Friday, December 10, 2010

Can't Get No Satisfaction

Can't Get No Satisfaction
Addiction is the spiritual disease of our time.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hospitality Sweet

Hospitality Sweet
One of the forgotten keys to the dynamic worship of God.
I've attended some 2,000 church services in my lifetime, both as a church member and as a guest musician at a wide variety of gatherings across North America. I've participated in many different approaches to "doing" church.

We've sung from hymnals, songbooks, and PowerPoint slides with slick video backgrounds. We've been accompanied by choirs, folk singers, and rock bands. We've heard preaching from ministers in robes, suits, and graphic tees. We've met in cathedrals, sanctuaries, gymnasiums, and living rooms. We've read formal liturgies and followed the unspoken liturgies of a particular church's service format. Almost always, we have taken an offering.

We have called it all "church," and we've argued about the right way to do it in order to give God glory, reach seekers, and foster spiritual growth. Sometimes we've had trouble separating our aesthetic preferences from our theologies and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I have my own biases, and it's almost impossible to perceive any worship service outside of that lens. But lately I've been constructing a mental catalog of gatherings I've attended that were especially worshipful, challenging, or nourishing. I've been shocked by how widely they range in style, size, and polish. I can recall a wonderful communal awareness of God's presence in churches mega and miniscule, charismatic and conservative, contemporary and classical. (And I have found only empty ritual in a similar range of gatherings.)

Evidently, God will move wherever and whenever he pleases, regardless of our resources and plans. But when I look at my list of the most memorable gatherings, I see certain commonalities. Each of those services—whether led by a gifted team of professionals or by decidedly less proficient volunteers—was thoroughly Christocentric and profoundly reverent. No surprises there. The common characteristic that I least expected? Hospitality.

Robert Webber was the first person I heard speak about hospitality in the context of worship. He told a story about attending an unfamiliar church while traveling. About half of the church members constituted the choir, sitting up front in the loft. When it was time to sing, the choir director turned to the congregation and took the time to teach each parishioner his part, going over the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass lines until everyone knew what to do. Webber claimed that in the course of the opening song, guided by the choir at the front, he went from being a stranger to someone who belonged. He knew exactly how to enter into that community's worship, because he had been taught his part in it.

"In the church," Webber concluded, "singing is hospitality."

I've been in churches where the singing (not to mention the praying and preaching) is impressive and professional, but not hospitable. Those services have been more of a show than a family reunion, more a presentation than a meal together at a life-giving table. They have been effective to a point, but they haven't held a candle to hospitable churches that use every resource available (from the church's architecture to its care in establishing and teaching its liturgies in any style) to make each person included and sure of her part.

Hospitality matters because every time we worship together, we are drawn not only into our particular community, but also into the community of angels and saints who are always praising God. Even better, we are being reminded that we are included in the circle of fellowship between the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Son is the true worship leader who helps us express our thanks to the Father, the phenomenally hospitable God who invites us to make ourselves at home with him.

Church is powerful when it embodies this inclusion—much like our hospitable friends did on our recent family vacation. When church is like that, it becomes the home away from home where we offer each other a place to reunite, be fed, commune, wash, rest, and receive what we need for the road.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Relationship That Leads to Life

Relationship That Leads to Life
Why God's law is good news.

My husband and I are trying to get our kids to consistently do their chores. We've tried threats and rewards but worry that our extrinsic motivators are holding our kids back from learning to obey simply because it's the right thing to do. "Gee," we long to hear them say, "my folks love me and know what's best for me, so I better pick up that broom and chip in."

Our struggle with our kids got us thinking about God's struggle with us. Surely he wants us to do the right things for the right reasons. As his people, do we behave "Christianly" because of extrinsic or intrinsic factors? As his church, what are our ideas about moral development?

I once spoke at a family camp of believers and nonbelievers who had been meeting for years. One morning, a seminary graduate shared his story with the group. David had weathered a crisis of faith when his father—a sternly religious man and prominent church leader—had been exposed in chronic sexual sin. David said that healing had come slowly and that, looking back, he realized the Christianity of his upbringing had overemphasized "morality" in place of "relationship."

It sounded to me like David's dad might have benefited from a little more emphasis on morality. And I worried that David's take was not what the group needed to hear; two affairs had fractured their community in recent years. To me, it seemed they were suffering from too much relationship and too little morality.

I remember my reaction now with chagrin. I've since seen individuals and church communities with a robust focus on morality fall countless times. I get David's point: An emphasis on holy living without a genuine, life-changing relationship with a holy God can lead to rigid legalism on the one hand or secret sin on the other—and often it leads to both.

I also know Christians who emphasize relationship—and God's un-earnable, inexhaustible love—yet who have catastrophic moral falls. Such failings do not disqualify us for God's forgiveness, but they often have shattering consequences.

So what works? When it comes to shaping character and behavior, is it better to focus on God's law or his grace?

