A Dovetailed Life

The things that interest us weave us together to create who we are.

Category: The Church

True Freedom and Its Costs

Early yesterday morning, shortly after midnight, the freedom that a young man (younger than I am) named James Holmes had to own an assault rifle, legally, cost 12 people (maybe more) their lives. It cost 12 families their loved ones and it cost the world 12 individuals who could have made it a better place.

James Holmes was free to own the weapons that he used to shoot those 71 people yesterday. He legally purchased those guns, all that ammunition, and likely anything that he used to booby trap his apartment which he knew he would never return to.

James was free, like you and I. He had a right, a freedom, to own those guns.

Interestingly enough, that freedom that James enjoyed was paid for by the lives of soldiers who fought courageously both here in the States and abroad so that no one would take away that freedom. People lost loved ones in war, terrorist attacks, and random acts of violence, all because we were fighting to maintain our freedom. Simply put: we must defend ourselves in order to keep our freedom.

This concept isn't new. We know this. In order for us to have freedom, we must defend our freedom. But it does get more complicated.

Last night I asked a still-unanswered question via the wonderful world of social media and it went something like this: Is there any reason that non-military or non-police citizens should be allowed to own a semi-automatic rifle? I didn't phrase the question well, and I was unsure of what verbs to use, but I think the message was semi-clear: what good, honorable reason would there be for someone to own a weapon like James used in Aurora? Should it be legal to own a weapon that can do that much damage?

Of course, as many of my posts do, it sparked controversy. Americans are only as free as they can defend themselves to be! People attack us? We must fight back! We are only as free as we can assure ourselves that we are. Otherwise, those attacking us impending on our freedom have every opportunity to take away our freedom, which makes it so that we aren't truly free.

I should be clear: I think this is a giant load of crap.

If we define freedom in this way then we are saying that freedom only comes from the way in which we defend ourselves.

Friends, this isn't freedom. This is fear.

I'd invite you to take a step back and look at what this freedom has brought us: countless wars ending with much of the world hating our arrogance, machines in airports that send radiation into our bodies, racism, patent wars, and undying greed.

I have family members that carry a pistol wherever they go. The idea is that if anyone were to attack our family, they'd have a way to defend themselves. Again, I ask, is this freedom? Can we truly enjoy such a “freedom” if we are always concerned with who might be following us, ready to attack us? What is it that this freedom truly gives us?

Perhaps the question really is: what is the point of such a freedom? What is this freedom all about anyway? Is freedom the right to bear arms? Is freedom the right to say whatever we want, even if it is harmful? Is freedom the right to put up a fence so that the neighbor can't see me mowing the lawn? Is freedom the chance to eat BBQ, drink beer, and party with fireworks?

This, to me, doesn't sound like real freedom. It doesnt sound like a culture ready and willing to make this world a better place. It doesn't sound like a culture who cares about one another. No, this freedom sounds like a culture in which online bullying meets crazy heights and encourages suicide. This freedom sounds like a culture that encourages the defense of religion rather than the religion itself. This freedom sounds like a culture that has at least one mass shooting a year. This freedom sounds like a culture that is so obsessed with the work of the individual that it encourages such an individual to refuse to recognize the assistance they've received that led to their success.

In short: this freedom sounds like it delivers a worse product and costs more. It costs us the lives of soldiers overseas. It costs us the lives of moviegoers in a theater. It costs us a dying reputation. And what do we get? A degraded culture who cares nothing about what we should care about.

I sense a very different freedom in Christ. Christ assures us, because of his death and resurrection that the chains that once bound us through sin are broken forever. This freedom, true freedom, allows us to live into the people we have been made to be. This freedom, true freedom, allows us to recognize the gifts and graces of one another. This freedom, true freedom, inspires us to live as one with the peace that only Christ can give us. This freedom, true freedom, gives us life and life abundantly. The other freedom results in death; this freedom, true freedom, results in resurrection.

And the best part: the price for this freedom has been paid. The sacrifice has been given, by the very one who gives us life! It costs us nothing but the willingness to follow in the steps of the one who said “Come, follow me.”

Many may say, “Wrong! This freedom costs us everyday. It costs us because the life of discipleship is one of martyrdom. It costs us because of the persecution of the world.” AHA! The world wants us to buy into its version of freedom. But we must not. It wants us to pay the cost (and many many before us have). But we must not. Even if we are persecuted on this earth, we know that true freedom of being forgiven for our brokenness is still had. That price has been paid.

This freedom is not concerned with our rights as individuals, it is concerned with our holiness. It is concerned with who God wants us to be. It has nothing to do with our individualistic rights, it has to do with our calling.

In America, for some silly reason, we have been defining freedom in terms of the right to defend ourselves and right to do what we want. That freedom has a poor outcome and costs a lot. And that doesn't end well. It ends with dead bodies on the floor. It ends up with bloodied theater seats.

If only we would desire true freedom.

-B

 

We remember the lives of those who were shot in Aurora yesterday morning. May God's hand of comfort be on their souls and their family members. May God's comforting and guiding hand help this nation to recover from such a tragedy, and guide the world toward true freedom, for which the price has already been paid. We are a broken people. Let us remember that we are also a forgiven people.

 

Contemporary Worship Music: Unintentional Ecumenism

ec·u·men·i·cal

adjective

1. general; universal.
2. pertaining to the whole Christian church.
3. promoting or fostering Christian unity throughout the world.
4. of or pertaining to a movement (ecumenical movement), especially among Protestant groups since the 1800s, aimedat achieving universal Christian unity and church unionthrough international interdenominational organizations thatcooperate on matters of mutual concern.
5. interreligious or interdenominational: an ecumenicalmarriage.

