Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It's All About Me

I am a worship leader. Just about every Sunday, I lead the musical portion of the worship services at my church. I have been doing this full-time for 5 years and before that I had done it on a part-time basis for about 15 years prior. Despite this experience, I am constantly learning, constantly trying to implement new things, and always ready to acknowledge that as much as I have learned, I still have a long way to go.

In all of this time, I have seen and experienced a lot. I could come up with a fairly extensive and broad list of my discoveries, but I think I can narrow a list down to two things from a theological viewpoint of leading musical worship:

1) Worship leaders need to improve their theology
2) Worship songwriters need to write more singable music that promotes a holistic theology

It probably sounds harsh, but let me take each of these and explain.

I need to confess that I am far from perfect and I fall into all of the traps that the average worship leader can fall into. I find the latest songs and sing them because they are familiar. I choose songs based on what kind of energy they can evoke. I find “pet” verses that I can share instead of exploring Scripture for new ways to see and know God. I do not always strive to be as excellent as I should strive to be.

We, as worship leaders, cannot grow comfortable. Whether or not you lead music or preach or have a major part in your worship services, this is essential. Theology is “God Talk”, it is the way that we talk about and understand God. He is infinite and while we may appreciate certain aspects of who He is, we should never cease to find new ways of seeing Him and knowing Him. His mercies are new every morning and those mercies should be explored and sung about. The moment that we stop learning about God and who He is, is the moment that we should beware of our hearts becoming lukewarm or cold. He is bigger than we can imagine and his love for us is wide and deep.

We love to sing songs about how wonderful, faithful, gracious, and awesome that He is, but we often neglect seeing Him more holistically. Jeremiah, the prophet, wrote an entire book of Lamentations. He was known as the “weeping prophet.” The Old Testament prophets brought messages of peace and hope, but they also brought messages of judgment and wrath. There were calls to repentance and faithfulness. Where are those songs in our repertoires?

We want to sing songs that make us happy so that we can come out smiling like a certain Texan who shall remain nameless. We want people to feel good when they come to church so that they come back, or so that they will tithe generously. We want people leaving with a sense of “having met God” and having been embraced by Him.

I’m not saying that all of those things are bad, but is that all that there is? Are there not times that people should leave the presence of God having felt like Isaiah: that they were unclean and unworthy to stand before a Holy God? Our encounters with God should not be limited to the feelings that we leave with or the emotions that are evoked from us. Instead, they need to express the true and genuine characteristics of people who have deepened their relationship with the One who created them.

To be honest, I struggle with what this looks like for us in the church. This is a cultural shift from who and what we have become in the church and as long as it has taken us to get to this point, the solution will not take place overnight. That’s where the second observation comes in: we need to start writing music that begins promoting a holistic theology. We need to start writing music that doesn’t promote such an individualistic viewpoint of salvation and theology but instead, promotes the community of God that we are a part of when we come to faith in Christ. There needs to be less “me” and more “we.”

When we are saved through Jesus Christ, we are not only saved from the bondage of sin into which we were born, but we are saved into the community of believers, the church of Jesus Christ that transcends all time and space. We are saved into a community of fellowship, accountability, and faith. We can keep on singing songs about what Jesus has done for me, how he saved me, and how he loves me, but that’s not the whole story. We have to tell the rest of the story.

I would love to hear some thoughts about this process and what it looks like for other people and just how we might move, corporately, towards a more holistic theology in our musical worship.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Everything's Broken!

I will get around to the second part of my Submission post soon, but I felt that this topic was too important to neglect. I actually feel like this topic, in a strange sort of way, relates to the topic of submission, so I hope that it might act as a segue.

I was reading something the other day that troubled me. The conversation started with a question of why we attend church? To me, that’s a pretty fair and legitimate question, one that I have grappled with over and over. While I have struggled with the Bride of Christ on the earth, I have often gone back to a quote that is attributed to Martin Luther, “The church is a whore, and she is my mother.” I’m not sure if Luther was truly the author or not, but authorship is not the point, the fact is that the church is imperfect but she still belongs to me and I am still responsible to her.

The church is imperfect because she is made up of fallible and imperfect people like me. Yet, God chose her to be His agent of change in the world through the Holy Spirit. You might love her, you might hate her, but if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you still have an obligation to be a part of her. I am not dictating that we all need to be a part of a mega-church, but I am saying that we need to be part of a community of believers that comes together for the sake of, among other things, worship and service. That's going to look very different depending on where we are geographically and culturally, but fellowship and coming together are essential parts of it.

