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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why Do We Think We Can Make a Better Bible than God?

The Gospel of Mark is known to be kind of weird, weird enough that it appears that Matthew and Luke and even arguably (and much more extremely) John wrote their Gospels for the purpose of correcting or improving Mark. I happen to find it strangely delightful that the Holy Spirit inspired four people to record the same story because each thought that the efforts of the ones who preceded them weren’t good enough, and for the purpose of a full canon they were all correct, even though the God who inspired them was perfectly satisfied with every detail of each book as an individual work. For a really insightful article on this that cleverly compares Mark to Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, see here.

But back to Mark. His Gospel is all middle—it barely has a beginning and is missing the end. He puts extreme emphasis on Jesus’ miracles, at least in quantity, at the expense of his teaching (see John for the reverse). And sometimes Mark phrases things in a way that just doesn’t sound right. Sometimes it simply isn’t grammatically elegant (Luke in particular likes cleaning up these flubs), but other times the way Mark puts something genuinely alarms orthodox people.

An example of this that struck me lately is in the portion of Mark where Jesus is disputing with the Pharisees about divorce (10:2-12). You might recall that the Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is permitted under Jewish law, and when Jesus answers by asking them to recite Moses’ teaching, they respond by quoting a portion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4—as Mark records it, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” (10:4). Then Jesus replies, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father ad mother, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (vv. 5-9).

The bulk of Jesus’ answer is a quotation of Genesis 1:27; 2:24. But if you look carefully at the beginning of Jesus’ answer, it looks like he’s saying that Moses made humanity male and female. Look at it again. Pharisees: “Moses permitted a man to . . . divorce her.” Jesus: “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.”

Wait a second—Moses made them male and female? Impossible! Heresy, even! This can’t be what Jesus said, and it certainly wasn’t what he meant, so we had better change it. Fortunately, many before us already have, going all the way back to the apostolic generation itself. Matthew rephrased Mark to say that “from the beginning the Creator made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4, my emphasis). Although the oldest and most reliable ancient manuscripts of Mark we possess say that “he made them male and female,” most manuscripts say that “God” did it, the result of Christian copyists who concluded that “he” couldn’t possibly be original, so they changed the text. These later, inferior manuscripts were the basis of the King James Version, which has “God” in Mark 10:6. However, nearly all modern versions, which were translated by scholars working with better manuscripts who know that “God” isn’t original to Mark’s text, put the word there anyway to make the subject of the sentence clear.

But my question is, what if they are “making clear” the wrong subject?

Let’s stop and think about this for a second. Is there anybody who believes that Jesus believed that Moses, a human being himself, created humanity in the beginning of creation, and not God the Father? Does anybody believe that either the Pharisees Jesus was talking to or Mark or Mark’s original readers thought that Jesus believed that? In fact, if you went to a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea that had never heard a word of Scripture in their lives and read this to them, would any of them conclude from this that a human being named Moses created humanity? Of course not; it’s simply absurd. So why is it so important to insert the word “God” in Mark 10:6?

In fact, what if saying “God made them male and female” actually obscures Jesus’ point? What if Jesus was actually trying to say that from the beginning Moses made them male and female, as Mark’s text simply suggests? If Jesus was indeed saying that Moses made them male and female for some strange reason, then the attempts of the church for 2,000 years to make this “clear” has confused what Jesus wants us to hear.

If so, what might Jesus have been communicating to the Pharisees by “he made them male and female”? In short, Jesus isn’t just teaching about divorce. He’s teaching about interpreting Scripture.

“Some Pharisees came . . . to test him” with a question about interpreting and applying Scripture and the tradition of the elders. There are a few things to note about Jesus’ answer to their challenge. First, when asked if divorce is lawful, Jesus cut through tradition and pointed them to Scripture: “What did Moses command you?” not, what did this or that rabbi (or pastor/author/Bible teacher or pope/council/church father) say in his interpretative judgment? This is particularly noteworthy because there was a debate among the Pharisees at that time over what constituted legal grounds for divorce based on the interpretations of two rabbis (Hillel and Shammai). The Pharisees’ debate comes out more in Matthew’s version, where Jesus takes sides in it, but in Mark’s version Jesus ignores that question entirely as well as the rabbis themselves and focuses simply on what the Bible says.

A second thing to note—a lesson I’m trying to learn as a pastor right now—is that he didn’t just give them the answer, but he made them look for the answer themselves.

Third, Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ selective interpretation of Scripture. When Jesus asked them, “What did Moses command you?”, the Pharisees went straight to Deuteronomy 24, which was handy, because it happened to be the text that said what they wanted to hear. Jesus’ response is telling: “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.” The Deuteronomy text is late in the Mosaic corpus. But at the beginning of that corpus, in the account of creation, Moses put man and woman on papyrus (he “made them”) “male and female . . . and the two will become one flesh.” The Pharisees were taking the Deuteronomy text in isolation, out of its setting in the overall Mosaic corpus and the narrative of Scripture as a whole. That’s not a legitimate interpretation, Jesus maintains. You can’t understand what Moses, inspired by God, writes in Deuteronomy apart from what he writes in Genesis. The same Moses who allowed divorce in Deuteronomy portrays husband in wife in Genesis as inseparable. If you make a serious effort to understand Moses, Jesus asserts, you can’t avoid the conclusion that divorce exists in Deuteronomy 24 because the Fall exists in Genesis 3 after the good creation of humanity in Genesis 1-2. And if God’s reign is indeed near, as Jesus relentlessly proclaimed, then preparing for that kingdom means adapting one’s habits in relationship with others to the pure new creation, not complacently accepting the habits of the fallen old one of which divorce, unfaithfulness, and sin-hardened hearts are corrupt features.

What Jesus says in this passage, along with the rest of Scripture, should assuredly form our mindset toward divorce. But it should also form our mindset toward Scripture itself. We, like the Pharisees, can be so accustomed to the teaching we’ve received—even if it’s as recent a vintage as last year’s bestseller—that we can’t keep straight what the biblical text says versus what an interpreter says. We need to be redirected to Scripture supremely.

We also need to be directed to Scripture in total, not just the passages that we’re most comfortable with. We have to take the entire text seriously, neglecting nothing. And though it is almost inevitable (and sometimes desirable) that certain parts of the Bible become keys by which we understand the rest, we must be critical of what we take to be those keys. The Pharisees unthinkingly took Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as one of their keys; Jesus asserted that Genesis 1-2 was the actual key by which Deuteronomy 24 should be understood. We too can pick the wrong interpretive key and not know it and thereby distort our understanding of the whole thing.

Ironically, Jesus’ teaching about Scripture in this particular text is obscured by centuries of Christians doing the very things Jesus rebukes. Rather than looking squarely at what Mark says, we’ve been distracted by what copyists, interpreters, and translators say he said. To be fair, one of those distractions has been Matthew, and as a biblical author it’s crucial that we not neglect what he said either. But we’ve taken Matthew’s version of the story as the interpretive key to Mark such that it has swamped the latter text and substituted a false unison for the harmony of their distinct and complementary voices. Our penchant for using Matthew as a shorthand for Mark prevents us from looking at all of Scripture.

We would be wise to ask God humbly in prayer to correct us when we think we can phrase or organize the Bible better than he can. I hope we keep getting better at receiving what he gave us.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How a College Football Game Changed My Understanding of Church


Last Saturday I took my 10-year-old son Jack to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to watch our favorite college football team, the Syracuse Orange, play the Pittsburgh Panthers, and I discovered some things I wasn’t looking for.

I had been looking forward to this game for months, and even the few weeks before when I bought the tickets I was still hopeful that the game would “mean something” with respect to the conference championship. So I spent the extra money for tickets in the block of seats that Pitt sold to Syracuse for resale. If this was going to be a huge game, I wanted to be able to give full-throated support to the team in a crowd of like-minded fans.

As it turned out, the game couldn’t have meant less for the conference championship, though it was still important for two 5-6 teams trying to end the season at .500 and mediocre bowl eligibility. But my decision to get seats in the Syracuse section was a great one. Jack and I got to yell and cheer and go crazy immediately in front of about four rows of SU students doing the same thing. We bellowed at the field with them when the defense forced Pitt into a 3rd down. We joined in their spontaneous cheers of “Let’s go, O-range!” We learned Syracuse’s first-down cheer. After one touchdown I even heard the words to the fight song for the first time as the students broke into it in lieu of the marching band. If I can help it, I’ll never go to a game again without sitting as close to students as possible.

The game had some great moments, but it ended in heartbreak—a fumble returned for a touchdown by the opposition on what could have been the game-winning drive with about three minutes to go, virtually sealing the Orange’s losing season. It was the next to last of a series of head-in-hands groaners that included ten penalties and six turnovers amid other less easily quantified errors. Immediately upon the backbreaker, a throng of fans in my section leapt for the exits as if their seats were suddenly electrified just as I’ve seen in the Carrier Dome on TV too many times. Jack and I waited until the bitter end before leaving our seats, forgetting to linger until the team came over to sing the alma mater with the student spectators.