In the United Methodist Church, we have a hymnal.  Every 20 years or so another one pops up, with great new hymns,  great old hymns, and…unfortunately…some of the same old, really bad hymns.  The church is trying to be ‘progressive’ (whatever that means), so we have seen little books like ‘The Faith We Sing’ and ‘Worship and Song’ pop up as well.  These are the technologically limited offerings aimed at keeping up with the rapid rate of song creation in the Church these days.  ‘Worship and Song,’ printed last year, has only now included “How Great is Our God” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart” (Open the Eyes of My Heart was written in 1997, How Great is Our God in 2004).

When I purchased my copy of ‘Worship and Song’ at Cokesbury, the sales associate told me that this was the “first expandable hymnal!”  I asked her how the binding to the book played a role in its expandability and she gave me the scrunched-nose face. Technologically, these books have been limited.

Interestingly enough, in some Christian circles, this technological barrier has played a huge role in keeping the churches singing the same songs they’ve been singing for ages. In others, they have ignored the technological implications completely.  Many Christians are growing up in church environments (that alone is something to celebrate) and do not realize that Christians used to sing songs out of books that they held in their hands instead of on screens (I’ll let you decide whether or not that is something to celebrate).

Long story short: music in the Church is rapidly changing.  Some people are changing it, some are avoiding it.  Others, like the United Methodist Church in large part, avoided it for 20 years or so and are just now trying to catch up. The last category of churches feel a little like RIM and Nokia do now when it comes to smart phones:  late to the game inevitably will hurt, no matter your customer loyalty.

Not long ago I presented a hymnal to a student of mine on which her name was imprinted.  I said to her, “These are the songs of our tradition.” Ever since that moment, I’ve been thinking about what I meant by that statement.  Did I mean that these are the ONLY songs of our tradition?  Did I mean that these are the songs our of tradition and OUR TRADITION alone?  What is it that I meant?  Does that make the songs outside of our hymnal NOT part of our tradition?

In seminary we talk a lot about the music we sing being formative for the Christian journey.  We sing songs pertinent to the liturgical context we are in, usually having something to do with the morning’s message.  We pride ourselves: the hymns we sing aren’t, and shouldn’t be, fluff.

In fact, the United Methodist Church has something going for it here.  Charles Wesley, brother to John Wesley and co-founder of the Methodist movement in England, wrote hundreds of poems.  As the search for a ‘Wesleyan’ identity is set before us in the UMC, a return to Charles’s lyrics are usually appreciated.  Whenever I bring the topic up in UMC circles, eyes light up.  “Yes! That’s the way it should be!” they seem to say.  Methodism was blessed from its beginnings with theologically based hymns and Methodists far and wide don’t want to lose that.

This isn’t the whole story though.  We sing songs every Sunday in Methodist Churches that were written by non-Methodist writers. Heck, we sing songs in church on Sundays that were written by the Gaithers.  We sing songs written by Calvinist predestinarians.  We sing all kinds of music in the UMC, no matter how much we pride ourselves in being ‘Wesleyan.’

I was thinking about all of this, trying to put these pieces together in my head, so that I could sort out the proper course of action. Then I had this thought: We’re not seeing this hangup with many who are writing music for the masses today.

No, in fact, these hangups of being strictly ‘Wesleyan’ don’t matter to many.  The people who are constantly writing new, exciting, progressive, worship music are largely from non-denominational churches. These churches usually have some sort of vague mission statement and clearly defining themselves is not something they do!  The popular people writing music these days for the ‘contemporary worship’ setting are largely tied to movements.  Is Hillsong a movement or a church?  Yes.  Is Passion a movement or a church?  Yes.  What do these movements do? A little bit of everything.  Many of these groups don’t even use the word “church.” Being sticklers for quality, theologically sound music is simply not a priority.  They want music that is exciting and engaging, and the lyrical composition can be what it is.

The question then becomes: is the work coming out of these ‘movements’ unifying the church at all?  In other words, if those producing material are not hung up on staying true to their founders, are they free to write music that spans across denominational barriers? Are these songs acting, whether intended for it or not, as a form of ecumenism?

These songs, those written within the past 20 years for ‘contemporary’ worship environments are criticized all the time for being too “simplistic” or “shallow” in their theology. But it occurs to me that this  very criticism might actually be what makes these songs work across the barriers.  Charles Wesley wrote songs that were deeply explicit in their lyrics, calling out church heretics, heretical leanings, and teachings that were against his views of Christianity.  He even, from time to time, called out people by name.

We simply aren’t seeing this in today’s music.  We’re singing statements about loving Jesus, about Jesus rising from the dead, and Jesus saving us.  While they might still be criticized for aligning themselves with Jesus and little else of the Trinity, these are overarching statements that don’t necessarily apply to any specific denomination or tradition.

It seems to me that it is BECAUSE of the more universal nature of the lyrics within recent songwriting that these songs are becoming forms of ecumenism.  These songs are popular, easy to sing (choruses and refrains repeat constantly) and when played well, tug at the emotions of those singing them.  In a sense, these songs are unifying the church.  These songs are played in Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian churches, Catholic churches, Lutheran churches, and most prominently in non-denominational churches far and wide.

So, are they unifying? Yeah, I guess, in a way they are.  These songs are being sung all over, much like hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy” “It Is Well” and “Come Thou Fount” were before.  Generalized lyrics and easy to sing melodies.  They surpass and tear down walls of division that have been placed there by theological and political arguments for 2000 years. To me, it’s an interesting phenomenon.

See, the technological barriers of printing books has kept many denominations and generations infused with the idea that if it’s not in our hymnal, it’s no good.  This has allowed for boards and agencies to curate the contents of our singing, too.  But, these groups that work past those technological barriers (we don’t print books anymore), are able to stretch beyond that. And, because of that freedom, they’ve explored new realms of communal singing.

