Saturday, April 21, 2007

Christian Worship and the Needs of this Generation

Neither the indignant whining of the left nor the smug complacency of the right has registered with this generation. This generation wants to be part of something bigger than themselves, and to have this bigger purpose be relevant and authentic rather than merely superficial cheerleading. One area the Church needs to reckon with this is its worship philosophy and practice. For those not familiar with the 'worship wars', I'll spare you the gory details. Suffice to say, Christians from the get-go have argued with each other about what it means to properly worship God, and these debates continue today, sometimes ferociously. My burden here is not to dive head-first into these debates, many of which I consider harmful even though they are often motivated by the correct notion that few things in our existence are more important than better discerning our proper worship of God. Instead, what I'd like to do here is relate worship to the cultural thirst for authentic transcendent purpose. Postmodernism's insistence that there are no 'metanarratives' has been accepted by many in our culture, but the result has been a scorched earth existence for many who long for something better. On this score, PoMo has been momentarily persuasive, but not compelling. It is here where the church can effectively respond by thinking about how it does worship.

A recent front in the 'worship wars' has been the debate over the quality of Christian music. Contemporary Christian music (CCM) is often accused of reducing the emphasis on God in its lyrics, while exalting the feelings of humans. By supposedly switching the emphasis from God to man, CCM, to some, doesn't really qualify as authentic worship of God since God is not the focus of the songs. On the other side, traditional Christian hymnody is often accused of being out of touch with contemporary worshippers and does not ignite a reverent attitude with today's churchgoers. From the "thee's" and "thine's", to the lack of modern rhythmic influences, to its focus on God and the deemphasis of first person narrative, traditional hymnody is often seen as dry, old, tired, and completely removed from modern experience, which greatly reduces its ability to touch our hearts and evoke radical worship. Is a reconciliation possible between the two camps and the seemingly valid concerns of both, and can such a reconciliation speak to the cultural thirst for authentic transcendent transformation? I think the Psalms in particular provide some good food for thought here.

Perhaps surprisingly, The Psalms offer a balance between the declaration of God’s majesty and character, versus first person songs. It’s not good enough to just arbitrarily condemn the first person emphasis of contemporary worship songs. The problem is when these kinds of songs become our exclusive diet. But the same is true in the other direction, because by never stressing the first person in worship, we externalize rather than internalize worship and the transformative life power of worship gets choked out. The Baptist emphasis in worship of personal testimony to the unbeliever may lack the majesty of traditional Presbyterian worship, but it succeeds in communicating the experience of Christ to a dark world. These songs connect me to the story and the Person of Christ, and wonderfully round out our worship. We should be doing both in worship – exploring who God is and what he has done, and then reflecting on our personal appropriation of this story. Classical musicians can’t explore God’s truth in totality; it’s just one perspective on it.

The danger with absolutizing any particular mode of worship is loss of connection with the rest of the faith, and disintegrating the loops of influence and connection that are the hallmark of the genius of the Christian faith. This is the danger of having apartheid and segregated services, rather than working out worship in the context of the larger community. We need to find ways to let distinctive voices be expressed, while staying connected. Niche worship carries with it the danger of atomizing not only the Christian faith, but the community of the church. One dangerous result is that through worship segregation, we fail to speak to the culture's thirst for transcendent meaning. Niche worship can become little more than a pep rally for people who like the same style of worship. But this is not the picture of the NT church that Scripture provides. Nor is it the picture of worship given to us in the Psalms.

In particular, Ps. 150 is a grand vision of eschatological worship, where different instruments and all of heaven and earth in all its diversity come together in harmony eternally praising God. What's particularly instructive in the list of instruments in vv3-5 is that some instruments were used in temple worship (trumpet, cymbals, the string instruments), while others such as the tambourine and flute, were generally confined to secular uses. The 150th psalm is obliterating all such distinctions, and is giving us a grand metanarrative of worship where each distinct and diverse instrument plays its part, but in harmony with all the other instruments. It is a great symphony of praise to God, the grand final doxology of the Psalms. Ps. 150 does for worship what Paul does for the church in 1 Cor. 12.