The game ended stunningly early at 3:00—Syracuse had a drive in the 4th quarter that consumed an absurd amount of clock—so we decided to try to find where players might come out of the stadium and hang around until they did. We walked around the outside of the stadium to the opposite end where we found two sizable clumps of people—about two thirds Syracuse and one third Pitt—on either side of a gate in a high, chain-link privacy fence, the way kept clear for the coach buses we glimpsed on the other side by yellow-jacketed security people. This nondescript entryway under a highway on-ramp and next to a four-lane road was one of the least pedestrian-friendly spaces I’ve ever stood at, I think, but we were pretty sure we found the right place.

After a while we watched a trickle of players emerge from the gate one-by-one. It was easy to tell the teams apart, the Pitt players dressed in a uniform warmup suit and the Syracuse players dressed in coats and ties. That’s when the surprises started for me. First, I could recognize almost none of the players, despite knowing all their names and being able to give a moderately accurate account of their performance over the season. I had assumed therefore that I “knew” them, but I didn’t: I couldn’t even pick most of them out of a crowd. Second, I was surprised by how small the Orange were. Granted, no offensive linemen emerged from the gate, but I was probably one of the three tallest people in the crowd, only one of the three being a football player. And few of the players looked like their muscle-bound physiques were bursting out of their suits. This observation is a testimony to the talent level of the team at the present time; it would be different if I was waiting for players from LSU. But the third surprise is probably true of nearly all college football teams: these players are young. They look like the 20-year-olds that they are—men, but barely. We’re spending so much money and putting so much pressure on boys, I thought. What are we doing? And how much money are people making off these ordinary-looking young men, I wonder.

Each player that came through the gate quickly found his parents, often accompanied by the player’s siblings, girlfriend, friends of the family. They hugged and kissed each other. They shook hands with teammates’ parents. An occasional picture was posed and taken. Some (in my honest opinion, not enough) looked dejected and barely making it after giving away their fifth consecutive loss, squandering a 5-2 start and finishing last in the conference. But for the most part smiles abounded.

One player seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders—his successes and failures on the field were many and conspicuous, but only the latter would be remembered. He was the first player to come out of the gate that I recognized, and when I bent down to point him out to Jack my son identified him before I did. Unexpectedly, the player proceeded from the gate right towards us: his father was standing next to me. “Are you okay?” the dad quietly asked.

The pair hugged. “Yeah,” the son murmured unconvincingly. They started walking away to get a few moments of privacy when I suddenly had an idea.

“Excuse me, Mr. ________, you have a fan here,” I heard myself blurt out. I thrust Jack in front of me.

The player and his father turned around. “Oh . . . yeah,” he said, looking down at Jack, not knowing what to say. He stuck out his hand and shook Jack’s, who stood frozen, awed at the presence of greatness.

“I’m a fan, too,” I said as the player looked up. We shook hands. As his young, miserable, hangdog eyes locked with mine, I said what I could: “Hang in there. Have a good rest of your year.”

He politely thanked me and turned. His dad was about to follow but stopped. Smiling, he looked down at my son. Keep working hard, he said. Hit the weights. I thanked him in place of Jack, who was still dumbstruck. Then they disappeared behind the crowd.

We hung around a bit longer pointing out the players that we knew until the team was recalled within the fence for departure. We waved with the gathered families at the tinted windows of the three coach buses driven by men in orange hats as they pulled out of the stadium. Then we walked, chattering, across the Heinz Field parking lot to the wide walkway along the Allegheny River, the tall buildings of downtown Pittsburgh standing majestically in the late-afternoon sun.

I was moved by what we had experienced standing in the midst of these young men embraced by their fathers, especially by the player we met and his father. I thought about the games my father took me to that I’ll always remember. I thought about how my son would always remember this day, the first time we had ever done something this special as just the two of us, an island of fun and joy amid the churning waves of homework, discipline, shuttling, chores, exasperation, and fatigue.

“I love you, Jack,” I said out of the silence.

“I love you too,” he answered.

As we continued on I reflected on what I had witnessed that day among the fans. This was a road game, so nearly every Syracuse fan there was highly committed. But I observed two different kinds of commitment.

One kind of fan that I saw I would call a member of the fellowship, most obviously represented by the students behind me in the stands and the parents outside the stadium gate. The members of the fellowship are a social and emotional part of the program itself even though they don’t suit up and take the field. There are usually personal relationships that bind them to those that do. They come to the game to support the team—that is, they are there for the team, not the other way around.

The other kind of fan that I saw was the entitled spectator. Entitled spectators are highly invested in the team also, but in a different way. They spend a considerable amount of their time and money on the football program as a major source of their entertainment in place of other entertainment options. They are loyal enough not to yield the program as their first entertainment option easily, but they are also paying customers who expect bang for their buck, and bang includes winning. They are not there for the team; the team is there for them.

It was easiest to tell the difference between members of the fellowship and entitled spectators when things went wrong. Everybody suffered. But you might hear loud sarcasm, anger, and cynicism from entitled spectators that you wouldn’t hear from members of the fellowship. An entitled spectator might boo but a member of the fellowship never would, because that would be like booing oneself. When the game was clearly unwinnable, many entitled spectators hurried away like they were late for their firstborn’s birth while members of the fellowship silently remained with the players.

That’s when it clicked: I see the same thing in my church.

My church has members of the fellowship. They come to church for the church’s sake. That’s what motivates them to give and serve and hang in there when times are bad. When things go wrong they are grieved with their fellow members, not against them. When worship is over they hang around chatting and smiling, because they like being with their fellow members and don’t want to say goodbye too quickly. They are one.

My church also has entitled spectators. They come to church to receive a religious experience. They also give and may serve, but they do so to ensure a place that provides them what they like on Sunday morning. When they have gotten what they have paid their religion dollar for (which includes paying their time) they leave immediately, the cost of hanging around no longer worth the benefit.

My church also has casual spectators. These are like many of the paying customers at Syracuse’s home football games, people who enjoy coming for the entertainment value when it suits but don’t have a lot of loyalty to or interest in the organization itself.

I am confident that every church, including yours, has the same groups of “fans” that mine has. But there is a crucial aspect of a church that makes it very different from a college football program. In a church you can have people who are “members of the fellowship” and “entitled spectators” at the same time.

Some of the people at my church (and perhaps yours) are entitled spectators when it comes to the church as a whole, worshiping loyally and giving devotedly but doing so for themselves. But the same people are members of the fellowship with respect to a smaller group in the church: a program, a Bible study or Sunday School class, a ministry, a circle of friends that spends time together on their own time. In addition, there are people who are members of the fellowship of the larger church who function toward subunits as entitled spectators (or casual spectators, or nothing).

So here are come big questions for churches.

How does a person go from being nothing to being a casual spectator to being an entitled spectator to being a member of the fellowship?

Is it desirable for a person to skip over the step of “entitled spectator,” and if so, is it possible?

What is the numerical balance between these four groups in a healthy, growing church?

Is it a problem for a church when there is a fellowship subgroup inside it with members that are committed to that fellowship as members but are committed to the whole body as entitled spectators?

If it is a problem, what do you do about it?

If the desires of members of the fellowship of the whole church conflict with the desires of entitled spectators of that church—especially when those spectators are members of the fellowship of their own subgroup—how is the church to resolve that conflict?

Is it a problem when an entire church is a collection of fellowships that all function as entitled spectators toward the whole?

I can’t answer these questions yet. But I do know that both with churches and college football programs movement from one group to another is sometimes possible. At the game last Saturday I crossed the line from entitled spectator (though not the grouchy kind) to member of the fellowship. It started the preceding week when I wrote to the head coach and he actually replied. It continued sitting in front of the students. And it concluded standing with the parents. Unlike most members of the Syracuse football fellowship, no other member really knows my name, but I know that I am a member nevertheless. I went to the game last Saturday because I wanted to have a good time watching it and in hopes that it would “mean something.” In two years when the teams play in Pittsburgh I’ll go again because I have to be there. If my team is there, it automatically means something, and I’m going for them.

When you gather with your church or a portion of your church this week, consider: what kind of fan are you?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Rant about Worship Music and Choosing a Church


Here are some thoughts on worship music and being part of a church. I’m going to start by giving you my worship music résumé—not so I can boast, but because I think you need to know some of my background to understand where I’m going with this.

I began playing the piano to accompany worship in youth settings in 9th grade. By the end of high school I was frequently leading worship from the piano. The music I was leading was almost exclusively contemporary worship songs, which I genuinely enjoyed. Meanwhile, however, my favorite worship music was classic hymns, particularly Reformation and post-Reformation German chorales and 18th-century English hymnody (such as settings of the lyrics of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley).