The interesting question is, what if true, studied theologians had done this rather than the guy down the street who played guitar?  Would that have changed the outcome?  Could we have had a more universal set of songs that were ALSO theologically grounded?  I don’t think so.  I think the “shallowness” of much of what we see set to worship music today should get credit for helping me attend a non-denominational service and know the music.

Contemporary worship style gets a lot of crap for the way in which it exists. All I’m saying is that its music (one of the biggest reasons it has been successful) deserves a look. A critique, too, perhaps.  But, definitely, a look.

Just some random thoughts.

-B

We Ought To Have Compassion For Jerry Sandusky

I watched the news yesterday, like most of America: 45 out of 48 counts…guilty.

He was held for sexual misconduct with minors, child rape, and several other counts that make us turn our heads and cry. As the trial began, I wanted to give him the most hope I could, but after some time it became more and more evident: Jerry was guilty. The defense attorney said it was an ‘uphill battle.’ I’ve never heard such an understatement.

I wrote on twitter (and therefore Facebook) yesterday that I have a problem when I hear people say “he got what he deserved.” I excepted, though, child molestation. Something seems so graphic, perverse, and utterly wrong about it. When it comes to child molestation, I tend to think that those criminals should get all that they deserve.

What does Jerry deserve? As at 68 year old man, he’s going to get the rest of his life in prison. He was taken into custody following yesterday’s proceedings. He will never spend another night in bed with his wife. He will never see the life of a free man again. The world is over for Jerry Sandusky. He won’t even have much of an opportunity to right his wrongs.

I could tell that this news was well received because as the final decision by the jury became public, the crowd outside the courthouse steps screamed and cheered. They were ecstatic that this serial molester/rapist was finally going to ‘get what he deserved.’ They cheered the prosecuting attorney as she spoke to the crowd and booed the defense attorney when he even hinted at the idea of an appeal.

Jerry is going to, according to the world, ‘get what he deserves.’

Unfortunately today I spent the greater part of the afternoon watching YouTube clips of Westboro Baptist Church. As many of you know, WBC uses their voice to scream fire and damnation to all ‘fags’ and ‘fag-enablers.’ Mostly, if you don’t go to their church, you fall into one of those two camps for them. Within every clip they said, ‘fags are gonna get what they deserve…because they don’t listen to the Lord their God.’ For WBC, being gay deserves damnation in hell forever. If you are gay, you will get what you deserve when you spend eternity in hell, according to Westboro Baptist Church.

Of course, the thing Westboro Baptist is missing is compassion. They have none. They will explain to you (I’ve asked them) that what they’re doing is ‘love.’ They love gay people more than anyone else, according to them, because they want gays to turn from their ‘evil’ ways. Their love, though, is for some sort of works-righteousness where one could earn eternity in heaven simply by not being gay. That’s how they define ‘love’…like, hey, if I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t tell you about how bad it is to be gay. Therefore, I love you. That’s not really love.

This seems a worldly, and not Christlike, response. You do something that is ‘despicable’ (in the case of homosexuality, we are remarkably disagreed…with child rape, we are not) in our eyes. Therefore, you shall be punished. According to WBC, for the gay it is hell. According the world, for Jerry it’s prison for life…and a shamed life.

How shall the Church separate itself from the world?

The world says to Jerry, a sick sick man, “You are going to get what you deserve.” The Church, though, needs to say to him, “What you did is wrong, but we love you. And yes, that means more than telling you that you get what you deserve…it means seeing the part of you that God is within. it means having compassion for the part of you that is broken, like we all are.”

Jerry will spend the rest of his life in prison. And, according to this world, he should.

But the Church will have to take the step beyond that. A step to see Jerry as a person, a human. Perhaps a very sick man, but a man just the same. That compassion for those who have wronged us, those who do despicable things, those that are misfits in society is the type of compassion I see Jesus preaching and practicing within the Scriptures. We are to follow what Jesus did. That’s who we are. That’s our calling.

We ought to have compassion for Jerry Sandusky. That’s how we, the Church, stand apart from the world.

-B

“Not that”: An Observation of ‘Contemporary Worship’

The more and more people that I speak with that are at least remotely involved with church life, the more questions come up about my opinion and experience with ‘contemporary worship.’   They like to pick my brain, ask my preference, and get a sense for how I feel like worship in the church ought to be.  Yes, they often have their own preconceived responses and notions regarding the style of music used within the Church.

The questions range. “What do you think young people are into?” “Don’t you think ‘traditional’ worship is a turn off for young people?” “Don’t you think contemporary worship is too hoaky these days?” “Is it possible to plant a church that only uses traditional worship?” “Does Chris Tomlin every write any good songs?” “Don’t you think hymns are just boring?” “What’s the purpose of the flashy lights? To try to be something we aren’t?” “Aren’t choirs outdated?”

Contemporary worship, though, is the newcomer in this game.  In many ways, it has to prove itself.  Somewhere around 50 years ago or so, the Beatles invaded America, forever changing pop music and rock and roll. This, along with the decline of mainline church membership in the United States sparked new ideas.  People left the mainline denominations to be ‘non-denominational’ in an effort to do church differently.  That was the goal: do church differently.  Maybe then, perhaps, people might think about coming back.  If we just aren’t ‘that,’ maybe they’ll be more likely to come back.

In a sense, then, Contemporary Worship (with a common low-key liturgy and more culturally-relevant music) became “Not That” worship.  See that stuff the Methodists are doing?  We aren’t that.  We’re cool.  We’re hip.  We’re reaching out to young people.  We are meeting you where you are.  You can wear jeans to our church.  That’s the way we are.

