Friday, June 12, 2015

In Love with Love


The Church is struggling to have a voice in this increasingly strange world. I get that. Morally, we are very unsure of our message. People have great difficulty with being told what is moral or righteous and being measured against a standard of morality. We in the Church, on the other hand, are not as sure of what is right and wrong any more. It used to be so obvious. Things that used to be right are now wrong and things that used to be wrong are a matter of someone's rights. The difficult events in the Old Testament have become more difficult. What we used to look on with "There but for the grace of God, go I." we now condemn as genocide. God used to be understood to know best in these things. Now we want to distance ourselves from the idea of God who, at need, punishes whole nations.

I think there is a reason for this confusing state of things. I think we've gone out on a limb for the word "Love." We've made a God out of "God is Love." We've drunk the Kool-aid of our own marketing. Contemporary worship songs are symptomatic. Over Easter, I heard one that described Jesus' resurrection as some kind exertion of Love. What happened to the triumph of Life over Death? What happened to the triumph of Righteousness over Sin? I guess that kind of thing is passe.

But who is going to speak against Love? It's the ultimate Motherhood-and-Apple-Pie issue. And tagged to this present out-of-focus focus is another biblical catchphrase, "God is light and in him is no darkness at all." And we've brought to the table our contemporary ideas of what constitutes darkness and said "God can't be that." We've forgotten that sometimes, light burns. It used to be that we would look at the difficult parts of the Old Testament and say, "God knows best."and walk away with a healthy fear of God -- which Proverbs tells us is the beginning of [true] wisdom. Now we judge everything we read -- and say that it all must have been based on a distorted view of God and walk away without any moral compass at all.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Re-Discovery?

Lots of noise is being made these days about the Church rediscovering the truth about the atonement, about the faith, about the nature of God. I've made noises earlier in this blog about the magic word "Patristic" and how it seems to be used as a golden ticket to selling your views especially when presented over against a more recent view. After all it's Patristic...

But I'd like to take a bit of a swing at the whole rediscovery thing. And the first thing to be made clear is that this is not like the story in Kings, where the Book of the Law had been lost and now it has been found again. This is one view, expressed chronologically earlier than another view expressed more recently. The assumption that that the one marketed to is expected to take on board is that the earlier view is 'of course' right because it's earlier and the later 'of course' wrong because it's later. But it all depends on how you tell the story. One way is to say that this was lost early on and now, thank God we've found it. The other way is to say that our understanding is now evolved and the newer idea has superseded the old. Can you see the problem? There's no way to tell which is the true tale. Which means no re-discovery has taken place. We've merely found something we like better than what we had. And we're willing to depend on a bad sales job, namely, what C.S.Lewis used to call chronological snobbery, to assure ourselves that it's the right one.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Unpopular Jesus

Much is being made these days of Jesus words, "If you've seen me, you've seen the Father." And the thrust of this always seems to be a repudiation of the Old Testament view of God. Now I believe I've blogged this elsewhere, but I think it bears repeating, that if you don't have the Old Testament, you don't have Jesus. His ministry and Messiahship are rooted in and validated by the Old Testament. There's been a change after Jesus' coming, no doubt. But whatever we learn of God from Jesus gets integrated into the whole of what the Old Testament teaches, and does not cancel it out because if the God of the Old Testament is false, then he can't bring forth the Christ. But that is not what this post will be about. I think that there are enough examples in the Gospels themselves that amply demonstrate that God as revealed in Jesus still carries with him the unpopular traits that the church these days finds so embarrassing, but without which he is truly the 'tame lion' alluded to by C.S.Lewis.

Jesus the Law Giver

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a go at the law. And in every case, he validates the existing Law by strengthening it. Everything is now not merely about action, but motivation. This is very significant. By strengthening the law, he makes the offence against the law a much bigger deal than it ever was. When we examine our actions, we might say they're better than someone else's, but when we look at our motivations we are rightly ashamed.

