Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Christian Take on Divorce

So, this is probably one of the most personal blog postings I’ve ever written; time to be bare. 

I come from a family with divorced parents and while I’ll not bore you with the details of being a problem-child due to my grief, suffice it to say that this event characterized much of my formative years. The reason that I bring this up is because I think that in Christian circles, it’s tempting to regard such topics with latex gloves on; that is, we talk about messy situations in sterile terms and I don’t think it’s always helpful. On occasion, such as now, it’s ok to look at the thing for what it is. 

I talked with my father on the phone this afternoon and he disclosed to me some of the “behind the scenes” goings on in his personal life from around the time of his divorce from my mom. This was hard. I’ve heard most of it before because my dad has always been remarkably honest with me, but this was difficult to hear now because it was the first time that I had ever approached the issue as a Christian leader. I called him, you see. I told him that I was struggling with this idea of divorce and how to approach it as a Christian with influence. Not because I'm having problems with my marriage, though I'd be lying if I said that the word has never come up in the heat of argument, but because the topic was weighing heavy on my mind. So my question to him was essentially “What did the church do that was effective/ineffective in your life when you were the one who was doing wrong that allowed you to continue to grow in your faith? How should Christian leaders treat divorcees?” 

His words cut me deep because they were raw and honest. I’m a well adjusted adult now, but somewhere deep down, there is a little boy who still grieves the loss of a life once cherished. What was incredible was how he was able to talk to me in a way that allowed me to talk the answer out of myself. 

Be Christ.

It seems simple, but the one thing that he communicated that was vital to his spiritual life at the time was a small congregation that he was a part of for a short time and a few Christian men in his life that gave him room to continue to draw near Christ. In his words:

“I never wanted to leave God. I knew I was doing wrong, but the choice had been made.”
Amidst a flurry of emotions and confusing feelings, this space created by a few men who verbally acknowledged their disagreement with his choices and yet showed grace anyway, made all the difference.
For some odd reason, I had a hard time holding it together during this phone call. I’ve long since forgiven both of my parents for the divorce and yet in discussing God’s grace in that context, I couldn't help but tear up.

As Christians and especially as Christians with sway, we need to lead with this: Christ loved the lost. Christ died for the confused who didn’t know what they were doing. And if Christ did that for them, I need to do that also. I need to crucify that part of me that is hurt from my parent’s divorce and thus wants to hold back grace. I need to shower forgiveness and give people room to continue to work out their faith while they work out their lives.

This is a blog for me. Mostly. But I think there’s a message here for all Christians; a challenge to show Christ in messy and painful situations. In this way, we join Jesus’ martyrdom for the Kingdom; we die to ourselves and our personal issues in order to shine the light of the Kingdom of forgiveness; the Kingdom of love; the Kingdom of God.

The Dread

Friday, February 21, 2014

Don't be Stupid, Don't be Dangerous

Tonight I went to get a tattoo…

It’s kind of a story, but the short of it is that the artist was ill and so he left early and so I ended up sitting around for 3-4 hours and NOT getting one. But! There is a bright side to this story and so I thought I’d share it with you…

I have several ideas for tattoos all of which I may eventually get. As of now, I have approx. 10 depending on what you count as “1”…

But tonight as I went in to get one, I was undecided walking through the door. Thanks to my long wait, I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted. Now, if you know me personally, you know that 4 hours sitting in a chair is not really boring to me. It’s more like “me time”. I am very much an introvert and so just being alone for a while was nice. In fact, I didn’t even really get on my phone. 

The design I decided on will complete the inner portion of my left arm half-sleeve. What’s currently there is a piece for my second son and a sugar skull; both of which are kind of in the traditional tattoo style. So, in keeping with that theme, I decided on doing a serpent and a dove (neither pictured) in the same color scheme and style. The serpent and dove are a  play off of Matthew 10 when Jesus tells those he sends to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” or, as the message version puts it “be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove”. And this got me thinking…

Are we, who are called to ministry in whatever form, wise as serpents and harmless as doves?
I fear the reputation that we get is often the opposite.