This type of church is the church that I was born into.  We still were a part of the big Baptist church downtown, but we were open to those who had never been to church before.  We didn’t have cryptic creeds.  We didn’t have strange liturgy.  We watched movie clips and played slide shows.  We had drama. Our pastor preached from behind a music stand rather than a pulpit.  I was born into a church that was trying to make church relevant to a society that it wasn’t relevant to.  What we did, in the early 90’s, was to be “not that.”  For peope too intimidated or scared to attend traditional worship, we were “not that.”  We called ourselves the “Seeker Service” so that those who were ‘seeking’ could find a place to feel at home.  Too intimidated by the choir robes and organ?  We aren’t that.

So, if this is true, and it was truly meeting a need, why aren’t all churches like that now?  Why are there young adults begging to go back to the traditional services? Why are large portions of people leaving NOT ONLY the mainline denominations, but also the nondenominational churches?  If being ‘not that’ was supposed to save the church, why are we drowning more than ever before?

I’ll tell you why.  We stopped.

It isn’t 1995 anymore. What was hip and cool then is not hip and cool now. What drew people in because it wasn’t ‘that’ then, pushes people away now.  ‘Contemporary’ has become a way of saying ‘not that’ and it has done so in a permanent sense.  This is why so many ‘contemporary’ services feel hoaky.  This is why many young people want to return to traditional worship.  This is why when you hear about contemporary worship, you ask yourself if it is emergent or ‘contemporary.’   Oddly, those leading the traditional services never went out of their way to reach the young people and different generations; it’s very much a “take it or leave it” situation.  Some choose, for many reasons, to take it. Many, sadly, are choosing to leave it.

‘Contemporary’ was great when it needed to be. But it is stuck now.  Sure, churches like Hillsong and movements like Passion are successful, but by and large ‘contemporary’ music in many (especially mainline) churches is simply stuck.

‘Contemporary’ has to move forward. ‘Contemporary’ has to continue to be what it’s high and lofty goal was (an environment that allows those on the outside access to the inside) instead of what its not-so-just goal was (‘not that’).  It has to be as innovative as it once saw itself being.  It has to live into its title.

In order for us to justify our worship style, no matter how it exists, we need to be able to articulate it in a way that explands the Kingdom.  Otherwise, it has little reason for being. This is true for traditional worship.  This is true for ‘contemporary’ worship.  Our worship should be creative.  Our worship should be innovative.  Our worship should remind of of who we are.  Our worship should define who we are.  Our worship should convey to those within it that the Church is thriving, moving, changing, and growing disciples. Our worship should be, of course, worship…reflecting the God who breathes life to the people.

We cant have ‘not that’ from either side.  We need quality, strong, theologically sound worship in both environments (and perhaps more to come).  That’s when it finally becomes quality worship and we can **finally** get out of the way.

-B

Thoughts on Bullying

The fearful always preyed upon your confidence.
Did they see the consequence? They pushed you around.
The arrogant build kingdoms made of the different ones,
Breaking them til they’ve become just another crown.
-Lifehouse

You may have caught the recent news about the death of Tori Swoape, yet another teenager who committed suicide because of school and online bullying. It’s sad, sad news.

Bullying is a difficult problem in today’s world. We hear the arguments left and right that because of the advent of social media, we are empowering each other to say things one might not have said face to face. Aspects of a changing cultural scene play into another one, making the issue of self esteem and bullying a more complex one that ever before.

My heart is saddened by these stories of bullying. My heart aches for the children who literally think there is no other way out of their difficult situations. I struggle a lot with the concept of bullying, mostly though because I’m convinced its been around for ages. Bullying, as I see it, is not a new thing.

Bullying, as I see it, is no more than a power play. Bullying is not about being cool or lame, smart or dumb, black or white, gay or straight, fat or skinny, or any other way that we distinguish ourselves from some other person. Bullying is simply a play of power in an effort to attain more. It is an attempt to use whatever assets I have to make you feel worse about yours.

It is an effort to draw upon the emotions of others using the skills, talents, and resources at your disposal in order for yourself to be made higher. Bullying is simply power at work.

Isn’t our entire society shaped around bullying? Isn’t the goal of American society to win over someone else? Isn’t the goal to be the most powerful? Isn’t that the reason that we continue to have one of the strongest militaries in the world? Hasn’t the history of the world involved strong senses of nationalism and power?

The opportunity to surrender before entire annihilation in war is an example of this. The reason one might wave their flag of surrender is because they’ve been intimidated enough to the point that they can now acknowledge that they cannot win. They cannot go on. The other military has then used their resources to convince you and your military that it is weaker, insufficient, and likely to lose. Resources used to intimidate so that surrender happens and the fight for power is over.

It’s no different on the schoolyard. A girl can call another girl a ‘slut’ because she knows it is a degrading word that others will associate with her enemy. If the term catches on, the girl will no longer be the cool girl anymore, she’ll be the ‘slut.’ When the population turns against you, your own acknowledgment of who you are changes. Your confidence is lost. The power is removed from you.

The same is true of the current rush of gay children committing suicide because of bullying. They’re just a normal kid until those who are against them use some sort resource (language, popularity, Scripture) against them so that they draw upon an emotional reaction.

Once someone has lost confidence in who they are, they’ve forfeited all power. And that power is left for the taking.

I see the attention that the media, social media, and school systems are giving to bullying as more than just an acknowledgment that bullying is wrong and must be stopped. In a very real and tangible way it is an acknowledgment that something is wrong with how we live together. Something always has been wrong with the way we have been.

Nevertheless, bullying is our history. If we believe in a cause, we march for it. We stop traffic. We boycott. We sing hymns to stop meetings. We use our resources to beat down those with power to get our side heard. We can and do (both rightly and not rightly) paint it with the brush of ‘justice’ but we bully…back and forth, left and right. When we use our resources to force even something as worthy inclusiveness and fairness, we are simply using the same tactics on others that were used against us.

I’d wager that some disagree, but I don’t read Jesus as having used resources to draw emptional responses in order to win power. He took the authority that God gave him as his guiding light. With that, he was unwilling to submit to a power play. I’d encourage you to study his trial before his execution to see what I mean. It was (and is) I am very sure, a different way of looking at the world.