Jesus the Severe

Examine how Jesus speaks to those he admonishes. Frequently he warns of extreme consequences if his words are not heeded. "Whoever denies me... I will deny..." "It will be more bearable for the region of Sodom than for you." He does it with a wonderfully unadorned style. He's not portrayed as rageful. But the consequences remain and are spoken of frequently. Even more significant are the God-figures in his parables. Kinglike, they bless the good and just and severely punish the evildoer.

Jesus the Judge

Much is made, and rightly so, of the tempering of justice with mercy. The converse is also true. Jesus freely admits that the people he calls are sinners, even while he implies that the righteous are worse off because they are not being called. But while we recognize the reversal -- the righteous are not actually righteous because they deny their need -- let's not forget that the ones who come are acknowledged as sinners, that is, those deserving punishment, to whom the offer of mercy is actually meaningful.

Jesus the Descriminator

"Not everyone, who says to me Lord, Lord..." "The knowledge of the Kingdom of God has been given to you but not to them." "Depart from me, I never knew you." These are just three examples of a theme that no one likes exploring, because it makes us terribly nervous, but that is throughout all the Gospels. The idea is that in end some won't be in after all. They might think they are just great, but they will have been deceived. Ow.

Jesus who calls it as he sees it.

Look at how Jesus treats his own friend Peter. "Are you still so foolish?" "Get behind me Satan" etc. There are obviously times of no mincing of words, no gentle remonstrance. Are we open to being talked to like this? Even more cutting language is levelled against religious leaders. (try the choice phrase "twice as much a child of hell as you" about the Pharisee's disciples.)

Jesus the Inscrutable

Sometimes Jesus does things that would tend to offend us -- with no explanation. Why did he curse that fig tree? In the narrative, no real explanation is given.

etc.

One of the prophecies (Isaiah 11) about Jesus says that he will delight in the fear of the Lord. I think that we need, even while we strengthen the message of God's love for us, to recognize that we are still in the presence of one who has every right to treat us severely and even harshly if he deems it necessary. As he extends love to us, let us receive it gladly because he has not "treated us as our sins deserve." Let us not try to sugar coat either our situation or God's righteous judgement. If we truly believe that if we have seen Jesus we have seen the Father, then we must be willing to acknowledge the uncomfortable parts of the Father that Jesus reveals along with the parts that bring us relief.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Failure of Radicalism in the Church

I don't know about you, but I think that the effort of the primitive church to recreate Old Testament religion is nothing short of monumental. To read some of the New Testament, especially the Gospels and -- what I am starting to think of as part of the Gospels because it's from them that Jesus' Messiahship receives validity -- the Messianic prophecies, you might get the view that everything was now changed. The Spirit was to be our guide because the Laws of God were to be written on our hearts, we were all to be equal, the temple worship was to be subsumed into our new communion with the Father through the resurrected Christ, and the works of Jesus would be a commonplace (though revered) occurrence among us, because Christ's "not of this world" kingdom is breaking into our present reality. But their legacy is quite different.

For any number of reasons we now inherit the following: a new Torah and Talmud -- the Canon, Patristic writings and Canon Law, -- a hierarchy of priests, temples and ceremony and a varying experience of the miraculous, where either in their lifetime or after, those who experience the miraculous are considered more meritorious -- to the point of sainthood-- than the unwashed masses or written off as frauds, depending on your tradition. The pinnacle of this recreation of the Old Testament world was of course the unexpected success in the political arena. This not-of-this-world kingdom now could bask in the patronage of, exult in the new ability to influence, and languish under the equal and opposite force of control of the most powerful administration on earth. I'm sure they found it addicting.

The whole process looks very much like a slow motion sell-out, which is of course, not quite fair. The big picture that I am gleaning from the New Testament, especially from the Gospels, just wasn't at the fingertips of those who were doing the original work of spreading the word. Much of the material just hadn't been written yet and after it was, it took some time to disseminate. The hierarchical models of Church polity were what they had at hand. It was culturally relevant. Who can fault them for starting that way? But their successors should maybe have pondered Jesus' words in Matthew 23 which shout 'Equality!' or those so ready to excommunicate based on doctrine might have spent some time with John 14 where Jesus us gives the idea that "in" or "out" is dependent rather on obedience. Already ingrained practices could have been reworked. Instead, the practices remained and the words of Jesus ignored or explained away.