Although I was going to major in college in music composition, I quickly changed my major to biblical literature, but I still minored in church music. I continued to have occasional worship-leading opportunities in traditional, contemporary, and blended situations. As a freshman I was tapped by the director of the college’s Chorale to write the program notes for our traditional worship-oriented concert tour. As a junior I planned, oversaw, and led a Maundy Thursday service of songs (of various styles), prayers, and Scriptural readings. As a senior I led the student body in hymn singing in chapel not quite once a week and sang and played in the contemporary worship band in chapel about as often.

I also played in the jazz band, which was valuable preparation for joining the choir and worship team (on keys) of the multiracial church that I joined in seminary. All worship songs in that church, including hymns and white contemporary music, were recast in the urban gospel idiom that I had to pick up in addition to learning a new corpus of songs. I succeeded, but I never played like a native; you could always hear typically white motifs in my hybrid style of playing, sort of like speaking another language with an accent.

In both the churches I have served as pastor I have introduced contemporary songs and style into a traditional worship setting. In some cases, particularly in my first church, I did it by playing and teaching the music myself.

This variegated experience has given me a range of skills. I can play the piano by reading sheet music, by improvising off the harmonization of a hymn in a hymnal, by reading a lead sheet or chord chart of a contemporary song, or by listening to a song and generating an accompaniment off the top of my head. I can sing a song I’ve never heard before—written-out soprano, alto, tenor, or bass—by sight, and I can also improvise a harmony by hearing the melody. I can write out a chord chart, sometimes with different options for the chord progression, by hearing a song, and I could even arrange one by writing it all out (for keys at least), though it’s tedious and I don’t care for doing it. I’ve even written a few worship songs myself. I can play or sing in a band and lead a congregation in singing while doing so. In sum, there are many church musicians in the world that are more talented and more skilled in their craft than I am, but there are fewer who have as broad a skill set as I have.

I go on so long about my worship music qualifications to demonstrate that I have more reason to be a worship music snob and critic than almost anyone I have ever met and almost anyone you have ever met.

And I make that assertion to set up another: when I hear about a person who chooses to attend (or cease to attend) a church because of the worship music, I get one step closer to going ballistic, and I don’t think I have many more steps left.

There are a few reasons for this.

One is, to my knowledge—and please show it to me if I’m not seeing it—there is not a shred of biblical support for selecting who you are going to gather to worship God with based on whether you like the music they sing. I can’t think of a single verse that even hints that that might be a godly idea. Again, if you know of one, please let me know. (I admit, this sounds harsh—I promise to nuance it slightly by the end of this post. But I basically mean what I say here.) Actually, closely related to this is my belief that it’s hard to find much biblical support for making an individual choice about what Christians you’re going to gather with for any reason. But that’s probably getting off onto a different topic.

Another reason I might go crazy is that if anybody has a beef with the level of excellence of worship music in a church that I’m a part of, it probably bothers me more. And if God put me there, I’m not leaving because of it, so you shouldn’t either.

While I’m on the subject, the week-to-week quality of music in the multiracial church from my seminary years was, at least for the first couple years, the highest quality of music in any church I’ve spent a significant amount of time in. Some of the musicians in that church were good. I was just trying to keep up a lot of the time, but the minister of music was good, as in recording-on-keyboard-for-major-gospel-artists’-albums good. But I’ve got to tell you, there were a lot of times that I got really frustrated with music in that church.

Even though I loved the new songs and idiom I was picking up, I missed the music I knew from previous places in my life. I really missed it. I remember a few days before Easter one year I was making small-talk with the minister of music (my best friend in the church). I said, “So, getting ready for Easter, huh? Your basic ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today’?” His eyes got wide and he took a step back, and we both knew that I had just uncovered an awkward racial misunderstanding/faux pas for us both, as it had never crossed his mind to do that hymn, much less that whites in the congregation might be taking it for granted that we would sing it, and as I was making a cultural assumption that could suggest an entitlement attitude to blacks in the congregation. So on Easter the music minister perfunctorily led us from the Hammond B3 organ in “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” as I played along on keyboard, sort of embarrassed and still unsatisfied by the whole thing.

And yet, I learned just to accept things like that. I was convinced that God wanted me in that church, that therefore I would worship him no matter what the music was. I also decided that the worship music that I loved that would never be done in my church I would sing to him when I was alone. That was simply all there was to it.

Related to worshiping no matter what the music is, I have another story from a completely different setting. I was at an ecumenical worship service at the cathedral near where I minister now, and it naturally was liturgically “high”—a blend of Roman Catholic and Mainline/Magisterial Protestant liturgy, which to the untrained, low-church Evangelical all seems the same, though I’m quite sure that the Catholics and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians there were all keenly aware of what in the service differed from their own traditional worship. Anyway, the speaker was the main ecumenical guy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who used to be a parish priest in Alaska in an overwhelmingly Protestant (especially Evangelical) community. As he was recounting what he learned about ecumenism in that setting he made a comment I’ll never forget: “I learned that to Evangelicals, ‘worship’ means ‘music.’ ”

I don’t think he meant it as an insult, but I find his assessment not only completely true but completely damning. Of course “worship” means “music” to us! How many times have I heard (well, in one sense, probably not enough), “The worship was really great today,” and of course the person is referring to the time we spent singing. But where in the Bible do we see worship reduced to singing? Of course music is regularly portrayed as a component of worship in the Bible, but never in isolation. In the Old Testament the biggest component of worship is sacrifice (which to the Catholic mind is still the case, preserved in the Eucharist), but we also see prayers and the reading and teaching of Scripture, and in the New Testament we also see prophecy and healings as components of worship (and the Lord’s Supper too), and over it all we have that great commandment to offer our very bodies as living sacrifices that by living our lives we might worship God (Rom. 12:1). But to a huge proportion of Evangelical Christians, if they don’t connect emotionally with the music that day, they conclude that “worship” was no good. How pathetic.

What are you bringing to worship? In the Old Testament no one came to worship God empty-handed. It was a contradiction in terms. In the small-group worship settings of New Testament churches “each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26). So what are you bringing to your worship event? Are you bringing yourself? Your mind? Your emotions? Your money? Your children? Your service in the nursery or handing out bulletins? What do you contribute to worship when you gather with the saints? Are you giving it your best effort? Are you prepared? Or are you expecting someone not merely to conduct you but to drag you mindlessly into something blissful like a TV show did the night before? If the worship leader invites you to pray the words of a biblical psalm, are you going to grunt it thoughtlessly (if at all) or are you going to pray it with your whole voice and your whole heart like David did when he was trying to avoid getting his head chopped off?

Before I conclude let me swing back to the comment about biblical support for choosing a church based on how much you like its music (i.e., that there isn’t any). One essential quality of a church is that the “whole counsel of God” is taught there. Of course, no church pulls this off completely, but you should at least expect an effort. One thing that really bothers me about worship music that’s stuck in one particular idiom as it is in the great majority of churches of all types is that it tends to get stuck in a narrow doctrinal and/or devotional rut too.

Each era/culture/idiom of music expresses particular things to God and about God well. From the Reformation German chorales I learned the nature of God and his world. From the 18th-century British hymns I learned the immensity of both sin and redemption. 19th-century American hymns by Lowell Mason, Fanny Crosby, and others taught me to love and devote myself to Jesus. Turn-of-the-century “gospel songs” by Ira Sankey and the like taught me that Jesus makes life better and it’s okay to be happy about it. I really disliked the Gaithers’ songs when I was a kid, but now that I’m older they speak to me, saying that through all the ups and downs of life Jesus is supremely to be desired. The white worship songs of the past thirty years taught me to express all my emotions to God directly and one-on-one. The black songs taught me that I don’t need a reason to praise God other than that he’s God, even when I have nothing else.

If I didn’t have any one of these styles in me, my worship of God would be poorer and thinner as a result. And that’s why I just don’t understand and will never understand the vast majority of Christians who hold their narrow worship-music preference more tightly than an article of faith, and I don’t understand churches that do it either. I don’t know how a church can truly teach the whole counsel of God and meanwhile worship him with a set of songs that all say basically the same thing.

Meanwhile, if you come to my church and then leave because you didn’t like the music, I will try hard and probably successfully to smile and be pleasant about it and wait to pop my cork at home when you’re not around. And if my church becomes the kind of church that people flock to because the music is so good . . . man, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I won’t be happy about it. Because if I was starting a church from scratch in this day and age, and if somehow all the verses about making music to the Lord disappeared from the Bible, we might not sing a darned thing.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Two Responses to God's Interruption


At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, our Savior, but in the Gospel of Luke we read about two important and miraculous births: John (the Baptizer) to Zechariah and Elizabeth and Jesus to Mary and Joseph. Both of these supernatural conceptions are announced by Gabriel the angel. The reactions of those Gabriel tells sound the same at first, but they’re actually significantly different.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife, who has never conceived a child and is past childbearing age, will conceive a child (John) who will be filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb and grow up to act like the prophet Elijah returned. Zechariah’s response is, “How will I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18).