Psalm 119 is a love song to God's law, which seems odd. My friend Steve Bell says he never understood such passion for a moral code until he thought about children playing near the edge of a cliff. Without a fence, the children are always in danger, never able to relax. But if a barrier is installed, they can play freely and without fear. God's law is God's grace. It's a safety fence that brings incredible freedom.

Of course, it's only a matter of time until a kid starts to wonder what's on the other side of the fence. If she doesn't know or trust the fence builder, she might suspect that the barrier is holding her back from bigger fun. So she hops the fence, a lemming for false liberty. Humanity has an extensive track record on this front.

Fortunately, there's more to the story. God's law is not only a safety fence; it's also a mirror that shows us we can't live up to his standards without his help. Jesus comes not to abolish the law but to finally fulfill it. Yet many of us keep hopping the fence. Why? Partly because we still don't really know and trust the fence builder.

God doesn't expect morality in the absence of relationship. The first line of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20) is not, "You shall have no other gods before me," but, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." God defines the relationship first, then describes a life lived in its context.

Psychologists warn that extrinsic motivators for morality erode intrinsic ones. When our preachers thunder warnings about living right to avoid God's wrath or earn his favor, we run the risk of drowning out that still, small voice that beckons us to live out the holiness given us solely by our Father's grace.

Conversely, when the message is that our behavior doesn't matter, that God's grace is unmerited and therefore morality is not a major issue, we seem not to know our Father at all.

In the end, it isn't morality versus relationship. It's morality because of relationship. "Grow up," Jesus says in his most famous sermon. "You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you" (Matt. 5:48, The Message).

If we know our Father loves us, and we love him, we'll trust whatever he asks of us. We won't need the threats and rewards that can skew real faith toward pharisaism. We'll just pick up our brooms and chip in.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Risks God Takes

The Risks God Takes
Why a little church history is a necessary--and dangerous--thing

From the June issue of Christianity Today
Posted online on 06/17/10

My kids are growing up in North American evangelicalism, just like I did. My husband and I load up the family wagon every Sunday for primarily spiritual reasons, but as a byproduct, we are also marinating our offspring in a specific cultural broth. By the time they leave for college, they will have spent 18 years in a Reformational stew.

Church culture is the norm for our kids. They have no reason to believe that Christendom has ever been different, although they do recognize progress in that they can wear jeans on Sunday mornings.
One of the quirks of growing up in certain streams of evangelicalism is a lack of historical context. In my youth, a church father was a dad on the deacons' board. If we had to summarize Christianity's history, we would probably reference the apostle Paul, Billy Graham, and our congregation's building committee.

I would have remained ignorant if it weren't for books. G.K. Chesterton cajoled me to respect tradition as a way of "giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors." My ancestors, it turns out, are a lively bunch. I discovered them scattershot—Augustine's introspection, Eckhart's mysticism, Therese of Lisieux's humility, Benedict's organizational genius. I began to see church history as a trove of devotional information, a 2,000-year stream to be mined for the golden testimonies of saints who pursued God and recorded what happened.

Hungry for context, I delved deeper—and soon realized why we don't share much church history with our kids.

Yes, there are bright lights in the story. But there are also dark moments when the church and state joined hands to form one iron fist. Sacramentalism (the teaching that God's saving grace comes only through the sacraments) was often turned from a means of grace into a way to secure power (for only the church could perform the sacraments). To challenge official church doctrine meant consigning your soul to hell—and the church would likely help you get there quickly.

When Tertullian claimed that "the blood of the martyrs is seed of the church," he could not have dreamed how much blood would be spilled at the hands of other Christians. Like that of Jan Hus, a Bohemian preacher who argued that Scripture should be available to the masses and have the ultimate authority in doctrinal matters. Seeking church reform, he preached against corruption.

When Hus refused to recant his positions before the Council of Constance in 1415, he was condemned as a heretic, strangled, and burned. But a century later, his blood helped to seed the ideas of Martin Luther and Menno Simons. Out of the pain of their difficult labor, my own church tradition was born.

Then there's the case of Michael Sattler, a 16th-century Anabaptist who was pronounced an "arch-heretic," tortured, and executed for concluding that Scripture did not advocate infant baptism. A few days later, Sattler's wife was drowned for holding the same view.

How do we process these stories? I open my Bible, and I recognize my debt to those who fought for the accessibility and authority of Scripture. My church holds a baptismal service, and I think of those who were drowned for claiming the right to be baptized as adults.

I recognize, too, that without dissenting voices, there would have been no Reformation. This tempers my response to fellow Christians whom I believe are doctrinally unorthodox. I disagree with them as my conscience dictates, but I must also respect them as potential sparks in a reforming fire. As long as the church is made up of humans, it will need reform, and reform will require dissent from the status quo.