As we continue as a society, the trick is to remove the power. The trick is to remove ourselves from a world where power is at stake. We must remove ourselves, perhaps humbling ourselves to death…even death on a cross…because we are unwilling to give into the need for power in this world. If we could approach our disputes as people from an attitude of humility, surely some sort of attitude worthy of God would prevail.

If anything, the attention being given to bullying is bigger than it perhaps realizes it is: it’s an acknowledgment that something has to change on a large scale or we are to suffer the devastation of centuries past. Worse, it’s likely going against God’s will.

We cannot continue fighting violence with violence. We cannot continue to fight bullying with bullying. We’ve got to change society’s understanding of power. Hopefully, that will end the battle. Hopefully, that in turn, will end the suicides.

-B

 

North Carolina’s Amendment One: What’s God Got to Do With It?

I spent the last two weeks with WAAAAYYY too many United Methodists. Throughout the weeks, those who supported the church removing its statement, “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” wore colored stoles to show their support. The church attempted to reconcile the hurt it has caused to its gay and lesbian members but was unsuccessful at passing legislation that would help mend the wounds. The church then, in a vote of 61% – 39% voted to keep the language currently in its Book of Discipline. When the vote to remove the ‘incompatible’ language failed, many who support gay and lesbian full acceptance in the church marched onto the floor and refused to leave until the bishops negotiated with them.

Then I came back to North Carolina.

Amendment One has been all over the news here and throughout the country and those voting to defeat the amendment have been adamant about placing signage in their yards. Honestly, with all the promotion I’ve seen against the amendment, I didn’t think it had a chance at passing.

News flash: Bryant underestimates the conservatism in North Carolina.

The best part of any breaking news story in 2012 is the mass amount of Facebook and Twitter trolling that occurs. When Bin Laden was killed, my news feed was split. When Obama cancelled NASA efforts, one would have thought they were calling for his resignation. The same was true today when I watched Amendment One pass with flying colors. Whoa.

My favorite argument: “This is God’s plan. This is how God wants it to be.

GOD’S PLAN?!? WHAT DOES God HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THIS? Last time I checked, America was based on personal liberties, the right to not be under some sort of monarchical rule, and the right to not be told what religion to practice.

Friends, as I see it, America gave up on God A LONG TIME AGO. In America we care about free enterprise. We care about wealthy citizens. We care about the American Dream. We care little about the poor. And we, historically, have cared even less about the marginalized. Remember, we are a country that has based people’s worth on the color of their skin. We have even based THEIR PRICE on the color of the skin and the calluses on their hands.

America doesn’t care about what God wants. America only cares about what America wants.

Which leads me to a strange place with Amendment One. The majority ruled that they wanted marriage to be defined as between a man and a woman today in North Carolina. Fine. That’s the way it goes. We live in a democracy where everyone has a right to their own opinion.

BUT PLEASE, OH PLEASE, DON’T BRING God INTO THIS! We gave up on the Almighty a long, long time ago. America was written under the paradigm of personal liberties and rights. And, somehow, we have been about taking away those rights and liberties ever since. It’s a strange place to be in. Something tells me, too, that if those voting for Amendment One had taken God out of the picture completely, this vote would have been incredibly different.

See, the Church has a right to decide how it feels on the subject of Sin. It has a right to attempt to define it based on its own Biblical principles and historical teaching. It can do whatever it pleases and it’s allowed to use God because she made it in the first place.

But, for America, no.

God’s will has little to do with whether a gay man has a right to his partner’s body and life insurance after his untimely death. God’s will has little to do with whether a lesbian is allowed to know where in the military her partner is stationed. God’s will has little to do with gay and lesbian rights in America.

Us Christians are living somewhat of a dual citizenship and our witness is being hurt by the way we throw one into the other so often.

-B

 

I use the term ‘America’ in substitution for the ‘United States’ simply because it seems to me to be a bit more pejorative. You’re welcome.

Why Christian Music Is Essential

I literally remember the moment.

It was on a school field trip and all of my peers had their Walkmen and assortment of CDs with them. One of the greatest pastimes of such trips was, as kids do, compare and contrast the assortment of CDs each friend had brought with them. I remember my friends having CDs of The Smashing Pumpkins, Blink 182, Smashmouth, Green Day, Nelly, and many other secular albums that were often stamped with that ‘my mom doesn’t know I have this’ EXPLICIT stamp.

My collection of CDs, though, was quite different. It was made up of dcTalk, Michael W. Smith, Newsboys, Steven Curtis Chapman, and many others. I loved that music. It was the music on the radio I listened to and I listened to it constantly. That fact alone was not enough though to keep me from being embarrassed when I was around the kids with the ‘cooler’ music. I was so embarrassed that I even moved dcTalk’s albums to the front of my CD binder (remember those things?) because their album artwork would at least look cooler than Michael W. Smith’s. The horror as a youngster of being caught listening to music that wasn’t ‘cool’ was more than I could bear.

I liked my music. I just wasn’t proud of it.

One peer even said to me (I remember this word for word), “I like the music to Christian music, but the words suck.” To which I responded, “Oh yeah, I only listen to the music anyway. I don’t listen to the words.”

Wait, what?

What kind of an idiot was I? You don’t listen to the words!?!? What a MORON!!! Of course you listen to the words, Bryant! That’s the whole point!!!

But, you know, saying that would have meant that I submitted to the lyrics that he said, “sucked.” I would not be caught doing such a thing as that.

(In seminary we talk all the time about pop Christian lyrics ‘sucking.’ But, we speak of them in terms of theological shallowness, not in terms of whether they are cool or not.)