Gabriel tells Mary that even though she is a virgin, she will conceive the successor to King David (Jesus) who will be called the Son of God. Mary’s response is, “How will this be, since I am not intimate with a man?” (v. 34).

In both cases, it looks like the person Gabriel tells is shocked and can’t quite believe that this is going to happen. But Gabriel condemns Zechariah to be mute until John is born “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time” (v. 20), yet Gabriel gives no rebuke to Mary at all. What gives?

I think we see the answer if we look more carefully at what Zechariah and Mary say. Zechariah says, “How will I know this?” Zechariah received a message from an angel in the temple. You would think that that is how he would “know this.” But Zechariah still doesn’t know it, because he doesn’t yet believe the message or the messenger.

By contrast, Mary says, “How will this be?” Mary assumes that this conception will, in fact, happen. She just wants to know how, which gives Gabriel a chance to cite the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 35). Mary believes from the outset.

Zechariah and Mary respond differently to major change wrought by God. Even though the change is for the better, it requires substantial adjustment of life and mindset and has costs that come with it. Even though Zechariah has been praying for years for a son (v. 13), at first he is unwilling to adjust to the reality that now he is getting one. He is skeptical and set in his way (a way that he doesn’t prefer, but he is still set in it) and not ready for God’s disruptive blessing. On the other hand, Mary’s response to God’s interruption has been lauded and echoed in the church for centuries since: “Look, the Lord’s slave. May it be done to me according to your word” (v. 38).

Jesus’ first coming was an interruption. His second coming will be too. And in his grace God interrupts our lives even now, sometimes with things that look like trouble at first. Mary is our model for how to respond to God when he brings disruptive change into our lives: with total, obedient submission to him.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fame

Before I reach the end of this paragraph, I'm going to make a rather vulnerable personal confession. I have mixed feelings about this kind of thing, especially in a venue like the internet that can be read (theoretically) by every soul on the face of the Earth. Such public confessions can be helpful, inspiring, and thought-provoking to others (for classic examples see the psalms of David and the Confessions of Augustine). More often they are grotesque and embarrassing (and either repellent or addictively fascinating as a result). In fact, stay tuned for an upcoming blog post that addresses this very subject. But here and now, for the purpose of edification (we’ll see how it goes), I am going to make my vulnerable personal confession: for most of my life I have really, really wanted to be famous.

Now I expect you have some notion of how vulnerable I have made myself by admitting this. If not yet, hopefully by the end of this post you will. I expect you’re beginning to see how blazingly egotistical I have been and/or currently am, and like Charlie Sheen’s winning! I am putting it out there (though not quite as shamelessly) for your righteous judgment. Nevertheless, I’m not that worried about being judged for admitting that I’ve really, really wanted to be famous, because I think that most people reading this want to be famous too, or at least you know what wanting that is like. I actually believe this is a very common thing, which I’ll demonstrate in a bit. But I’ll talk about it along the way of describing my personal journey with respect to fame (yep, more awkward confession ahead).

It started a long while ago—I don’t know when, but it had to have been in childhood. Like you I absorbed stories in books (including the Bible) and TV and movies. Every story has a hero. The hero’s journey differs from story to story (though always falling into a few relentlessly predictable, cross-cultural categories; for more info see here), but the hero is always present. Like you I loved the stories. In particular I loved the story of the weak, inexperienced, or disregarded man or boy who takes a perilous journey and masters superhuman skill (physical, spiritual, or intellectual—the latter my favorite) to lead the tight-knit forces of good against impossible odds to defeat the forces of evil. I loved this favorite story of mine so much that, like you, I intended to live it. (Perhaps you didn’t know that you intended to live your favorite story, but if you think about what you daydreamed about and played pretend about and thereby practiced when you were a child, you’ll see what I mean.) In many ways I was strong and well-regarded as a boy, but in a few ways that were crucial to me I was weak and disregarded. I intended to correct that by living my beloved story, without knowing of course that that’s what I was intending.

I want to pause for a moment to point out that there was nothing inherently bad in what I was doing. Not only is it entirely natural—indeed, I think God made us this way—but also every story that deep and resonant in humankind accurately depicts the person and work of Christ from one perspective. Therefore, to live such a story faithfully, relying on Christ to live it in and through oneself, is to become like Christ, which is the goal of our salvation. But that’s a topic for another time.

Anyway, the thing about stories is that the hero is the center of attention. In fact, in most stories (i.e., written in the third-person limited or in the first person), the hero absolutely dominates the reader’s or viewer’s attention. And so when one goes about living one’s favorite story, one dominates one’s own attention and expects to be the center of attention of every other character in the story too—all the other people in one’s life. That’s what I did, again without knowing it.

Now, the hero in a story isn’t trying to be famous. The hero simply is famous because, unknown to the hero, readers are reading about him or her and viewers are watching him or her. The hero is just living the hero’s life, doing the hero’s job. Very often within the story the hero will become famous as a fitting conclusion to the narrative (the final, wordless scene in Star Wars, Episode IV comes to mind), but even in such endings fame was never the hero’s goal or intention. But to the reader or viewer who is trying to mimic that story, becoming famous as a result of living out the story is naturally expected and even becomes the objective. In addition, the imitator is only conscious of one person who is narrating his story: himself. So he automatically assumes the center of attention.

I broke gender-neutral character in those last sentences because that’s what I personally did. It became more pronounced—and awkward—during adolescence. I dreamt of being Aragorn at Helm’s Deep, of being Churchill during the Blitz, and in my social and spiritual world I tried to live accordingly with all the success and then adulation those heroes earned. Unfortunately, being a hero when the rest of the world doesn’t know they are characters in your story can lead to embarrassing and goofy results. Nevertheless, it also occasionally produced wonderful results, moments when really good things got done, people were really helped, and I took a step closer toward living the purpose for which God had created me that resonated with those stories.

But meanwhile, whatever benefits to the world may have resulted from me being the center of my story, there was the constant corruption of the brute fact of wanting to be the center, wanting people to look at me and tell me how wonderful I was. As a devoted lover of Jesus through adolescence and into young adulthood, I knew that this was sinful and battled it. But I often missed or neglected it, usually (because I was on my way to becoming a pastor by then) in the name of what I would accomplish for the kingdom of God, which I usually was careful to phrase “what God would accomplish through me for the kingdom of God.” Because again, I knew that that was right. The Spirit within me rejoiced at Galatians 2:20 and 1 Corinthians 15:10, but my flesh craved my own glory. Within me was the desire to be glorious by reflecting the Lord’s glory like the moon and also the desire to radiate my own glory like a rival sun, and I was very conscious of both desires, especially during my seminary years.

It was not long after that, while I was at my first church as pastor, that I read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. I found a kindred soul in that important man, but no place more than in his repeated admonition to himself and others through his entire life about how terrible a vice ambition was—a vice that he hated in himself but that drove him to perform incredible acts of service to the United States that millions have inherited the benefits of. I knew that I had a lust for glory, a lust to be Number One, but I also knew that this wickedness was woven tightly together with a desire that God himself had built into me to be exactly the hero that he had created and saved me to be for his glory and honor and for the benefit of the world.

Through all those adolescent and young-adult years I experienced fame occasionally because I was good at things and I got to do them in public, particularly things of a musical or religious nature. But there were a couple of experiences with fame in my first pastorate that started to reshape my understanding of it. The first was just being a pastor itself. My first call was very humble and very challenging: a crumbling (physically and institutionally) urban church of a few dozen mostly elderly people in an immigrant neighborhood, a church whose last good days were in the Kennedy administration and whose best days were in Taft’s. The church was still enduring a traumatic situation with the previous pastor when I came and much was in disarray. It was the kind of task that only a crazy, desperate, or God-compelled person would do, and I happened to be all three. In fact, it was the perfect situation for someone who wanted to live out the story that had enchanted me my whole life, and I threw myself into it wholeheartedly. Modest as the ministry was (the eyes of the flesh would likely call it pathetic), it was still the first time that I had a captive audience of people to look at and listen to me every week, and even within a small orbit, being the center of attention is what fame is. But I found that what came along with fame and the heroic story was a whole lot of really hard work with seemingly little payoff and occasionally downright suffering and despair. In the stories I was used to, the very difficult, painful, and demoralizing times always had a bit of romance and nobility around them, but that’s not how they were in real life. In real life they totally sucked; there’s really no better way to put it. The tedious parts in the stories (like all the walking in any journey tale) are elided by the author into a page or two so as not to lose the reader’s attention. But in real life you endure every second of them in all their boring, unabridged dreariness. And this is intrinsic to fame; I’m sure it’s true of almost everyone who has earned fame and maintained it for any appreciable length of time: the stuff beyond the camera’s eye that no one else sees, regardless of how their story differs from mine.

