Thursday, October 31, 2019

I Believe

Tuesday in ministry team meeting Taylor offered a devotional that has had me thinking ever since.  [Editor's Note: Devotionals at ministry team meeting regularly have me thinking long after the meeting is over, and are one of my favorite things.  I work with super smart people who read a lot more than I do, and I appreciate them!]  He talked about the confirmation class from Sunday in which he had the confirmands consider their beliefs as they related to the Apostles' Creed.  After that, they were instructed to write or draw their beliefs.  He handed us each the same activity page he had handed them, and we spent the next few minutes considering our belief and how we might represent it on the page.

Years ago I wrote an essay for "This I Believe."  (As it turns out, you can still find it on their website:  To sum it up, when I wrote that essay (almost 15 years ago!) I asserted that life's answers are seldom cut and dried, seldom black and white.  Life's answers are messy and gray.  Current me agrees.  It still rings true.

That said, as I was thinking on this Tuesday, it got a little more complicated than that because it occurred to me that belief doesn't exist outside of people.  That is, a person holds a belief, and without a person to hold it, there is no belief.

On top of that, a great sermon by Arun Jones called Living into Difference has been rattling around in my head ever since he preached it, and I've found a number of times in recent weeks it has influenced my thinking.  One of my takeaways from his sermon is that if we are to exist as the family of God, then we will have to learn to understand our differences with each other even when we find those differences repulsive and vile.

This is what I wound up drawing on my paper.

Each circle represents the belief of a person.  It's not that truth is neither the belief of one nor the other.  Rather, it's that truth lies in the intersection of the two: truth is both the belief of one and the belief of the other...even and maybe especially when that seems impossible.

I wrote these last few paragraphs and then got in a tussle with myself, because I'm not sure I, uh, believe it.  After all, there are certainly cases in which one is right and the other is wrong.  But this graphic isn't intended to settle factual disputes that are empirically provable.  I also gave myself a good talking to about the ways in which belief is informed by experience...and that belief does not beget fact.  It's not always true when two people disagree that one is right and the other wrong, but that is sometimes true.

Moreover, this drawing may seem to imply that there are "good people on all sides."  I guess that's exactly what I'm saying, though I would hasten to add that while good exists in all of us, so also does evil...and it is entirely up to us which of those two endeavors we choose to pursue.

There is inside all of us a voice or an urging that calls us to our better selves.  You can call it the Spirit, maybe.  Or the Divine Spark within.  Some people repress and ignore it.  Some even silence it.  But it's there.  That, I believe, is Truth.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Bible Is Broken

If you've worshiped at Decatur First a few times, you may have noticed that our services tend to be thematically unified.  What I mean by that is we pick the hymns, anthems, texts, prayers, and even other service music to go along with the message of the sermon.  Not just the preaching text, mind you, but the actual idea that we think the sermon will convey.  It can be something of an inexact science because we have to pick out anthems and such about eight weeks before a given service, but the preacher won't typically start putting details on the sermon until the week prior.  Still, most of the time we can get close.  Sometimes we totally nail it.  I felt like this past weekend was a good example of getting the hymns just right.

Nearly all of the time the sermon at all three of our worship services is the same, which means most of the time the hymns and other music works as well.  Every now and then, though, the preacher will be different from one service to the next, as happened this past weekend.  I didn't notice when I was picking out the music, but I noticed something funny on Sunday morning.

Image result for something funny
To die.  Alone.  In the rain.  Poor, sad chicken.
Not that kind of funny.
Image result for hmmmm
Yes.  That kind of funny.

The sermon title for the 8:45 service was "Just Be."  It was a fantastic exegesis of John 15 in which we are told to abide in Christ and his love for us.  More or less, the idea is that we can't earn our way into the good place, regardless of what the sitcom would have you believe.  It's not about the things we do as much as it is our relationship with Christ.  Just be, man.  Just be.  So we sang "The King of Love My Shepherd Is," a paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm that reminds us how Jesus provides for our needs and safekeeping.  We sang "Seek ye first he Kingdom of God...and all these things shall be added unto you."  We finished with "Children of the Heavenly Father."  What says abiding more than taking refuge in the arms of God?  We were straight up abiding at 8:45.