I really was stupid. Either that, or I didn’t realize the truth behind our faith. The truth is that everything we do forms who we are. The way we worship in church forms us into who we are. The things we watch on television form us into who we are. The things we read form us into who we are. The same is true of the music we listen to. These outside influences affect the way that we interact with God, each other, and surrounding communities.

This is why Christian music is essential. We need something that defines the Church and the disciples of Christ lest we risk allowing our children (and, let’s be honest, us) to be influenced by other non-Christian, non-Holy influences. I no longer worry about whether listening to music that speaks the Gospel is cool or not, because I know that what I listen to is forming me into who I am. And, forgive me, but I’d rather that influence be something inspired by Christ rather than the sinful ways of the world.

Therefore, I give praise for the witness that Christian music, in whatever form, style, or genre, provides.

The next step, as we often lament in seminary, is to actually say something. “Falling in love with Jesus” was ok when we first realized the issue of American music. Now, it’s time that we take this formative aspect of music one step further and use it to form disciples who can actually articulate something theological. Our next step is to recover the depth that many of our founders clung to.

Wouldn’t that be something!

-B

A Struggling Quest for Identity #GC2012

I thought about writing my reflections on the General Conference of the United Methodist Church 2012 here. I actually did write my reflections on it, for a class. Below are not those reflections. I figured that anyone reading this likely read my tweets and Facebook status updates throughout the conference’s ongoings and is also likely unwilling to listen to me rant about something that to them seems trivial. So, instead, I thought I’d present what I see to be an overarching problem with the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodist Church, as it stands today, has one large problem: it doesn’t know who it is.

The UMC (then the many forms of the methodist movement and the Methodist church) was both fortunate and unfortunate to have grown up around the birth of America. This means that values based on personal rights and liberties were, from the beginning of American Methodism, engrained into who the church was. To this day, this influence can be seen. The UMC still practices ways of democracy. The UMC constantly bickers about fairness and control of leading ecclesial (church) authorities. Let’s face it: the UMC is a post-Enlightenment church heavily influenced by both the good and bad of American Christendom. It is not the Catholic or Anglican church and, to a very certain extent, is very proud of this reality.

The Methodist church in America has been through trial after tribulation after trial after crisis. Methodism in America has dealt with slavery. It has dealt with civil rights. It has dealt with feminism. It has dealt, and is dealing, with homosexuality. In fact with the exception of homosexuality, the UMC has been a leading charge in America, seeking to bring personal liberties and rights to all. It’s as if ‘all means all’ has been written into a little bit of Methodism throughout America’s narrative.

But, recently, Methodism has lost its cultural footing. As a church that once pressed the westward American movement, it struggles now to gain or maintain a foothold in what it used to have significant influence on: culture.

Simply put, the United Methodist Church is not culturally relevant anymore. It’s not even, as a whole, socially relevant anymore. My diagnosis, again: it doesn’t know who it is.

We’ve seen this before. After Steve Jobs left Apple (mid 1980’s), the company began a downward spiral. It produced tons of products. It ventured into commercial areas it had never been. It tried new things without worrying about quality. It forgot the mission the Steves had set out for it since the beginning: make good products. Jobs used to tell this story about when he got back to Apple (late 1990’s) where he asked the employees that had stayed why they had done so. Their response? “I bleed in six colors.” (A harkening to the old Apple logo) They, evidently in the minority, could still sort of remember who Apple was.

Jobs used to tell this story alongside one about how he preached the future of Apple to his employees once he returned. He said that it became clear that if it was a zero-sum game and for Apple to win, Microsoft had to lose, it was clear that Apple was going to lose. “Apple didn’t have to win!” Steve preached. “Apple had to remember who Apple was!” Jobs always said that the only thing Apple focused on was “making great products.” That’s it. If Apple was under Jobs’ leadership, they would be about making great products and little else. Their identity was found inside of making great products. That’s who Apple was.

To say that the UMC is not in the same place would be an effort to evade the truth. Little is wrong with the Wesleyan theological heritage of the UMC. Little is wrong with the connectional heritage of the UMC.

What’s wrong with the UMC? It doesn’t remember who it used to be. It has, because of its love for tradition and unwillingness to move and groove, forgotten that it used to write the American narrative before other groups. It has forgotten that it used to write the culture instead of the culture writing it. It has forgotten that it used to be full of innovation. It has forgotten that it used to be evangelical. It has forgotten that it used to be vital.

The UMC struggled at General Conference over the last two weeks to make any progress toward the future. It chose (because of a host of reasons) to maintain a structural format based off coroporate models that are now half a century old. It chose, in large part, to ignore the essential part of its future: young clergy. With the strange exception of ‘guaranteed appointments’ for elders, the UMC made very little progress in reshaping who it is and, because of this, must suffer the consequences over the next four years until issues can be brought forth once again.

News flash: four years is too long in today’s world. Change was needed and it was needed fast. And it failed, motion after motion, amendment after amendment.

The UMC used to find its identity in strong Wesleyan theology that pushed the culture and innovated before it could. It was able to articulate new, sometimes controversial, ideas better so that the culture understood them in light of Christ rather than in pure Enlightened thought. Somehow, as a church, we have managed to live more into the Americanized version of who we are rather than the Christian version.

The church has simply forgotten who she is.

I fear it will get worse, too, as we become a more global church. As our surrounding culture begins to deal with what it means to have a global economy, it is faced with ways to run the economy. It chooses the easiest, cheapest route almost every time. What a time for the church to lead the way! Perhaps then we wouldn’t struggle with the ethical violations! But, the church, forgetting that it used to shape the way, does not. And instead of the world realizing who the world is, the world simply thinks its way is normative. How sad a day.

I feared that change would not come at General Conference 2012. I feared the the church would be stuck in a rut because of its inability to remember who it is. I had little idea however about how bad it would actually be.