As it happened, after all that hard work and tedium I concluded my ministry in that church with my personal story unconcluded. I left the church far more stable and better off than I had found it, which was well worth celebrating and giving thanks for, but it hadn’t turned around. The hero didn’t win; the miracle didn’t happen. So I went to my next church, which though still small was considerably larger than the first and where I was correspondingly more famous both within the church and in the community. And sure enough, the work was much harder and the suffering much, much more severe.

But I’m getting ahead of my story. The second thing that I discovered about fame while I was at my first church actually had nothing to do with being the pastor of a church. It had to do with being a contestant on Jeopardy! Really. Now it happens that when you’re a contestant on Jeopardy! (I’m just warning you for when it happens to you) you sign a legal waiver about as thick as a phone book that may yield Sony Pictures Studios and/or the estate of Merv Griffin the rights to your firstborn child. But one thing it definitely says is that you can’t tell anybody (except, the non-lawyer contestant coordinators tell you, your spouse and your boss, maybe your parents) that you’re on the show or what happens while you’re on it under penalty of death (or something). So it wasn’t until two days before the air date that I told everyone I knew all over the world that I was going to be on the show if they happened to want to tune in. That night we had a party at the church parsonage with guests from at least three different social circles of my wife’s and mine to watch the show. And I won (with “What is Indiana?”). Celebration reigned. The phone calls started pouring in, then the e-mails the next day. People I had lost touch with were finding me and congratulating me. I was featured on my college’s website and in their alumni publication, also (strangely) the Marion (Ind.) Chronicle-Tribune. (Note: I’m not from Indiana. That’s where my alma mater is.) I was stopped by strangers at stores. I spoke to my son’s kindergarten class. It was amazing. This was, like, real fame—people nationwide seeing me, strangers knowing my name. And most powerfully of all, finally, really, indisputably being the center of attention of basically everyone I knew or perhaps had ever known. It was awesome.

Then, the next night, I lost (by missing “What is ‘queue’?”). It was funny: I knew I was going to lose, but I found myself weirdly hoping that what would happen on TV would differ from what happened in a studio in Culver City two months before. The run ended 24 and a half hours after it began. I got a few calls and a few e-mails, and then that was it. Everyone (Alex Trebek included) went back to their own lives, being the central characters in their own stories, and I was back to being much lonelier in mine. And in that moment I understood for the first time why certain celebrities do utterly embarrassing, self-disgracing things to keep themselves on TV and celebrity mags: the attention of other people is the most addicting drug on the planet. I had a one-day dose of it (well, portions of it lingered through the week), and I already felt a sharp jolt in the withdrawal. Frankly, I don’t know how actual celebrities who have grown accustomed to it over years and then lose it handle the experience. (I guess like Sunset Boulevard.)

A little later, while I was at my next church, I had some other experiences that continued the shift in my attitude toward fame. A big part was my deepening relationship with my friend Ted, whose writing career had begun to blossom, and I was eagerly living that with him and cheering him on. Over the years I got to see Ted dealing with the accoutrements of fame that I wouldn’t have known or expected: not only being famous but then not being famous, but also being famous but not being as famous as that guy, being famous but getting flamed on message boards, being famous but struggling to land the next project and provide for one’s family, being famous but wrestling with sucking up to someone more famous to keep working. It was also through Ted that I found myself in the living room of someone else who was just starting to be famous, then later became fairly famous (in one Christian sphere). That person seemed not terribly unlike me, and as months and years passed I found myself wanting a seat at the same table of fame he had been invited to but realizing that I wasn’t going to get one. It was the identical experience of looking enviously at the cool kids’ exclusive lunch table in junior high. That renewed experience sickened me, and it sickened me that I was sickened by it.

Ted was also the person who pointed out to me that it has only been fairly recently that a pastor would even consider that he might become famous. For a long time (though not in all times and places) being a pastor was like being a plumber: you could expect a lifetime of doing a humble job with a modest degree of being known and respected in a local community, and that was it. In the Megachurch/Conference Circuit/Book Deal/Blogosphere Era, however, stocked as it is with celebrity pastors, every pastor thinks at some time or another, “If I just get ________ to happen in this church, people will know my name too” (see earlier post). We may or may not indulge that thought, but we can’t help thinking it.

But then I realized that pastors aren’t the only ones thinking this. We have even more recently entered the Facebook/Twitter/YouTube Era, in which everyone thinks this. Everyone has the opportunity to “Broadcast Yourself” courtesy of YouTube, and everyone has a shot of their cute video going viral and landing oneself on The Today Show. Everyone (in theory) gets to have “followers” eagerly following them on Twitter to gain intimate access to their lives. And everyone can make themselves the center of attention on Facebook, whose very structure is designed to enable a person to construct their public persona (“Here’s what I like . . . here’s what I do . . . here’s what I’m thinking . . . ”) around which the rest of one’s world can revolve. Everyone, no matter how small the circle, can make oneself the center. Everyone can be famous—or at least try to.

Please don’t think that the irony that I am analyzing this and exposing my soul on my own blog named after myself is lost on me. I can say, though, that I’ve (at least half the time) gotten beyond writing here for the sake of who or how many might read. My journey with fame, particularly the aforementioned hard work and suffering associated with it, has brought me to a point that I never thought I’d come to. It’s a point where I’d rather not be famous, a point where I like the notion of proceeding through a whole life of not being known and not having to pay the costs associated with being known. That sentiment is not total; I feel the old, vain urge reemerge from time to time. But my general attitude, I think, is over that. That might be godliness. It might be simple, natural maturity. But it might also be fear.

Because here’s the thing: the Bible says not to seek fame (that’s how I take the prohibitions against “selfish ambition”), but it doesn’t say not to have it. Lots of godly people in the Bible had it, and they had it not because they strove for it but because it came as a result of doing exactly what God wanted them to do. (Moses and David spring to mind.) I think that God has had me on a journey to come eventually to prefer being unknown to being famous, but that’s not the final stop. The next stop is to prefer God being famous such that it really doesn’t matter whether I am famous or not. Note that this is not quite the same thing as what precedes. No doubt it is preferable to desire to be low than to desire to be high, because this is what Jesus did. But this calculation is still about self—it’s about where I am. Much better to say, “God, if me being a nobody will work to accrue to your fame in this world, then I will do that. But if me being a somebody will do it, then I will do that instead. I really don’t care one way or the other as long as you get more fame in this world.” That is really what Jesus did.

In the end, my long-held and now only barely surrendered desire to be famous has, at its root, doubt. When I want to be famous in this world, I quite simply doubt the reality of the kingdom of God—I doubt that it is here; I doubt that it is coming; I doubt that it is precious like the treasure hidden in the field or the expensive pearl; I doubt that it contains rewards that far surpass those of this age; I doubt that it is eternal. And when I seek God’s kingdom, I don’t reject my fame so much as I embrace his. I have faith, without which I cannot please God, because I believe that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Heb. 11:6). I realign myself in the solar system of glory: no longer desiring to be kindled into white-hot flame but happy to bask in his blazing radiance, reflecting it brightly to all who see me, revolving around him forever as the center.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Mentality of Spiritual Wealth

So let me tell you what's been blowing my mind for the past few days.

On Monday I attended a workshop based on (but just scratching the surface of) a book entitled Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, which is based on the work of educator Ruby K. Payne.  The basic premise of the book is that the differences between the upper class (inherited wealth), middle class, and lower class (generational poverty) are at least as much mental as financial.

An interruption here to clarify that last sentence.  First, the book asserts that these three classes are not neat, airtight categories.  All people fall along a continuum from extremely poor to extremely rich without clear lines separating when one group ends and another begins.  Second, this is looking at patterns of wealth over generations.  So a person isn't considered to be in the upper class based on how much money the person has but based on how many generations the person's family has had that much money.  So also with the other classes.  Consequently, depending on the fluidity of the society there may be many people who don't fit neatly into any one class because their family's position has moved up and down over time.  Third, in this schema the middle class is a broad category, encompassing everyone from financially stressed but thrifty, steadily employed folks to self-made millionaires.  What binds together such disparate people is their common approach to the world.

That brings us back to where I left off.  Bridges Out of Poverty investigates the differences between "old money," the middle class, and the generationally poor that go far beyond how much money they have.  The classes think differently and approach the world differently.  They have different beliefs about what money is for; they view and use time, food, and humor differently; they have different reasons for wanting to be a charming, affable person; their families are structured differently; and they have different motivations that compel them toward different concepts of their destiny.

Here's an example.  A typical person accustomed to poverty is focused on immediate survival, so their view of time doesn't extend much beyond getting through the present moment, and money, when acquired, is to be spent immediately toward that objective.  If such a person receives a windfall—as large as signing a huge professional athletic contract or as modest as an Earned Income Tax Credit refund—that amount of money doesn’t change the person’s basic approach to money and time.  Since getting through the moment is what matters, since money is to be spent, and since there is little belief that a person’s choices can change anything about their destiny, the temporarily rich person still uses the money like a poor person, using it to generate momentary satisfaction with one’s friends and thereby burning through it rapidly.