Too often Christian leaders are guilty of being as cunning as doves and as harmless as serpents…

Have you ever seen a dove in real life? When I was a kid, we bird-sat for some friends and they had a dove.  The one thing I remember about that bird was that it was stupid. I mean bad. It would let you hold it but would make the most irrational decisions. Like flying into the window or fan…it survived :)

Have you ever come across a serpent in the wild? Growing up in western Kansas, it was no joke when you heard a rattle while walking through tall grass. I spent a portion of my childhood in a farm house (though we didn’t work the farm) and my siblings and I spent much of our time outside. I distinctly remember watching out for snakes as I knew the potentially deadly repercussions of carelessness.

I guess my point with this blog post is simply that I, as a Christian with influence, want to be sure to keep the combination correct: wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. 

It’s interesting that without the animal symbolism, that doesn’t sound weird: be wise and harmless. I feel like most people would say “yeah, wise and harmless, those seem to go together”. Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem to be the common worldview where I’m from. Most people who are deemed “wise” are often proponents of violence in some way or another. There’s food for thought. 

So, the bottom line is this: let us self-examine regularly. Are you being the correct combination of serpent/dove? Or are you being stupid and dangerous with your words and ideas. Not trying to attack people, but let’s be careful with the roles we’ve accepted in life.

Post your thoughts to the comments!

The Dread

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Church Music

Today I have a topic to think about and you all get front seats to this thought storm; here goes:

As one who was brought up in church, I got involved with worship music somewhere around 8th grade. Since then I have been a part of music teams as they transitioned from "traditional" (whatever that means) music to more "contemporary" (again, that's pretty non-descriptive) music. I've also had the incredible experience of playing a role in re-building a worship music program from the studs. Along with all of that, I've studied for a worship music minor (that I decided to drop my senior year of my undergrad college experience) and have studied theology, philosophy and church history intensely for going on 4 years now.

I preface this post with some of my credentials in order to say that I have probably spent more time thinking about how we as western, American, Evangelical, Protestant, mostly modern Christians worship today than your average Christian.

Qualifying statement: This does NOT in any way make me a better Christian, person, etc. but it does make me more likely to have made some observations that others may not have come across.

While there are several different aspects to our worship which I could comment on, I  don't intend this blog to be an all inclusive thought project, so let me establish some parameters:

1. I want to begin by delineating between what I'll call a "private worship life" and a "corporate worship life". There are many nuances here, but I'm going to use these broad categories in order to remain focused.
2. I have no intention on attacking any practice currently in place. Over against any hard teaching, I only want to flesh out some of my recent observations and reflections, so please try and take this for what its worth and if you don't like it, ignore it.
3. While there are many many ways that Christians have worshiped throughout the life of the Church and stretching back into our Jewish heritage, I will only be speaking of things that are relevant to my western context because that is where I have personal experience. Also, this lets me off the hook for having to do research just to write this blog.

ok, I think that's most of it, pressing on...

Today, I want to assess how we choose which songs to play at church. Now, while I think that there are many issues with how we do church (everything from over-emphasizing Sunday worship to marginalizing congregation participation and beyond, but that's a bit outside the established parameters), I think that if we accept the generally established music utilization in our Sunday gatherings, we ought to give due diligence with what kind of music is played.

Before getting too far in to what songs we choose, I think that it would be good to put some preliminaries out there about our Sunday worship:

1. I think that it is most correct to approach Sunday for what it is; specifically, it is a corporate worship gathering. This means that, against our current culture of hyper-individualism (no citation, sorry), we should spend this time coming close to each other. We often fail on this point and it is evidenced in many ways, some of which are how we tend to sit only with our family and often not right next to anyone else if we can avoid it. By way of example, I remember getting a bizarre look when I sat next to a guy who was not a family member and I didn't leave a space in between us... man-law violated, I know. But we should not shy away from this nearness; we are part of the body of Christ and no hand would try and shy away from its fingers.
2. Closely related to the above, this is specifically NOT individual worship time. My interior life is maintained daily so, I should not feel the need to hijack this time to selfishly serve my lacking spiritual life. We are gathered for each other as much as we are gathered for ourselves...perhaps more. There are many implications of this that I encourage all to think about, but there you have it.
3. As much as our culture has made this a "show" in which only a few men (rarely women) are highlighted an given the stage, we are all to engage which is not the same as saying "we are all to sing along". No, instead, we should feel that the service would not quite be the same if we were gone; that kind of impact. Maybe this happens behind the scenes like in giving the preacher/teacher or band leader feed back, but however it occurs, we ought to feel some ownership of this time.