The writer of Hebrews writes in chapter 10:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

These are some great reasons why the “church” needs to continue to meet and exist: to spur one another on and to encourage one another. Do you see the “one another” there, not once, but twice? The church is not about you, it’s a community made up of individuals but not focused on the individual, but focused on a purpose which is much greater good than the individual. The church’s purpose is to build the Kingdom of God, God’s community on earth.

What troubled me the most about what I read were comments from people who had, at least temporarily abandoned church. They want to do church by themselves, giving money to the things that they want to give money to, serving the ministries that they want to serve, and doing things that, in my opinion, make the focus not outward but rather inward. They have couched their reasoning in language that makes it seem as if their motives are noble and I legitimately think that some of their motives are, but it still seems a cop-out to me.

As I read the comments about retreating from church I began to realize why divorce has become such a viable option for even those in the church. Instead of staying and facing the difficulty of redemption, reformation, repentance, and restoration, why not just bail and start over again? We run away instead of dealing with the hurt and making efforts to be part of the change. How is that a viable option? We serve a God who is in the business of redemption, not complete destruction and rebuilding. When the world was destroyed by the flood in Genesis, God made a covenant with Noah that He would never again destroy all living creatures as He had done. Yet giving up on “church” is disowning her as our mother and ultimately saying that God’s change agent on the earth is incapable of accomplishing His will. It seems to be questioning whether He can really do what He said that He would do through the people that He said that He would do it through.

I have been in church long enough to have seen that we have sufficiently screwed things up. Prior to my current ministry position, I have had my fair share of being "burned" by people in ministry who should have acted better and who should know better than to have done what they did. I have seen how our focus as the body of Christ has been distorted by things that we think are the issue when things that are happening right under our noses are not being addressed and confronted. But I still remain a part of church.

Are there times when it's legitimate to take a "break" from church? I have seen people who have taken a hiatus from church, I think that I have been one of them, and I have to say, I can't blame them. There are times when there have been sufficient hurts and healing needs to take place. All possible avenues for change have been taken and nothing but brick walls have been encountered. I just wonder if we stay and fight as hard as we could. I wonder if the efforts that we make mean have really brought us to a place where we should just abandon the church or if we should not instead seek out way that we can make a difference where we are, albeit small. We all want to change the world, but it's not going to happen in one swift action, it's going to happen one life at a time.
I often wonder if we have such a distorted ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) that it would be unrecognizable to the 1st century church. But can’t God redeem it? In Scripture, He remains faithful and true to Israel despite her gallivanting around and “sleeping” with other lovers. Should we not remain faithful to the Bride of Christ?

There is legitimate criticism out there regarding church budgets and why we spend as much as we do on some of the things that we do. At the same time, there are churches that strive to be 50/50 churches, operating on 50% of their budget and giving the other 50% away. I'm not saying that we have "figured it out" when it comes to church and how it should be done, but just because we have not successfully found the balance does not mean that we pack up our things and say "to hell" with the institution.

Our own sanctification, our becoming like Jesus, is not something that happens overnight, despite what you may hear some people say. Why should we expect that the church is going to wake up one day and find that everything is perfect? There were issues with the church when it first began, there are issues with the church today, and I think that there will still be issues with the church when Christ returns, does that mean that we stop striving? Galatians 6:9 says, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." Persistence and perseverance need to be characteristics that followers of Jesus Christ exhibit.

Here’s a challenge for those of you who have given up on church or “organized” religion: why not be change agents within the change agent? Why not make efforts to see that God redeems His body? Why not pray that God might get loose and have His way? Even though many of us might think that we can objectively look at the church, our vision is still distorted by sin and we cannot see as clearly as we think that we can. The church is the church because it is made up of people who call themselves followers of Christ, if the followers of Christ on earth are not organized and representative of him, we are being disobedient to our purpose, our mission, and God’s goal for humanity: redemption, restoration, and community with their Creator and with their fellow creations. At the risk of sounding cheesy, the words of a song have been running through my head as I think through all of this: If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change. Change needs to start with us first, then we can change the world.