While the typical person in generational poverty has the small time horizon of a day or two, the typical middle class person has a time horizon stretching over weeks, months, years, or a lifetime.  For this person, money is meant to be managed, not spent, so that it will last through some defined, intermediate future.  But the typical heir of “old money” looks much farther than that.  For this person, ensuring that their needs are met is a non-issue.  But they recognize that their status and security is the result of generations prior and carries with it the responsibility to extend it to generations to come, so money is meant to be conserved and invested.  A generationally wealthy person’s time horizon extends far beyond the span of their own life in both directions.

This got my wife and me thinking, what are the applications of these observations to spiritual wealth, as for example in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, he became poor for your sakes, so that you by his poverty could become rich”?  All of us started out spiritually poor, and everyone who is in Christ has become spiritually rich (see e.g. Eph. 1-3).  But not everyone who has received these riches has had the change of mind to start living like a rich person.

Some people received the riches of God’s grace to be forgiven and reconciled to himself and were delighted about it.  They were cleansed and guaranteed eternal life.  But sometimes they doubt it once they’ve committed a sin.  They wonder, am I really saved?  Will God really forgive me?  They fall down and plead for God’s mercy or avoid him in fear, a corner of them hoping that he will still include them in his family.  All they’re looking for spiritually is assurance of salvation, because they’re not confident that the mercy they received yesterday will carry over to today.  If they think about anything else, it’s about getting God’s help to get through some earthly crisis right now—sickness, divorce, etc.—or the hope that someday in heaven it won’t be like this anymore.  This saved individual has all spiritual wealth in Christ but lives like a poor person, entirely focused on the present moment, questioning whether the mercy of God is available and then using his gift of salvation—perhaps also using corporate worship—as an escape from a hard life, and that’s all.

Some Christians act like the spiritual middle class.  They also are delighted to be saved by grace, but they long for something more.  They recognize their present lack of Christ-likeness and see in Jesus the great resources to enable them to change and become godly in their thinking and conduct.  Their spiritual time horizon extends from conversion until death, and they are looking to receive and manage the resources of God’s grace to develop a career of holiness over the course of their earthly journey—or at least until old age, at which they may retire from the spiritual ordeal and live off the dividends of godliness that they spent their Christian life steadily amassing.  Because these Christians look beyond the day-to-day far enough to see the gap between who they are and who God wants them to be, they invest themselves heavily in a variety of means of spiritual growth (daily Bible reading and weekly small groups come to mind).  However, they do not invest themselves heavily in anything that extends Christ-likeness beyond themselves.

But some Christians begin to recognize just how much spiritual wealth they have received in Christ, and it changes their approach to their spiritual life.  They act like the wealthy people that they are.  They give little thought to whether God’s grace is sufficient to save them and keep them though they never cease to be thankful for it.  Likewise they do not doubt that God will exercise his mighty power to conform them to the image of his Son and keep them to the end though they do apply themselves to that end.  Their main focus is on extending the wealth they have received in Christ to future generations, spiritual sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters who in turn will pass on the riches of God’s grace to still others.  They think far beyond their own life’s journey and into the life-journeys of others, journeys that they know will be reunited with theirs for eternity.  These Christians seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and though they may be financially poor they make many spiritually rich, because though they have nothing, they know they possess everything.  Their engagement in the church revolves around taking the wealth of Jesus by whatever means God makes available to those who have not received it yet.

The fact that a person may be financially poor yet behave like a spiritually rich person indicates that just as one’s earthly possessions don’t necessarily correlate to one’s heavenly ones, one’s worldly mindset may not correlate to one’s spiritual mindset either.  In other words, a person could handle the riches of this life as a poor person does but handle the true riches of eternity as the wealthy do.  Even so, I can’t help but wonder if a person’s bias toward handling spiritual wealth is naturally influenced by their approach to material wealth.  I also wonder if each church has a collective spiritual worldview as poor, middle-class, or rich like individuals do.  America is a predominantly middle-class nation, and most of its churches are composed of mostly middle-class people.  Are most of these churches spiritually middle-class too?  Are most of them bent on salvation and spiritual growth but missing the boat on mission?  Might that explain why Christian books sell as fast today as ever yet the percentage of disciples of Jesus in our nation’s population stays the same decade after decade?  What would a host of churches that think like spiritual “old money” look like?  Or rather, what would our nation look like if it was filled with such churches?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

When Becoming Nothing Is an Improvement

Yet another good article from Francis Frangipane.  Its title (copied as the title of this post) says it all.  God creates something out of nothing, and what he creates is good.  So being nothing can be a fine thing.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Anniversary Redesign

Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of 1st Corynthians.  Even though the frequency of posting is down from those zealous and buoyant early days of the blog, the fact that it's still going with some regularity is, I've found, no small feat in the world of blogging, where bloggers start with high hopes and great ambition that comes crashing down when no one is paying you to do it.  So the fact that it's still going after two years is something to celebrate, and I'm celebrating by redesigning the look of the site.  I hope that you like it enough to keep reading for the next two years.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tebow in the Lions' Den

Hey, readers.  Long time, no post.  Sorry about that.  I do have a number of ideas in the proverbial hopper that I want to get onto the blog and will soon.

Until then, I direct you to a post by Ted Kluck on certain Detroit Lions' mockery of Tim Tebow's trademark post-touchdown prayer.  I don't hide the fact that I like Ted's post a great deal.  But I also find the comments unusually interesting.  It's fascinating seeing Evangelicals who engage in groupthink in so many matters having such contrasting opinions of Tim Tebow's public persona.


And along those lines, have you given thought to how comfortable you will be with Tim Tebow as an Evangelical gatekeeper?  For a long time when the media wanted an Evangelical (or, as they usually named it, Fundamentalist) quote they would go to a few "reliable" sources—Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson come to mind, and eventually James Dobson and Ralph Reid.  But in the middle of the last decade—I think the turning point was the reelection of George W. Bush—the media started digging deeper and discovering more diversity and more of the beating heart of Evangelicalism than the tiny number of talking heads had given them access to.  But as time goes on the media could grow tired of putting in that much work and look for a new gatekeeper.  Tim Tebow's playing days will likely be over by then and his post-football public career (Congress?) will have begun.  Do you think he'll represent you well on Meet the Press?  For my part, I like him as a spokesman better than Falwell.  I'm not sure how much better.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Purifying Judgment

In 3:16-4:1 of his book, the prophet Isaiah proclaims a searing warning of doom on the women who live in Jerusalem.  Though at the time of the prophecy those wealthy women were richly adorned, pampering themselves in their beauty and strutting with pride, their city would be devastated, and they would be widowed, befouled, degraded, and desperately impoverished in the process.

But then Isaiah's prophecy takes a jarring turn.
At that time
the crops given by the LORD will bring admiration and honor;
the produce of the land will be a source of pride and delight
to those who remain in Israel.
Those remaining in Zion, those left in Jerusalem,
will be called "holy,"
all in Jerusalem who are destined to live.
At that time the sovereign master will wash the excrement from Zion's women,
he will rinse the bloodstains from Jerusalem's midst,
as he comes to judge
and to bring devastation.
Then the LORD will create
over all of Mount Zion
and over its convocations
a cloud and smoke by day
and a bright flame of fire by night;
indeed a canopy will accompany the LORD's glorious presence.
By day it will be a shelter to provide shade from the heat,
as well as safety and protection from the heavy downpour [4:2-6].
 
There are certain principles that I have learned to employ when reading Old Testament prophecy from an apostolic, New Testament perspective.  One of these principles is, when I see "Jerusalem," first I look at what fulfillment there might have been for the Jerusalem of the time of the prophecy.  Then I look for a fulfillment for the church.  I do this largely because of Paul's teaching about two Jerusalems, earthly and heavenly, in Galatians 4:21-31 (compare to the similar typology in Heb. 12:22-24) and because John's vision of the New Jerusalem also seems to be a symbolic way of describing the church (compare the wife/bride imagery in Eph. 5:22-33 with Rev. 19:6-9; 21:1-22:5—which, by the way, has significant implications for interpreting the Book of Revelation).  This interpretation of the apostles is linked to Jesus' claim to fulfill all the Old Testament Scriptures in himself and to the picture of the church as the body of Christ.  I mention all of this because perhaps this interpretive principle will prove helpful to you when you read the prophets as well.