The balanced worship theology of the Psalms can and should inform our present day worship philosophies, because it encourages us to engage our hearts and minds in both individual and collective purpose to praise God in spirit and truth. This vision of transcendent purpose is like water to a parched man, and if the church embraces it, we will be offering an alternative to our culture that is both biblical and attractive.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Prayer for Virginia Tech


I pray for the Virginia Tech community, and particularly those who have been most directly devastated by yesterday's rampage. Trying to come to grips with the monumental nature of the tragedy is far beyond my abilities. I and many others have lots of questions about what happened and why, and it is in our nature to want almost instant answers. The parents and others who have lost loved ones are probably more entitled to these answers than anyone else. I pray that in your loving timing, you might comfort the grieving by giving them enough answers to find some rest in their souls. At the convocation today and in subsequent ceremonies, equip our leaders and speakers to say the right words and strike the right tone for the benefit of the grieving and the nation at large. Equip your church to minister well to the university community. I thank you that a number of good churches like Grace Covenant PCA have already been places of comfort and support for many in Blacksburg. Your church is full of imperfections and too often brings shame to your Name. But thankfully, your church often redeems itself in times of tragedy, and I pray that it would be so again in these sad days. Through your church, let the families and the university community know something pure and good about your love for them, so that there might be encouragement in the midst of despair, light in the midst of darkness, love in the midst of hate, and peace in the midst of chaos. Empower us to love well and grieve well.

Lastly, I pray for our nation. I fear that we as a nation have already lost sight of the main thing, and are degenerating into familiar finger-pointing, rumor-mongering, and political exploitation and opportunism. More than ever, our nation seems to lack a shared purpose, and this event brutally highlights it. On message boards, blogs, TV shows and newspaper columns, the bickering and animosity between us has already begun. We can't even grieve together as a nation anymore without taking our familiar places on the stage and breaking down into camps of mutual dislike. The victims families deserve better from us. Instill in us the ability to keep the main thing the main thing by forcing us to remember our own corporate responsibilities to those most directly affected, as well as our larger responsibilities to the ongoing health of our society. Make us understand that gooping up this horrible event with political talking points is not merely a gross insult to the families and university community, it also greatly exacerbates their pain and anguish. For their sakes, give us the discipline and the caring spirit to set our own baggage aside for the time being in order to embrace our fellow citizens who have lost loved ones and to simply cry with them. They deserve that from us, and we should be exceedingly willing to give it to them. Let the victims see something of your love and care in how we as a society mourn with them.

I ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Adoption Setback

For those readers who know us personally, I wanted to let you know that we may have experienced a considerable setback in our desire to adopt an international child. We feel called to adopt from Russia, but Russia has officially suspended all foreign adoptions done through non-governmental adoption agencies for at least the next several months, and quite likely far beyond that. The technical issue is the governmental reaccrediting of adoption agencies so that these agencies can in fact work in Russia. The accreditation process in Russia is already very cumbersome, requiring the approval of at least 4 different government ministries. Because of two very high profile cases of child abuse by American parents of children adopted from Russia, and because of political and nationalistic issues, there seems to be a growing sentiment in Russia to significantly curtail adoptions by US families. In addition to the agency accreditation process becoming totally bogged down, Russia is also now providing financial incentives to its citizens to encourage them to adopt Russian children rather than letting them come to America to be raised.

I'm not here to comment either way on the steps the Russian government is taking to curtail foreign adoption. I can believe that at least some of the steps being taken are motivated by relatively good intentions. But regardless, none of this is good news for us. So for those of you who know us and know our situation, I would request prayers that God would guide us as to how to proceed, and to give us the perseverance and reassurance to see this through. This is a tough setback.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Short and Sweet on Imus

It's hard to make an argument that Don Imus's trade has represented the best of American culture. If Imus is the pinnacle of American culture, we should withdraw our troops from everywhere in the world and completely dismantle our military and national defense infrastructure, because America is no longer worth defending.

However, while not defending Imus's racist/sexist history or arguing that it represents the best of America, some have still tried to say that America is still best served by allowing such voices to be heard, rather than muzzling them. Michael Meyers wrote an op-ed in the WP the other day that made this exact argument. Predictably, Meyers made the issue a conflict between those who love free speech and 'censorious' activists. My take:

Michael Meyers is greatly distorting the free speech debate in his defense of Don Imus' speech rights. Meyers considers the desire of citizens to see Imus fired for his racist remarks 'censorious' and an affront to the First Amendment. This is grossly incorrect. The First Amendment guarantees the right to be able to say what we want as citizens. But it does not guarantee the right to an audience. Nor does it guarantee the right to have a lucrative book deal, newspaper column, successful movie or album sales, or in Imus's case, a syndicated radio and TV show as a vehicle to propagate one's views. Put simply, the First Amendment does not guarantee free speech without consequence. Citizens who are demanding Imus' firing are doing nothing more than properly exercising their own First Amendment rights. Those like Meyers who refuse to defend the speech rights of the citizenry with the same vigor in which they defend the speech rights of Imus are no friends of the First Amendment, particularly when their defense of Imus involves making the First Amendment say what it doesn't say.

