Thursday, October 01, 2015

Rejoicing in Trouble??? (Romans 5:3-5)

We also have joy with our troubles, because we know that these troubles produce patience. And patience produces character, and character produces hope. And this hope will never disappoint us, because God has poured out his love to fill our hearts. He gave us his love through the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, NCV)

I was in my second or third year serving as Minister of Music and Youth at Lane Avenue Baptist Church (now The Crossing Community Church) in Columbus, OH, and Dawn and I were exhausted (especially Dawn) in our struggle to balance the church responsibilities with the demands of parenting a very difficult toddler. We knew that Taylor was not your average toddler, but we did not yet know that we were dealing with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
From my very first Youth planning meeting I had been hearing this one name over and over again. Pete Kelly had served as the Youth Ministry intern a couple of summers earlier, and every story I heard told me that he could do no wrong. He planned the most creative activities that were the most fun anyone had ever had; and the Bible studies he taught were deeper and more compelling than anyone had ever taught before. I soon began to realize that nothing I did could possibly measure up to "The Legend of Pete Kelly." I began to strongly dislike someone I had never met.
After about 2 years, I finally met Pete Kelly when he came to visit one Sunday morning. I tried hard to maintain my dislike (beneath a gracious façade, of course) as we talked after the service, but I was disappointed to find him annoyingly likeable. I just couldn't help but like him. Our conversation was punctuated by my struggle to manage the very difficult toddle version of Taylor, whom I was holding as we spoke. When Taylor head-butted me in the face I mumbled an embarrassed apology and briefly acknowledged our difficulties. Pete responded, "Maybe he is the chisel that God has chosen to use to shape you into the image of Christ." I found it a little easier not to like him after that. 
Pete Kelly's response was NOT what I wanted to hear. I didn't want theology, for crying out loud! I wanted--no, I needed--words of understanding to help me get through the next few hours. I needed someone to tell me that I would be OK ... that we would get through this. Instead, Pete Kelly gave me a word picture that keeps ringing in my ears whenever I encounter difficulty in my life. it doesn't make the struggles easier, but it does change my focus.
Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) wrote a hymn that I have never seen in a hymnal (though I must admit to never having searched my own collection for the text). I know it from a beautiful choral setting: The Master's Touch.

In the still air the music lies unheard;
In the rough marble beauty lies unseen.
To make the music and the beauty needs
The Master's touch, the Sculptor's chisel keen.

Great Master, touch us with Thy skillful hands;
Let not the music that is in us die;
Great sculptor, hew and polish us, nor let
Hidden and lost, Thy form within us lie.

Spare not the stroke; do with us what Thou wilt;
Let there be naught unfinished, broken, marred;
Complete Thy purpose that we may become
Thy perfect image--Thou our God and Lord.

That's enough to think about for now. The peace of Christ to you.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Blind to Privilege

Assigned the task of writing a story for homework, the young elementary school student began: “Once upon a time there was a poor family. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor …” Further illustrating the depth of poverty in the household, she continued, “… the maid was poor, the butler was poor, the chauffeur was poor, and the gardener was poor. Everybody in the family was poor.”

We chuckle – or at least smile – at that story as it reveals the naïveté of a child not yet old enough to understand the economic privilege into which she was born.

It is important that we come to terms with our own economic privilege, but in the past few years I have come to understand that privilege goes far beyond mere economics. Too many of us live with the same level of blissful naïveté as that elementary school child … but following Christ calls us to increase our awareness of the plight of others in our communities who—despite all appearances otherwise—still bear the burden of oppression. The situations in Ferguson, Charleston, and Baltimore should teach us that there is still a huge divide. I don’t usually comment much on politically charged topics, but I am moved to do so today.

The last week of classes, one of the students who played in the brass quintet for us on Easter was uncharacteristically late for the end-of-semester band concert – the last concert of his college experience. He had left himself plenty of time to drive back to campus for the concert, but was unexpectedly delayed because a broken tail-light caught the attention of state trooper. Despite his exemplary conduct and appearance (he was dressed in his tuxedo for the concert), the trooper asked to search the vehicle because he deemed it “suspicious.” With nothing to hide, but also aware that it would make him late for the concert, he agreed to the search … which the trooper conducted only after locking him in the back seat of the cruiser.