But I also mention it because it elevates the power and import of Isaiah's prophecy for us.  What does God say through Isaiah is his ultimate plan for the church?
  • The church will experience prosperity and blessing arising from harmony with the earth.
  • All believers will be holy—the special possession of God by association and affinity with him.
  • The filth and degrading results of our sins will be scoured away.
  • We will be overshadowed by the visible presence of the God who saved us even more broadly than what the Exodus generation experienced (a canopy as opposed to a pillar or local cloud).
  • We will be permanently protected from all trouble.
Could there be a more wonderful destiny for the church than this?  But let's look at the third part of this, God's cleansing of the degrading filth of our sins.  The NET here says that the Lord does this "as he comes to judge and to bring devastation" (v. 4).  A literal rendering of the Hebrew is "by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning."  "Judgment and . . . burning" may describe God's attitude as he washes and rinses, or it may describe the Holy Spirit's role in this process (or perhaps these are the same thing).  But either way, judgment and burning are part of God's plan for his people, part of his indescribably wonderful destiny for them.  It reminds me of a similar prophecy by Malachi that in one breath describes the coming Lord as "a refiner's fire" and "a launderer's soap" (3:2).

But it also reminds me of what Jesus and the apostles say about the church's experience of cleansing judgment.  Jesus says when describing the end of the age that
they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you.  You will be hated by all nations because of my name.  Then many will be led into sin, and they will betray one another and hate one another.  And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many, and because lawlessness will increase so much, the love of many will grow cold.  But the person who endures to the end will be saved. . . . For then there will be great suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the world until now, or ever will happen.  And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved.  But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short [Matt. 24:9-13, 21-22].
Let's understand this clearly.  God's plan is for there to be vicious persecution of the church and enormous suffering, in part so that people who claim to be Christians but are not truly among those chosen by God will show their true colors and betray the rest, will follow false teaching, or will launch themselves headlong into sin.  That way those who remain true will demonstrate themselves really to belong to God and be saved.  This painful sifting is a judgment on the church, but it is not to condemn it (how could it be?) but to purify it.

What Jesus is talking about sounds like some really big and bad thing that's going to happen in the future, at the very end.  But the apostles believed that this had already begun in their lifetimes.  Peter wrote to his persecuted readers,
Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. . . . For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God.  And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God?  And if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners? [1 Pet. 4:12-13, 17-18].
Paul echoes this theme when talking about the Lord's Supper.  He warns the Corinthians that if a person eats the body of Christ (the bread) without paying due respect to the body of Christ (the church, i.e., his/her brothers and sisters in the Lord), then that person "eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged.  But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world" (1 Cor. 11:29-32).  Once again, God is scouring away sins from Christ's bride so that she may be perfectly radiant and able to receive the immeasurable, loving blessing that he has for her.

This all sounds like a downsizing process for the church, and in one way it is.  But this winnowing can and often does go hand in hand with numerical growth.  Peter and Paul wrote of this purifying judgment of the church during one of the most (perhaps the most) explosive periods of growth in the church's history.  And Jesus himself promised that the end of the age would not only feature persecution, apostasy, betrayal, and false doctrine, but also that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole inhabited earth as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come" (Matt. 24:14).

This pattern happens to the universal church throughout the ages, and it happens to local churches as well.  God wants to give his people so much, but he comes with fire and judgment, with soap and hot water to make us fit to receive it.  He will get what he wants—a purified church.  But to a certain extent how we experience his purification lies in our hands.  Granted, many great saints have suffered severely for nothing other than doing the right thing, just like Jesus did.  But then there are saints like the sick and the dead in Corinth.  Their physical affliction was a judgment for thinking entirely about themselves and disrespecting their brothers and sisters while partaking of such a holy thing as the Lord's Supper.  Ultimately they are saved; their sickness and even premature death was God's discipline to shield them from being condemned with the world.  However, God was bent on removing sin from his people on this earth even in the 1st century, and if the only way to remove the sin was to remove the sinning believer as well, then so be it.

And that's really the choice we have.  When we became part of the church, we were enrolled in a cleaning machine.  The excrement and blood and vomit on us, the residue of our sinfulness, will be removed from the church; there's no question about it.  The only question is whether we cling to our sinfulness so tightly that the only way to get rid of it is to get rid of us.  In the end, after our resurrection, we'll all rest under the glorious canopy of cloud and fire in the New Jerusalem, but how we get there is another issue.

I don't know about you, but I want to hate my sin and its results in me.  I want when God comes to scour me clean to be delighted to let that stuff go.  I don't want to make his job and my experience any more difficult than it already is.  And the last thing that I want is for my experience in the church in this life to be one of getting yanked out of it somehow because I refused to let my sin get yanked out of me.  I would much rather linger with the saints and experience the foretaste of the glory of the Jerusalem to come.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Worship of David

So my quest through 1 Chronicles continues.  It's going slower because I'm engaged in another study right now and am only squeezing in about a chapter a week.  But the pace of the book itself generally picked up after moving out of the opening genealogies in chapters 1-11 and into the reign of David.  But then it ground into intricate and difficult territory again.

See, with a few notable exceptions, the Chronicler uses 1 Chronicles 12-21 to mirror the account of David's reign in 2 Samuel.  But while 2 Samuel ends with the sin of David's census and the punishment that followed it, the Chronicler uses that episode as a hinge into a long account (chs. 22-29) of how David made preparations for the temple that Solomon would build on the very spot where David's offering stopped the plague.  (Incidentally, this was also the spot where God provided Abraham with the sacrificial substitute for his son Isaac.)

The bulk of this third and final section of 1 Chronicles, specifically chapters 23-27, is back to the kind of material that we find in the genealogies—tedious and confusing (though less of the latter).  There is great detail about which families were engaged in temple service, who the contemporary heads of the families were, in what order they served, and what exactly they did.  But this section also portrays a different David than we see elsewhere—not the valiant warrior, the persecuted outlaw, the ardent lover (of women physically and of men emotionally), the revered monarch, or the passionate mystic.  This David is the consummate organizer, one of the roles we are used to seeing his son Solomon play.

But while Solomon applied his organizational talent to the civic life of the nation, we find that David invested it in Israel's religious life.  After the conquest and settlement of Canaan, some priests worked at various local "high places," but there was no organization and no central place of worship.  The Levites, who had been completely centered around transporting the mobile tabernacle, lost their jobs almost entirely when the tabernacle stopped moving.  In these chapters of 1 Chronicles David institutes a massive reform of the nation's religious life, assigning specific roles and responsibilities to priests and Levites, organizing their activity, and bringing the worship of Yahweh a long step closer to complete centralization.

Though this is a "different David" than the one we might be used to, we could learn a lesson by not pressing the difference too far.  David was a worshiper in his bones.  Both the emotion and individuality of his psalms and the nitty-gritty details of his Levitical reorganization are genuine expressions of his worshiping identity (though very different ones).

Many of us, either personally or just culturally, have emerged from an era in which worship was assumed to be a ritual produced by careful organization.  Significant resources (time, money, people, skill, and thought) of the worshiping community were bent toward making an event happen on Sunday morning with mostly inflexible and meticulously prescribed steps.  And if the worshiping community that gathered for that event successfully followed those steps—prelude? check; choral introit? check . . . —then everyone could go home satisfied that worship had taken place.

In the Jesus Movement of the 1970s a new concept of worship emerged that was radically different.  Even if the community was gathered, worship was believed to be deeply individual.  Ideal worship was spontaneous (even if over time what had once been spontaneous imperceptibly became routine).  And worship wasn't about the steps the group took but the intensity of emotion one experienced in the presence of God.

These starkly contrasting understandings of worship clashed for decades (in many places even now) in what came to be called "the worship wars."  All most people could see most of the time were two different styles of music and their respective corpuses of songs.  But the music was just the expression of a more basic clash between two different ideas of what worship is.  These two concepts of worship have appeared in many places and times throughout Christian history, not infrequently clashing as in America in the last few decades.  Each keeps arising not because one is of God and the other is the devil's repeated attack on the church.  They keep arising because they are both biblical.  One is the worship of the David of 1 Chronicles.  The other is of the David of the Psalms.

It is essential that we recognize that these two different concepts of worship came from the same David.  It was the same David who worshiped God by painstakingly organizing which clan of Levites sang on which week of the year and who also composed the embarrassingly personal songs that those Levites sang.  Despite how most people today are inclined to see these concepts of worship as an either-or, they are a both-and.

As I stated previously, many people today are emerging or have emerged from a culture of worship that seemed to be nothing more than a ritual checklist that a person could sleepwalk through and not know the difference (and unfortunately many still do).  These people believe they have been liberated from captivity and don't want to go back, so they are suspicious and defensive toward anything that smacks of ritual, considering it to be spiritually inferior.  Though their sentiment is understandable, they must remember the example of David.  The world has never seen a worshiper as Spirit-filled, wholehearted, and genuine as he, but he was keenly concerned with liturgy and structure.  He could even be called a traditionalist, because the purpose of his innovations was to sustain the tradition of the Exodus in the new setting of a settled nation.  It is also worth noting that the most avant-garde worship leaders today are those who were baptized into "contemporary" worship style and who have begun blending it with such ancient rituals as the Christian Year, the Stations of the Cross, and prayer candles, because they sensed that the worship they had been leading was missing something.