And the emphasis seems to have been on regimentation and control. After all, the government was now involved. Issues might have headlined like "Who's in and who's out,"  "Cornering the market on Grace,"  "Creating a new Torah" -- which was done mostly out of letters addressed by one us to specific groups of us suddenly pressed into service as letters by God to all of us. And the New Testament was highly important as doctrine and heresy increasingly came into the centre stage. If tenets of belief determine in and out, we must have a document to base the correct tenets of belief. So the church congratulated itself on the excision of the Nestorians and the Arians etc. And as time progressed, this church of "all brothers with only one Father" transformed into a hierarchy centered around increasingly arcane and intricate ceremonies which now could only be performed by clergy (those higher up in in the higher-archy) in beautiful temples. Nobody asked what had happened to the simple meal it was based on.

By the time of the Reformation, some were crying foul. The simplicity of Jesus' teachings had so obviously been traded for intricacy and convolution. Some kind of radical rework was necessary. And so the reformed church and the free church were born. Results varied, but the intent was the same, that being an attempted return to what the church once was or ought to have been.

Fast-forward to today. There is now a movement to return to the church that the reformers left, or if not that church, the eastern version of the same, all in the name of coming home to the true inheritors of the primitive church. It's an ongoing event that continues to trouble me. After all, the reasons we left haven't gone away. Worship and polity in these churches are still entirely unlike and largely impossible to derive from anything in Jesus' teachings or practice and what does correspond seems hopelessly embellished. (The same charge could be levelled against us that what we do is not very like Jesus' ministry. The only difference is that we don't view our ceremony as vital to salvation itself.) But the underlying reason for this re-exodus must be that the radicalism of the reformation has failed. Five hundred years or so later, we are in essentials the same as that which we left -- we're just a poor imitation. We kept the new Torah and built up our own Talmud around it. We've replaced images and symbols and icons with well, actually, more images and symbols and icons and... preaching, lots of preaching. Eventually one wants something different. And the claim of the 'ancient' churches to being the original, true, version of the church is hard for some to refute.

So where did we go wrong? I think it's a failure to recognize that keeping the new Torah as that which all truth must be built upon was a mistake. No, I'm not throwing out the New Testament. I'm just wanting us to recognize a few things about it. Firstly, it was written not by those somehow above us, but our equals (see Matthew 23). Secondly, there's no doubt about its inspiration (read it!) but this is the Church. Inspiration ideally abounds among us. To look back and say this is the only inspired writing is surely an offence against the promise of the Spirit's presence. It's akin to other cessationist positions, exalting the past over the present in despair, ignoring the picture of the ever more victorious church that Jesus paints with his allusion to 'greater works.' I would like to reform the Bible to include in the New Testament an index of ALL Christian writings that follow -- as a way of recognizing that the Spirit has not stopped communicating and that all Christians are part of the conversation. Thirdly, we need to have the simple right to disagree or at least take a grain of salt with some of what we read as we already do with other teachers and leaders today. The male chauvinism of some passages for example, is ingrained in the culture of the writer, and we need not spend the monumental effort some have spent to explain it away in the name of preserving the "inerrant Word of God." We have to realize that what is today, is more of the same of what used to be. The early apostles were not qualitatively different than we are. We sometimes make inspired statements which have a certain slant and so did they. Therefore, to forever use their words as the only starting point of our theology is a mistake. I think only Jesus' own words have that place.