The story of Christianity ultimately leaves me shocked at the risks God takes with humans. Even the greatest lights in church history were dishearteningly imperfect. For all his heroism, Luther attacked the Jewish faith so polemically the Nazis later misappropriated his writings for their anti-Semitic cause. Reformer Ulrich Zwingli advocated justification by faith and concern for the poor, but he also endorsed the executions of two of his brightest disciples because they became Anabaptists. Simons was an inspired Anabaptist leader, but he overzealously excommunicated many who did not live up to his pious standards.

Yet God did great things through these flawed people, much as he did with Abraham, Isaac, Peter, and Paul. As long as there is a human element in his church, it will be prone to corruption. But as long as his Spirit moves, there will be reform and renewal.

When our kids are ready, we will give them context for their religious heritage. For now, they do not understand that the church they file into on Sunday mornings is a place as dangerous as it is holy. But if God is willing to keep taking a chance on it, so are we.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Allow for Space in the Music

Allow for Space in the Music
Acknowledging the mystery of pain.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Strength in Meekness

Strength in Meekness
What to do with the anger that saps strength.
From the February issue of Christianity Today
Posted online 02/15/2010

(Note -- if you'd like to hear "Roll It", a song on my new cd inspired by the ideas in this column, go HERE)

My grandmother was great, but she had that special mother-in-law gift of raising my mother's blood pressure. A well-timed comment about cooking or child-rearing would leave my mom stammering and defensive.

As a teenager, I would walk by and whisper, "Water off a duck's back, Mom." She came to understand my code—Let it go; Nana doesn't mean anything by it, and we know you're a good wife and mother—and my whispers usually helped. But now I wish I had known to say, "Roll it onto God, Mom."

Psalm 37:5 tells us to "commit your way to the Lord." Translated, this verse says something like, "roll onto Jehovah thy way." At certain family dinners, that means passing the gravy and "rolling" the need to defend ourselves—as well as our more serious needs and concerns—onto God.

Jesus was quoting from Psalm 37 when he said the meek will inherit the earth, and it turns out that the whole psalm is a primer on meekness. I have always been a little over-meek (reticent, shy, too deferential). So when I read the Bible and find the meek congratulated, I'm delighted.

But there's a catch. It turns out that only two people in Scripture are described as "meek": Moses and Jesus. So meekness likely has little to do with timidity.

If meekness isn't weakness, what is it? The word has an association with domesticated animals, specifically beasts of burden. At first blush, this etymology doesn't thrill me; I don't particularly aspire to be ox-like. But when I think about it, an ox at the plow is not weak but extraordinarily strong. The key, though, is that his power is harnessed and directed. Perhaps meekness is strength that is submitted to an appropriate authority.

Shortly after I began writing this column, I found myself in rare conflict with a friend. At first I thought my anger was giving me strength, bolstering my courage so I could deal with the issues. But the anger soon betrayed me, sapping my energy and compromising my ability to act according to wisdom and divine direction. It's only as I have turned my hurt—and the overwhelming urge to prove that I'm right—over to God that I've begun to be able to respond (and sometimes resist responding) from a place of holy, rather than human, strength.

Psalm 37 is all about strength in meekness. It deals with trusting God to be God, and with not trying to do his job. The meek, for example, don't repay evil for evil; they rely on God for justice (vv. 1-3). Several verses mention that the meek don't fret. And the meek let God provide their hearts' desires rather than trying to manipulate people and circumstances to get what they want (v. 4).

How much energy do I expend trying to secure provisions, control outcomes, and manage people's perceptions of me? Psalm 37 tells us that the meek give that labor up. They trust God's claims that he will provide, protect, and defend, and in so doing free up resources for putting their hands to God's plow. It's a good plan.

But here's the thing: I would be fine with rolling my burdens onto God if I were guaranteed resolution. There's a joke that describes the effects of playing a country song backwards: Your spouse returns, your dog is resurrected, and your truck starts working again. I wish that surrender to God worked the same way.

But faith isn't like that. The biblical witness is that circumstances often get more challenging, not less, when one's way is committed to the Lord. So why roll it onto God if "it" (the need, circumstance, quarrelsome friend, or critical in-law) isn't necessarily going to get fixed?

There are stories about prisoners in Nazi camps who were made to move heavy boulders from one end of a field to the other, only to carry them back again. Many of the men were eventually driven mad, not by the backbreaking nature of the work, but by its futility.

It isn't the experience of being misunderstood (or suffering or poverty) itself that will undo us, but rather the sense that we are enduring hardship to no good end. That's why the apostle Paul emphasized that we do not labor in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). We discover there is no wasted effort or pain, because there is nothing that God cannot redeem.

I have a choice. I can wear myself out pushing the boulders of my life around my prison yard. Or I can be meek, and roll those burdens onto God. I'm not sure exactly what Jesus meant when he said the meek will "inherit the earth," but I've certainly discovered that this world is a better place when I roll it off my shoulders and into his hands.