When we are faced with hardship and difficulty, it’s a cop-out to bail. Why not face the difficulty? Did God not say that He would give us everything that we need to accomplish His will (Hebrews 13:21)? If God bailed on us every time that we failed, there would be no redemption, no forgiveness, and we would all be destined to remain separated from God. Let’s not forget Jesus’ words in Luke 12, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” If we who have been saved by grace and who are continually forgiven by such grace should give up on the church who is desperately in need of grace, God help us all!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Submission, Part I

I met with a friend and mentor recently to begin a process of relational accountability and discipleship. Although I have only been in full-time ministry for 5 years, I have been in the church my entire life. I have seen the good and the bad of church, sometimes one has felt more prevalent than the other. I have experienced the pressures that congregations put on their pastors from two different angles: as a pastor and as the son of a pastor. I have had to remind myself on countless occasions that I am following Jesus, not any pastor, denomination, or church. I have learned that one of the most important things for us to do as Christians is to be in relational community with each other, submitting ourselves to each other in order that we may be an example of the Gospel to those who are walking in darkness.

I have also seen, both personally and in the media, the many who have fallen as they tried to maintain the appearance that everything was going “great” when all the time they were hiding an addiction, a relationship, or some other skeleton that lurked in their dark closet. Trying to live up to the expectations of people combined with the “I can handle this all by myself” attitude is a recipe for certain failure. When I see brothers or sisters in moral failure, I cannot say that I would never do that. As Paul reminds us in Romans 7, we are still influenced by our “flesh” and can be pulled in different ways if we are not careful.

It seems easy to say these things, but much more difficult to actually accomplish them. From the beginning, we have wanted things our own way; we have wanted to raise ourselves to the same plain as the God who created us. Our culture reinforces the sense of entitlement with which we already struggle within our flesh. We feel as if we deserve to be on the same plain as God. If we feel that we are worthy of being equal to God, why would we ever consider submitting ourselves to each other, fallible human beings?

Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 that we are to submit ourselves to each other out of reverence for Christ. But what can be gained by this kind of submission? Frankly, I think that the word “submit” gets a bad rap. If you look it up in the dictionary, among the many definitions is this “to subject to some kind of treatment or influence.” Other than the obvious depravity that stretches to our very core from original sin, there is one reason why I believe we aren’t comfortable with the idea of submission: we are not willing to build vulnerable relationships.

Yes, we can all say that we have deep and intimate relationships with people, including our spouses, but how deep and intimate are they? We all still house secrets within us, things that we are unwilling to share, and why? Because we are afraid of getting burned, we are afraid that someone will breach our trust and reveal those secrets to the world. Everything that is contained within us will eventually come out; we can only contain it for so long. Wouldn’t it be better to let it come out with someone that we trust?

God did not create us to live alone. He specifically created Eve for Adam, not just for the propagation of humanity, but because He said that it was not good for man to live alone. While many have used that as the basis for the marriage covenant, it also means that we all need relationships that extend deeper than Facebook or Twitter. While all of our social networking resources are great for connecting, they cannot replace face to face or live conversation, they still leave us alone and by ourselves. Only in face to face or live conversations can we build meaningful relationships that will allow for the kind of accountability that Paul talks about.

So what happens when we build these kinds of relationships? We begin to see the picture of submission in a different way than oppressive or bound in chains. We instead see it as freedom, freedom to be ourselves, freedom from the bondage of loneliness, freedom from the bondage of the things that we are hiding deep down inside because we are afraid to share them. And we share because true relational submission is reciprocal, both are willing to share and be vulnerable. If it isn’t, then it is just a different form of slavery and we are in danger of being in bondage to something or someone else.

Like I said before, submission has gotten a bad rap. We can't allow words to be hijacked because of the way that they have been used, abused, and misused in the past. If we are going to show that submission is not a dirty word, the only way that we can do it is by living it out in our lives, submitting to one another. Only then will the world that we live in realize that there's something more to what we say than empty words and wind.

Coming soon: Submission, Part II

Monday, July 6, 2009

Where Do You Go When You’re In Trouble?

