid-west. Someone actually wove a prayer shawl that 6-8 ushers would carry and surround the entire congregation in at the prayers of the people. I prayer shawl not for one person, but for the whole blessed community, surrounding everyone in prayer. I think that must have been a beautiful act. It isn't traditional, but neither is it based solely on entertainment. It is a creative and artistic offering of ones talent to God, intended to lift the whole community into an experience of God's presence in prayer.

I think that we will attract many people, young and old, when we free ourselves to creatively lead people into the presence of God. By focusing on God, instead of doggedly holding tradition or blindly accepting entertainment as our model, we become relevant and remain substantive at the same time.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Tradition, Progression and Justice in Worship

Vance said of my last post regarding worship

'But what bothers me the most is a sense of irrelevance and disconnectedness from the world that I feel in most churches. Maybe that is just the nature of the narrow way, but somehow I think our fellowship should be future pointed rather than past pointed. It feels to me that most churches are trying to preserve a worldview of science, culture, philosophy, and an attitude towards God that doesn't work anymore.'

Thanks for that thought,
Here is what you have encouraged me to think about.

Relevance may be the key concept for us here. Is the church meant to be 'relevant'?
That may seem like a strange question because the obvious answer is 'of course'
that is what most churches report they want from their preachers and sermons, relevance.
We want to understand the revelation of God as it applies to our lives today, in our context, so that we can live faithfully and be an effective witness. That reasoning I understand and suppport.

So if relevant means understanding the word of God so that we can apply it to our societal and cultural context and be an effective witness, than I say relevance is an important goal for our worship.

But Paul said in Rom 12:2
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

I think this may move us toward a good working definition of 'relevance'

Our worship must be relevant in such a way as to guide us in to transformation from life as the world (culture and society) define it, into life as God defines it.
In other words, the goal of following Christ is to be Christ-like. The goal of worship is not to simply mirror popular culture so that it becomes more accessible, but to lead us into rejecting what is considered popular and might just be the opposite of what Christ expects from his disciples

That is my contention with much of what is happening in worship. that it conforms to the ways of the world. Large screens like a movie theatre. Bands like at a bar or a concert. No more robes on the pastor, just jeans and a hawaiian shirt. Play down the religious symbols. Take out the traditional parts of liturgy, like the Lord's Prayer and the Gloria Patri.
Traditional worship makes people uncomfortable and is foreign to them. And we want them to come to church.
Many do not understand these elements of worship and so they are 'irrelevant'

But in the scripture above, Paul is not calling us into a comfortable relationship with Christ. We are not to conform (which is comfortable) but instead to be transformed (which is to be different, and that is decidedly uncomfortable . we are meant to be different from the world and worship is meant is meant to be different from the world around us, critiquing that in the culture around us that goes against the Kingdom Christ brought in his life, death and resurrection. Worship meant to make us uncomfortable in the world, so that we will live differently. We must be uncomfortable in order to see the world a different way, to catch a glimpse of the kingdom so that we can know the dangers of conforming.

Church that gives away SO much to be popular and comfortable soon, in my opinion, looses its power to witness to the larger world.
Praise hymns themselves. Not only do they not really teach us anything about the faith. they are completely individually oriented, internally focused... its just about 'me' and Jesus. And finally, these praise hymns are not created with any lasting power. They are like cell phones and computers, created to be purchased today, tomorrow obsolete because another new song has come out, so that we will purchase another one. It is that impermanence, that disposable ethic that worries me most, even though it is relevant. The ethic of disposability is what has created such dangers for the natural world around us. Ton's and Ton's of trash build up for the sake of convenience and disposability. When things are disposable, soon people are disposable (read the first chapter of Esther to see disposable good and disposable people). Even marriages are disposable and babies too.
the church needs to be a witness for the value of people, marriages, babies. We must stand against this disposable ethic instead of conforming to it, yes, even in our music we make that witness.

Hauerwas maintains that the point of the church is not to be successful or popular, but faithful. What are we being faithful to if we we are jetisoning all those things that make us unique and teach us how to be non-conformists?

This isn't to say I'm against relevance or innovation either.
I like to play my guitar in worship, which really isn't a part of my tradition
(it actually is a part of some traditions, including the african american tradition as I understand it. Guitars being the only affordable and accessible instruments for many African American churches in the days soon after slavery when they were still not allowed in the wealthy white churches)
and I like to find hymns that are written with contemporary language and themes.
I grow tired of the 'blood' hymns as they espouse an understanding of atonement that I cannot affirm. I grow tired of hymns that have antiquated language 'Here I raise my ebenezer' What does THAT mean?