I am deliberately not getting into the fray of whether Imus was unfairly singled out given the commonness of the racist slang he used in certain other parts of the entertainment culture. That's an important issue and one that should be vetted with care and intellectual sobriety. I am also not commenting here on the very cynical mea culpas issued by his former corporate handlers. I've commented on another forum that Imus will now have the fitting punishment of pondering the degree to which he was a complete dolt at the hands of MSNBC and CBS who fired him for doing exactly what they encouraged him to do, and knew that their relationship with him would probably come to this sooner or later. My chief burden here is to strongly distinguish between the right of free speech, versus the alleged right to lucrative avenues to disseminate one's speech. The former is more or less guaranteed, the latter is not. It is increasingly popular to lump them together in order to immune controversial people from market-driven consequences. But it is an illegitimate combination; completely illegitimate.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday, the Cross, and Foolishness

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness..."

This famous line from A Tale of Two Cities says a great deal about the significance of the Cross, which is the focus of Good Friday on the Christian calendar. In countless ways, the crucifixion of Christ on the Cross was both the best of times and the worst of times. It is a paradox that has been the source of endless wonder for those who believe, while being considered foolishness by those who don't. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul declares that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those being saved, it is the very power of God (v18). What was true in Paul's day is true in our day as well. In so many ways, the Cross represents a vivid collision of opposites that is intolerable to the wisdom of the world, while being so very true for those imperfectly aligning themselves with the wisdom of God. Among the mysteries of the Cross:

1) The Cross is a place of both conflict and concord. It is at the Cross that radical love and radical hate meet; where life and death intersect; where Light and Darkness converge. It is mindblowing to consider that crucifixion, a method of execution whose brutality was unrivaled, was the method used by God to reconcile the world to himself. Conflict and concord, together. It is through the Cross and all the conflict it encapsulated that the Son of God perfected his work as the Son of Man in order that the sons of men might become sons of God. This is utter foolishness to those who are perishing. But to those of us who believe, it not only makes perfect sense, it is a constant source of healing for our own broken souls.

2) The Cross is a place of both choice and no choice. The Cross, as much as anything else, forces all of humanity to make a choice about this Jesus who was crucified. Is he who he says he is, or is he something less? It is the Cross that confronts everyone with this question and forces everyone to make a choice about Jesus and its implications in their own lives. This choice is not just A choice, it is THE choice upon which all other choices are judged. But at the same time, the Cross is also about no choice. In Gethsemane, the God-man Jesus submits to the Father's will to voluntarily be executed for the sake of the world. It is the Cross which provides meaning to the Incarnation. Jesus had to be fully God in order to be the sinless sacrifice that would be acceptable. But Jesus also had to be fully man in order to authentically represent humanity in his sacrifice. Choice and no choice, together. It is at the Cross that we simultaneously see a brutal murder, and a willing sacrifice. This is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to those of us who believe, it provides purpose and wisdom for living.

3) The Cross is a place of both humiliation and exaltation. By relinquishing his rights and being submissive unto death, Christ allowed his humiliation to take place. But as Paul says in 1 Cor. 1, the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. The only human throne that Christ ever occupied was the Cross. The only human crown Christ ever wore was the crown of thorns. It is at the Cross that God took the mocking humiliation of men and made it an avenue of exaltation, whereby Christ is granted kingly authority over all heaven and earth (Mt. 28.18, in fulfillment of Ps. 2.8). This is utter foolishness to those who are perishing. But to those of us who believe, it resonates with the mockings and sufferings we endure as his followers, and puts all of life's circumstances into a meaningful and hopeful context.

We live in a culture today that closes its eyes to pain and suffering, turns its back as best it can on the brokenness of the world, and tries to insulate itself and hide from having to face the ugliness that often accompanies mortality. The wisdom of the world considers the Cross of Christ to be a revulsion much of the time, and it's not hard to see why. But on Good Friday, the world would be wise to consider that the wisdom of men will not prevent suffering. Everybody will endure suffering, regardless of how many physical and mental inventions we concoct to try and avoid it. It is the Cross of Christ that provides meaning, purpose, and even fulfillment to the sufferings we will endure anyway. It is the love of Christ, as supremely demonstrated through his sacrifice on the Cross, that holds all things together (Col. 1.17). It is the love of Christ that reconciles all things to himself as a result of making peace through his blood (Col. 1.20). This is where true hope lies. It is where the foolishness of men and the wisdom of God meet, and where a decision has to be made about Christ.