Image result for dude abide
(Just as accurate as most of the pictures
of Jesus hanging in our church right now)
Then we started getting ready for 11:00, which was about the "hallowed ground of care-giving."  There were echoes of the Great Commission and Jesus' commandment to care for others (in this particular case the aging).  I was particularly proud of a line from "Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service."  "Called from worship to your service, forth in your great name we go to the child, the youth, the aged, love in living deeds to show."  BAM!  Care-giving indeed!

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Wait a minute.  I'm confused.  Are we supposed to abide and just be and not worry about trying to earn our way into heaven, or are we supposed to gird up our loins with kindness and hope and care for an ailing world?

I mentioned this as the Chancel Choir was warming up (mostly just sharing why I was having a bit of theological whip-lash) when one of my singers said, "John, isn't there a whole anthem about this?"  He was referring to "Christus Paradox," which is a whole text based on all the ways Jesus plays havoc with rules of common logic.  It's worth including here:

Christus Paradox
Sylvia Dunstan (1955-1993)

You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd.
You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
You, peacemaker and swordbringer
Of the way you took and gave.
You the everlasting instant;
You, whom we both scorn and crave.

Clothed in light upon the mountain,
Stripped of might upon the cross,
Shining in eternal glory,
Beggar’d by a soldier’s toss,
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are both gift and cost.

You, who walk each day beside us,
Sit in power at God’s side.
You, who preach a way that’s narrow,
Have a love that reaches wide.
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are our pilgrim guide.

Worthy is our earthly Jesus!
Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
Worthy your defeat and vict’ry.
Worthy still your peace and strife.
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are our death and life.
Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
You, who are our death and our life.

Each of those claims can be validated in Scripture.  So what gives?

Image result for firefly bible is broken
I don't think the Bible is least not based on these apparent contradictions.

Jesus' great promise to us is that he will be with us always.  Sometimes we need a peacemaker at our side...and other times we need a swordbringer.  There are times when we need to slow our roll a little.  We need to pause.  We need to quit worrying and, well...just be.  And there are times when we need a swift kick in the pants.  A robust faith demands a delicate balance stillness and motion.  The voice of Jesus comes to us as we have need, calling us to be mindful of the balance.  Mature faith recognizes the ways in which the world around us messes with the balance in our lives and helps us re-balance the load.

If we find ourselves in a busy season, zigging and zagging all over creation--even if it is for perfectly good cause--then the "dude" Jesus calls us to abide.  If we find ourselves too comfortable napping in the green pastures while the world around us aches, butt-kicker Jesus grabs us up by the sideburns.

In the end, faith is rarely about dichotomies.  It's about balance.  It's about taking refuge in God's hands one day...and being God's hands the next.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Rules Were Made to Be...wait...Why Were Rules Made?

Over the summer  my son started riding in the front seat of the car.  "Back in my day," this wasn't a big deal.  I've been riding in the front seat since before I can remember, and I clearly remember the complex restraining system that deployed in case of accident or sudden stop.

Image result for mom's arm seatbelt
Like this, only no seat belts.
At the time my mom drove a 1969 Charger.  It had lap belts, but we almost never used them.  I also remember some kind of shoulder belt on the inside of the roof over the door, but I never knew how to use it (because I couldn't find anything for that one to clip into).  Those were the days.  They'd toss a crib mattress in the back seat, pile us in on top of it, and head for South Carolina to visit my grandmother.

And I lived to tell the tale.

Child safety equipment has changed a little in the years since.  Car seats (I didn't have one that I can remember).  Booster seats (those were only in restaurants when I was little).  Seatbelt positioners.  Backward facing.  Forward facing.  Latch.  And of course accompanying rules, which include keeping your kids in the back seat as long as possible because it is safer than the front.

So for a number of years prior to this summer we had a "driving Miss Daisy" situation going on.  We talked about things like how school went, but since he was sitting directly behind me we had to talk a little louder than was normal or comfortable.  I never realized during that time how much that served to limit conversation.  No, I didn't realize it until he moved to the front seat when...shall we say, uninhibited conversation...began.  This may come as a shock to you, but I'm something of a talker, and this kid is definitely my son.