Knowing this student as I do, I am at a loss for what might have caused the trooper to sense anything “suspicious.” Not only is this young man an outstanding student, he is also president of the student body and holds leadership offices in several other campus organizations. He always dresses in sharp, business-like attire and always conducts himself in like manner. In his four years at the college he has earned the respect of students and faculty alike.

Let me be clear here before I continue: The job we ask our law enforcement personnel to do is more difficult and dangerous than we who are outside the profession can ever understand fully. Faced with the possibility -- however remote -- of any situation becoming dangerous, I think we all would agree that it would be better to err in the direction of too much control than too little. This it not about that.

This is about our blindness to the privilege we enjoy that folks we rub elbows with every day never experience. This is about the fact that, simply by virtue of the color of our skin, neither I nor my sons run the risk of that kind of unwarranted suspicion, but our African American friends live with that risk every time they drive. Friends, that must change. I don’t know what the next step is, but it begins with awareness.

That’s enough to think about for now. The peace of Christ to you.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Worship by [your name here]

In the church growth-movement that began (as I experienced it) in the mid-to-late 20th century, North American Evangelicalism accepted a pragmatic, numerical-increase based approach to how we think about church that is deeply influenced by marketplace capitalism. The church-growth movement was all about finding sure-fire methods to reach more people for Christ (a laudable goal); and the substantial numerical growth of certain churches that applied those methods was taken as validation of those methods. The painful reality is that, despite 30+ years of adopting proven church-growth strategies, the total number of people in North America who identify as followers of Christ continues to decline. (I must admit that the scientific side of me wonders if we would have experienced a steeper decline in those numbers without the church-growth movement ... but there is no way to test that theory.)

Marketplace capitalism so pervades everything in North America that we scarcely notice it unless we think about it (much in the way that we scarcely notice the air we breathe unless we think about it). Although the marketplace mindset has produced quite a few mega-churches (and lest anyone misunderstand my critique, I do believe that thousands have come to Christ through many of them), many other churches -- churches that have tried their very best to implement those same "sure-fire" methods -- have have plateaued or declined … and some have died.

There are already posters all over our town for the Beth Moore event in Greenville this coming July. Right beside Beth Moore's face on the poster is Travis Cottrell's (looking cooler than I ever will with his strategically unshaven face and hip hairstyle), and underneath her name are the words “worship by Travis Cottrell.” Beth Moore and Travis Cottrell both probably love Jesus more and better than I do, so please understand as you read further that this is not a criticism of either them or their ministries.

I often remind the folks in my congregation that NONE of the Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic words from scripture that we translate into English as “worship” has anything to do with music. Not one. But what does Travis Cottrell do at Beth Moore events? He leads music … and make no mistake, he does it really well (while looking cool and hip, too). Perhaps the main reason that I continue to rant about the erroneous practice of calling music “worship” is that far too many Christians continue to think of “worship” primarily in terms of something musical that someone does (that we get to soak up as recipients of what they do). Complicating this mindset is the assumption that if we can only get somebody cool and hip to lead (and add fancy lights and sound) then more people will be drawn to our church -- and perhaps to Jesus

 ... that is until they hear about the cooler, hipper stuff going on at the church in the next town over.

Hear me clearly: while I am firmly convinced that Travis Cottrell is a committed worshiper of Jesus Christ, Christian worship is not what Travis Cottrell does at Beth Moore events. Worship is not just being led in singing by a gifted artist like Travis Cottrell. Worship is not limited to a musical activity. Long before our current high-profile, high-energy, high-tech, deeply stirring worship gatherings in huge arenas, C. S. Lewis wrote:
Neither the greatest excellence of a trained performance from the choir*, nor the heartiest and most enthusiastic bellowing from the pews, must be taken that any specifically religious activity is going on. It may be so, or it may not. (from the essay On Church Music in Christian Reflections)

* Replace "choir" with "gifted worship leader" to bring the quote into today's context.