David is the quintessential worshiper both in the passionate intimacy of his psalms and in the liturgical exactitude of his reforms.  Would that each and all of us worshiped like David.

Monday, October 3, 2011

In Christ's Image Training

From time to time I link to an article by Francis Frangipane, a teacher whose wisdom and insight I respect.  Pastor Frangipane consistently lists four concepts that form the substance of his life, teaching, and ministry: Christlikeness, humility, prayer, and Christian unity.  These are constantly exhibited in his writing.

One of Pastor Frangipane's ministry endeavors is a distance-learning program in those four fundamentals called In Christ's Image Training.  There are several levels of certification and accountability including a free written materials-only version.


I want to make clear that I haven't taken this course myself and can't comment on it from personal experience.  But I have yet to be disappointed or uneasy about anything I have read by Pastor Frangipane.  I'm mentioning this here in case that there is some reader who is hungering for Christlikeness, humility, prayer, and unity that the Holy Spirit stimulates to take this course.

Friday, September 30, 2011

I Feel Your Pain. Period.

There's a clever lyric by Stephen Sondheim in his masterwork (and my favorite musical) Into the Woods in which Little Red Riding Hood, right after her close encounter with the Wolf, recounts what she learned from the experience.  She concludes, "Nice is different than good."

This op-ed piece by David Brooks, "The Limits of Empathy," makes a related point.  Empathy, he says, is a valuable skill in social relationships, but it is neither a substitute for nor a motivator to actual good deeds for other people.  In terms of Christian development, it is a reminder that the goal of discipleship isn't niceness but Christlikeness.  It's also a reminder that there is more (though not less) to being a good church than being nice.  There's also being godly.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Age of Insecurity: A Meditation on College Football Realignment (and Stuff)

I'm a Syracuse University Orange fan.  You may know that as of yesterday my school is partly responsible for blowing up Division I Football Bowl Subdivision conference affiliations (and goodness knows what else). I say "partly" not only because they were joined by the University of Pittsburgh in their move from the Big East Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and not only because the ACC accepted them, and not only because Texas A&M started the latest round of tremors by seeking to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, and not only because last year the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 while Nebraska made the Big 11 (I mean, 10) into the Big 12 (I still mean 10, or do I mean the B1G, however you pronounce that?), etc.

I also say "partly" because media giants, most prominently The Worldwide Sports Leader, ESPN, will not stop fidgeting until they find the most lucrative way to present college football to the consuming public, which is to say never.  And I say "partly" because such media giants looking to sell more "news" to an already supersaturated public will report any speculation via unnamed sources or outright opinion to get another view, listen, or click until such speculation comes true.  And I say "partly" because I'm one of the people who keeps clicking.

(Incidentally, I think conference realignment should be reclassified as a metasport, that is to say, a sport about a sport.  It is its own competition with its own fan base and definition of winners and losers.  It actually could gain enough of a following to make it attractive to keep going year after year [I mean, season after season].  One could even imagine a fan who cheers on his favorite school in the metasport without ever watching a game in the actual sport.  The games on the field would really just be practice for the real thing of jockeying for position to be the school with the best affiliations.)

The weird relationship between the desires of the schools and the desires of the media that broadcast and promote the schools seems to me to represent perfectly the overall life of our civilization, probably in more ways than I know.  Simply stated, perception is reality: confidence produces the conditions that confidence should be based on, and lack of confidence does the same.  In this case, the administrations of Syracuse and Pittsburgh believed their conference to be unstable.  As a result of their belief, the conference became unstable.  I don't mean by this that they had no sound reason to believe that their conference was unstable, but I do mean that if they had drawn the opposite conclusion from the data at their disposal, they might have changed their environment by making it more secure rather than less.  In the same way, they believed that the ACC was more stable, and now, thanks in part to their action, it is.  Prophecy fulfilled, wish granted.

Our entire communal life is dominated by the same principle at work.  If actors in financial markets believe the economy to be stable, their consequent actions cause it to be stable.  If they believe it to be unstable, their actions destabilize it.  If businesses believe that there is rising demand for their products and services, they will hire more people, which puts more money in their pockets, which creates more demand.  If they believe that demand is stagnant or declining, they will make hiring decisions accordingly with similar results.  If workers believe they are going to lose their jobs, they will save their money, which, because it isn't transferred to businesses by purchases, causes workers to lose their jobs.

It's not always economic either.  If people in a neighborhood believe that it is safe to walk at night, then they will walk at night, see each other, and keep each other safe.  Otherwise they will stay inside with the shades down, and those few who do walk will be exposed to danger.  If people believe that they will be attacked imminently by terrorists, then they are terrorized.  It even happens in churches.  If people believe that a church is on the rise, it will grow.  If they believe that a church is in decline, it will.

When FDR proclaimed that the only thing to fear is fear itself, he was on to something.

What fascinates me about the seismic shifts in college athletics is that the insecurity there exemplifies the insecurity that is reaching its way into almost every area of our lives.  It has been quite some time since individuals and institutions had so little confidence in and among each other.  Just as colleges feel insecure and lack trust that their conferences will be able to meet their needs, so also is businesses' lack of trust that the market will sustain increased hiring.  So also is people's lack of trust that governments can govern, that banks won't trigger another catastrophe, that employers will retain one's job, that one will have the money to pay for college (for self or children) or retire or care for an aging loved one, that a severe illness can be treated and won't thrust one into poverty, that society won't devolve into moral disaster, that churches won't collapse amid an emerging generation with scant relationship to religious institutions.  Pessimism has become the assumption—and the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh's move stimulated a small but significant burst of (ironic) commentaries denouncing the immorality of the colleges' decision and college sports in general in very strong terms.  It got me thinking about what the biblical, Christian evaluation of conference realignment ought to be.  There is definitely immorality about it, but I'm not sure that blunt accusations of greed, hypocrisy, and so forth form the place to start.  I mean, without a doubt, sheer ego in certain colleges and their leaders has a lot to do with why this school does this and that school does that.  And ego breeds hypocrisy real quick.  But I'm not sure that greed is quite the thing to accuse college presidents of.  These are, after all, nonprofit institutions.  The money they get from sports isn't lining owners' pockets but funding all manner of things that the universities are trying not to gouge students for any more than they already have to.  If there is greed in this it belongs with the for-profit enterprises that cover, distribute, and promote the games on the field.  But I also hesitate before railing too hard against the avaracious ways of Big Media.  The executives of ESPN/ABC, Fox, CBS, and the like have to satisfy shareholders or else they (and a whole lot of people working for them) lose their jobs.  And the shareholders just happen to include anyone who owns a slice of a mutual fund directly or through a pension board.  In other words, anyone who wants to retire someday.  You know, like us.

Where I see the immorality the most is not so much in individual institutions' individual decisions—in most cases the complexity of those decisions puts them beyond my capacity (and responsibility!) to judge.  But I see immorality in the overall environment in college sports (and, again, our society as a whole) in which the relational qualities that God displays and requires are fast disappearing.

"The conference" as a concept is a web of mutual relationships.  (Consider other meanings of its synonym "league.")  At root, at any level of competition, it is a shared agreement that greatly reduces the headache for teams of figuring out and scheduling who we're going play this year.  Obviously, as it so often does, money complicates, distorts, and even perverts that web of relationships.  Painfully often, the result is a breach of what Israel called hesed—faithful kindness in covenant, which God never fails to show to us, even to his own hurt.  The more hesed fails to appear, the less there is to go around and the less it's even expected.  A world without hesed is a world without justice, and a world without justice is a world without shalom.  And shalom—peace, wholeness, perfection—is what God created the world and humanity especially to exhibit as a reflection of its Creator.  In sum, whether any of us can accurately fix blame to individual actors in the world of college sports (we can't, God can), the shredding and shedding of relationships amid this tectonic shift tells us that something is profoundly wrong.

And that, ironically, is where I see moral good in college sports realignment.  Because despite my assertion that perception is reality, that's not entirely true.  There is always reality that persists underneath whether it is perceived or not.  Despite the perception a few years ago that investment in real estate was a sure thing and that home prices would never stop going up, there was the uncomfortable reality that not everyone pays back their loans all the time.  No web of relationships in this world—private or public, personal or business, between individuals or between institutions or between each—is as stable as it seems.  "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."  When one web unravels suddenly and shockingly, when there is the ever-present fear that all the others will unspin themselves, it is a disturbing reminder of the impermanence of this sin-infected age, a slap across our face.  Meanwhile, the only reality that does persist, constantly chafing against the Babels erected against it, is that God's kingdom is forever.  We only achieve the security and the stability we long for if we give up our hopes to find it in any "conference" but his.

"The God of heaven will raise up an everlasting kingdom that will not be destroyed and a kingdom that will not be left to another people.  It will break in pieces and bring about the demise of all the other kingdoms.  But it will stand forever" (Dan. 2:44).  Hallelujah.