Image result for loquacious
Usually I'm the guy third from the left.
To be fair, most of the time it's not just idle chatter from him and dad jokes from me (which is what you were thinking, I know).  Actually we've had some pretty deep conversations.  Usually they begin with what seems like a simple question, but when you really start trying to answer you find out simple questions with simple answers are few and far between in the world of a middle schooler.

We were on our way to school earlier this week when he asked me, "Dad, why do we follow rules?"  Something in his tone let me know he wasn't going to be ok with the first thing that came to mind, which was, "Because I said so."

"A lot of rules exist to keep you safe."  Seems true enough.  In fact, most of the rules he has experienced to this point in his life in some way or another relate to his safety.  For example, he is just now riding in the front seat because of rules aimed at keeping him safe in the event of an accident.  I felt like I was on pretty solid ground with this until he pointed out that some rules aren't about safety.  Like when they play music in the lunchroom and say you can't talk while the music is playing.

"Well, sure.  That rule is in place so that you'll eat, because if it weren't a rule you'd just talk through lunch, throw your food away, and be worthless for the afternoon because you're hungry."  But he was right.  That rule isn't about safety.  It's about behavior modification.  And we have a lot of rules built around the concept of behavior modification.  We want to encourage a particular set of habits, so we use rules to incentivize the desired behavior...or disincentivize the undesired behavior.  Often rules are combined with consequences for maximum effect.

Some rules exist in the interest of fair play or leveling the playing field.  If someone has a disadvantage, one way to correct it is to create a set of rules that will correct it.  A goodly number of our laws exist for this reason.  Think about the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example.

And sometimes rules serve no other purpose than creating the game itself.  Like when my brother and I were bored when we were younger.  Any floor can be turned into a playing field, and any object can be fashioned into the instruments of a game by the simple addition of rules.  ESPN actually made a funny commercial about this truth years ago.  [Editor's Note: If you go looking for those commercials on YouTube, you'll find hundreds of funny Sportscenter commercials, but you may not find those particular ones...either way you'll waste a lot of time over there.  You've been warned.]


Of course rules can be used for ill as well.  The laws that supported slavery, or Jim Crow laws, or red line laws, or voter ID laws, all of which serve to tilt the playing field in favor of the already-privileged.

None of which really answers Wesley's question, which wasn't "Why are there rules?" but was actually, "Why do we follow rules?"  And that's an even trickier question.

I'm not one for absolutes, so I can't say for certain, but as I think about it most of the time we follow rules because of the consequences for not following them.  If you talk while the music is playing in the cafeteria you have to go sit at a certain table.  If you quack at the principal, you have to write "I will not quack at the principal." on the chalkboard.  And even if there aren't physical consequences like these, there are nevertheless consequences.  If you violate the rules of honesty, people will no longer trust your character.  This is true even if the rules aren't fair or just.  If you violate the rules of "normal social behavior," you're likely to get laughed at, cast out, or bullied.

There are, of course, times when we choose not to obey rules on principle.  Civil disobedience.  Rosa Parks.  We make this choice when the consequence of breaking the rule is overshadowed by our need to challenge the rule.  That requires a special kind of courage.

The Bible sets out rules too.  Why do we follow them?  Is it because we're afraid of the consequences if we don't?  Sometimes I feel like that's where the legalists are.  If we don't follow the rules as written we will be condemned or lose favor with God.  But if that's true, then the whole exercise of faith is nothing more than celestial fire insurance.  I'm not sure that's what God had in mind.

And then Jesus comes along.  You'd think if following the letter of Biblical law to avoid eternal damnation was the way to go Jesus would have carefully observed every law.  But that's not what happened at all.  Jesus broke laws all the dang time.

Not speeding laws.  I'm sure he kept his donkey under 25mph in the school zones.  He broke laws of exclusion, both religious and societal.  He openly challenged people who would use God's law to marginalize others.  And he told us why.  According to Jesus, all of the laws and prophets can be summed up simply: love God, love neighbor, love self. 