As I continue to think and pray about how to respond to these realities, my heart and mind are drawn toward the importance of Christian community among our people and the understanding of Christian worship as how those who seek to follow Jesus Christ engage with each other (and all of creation for that matter) before God. At the 2015 Youth Choir Festival by the Sea, our Sunday morning worship service included this wonderful hymn text by Fred Kaan:Put Peace Into Each Other's Hands 

That’s enough to think about for now. The peace of Christ to you.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Be Here Now (Kyle Matthews)

For a couple of Sundays at least I have used the words “Attending to God’s Word” as a heading in the worship bulletin. I believe that the words attendance and attention probably have a common root. You may not know, but I take medication for attention deficit disorder every day. Living with ADHD means that I have more trouble than most folks being attentive … in other words, being mentally present as well as physically so. Medication helps, and I've learned some effective skills to compensate over the years.

My friend Kyle Matthews recently released a new CD. Every time a new CD of his comes out, I find that his words intersect with the struggles of my life. I'm not at liberty to share the experiences of others, but I know that I am not alone in that. This link will take you to the published lyrics of the title cut:

Be Here Now.

My sons and some of my friends tease me about my enthusiasm for Kyle's work. Please note that I gain nothing from this plug. You will find words that can heal the broken places in your soul in any of Kyle's CDs. But this most recent one is especially worth your time -- particularly if you are, or have been, in local church ministry.

That’s enough to think about for now. The peace of Christ to you.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Music ≠ Worship

Worship ≠ Music, and Music ≠ Worship; but 21st century North American evangelicalism sees them as practically same thing. Go to any conference and look at the schedule. When it says “worship” it almost invariably means that someone will be leading music (or in some cases just doing music) up front with the (often missed) goal of getting everybody to sing together. Scripture says that we are to sing to God as an act of worship, so what’s the problem? 

In a recent article, journalist Todd Pruitt asks: Is Your Church Worship More Pagan than Christian? Problems arise when 
... music is viewed as a means to facilitate an encounter with God; it will move us closer to God. In this schema, music becomes a means of mediation between God and man. … Music and ‘the worship experience’ are viewed as means by which we enter the presence of God and receive his saving benefits. … This is a common pagan notion. It is far from Christian.
Pruitt then shares 4 consequences of viewing music itself as an encounter with God found in the book True Worship by Vaughan Roberts (neither the book title nor the author's name is familiar to me). 
  • God’s Word is marginalized. Scripture reminds us that faith is generated as we encounter the living Word of God. Feelings may be involved, but the presence of feelings does not indicate worship.
  • Our assurance is threatened. If we depend on music in order to feel close to God, then it is the feelings we are seeking, not God.
  • Musicians are given a priestly status. We prize their ability to create a “worshipful” atmosphere more than their faithfulness to Christ.
  • Division is increased. Because musical taste is subjective there will be a wide variety of musical preferences within any given group of people. But we segregate ourselves according to style preference. 
Pruitt finishes with this thought:
Scripture is full of exhortations to God’s people to sing and make music to the Lord. … But it is important to understand that music in our worship is for two specific purposes: to honor God and to edify our fellow believers. Unfortunately, many Christians tend to grant music a sacramental power which Scripture never bestows upon it.
That’s enough to think about for now. The peace of Christ to you.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Radical Welcome (Kyle Matthews song)

My friend Kyle Matthews sent me a copy of his latest CD a few weeks ago. I haven’t had a whole lot of time to listen to it, but as usual his writing hits me right where I live, and draws me to a healthier place in my journey with Christ. Please allow me to share his words with you.

1.   Come on in! Nobody here will ask you where you've been
         And being different here is not a sin—we all fit in!
         We come as strangers, leave as friends, 
                                           like next of kin.
2.   I confess a little fear, a little awkwardness
         first time I showed up at this address, who would have guessed 
         it'd come to be the place I loved the best?
                        ... to be loved and known and not alone.
CH.   Only those who've been left out
         can understand what mercy's about
         enough to offer love's radical welcome.
3.   And love demands that we remember our own circumstance,
         offer forgiveness every time we can—a second chance,
         a gracious invitation to the dance
                        ... to be loved and known and not alone.
CH.   Only those who've been left out
         can understand what mercy's about
         enough to offer love's radical welcome.
BR.    There's a stranger at the door
         He's unlike anyone we've seen before
         Been uninvited since the day he was born
         No room, they said, no room for love.
CH.   Only those who've been left out
         can understand what mercy's about
         enough to offer love's radical welcome.
© 2014 Catalytic Songs, (BMI). All rights reserved.
Words printed by permission.

Do yourself a favor and go to Kyle's website and check his music out. 

That’s enough to think about for now. The peace of Christ to you.