this is where Justice comes into play.
Look to Is 58.
that is all about worship.
israel is asking God why they are faithful in worship, in prayer and sabbath, and yet God does not seem present and available to them.
God launches into a critique of their worship. it isn't relevant. by relevant god means that worship does not shape the lives of the worshippers outside of the temple. They use each other cruelly. they amass wealth for themselves and ignore the poor. The share fine meals and let others go hungry. Relevant worship according to God, changes us from self-centered individuals to community oriented people. Worship makes them feel good for a while and then they can go out and act however they want. This sounds too much like praise music to me. I have just had a moving and cathartic experience of singing 'Here I am to worship, Here I am to bow down, Here I am to say that you're my God...' but then, have I volunteered at a soup kitchen, simplified my life by donating the clothes that I speant hundreds of dollars on and then didn't wear. Have I sold my SUV and bought a hybrid, have I done anything differently in the world?
Relevant worship, according to God opens our eyes to the emptiness of material wealth, and to the plight of those who cannot even attain the most basic of needs. Worship was meant to highlight the sins of society and strengthen those gathered to live just lives. when they did live just lives, their worship was relevant.

This is the way i propose to navigate the 'worship wars' between tradition and contemporary. And it aint easy. There are few traditional hymns that pick up peace and justice themes. There are few praise songs that do so either. I am constantly searching for hymns with justice themes written to traditional hymn melodies and to contemporary hymns that are written with a certain 'pop music sensibility' that still proclaim the faith.

thanks vance for your response and I hope you will continue to challenge me to think further

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Worship, the Democratic National Convention and Spectacle

This post isn't actually about politics.

Home eating lunch today I watched the daily show with Jon Stewart. The show included a really funny and interesting piece which highlighted what some called the 'spectacle' of the convention. Stewart had a correspondent running around the convention dancing and chanting and clapping with people. At one point he is dancing with a woman and asking her questions about Obama's policies. at one point he questions the substance of her answers which was particularly funny as they were 'getting down' while discussing political policy.

I didn't watch much of the DNC and the spectacle was my problem. I must be turning into a crumudgeon, because I kept thinking to myself, 'is this the method and the context in which politics should be done in the US? It looks like a Jimmy Buffet show or a Tail-gate party at a football game. Is this really the only way to involve the American Public in such important decisions and processes, by providing loud music and fire-works? I must be growing old or something because I keep thinking to myself that occassionally there are times and places for serious discussion of serious matters, but aparently the DNC wasn't it.

and I wonder too about worship. I just wrote to my church about the changes I see in worship around me. Praise music and Praise bands. congregations choosing to elliminate the Lord's Prayer, the Gloria Patri and the Doxology from worship. Large screens installed for Power-point sermons, religious symbols put int he basement, hymnals in the attic. some even changing their names so that you would never actually know they are a church. All so that worship can be a spectacle, so that it is more entertaining to Gen Xers I guess.

The concern that these churches are hoping to address is the steep decline in attendance to worship. Perhaps if worship were more entertaining, less formal, and more like other experiences, like movies and pop concerts, more people would come.
but that leaves two questions unanswered:
1. Once they come, what are they learning? Praise music is notoriously influenced by pop-music, including its disposability. Praise music is written to be easily learned and sung, quickly sold and therefore quickly replaced. Most praise songs have little theological substance. So, we get young folks into church and they enjoy singing, 'Come, now is the time for worship' but what have they learned about who God is, what Christ did, what the church believes or what discipleship means and looks like. 'Lo He Comes on Clouds Descending' may not lend itself well to the electric guitar, but at least you have learned something about Christ, Salvation, Crucifixion and Resurrection after you have sung it. so they like to hang with us when we sing praise, but are we passing on a faith with any depth or substance to them? and if we aren't passing anything of substance on to them, why are we so concerned about their presence? Are we more interested in success than in being faithful to Christ and the Kingdom?

2. should church and worship look and sound like the world around us? Are we not meant to provide the world with an alternative, THE alternative which is the gospel? Worship, at least in my understanding of it, is meant to be an experience, perhaps ever so fleeting, of the presence of Christ and the reality of the Kingdom. that will NOT look like the world around us. Our values will not be the worlds values. So if we accomodate so much to remain 'entertaining' we run the risk of accepting the values of the world that we are meant to subvert not support.

These are serious times we live in. And we need a serious devotion to the gospel in order to remain the faithful witness that Christ has called us to be. Spectacle in worship, it seems to me, teaches is the wrong thing about worhsip and faith.
First it teaches us that worship is meant to make us 'feel' something. while worship, in the Bible, is first and foremost meant to be an offering of the individual and the community to God, not the recieving of happiness or entertainment. Worship, in short, isn't about me, its about God. Entertaining worship is about me.
Second it teaches us that a relationship to God is about me. I am meant to recieve happiness, peace, prosperity from this relationship. There is little to no 'service' in praise music or entertaining worship. this worship does not push us to 'take up our cross' or explain to us how we do that. Instead we repeat a few simple phrases 'Yes Lord, Yes Lord, Yes, Yes Lord' and slip into a pop-candy induced stupor.

It isn't that I don't think there should be some changes in worship or an attempt to be relevant.
perhaps my next post will talk more about that should my millions of adoring fans clamor for more.