So, with those preliminaries out there, we turn our attention to the music itself. I think that there are many things to be conscious of, not only as music leaders but also as elders, leaders, worshipers and members of the body who are being asked to sing the words on the screen week in and week out. The qualifiers that I'll list below for songs are not meant to be all-inclusive and they certainly are my opinions, but I think that they transcend music style preferences and volume of music etc. So, to be more pointed, my opinions here have little to do with what kind of music is being played or how its played, but they are focused on the content of the songs. Lets begin:

1. Our music should be theologically sound. While you may be tempted to say "duh", we often don't put songs through the ringer. I think far too often we gauge the value of a song based on the feeling we personally get or the response of the crowd without very much thought given to the truth or context of our words. Without pointing to specific songs (because I do care about offending people and their song preferences), some problems that come to mind are like using the word "lord" without acknowledging that this isn't simply an interchangeable name for "God" or "Jesus", but is instead a title that reflects a relationship that may or may not be real for everyone in the congregation. Another issue may be in using metaphors with no explanation. This is one that happens with hymns often (i.e. what's an Ebenezer? Does everyone in your congregation know that? Is it a good metaphor for our current context?). We ought to be theologically thoughtful.
2. Our music should be corporate in voice. Again, we're discussing corporate worship settings, so I believe we should more or less stay away from songs that are heavy with "I", "me", "my life", etc. to the exclusion of more corporate language like "your church", "the bride", "the kingdom", etc. When we fail to avoid those songs, what happens is that we perpetuate the selfish, hyper-individualization that our culture pushes that prizes our individual comfort over community. This is starkly anti-Christian. Now, I should say that those songs often elicit worship because we connect to them more easily and, as a song writer, I have myself written songs like that, so I think there is value in them. I only want to say that their proper place is in our private lives, not in a larger communal setting. Sadly, this may mean re-vamping most churches musical libraries; but I think it's worth it.
3. Our music should teach. I feel like it is more or less irrefutable that music teaches. This is why everyone was mad at Eminem when I was kid. Ironically, he said in a song "music can alter moods and talk to you..." and here, I have to agree. Music is so much easier to remember than oral, written or rote-memorized teachings. With that in mind, I think that we ought to be careful what kind of things our songs teach. Not just theology, but in building a picture of God, we ought to take care. I believe that our mental picture of God's character is probably the single most important part of our worldview and as such, we ought to be careful what kind of mental picture we are painting. Are we perpetuating the butler God? Are we perpetuating the tamed and cuddly Jesus? Are perpetuating the angry, warrior God? The cosmic vending machine? a deist or heretical picture? I know this can seem like a slippery slope, but we ought to seriously ask these questions of the music that we're asking people to sing.

Those are just three things that I think about when thinking about songs we sing in church. I hope that discussion opens up in the comments section or through different social media venues. Most of all, I hope that this lands in front of church leaders. When I began to first think of myself as a Christian leader, I was terrified for several reasons (among which was not feeling qualified). Since then, I have more confidently come to terms with that role, but the one thing that has not left me was the urgency of the office; that is, the seriousness and eternal implications of what I may teach people. After all, who wants to go swimming with cement shoes...or a mill-stone around the neck...At any rate, I fear that the consequences could be dire if we mislead people with the music we put in their mouths. God will move regardless of our foolishness, but we should still honor the call we've answered.

I'm sorry if I offended. Truly, my goal with this entire blog is simply to better the church and provide space for me to work out my own beliefs and in that context, I thank you for following along. I would only ask, if you were offended, that you ask yourself why. Furthermore, feel free to open it to discussion; often we learn best together.

The Dread