At my church, we have been studying through the book of James. I’m a fan of James, because he says it like it is. He doesn’t pussyfoot around issues, he hits them head on. He seems to be all about “the bottom line” and getting straight to it. As he opens up his letter, after the usual greeting and pleasantries, he tells the letter’s recipients to “consider it all joy whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Interesting! He’s really just continuing the words of his half-brother who said, “In this world you will have trouble. But I have overcome the world.”
Trouble is pretty rampant around us. Some of the trouble that we find ourselves in is self-induced, some is others-induced. Even when it’s self-induced, we desperately try to make it someone else’s fault. Who really wants to admit that they got themselves into the mess that they are in? Turn on the TV or read the newspaper, check out your church’s prayer list, and you will find out that this world is full of trouble and we will encounter it.

It seems like we ask ourselves some obvious questions when we’re in trouble. Of course, there’s the “who’s to blame?” one. But we also want to know how to get out of trouble, as fast as possible. If we have any sense about us whatsoever, we eventually might ask “what am I supposed to learn from this trouble?” In my geometry days, I learned that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. When we find ourselves in trouble, we want to get out… We are willing to cut corners and take as many shortcuts as possible to find our way out.

But that’s not always God’s way for us. Google “Israelites Exodus Journey” and look at the maps that come up. The route that the Israelites took from Egypt to Canaan was hardly the shortest distance or a straight line. It seemed like the scenic route….through the desert. While some may see that as fodder for the musings of a sadistic God, it’s hardly that. In fact, the Israelites had a lot to learn before they got to where they needed to go.
Why is it that the first place that we need to go when we are in trouble is the last place that we end up? We try to find our way out in whatever is humanly possible, somewhat ironic if we were the ones who got ourselves into this mess to begin with. Psalm 121 paints a picture of looking to the hills and seeing the help of the Lord come from them. He is the first place that we need to run to in times of trouble.

When we pray in our troubles, God gives us perspective. Sometimes he helps us to see that our troubles are not nearly as grave as we thought that they were. Other times he leads us to people who have it far worse than we do. When we spend time looking at God instead of ourselves, we realize that as bad as we think that we have it, there’s always someone worse off. While we may be worrying about the state of our 401K or IRA over the next 30 years, there are some in this world who are worrying about what happens in 30 minutes after they eat their last piece of bread. There’s perspective for you!

With no apologies whatsoever to Joel Osteen, we will face troubles in our lives, even trouble that isn’t self-induced. Sometimes we understand it, other times we don’t. We will face sickness, and despite people’s interpretations of James 5, healing doesn’t always happen and when it doesn’t, it isn’t due to a lack of faith. Despite popular belief, "My Best Life Now" doesn't mean that I'm happy all the time and that I never encounter troubles in the world. We live in a world that is marred by sin. Romans 8 is pretty clear that the fall of humankind did not just affect humanity, but all of creation. Sickness and death are a result of sin and whether we want to believe it or not, will ultimately be used for God’s glory. We are moving towards glorification, a new body, a new earth. There is nothing that we can do to make that happen other than putting our faith in God.

Over the last week, I have sat around with some other people talking through and praying for many in our church who have cancer. I don’t understand it and as I get older, it seems that the people who are impacted are getting younger and younger. Part of that is perception as I edge closer to 40, but part of that is true. If I did some research, I bet that I would find that 20 years ago there were not nearly as many cases of cancer in people aged 50 and below as there are today. We obviously haven’t learned whatever it is that we were supposed to learn, but we also haven’t figured out a “manmade” way to combat the effects of sin. Without Christ and what He offers, it’s downright depressing.

But salvation is about so much more than just “I’m going to heaven when I die so let’s crank up the Gaithers and have a good ol’ time.” Salvation is about a freedom from sin and death, a freedom from the “trouble” that we have gotten ourselves into. Problem is, we need to acknowledge that our salvation is nothing that we can do in our own strength. As the Apostle Paul pleaded with God to take away his “thorn in the flesh” whatever it was, he heard God say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Total reliance on God is not weakness, even though that’s what the world says that it is. Total reliance on God is the quickest way to get out of trouble and find a strength and power that is perfect, completely outside of ourself.

I don't know what kind of trouble that you have or that you will have in the future. I may never be able to sympathize of empathize with you. I don’t know where you run when you’re in trouble. I do know that I often run everywhere but where I should go: to my knees. Whenever you find trouble or trouble finds you, don’t forget the words of our Savior, “In this world you will have trouble, but I have overcome the world.” It won't necessarily take away the trouble, but it will help you to get a perspective that extends far beyond yourself.