Life isn't a game with a score that determines whether you head upstairs or down.  It's a journey on which we choose to love or not to love.  As a Christian, I seek to follow the simple rules of Jesus.  Not because I'm afraid of hell.  I follow them because I believe the way of love is the way of Christ which is the way of God.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Somebody Was Wrong

This morning a friend sent me a link to this Wesley Brothers comic and asked what I thought about it.  I'm guessing it's because I'm a church music dork and everyone knows it.  The conversation dredged up some thoughts I've been having on music and its role in the church.

Note I didn't say it's role in worship.  I didn't say "it's" because that's the wrong form and I would have failed a paper in Ms. Schneider's 9th grade English class for what she called a "Major Mechanical Error."  No lie, she'd write "MME" on your paper in gigantic red letters and fail you.  She would have failed her own mother, I think.

I also didn't say "worship."  Because this world does not need even one more blog or article or poem or musing about what kind of music is best suited for worship.  Writing such a piece is something akin to going to a family reunion, standing over the dilled chicken salad and yelling, "Conservatives are heartless, democrats are gutless, and I never, ever eat Granny's fruitcake when she sends it.  I don't even give it to the dog."  All you're going to do is stir up a lot of anger.  And your feeble attempt to unify everyone at the end with a common truth (the bit about the fruitcake) will not overcome the political battle royale you started.

Image result for battle royale wrestling
No, it's YOUR turn to host Thanksgiving this year!!!!
No, I'm thinking about music and the church.  Merely drawing that distinction is a good indicator of how I think about this. There are a number of folks who believe music to be strictly a worship endeavor.  Our church's music budget, for example, falls under the greater heading of worship.  And I can understand why that's the case, because if you have to pick a category, it makes the most sense.  Most of my time is spent preparing for or serving in worship with one choir or another.  But that's an awfully limited view of what music ministry can be.

A Workhorse of the Church's Vision

Worship will always be a central part of any church's vision...or at least it should.  But Christ's call to us actually wasn't just to worship him (actually he never instructed us to worship him in the same way he gave other instructions).  Christ called us to love God and neighbor and to make disciples.  Faithful churches should have visions that move beyond worship, and music ministries that function as part of those churches should make it a point to live into those visions.  If a church's focus is working with people experiencing homelessness, the music ministry should be a part of that effort.  Maybe it's by providing music at programming.  Maybe it's by starting a choir for such people.  If a church's focus is to reach out into the community, then the music ministry should figure out how to reach with it.  Maybe concerts outside the church are the best way to go.  Maybe starting some musical opportunities in the community or retooling some of the opportunities offered by the church itself.

It's important because music is unique among ministries and programs in the way it can work alongside them.  Because music can be a powerful ally.  Think of a movie and its accompanying film score.  A movie can be visually stunning and artfully rendered, but the addition of a powerful score can make it transcendent.  In this way, music can serve as an intensifier for the work and vision of the church.

The Ultimate Community Builder

As the universal language, music can build bridges where none have existed.  And because music is both produced and received so close to the heart, it can connect people in ways nothing else can.  Not just the hearing of music, but participating together in creating it.  And it works for any song you can sing together.  Hymns?  Great!  Choruses?  Great!  A bunch of middle schoolers sitting around a table banging on their cups?  Great!  When we make music together we breathe together.  We literally conspire ("breathe with").

As long as someone has taught them how it goes.

Building community, I'm convinced, is the way to make disciples.  Most people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.  Creating a community to accept them...isn't all that difficult.  But you can't do it if you immediately start arguing about what music you can do and what music you can't.  Such arguments miss the whole point of doing music ministry in the first place.  We don't exist to exclude.  We exist to include.  Because all God's children really do have a place in the choir.

All of which brings me back to that comic strip.  We don't pick music to entertain people, and we don't pick it to educate people.  We pick music to engage people.  To touch their hearts or their heads or their imaginations.  To bring them into community and to inspire them.  At the top of this blog you can see that the music ministry at Decatur First seeks to build relationships through music.  That means relationships with God, each other, and our community.

Somehow, somewhere, somebody got the idea that the church exists to serve music.  Somebody was wrong.  It's not about making flawless music.  It's not about picking the "best kind" of music (as if that were actually a thing: de gustibus non est disputandum).  Because the music (the tunes, the texts, all of it) should be about finding what kind of music best helps the church (Church?) answer the gospel call making that music together to the very best of our ability.