‘Where’s God in this?’ you might ask. God’s here. Have no fear. The Spirit is moving somewhere. But I don’t believe United Methodism to be any sort of sacred thing. It can die. The Gospel will continue on. The Spirit will continue to carry it. The travesty is that the UMC actually has some interesting things to say about the Gospel.

If only it could remember how to say them.

-B

 

The Greatest Love of All

I’m not one of those people who, when a celebrity passes away, writes on Facebook something along these lines, “People die every day. Why does the world stop when these overdosing celebs die?” I try not to judge people who do, but it’s not something I’ve felt the need to say. And so, I write here not to disparage Whitney Houston’s name, simply to call attention to the shaping and forming of our culture through music (which, arguably, music does).

People look up to many celebrities. Singers look up to singers. Athletes look up to athletes. Comedians look up to comedians.  Perhaps it’s because they’re simply good at their craft. Perhaps it’s because they see a little bit of themselves, and a lot of their potential inside of the talent of these celebrities.  Perhaps it’s a way to live a life they’ll never have, vicariously.

I’ve refrained from commenting much on Whitney Houston’s death. I’m saddened by the reality of her life, her dependence on substances to counteract an abusive marriage, and a talented soul lost from this world.  For many obvious reasons, her death reminds me a lot of Michael’s death and that only brings sad feelings to my heart. It’s such a shame.

However, I was watching YouTube this afternoon and came across this tribute by PS22 (who I have included man times here and on Facebook; I think they often do a stand up job at recreating pop tunes):

 

They do a phenomenal job here and are well led.  The female soloist is something else, too.

Every pop artist has their ballad that stands out for them.  It often separates them from the rest of the artists and solidifies their place in history as a phenomenal singer. Whitney, as I see it, had two: “I Will Always Love You” and the one above, “The Greatest Love of All.”

What’s most interesting to me is that Whitney set a place for black singers such as Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce to become as accepted and popular by mainstream media and popularity as they have been.  Whitney came out of church, gospel-singing background and blew the world away with her incredible range, passion, and natural phrasing. She had a huge voice and knew how to use it. Her level of stardom, in many ways, is untouched.

But, if we are going to see this song, “The Greatest Love of All” as a song that was defining for her career and thereby defining for our culture, I think it’s important to examine the text for what it is, especially because of its placement of a bold statement within the title. The Greatest Love of All. If that statement doesn’t shock you into listening to it, you ought to wake up. The song title makes you want to listen to find out what it is she is going to define as the ‘greatest love.’

She starts by singing, 

I believe that children are our future

Teach them well and let them lead the way

Show them all the beauty they possess inside

I’m tracking. I agree. Show the children the beauty they possess inside? Yes, Whitney. (Whitney didn’t write the song, but she’s singing it so I’m going to speak as if she agrees with the text.  Especially because the story is that she fought for the chance to record it against Clive Davis’s wishes.)

But then, we start to separate. She sings:

 

Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be

 

Pride is a weird thing for me.  Our Christian tradition teaches that pride is a bad thing. Our American tradition teaches that pride is how you get somewhere in life.  Without confidence in what you do, in America, it is hard to succeed. The song assumes that pride makes things easier.  If I’m confident and prideful in what I do, life becomes easier. This is a humanist message, not a Gospel message. This is reliance on the individual, rather than reliance on the grace of God.

 

Everybody’s searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs
A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me

 

I assume that because Whitney desired to sing this song that these lines, perhaps more than any other within this piece, resonated with her. It, to me, shows two things: a reliance on herself (obviously), and a direct rejection of any Christian role model (i.e. Jesus).  I appreciate the honesty within the lyrics, but the lyrics suggest a solution that is not Christian (remember, the tradition that Whitney was raised in) in any realm. Reliance on self? Once again, this is a humanist argument. Our hope is that a born-again Christian would have someone who fulfilled their needs, Jesus. And, with that, the Church.

 

She continues:

 

I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I’ll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity

 

This is almost at the crux of the song. This continues to emphasize this complete and utter reliance on the self. More than that, though, the use of the term “believe” makes this a stronger position. It may not quite reach the lengths of spirituality, but it’s clear: the writer of the song thinks that if you believe in yourself and have dignity, you might not always succeed, but you will be…better. This is an American idea to be sure, but seems to stand in complete conflict with the Christian message. Indeed, Christians are to walk in Jesus’s shadows.

 

But there’s more to this line before we move on. I read these lines to be an “us against the world” type argument.  This is intriguing to me because that has many parallels to the argument of Christianity. We have a better way of life, you do not. Come join us and put your faith, hope, and trust in the Savior of the world. This message: if I put my faith, trust, and hope in myself…and believe in myself…then I’ll have a better way of life than the world. The world may be out to get me, but that’s ok…I have myself. This, again, emphasizes where the trust is placed. Christianity claims Christ. This song claims the self.

 

Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all

 

And here we are. The definition of the ‘greatest love of all.’

 

Friends, learning to love yourself is not, as I see it, the greatest love of all. The greatest love of all is the grace of God. The grace that is poured out on a broken humanity that confesses its sins and seeks to live in communion with Christ’s offering.

 

The song, for the listeners, is a lie. It spreads a reliance on humanity, on the self, and the good works of said people. It delivers a message of hope that resides completely within the self. It places trust on the individual. And because of that, it is in direct opposition to the heart of the Christian message: Jesus is Lord.

 

“But Bryant,” you say. “This song was written by someone struggling with cancer who may or may not have been a Christian. She was in the midst of a crisis and writing honestly about where to place her trust. In her against the world, she finds the strength within herself to survive. How beautiful of a message?!?!”

 

I respond: This is not a beautiful message. And it is in direct conflict with where we should be.

 

The movement towards a trust in the individual rather than a higher power is a move that the Enlightenment granted humanity and may never ever be able to be taken away. Songs like this destroy the Christian message and focus: Christ. They enable humans to understand that they’re able to battle whatever they’re fighting (whether it is cancer or something less tragic) simply by believing in themselves.

 

The Christian Scriptures teach us that when humanity ran from God and placed their hope and trust in other things it always went worse than if they had placed their trust in God in the first place. This is a message that obviously wasn’t written into Whitney’s narrative, because I imagine this song would have struck a different chord with her than it did.  It’s sad. And, inevitably, the trust that Whitney placed on herself and the things of this world came to cause her death. It’s sad, very, very sad.

 

I do believe that children are our future. If we teach them well and let them lead the way, we are in for a wonderful ride. But, the beauty within them that this song talks about OUGHT to refer to the beauty that God placed in God’s children, not the beauty within their humanity. Humanity is fallen, God is holy. Only a trust and belief in God can give true hope and love. That is the greatest love of all.

 

Why does this matter? Because music shapes our culture.  Therefore, music shapes us. I’d prefer that Christianity define “The Greatest Love of All,” not Whitney. 

 

Lord, help our unbelief.

 

-B

Why Apple’s Supply Chain Problem is Such a Big Deal

If you clicked this link, your thought was likely, “Bryant’s a fanboy, let’s see what kind of spin he puts on this horrific topic.” Or, you might be someone who has tweeted to me, emailed to me, or trolled my Facebook timeline with this NY Times article released the other day.

The gist of the article is this: Apple employs hundred of thousands of poor Chinese workers who spend their entire lives connecting cables inside of iPhones for very little pay. The article goes further than that though, too. The article makes the pronouncement that Apple cares very little about the working conditions of their supply chain and you should feel guilty for owning an iPhone, iPad, or iPod. Here’s a taste:

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

Tim Cook, the newly appointed CEO, made it clear in an email to employees that he was ‘outraged’ by the accusations that the article made and was deeply offended. It’s not hard to see why…The New York Times and Apple have mostly had a very cordial relationship. The NYT’s website is included in iOS’s default bookmarks and Steve often visited their site first when demoing a new product. The Times was quick to adopt the iPad as a way of releasing their content and the relationship has worked for the betterment of both companies. Everything seemed fine.

Until this.

Even today, the BSR, who is quoted heavily throughout the Times’s piece refuted much of its claims. I suspect that we haven’t seen anywhere near the end of this.

As a point of reference, here’s a short clip of Steve Jobs reacting to the Wall Street Journal’s questions regarding the suicides and suicide attempts by Foxconn employees a while back:

Again, we haven’t heard the end of this. As we shouldn’t.

The poor workers. They’re worked hard, worse than many Americans will ever work, and when Apple wants to lower production costs and raise quality of the products, something’s got to give. The media is beginning to claim that the cost of these two desires is human lives and well being. In fact, the NYT titled their piece, “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.”

It’s linkbait, but it starts a good conversation. Why is this so important? Why does Apple take the heat?

Sure, it’s because theyre bigger than everyone else. That’s what got Nike in so much trouble. Sure, it’s because they are a hugely profitable company. They made more in profit than Google brought in total last quarter. Sure, it’s because people love their products. But I think this has become a bigger deal for another reason.

I think it’s because their products speak a bit of hope.

Andy Crouch referred to this phenomenon when he spoke about the gospel that Steve Jobs preached in a piece immediately following Steve’s death. I don’t agree with the correlations that Andy drew throughout the entire piece, but his general thesis is good. Steve had a different, often better, way of envisioning how a human interacts with a product. (Andy’s piece comes off a bit harsh at times, though I know that Andy is an Apple fan because when I saw him speak live once he referred to his MacBook Pro as the true representation of ‘perfection’ on earth.)

Apple’s mindset has always been about Thinking Differently. Using a computer sucked until 1984 when the Macintosh was introduced. MP3 players sucked until 2001 when the iPod and iTunes made it possible to actually enjoy listening to digital music. Cell phones sucked until 2007 when the iPhone finally made a smart phone easy to use. Tablets sucked until 2010 when the iPad reimagined what a tablet was and how humans interact with it.

Steve’s quotes. Apple’s marketing campaigns. The products themselves. All of these presented nearly hyperbolic statements about what it was like to use an Apple computer and how much there was to love about them. Sites like “CultofMac.com” and documentaries like “Mac Heads” and terms like “fanboy” are signs of the effectiveness of this message. (I’ll admit, I often get accused of buying into the Apple gospel more than the Jesus Gospel. I’d argue that that might be because Apple is better at presenting it than our churches are right now, but that’s an argument for another day…)

When you use an iPhone, you fall in love with it. Or, most people do. Apple is no longer an electronic company; they become an ideology, a mindset, and a way of life. Apple has engrained this “Think Different” message into our understandings of who they are as a company. When we love their products, we want to believe that the truly are better than everyone else. In every single aspect.

Yet this Foxconn situation seems to be the same as everyone else. I remember getting in trouble at a young age and my first response was to say that ‘everyone else was doing it!’ To which my parents were quick to point out, “Perhaps, but you’re better than that.” These poor (literally) workers in these factories are indicative of what is wrong with the world we’re in and we’d like to think that Apple can rise above those problems. For God’s sake, they’ve risen above it with all of their products!

I hope Tim and Steve are (were :-( ) right that they are actively working to take greater measures in treating their workers fairly. They’re certainly working to spread a good word about how much better they are than many other suppliers. I hope that what they say is true, is true, and that it will continue to get better quickly.

Apple has nearly $100 Billion in the bank. If there is one company who can actually Think Different when it comes to this type of labor ethics, it’s Apple. They have the means.

I’d like to see them turn this around. Not just politically. Not just through marketing. I’d like to see them make gigantic strides and stand up for the right and well being of humans.

Because that’s what Apple does. They Think Different.

Please, dear God, don’t let that thought leave with Steve.

-B

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