I also think that we erred in carrying on the practise of judging "in" or "out" based on theology. An atheist sacrificing to do right by those for whom he is responsible might be closer to God than an idler whose theology is impeccable because the atheist is actually doing. According to Jesus, actions, not theory, are central. But for us, theology is the in or out determinator. Those leaving for the 'ancient' churches have been conditioned to put themselves in and others out by dint of their choice of theology. And now some cannot even take communion with brothers and sisters with whom they have previously laboured side by side in the kingdom of God. We can't blame them for such foolishness. It was taught them by the churches they are leaving. But is there not room for many different takes on the Christ event? And I mean takes that need not use the Epistles as a lens for the Gospels, but that look at the Gospels themselves first. Can we not take our equal place along side the apostle Paul, who, just like us, wasn't there to travel with Jesus on the roads of Palestine and see him die? Can we not, like him, gaze on the event and inspiredly speak of its meaning? And still not deprecate and denigrate other brothers and sisters who see other meanings..?

And where ought our radicalism have taken us? Well actually, our birthright is being where John the apostle spent the Last Supper. As close to Jesus as we can get. Intricate ceremony is to celebrate that which is distant. Formula, symbols and symbolism are of that which is barely accessible. Contemplation is about that which is not here. And the need for interaction with other mediators, such as priests and saints emphasizes how far we have strayed. But Jesus said he is with us always, and that we his sheep, hear his voice. What could be simpler, until our perception is that he's not and we don't? That's when it gets complicated. That's when you resort to ceremony.

The mistake that we of the reformation churches make is that we are free from all that. We're not. The church outside of revival must always eventually fall back into formula, until we "humble ourselves and pray" and he "hears from heaven." But now our formulae are tainted with the commercialism of the worship music industry and the book tables of the conference circuit. Can you blame someone for making the mistake of searching out other formulae? (I say "mistake" because really, it should be obvious that a change in formulae cannot possibly be the answer.) Especially when they offer such apparent authenticity and what they've come from is now so lame?

If I had to think of a way out of this mess I'd say it's got to have something to do with simplicity. I think the most important theological statement anyone can espouse is found in that famous Hindi gospel song (and yes it was written in Hindi first!) "I have decided to follow Jesus... No turning back." And somewhere in the mix, revival must come. A sudden increase of God's presence would bring a clarity that we are missing just now. One can only hope...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Guest Post: To worship band members

The following came to me in an email and I asked the sender if I could use it as a guest post.

Unless we've played together, you don't know me. And no, this isn't an American Express commercial. And that's okay.

By trade, I am a software developer. By passion I am a learning addict. My main interests are, well, everything but all that is by the by for the moment. By habit borne of talent, persistence and passion, I lead worship. I do so on my own in whatever home group I've joined, if it suits what the group does. I worship at church when I'm not part of the band, but I'm part of the band pretty often and willingly: in bands large and small, high-profile and unknown. And I've been doing this for 30 years and maybe a bit more. In that time, I've gotten more opinionated -- and perhaps, just perhaps my opinions have become slightly more worth sharing.

If you're involved in worship in a church setting, the key question you need to know the answer to is this: "Why are you there?" Worship leaders great and small -- especially the worship leader you serve under -- are ready to give many and diverse answers to that question, and in the words of Huckleberry Finn, they "tell the truth mostly." Still, if you're normal there'll always be this nagging doubt that the things they say are at least partially self-serving: they want to fix you in place, to serve their interests, to prop them up. Since the heart "is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who [even a worship leader] can know it?" there's just the possibility that that's the case. So, I thought perhaps there's some sense in me, that you'll probably never see in a pulpit -- certainly never headlining a band "coming soon to a stadium near you" -- outlining what I've come to see as answers to that question, true enough to make you as effective in that role as you can be; as Papa wants you to be, for his own sake, yes, but just as surely for your own.

You, indeed the whole band and the worship leader are there for one primary reason -- and it's one that a worship leader I served under a long time ago highlighted repeatedly: It's like John the Baptist said when his disciples were disgruntled that Jesus was gaining more followers than he was in John 3:30: "He must become greater, I must become less." How much more should I say than that? But I will say a bit more on this and a few more points.

Whatever you do, your goal should be to draw attention to Jesus' beauty, to his glory. Go ahead and play the best licks, riffs and vamps that you can manage -- within what works for the arrangement, more on this anon -- but do whatever virtuosity you can manage with the heart of a kindergartener bringing home his crayon drawings of "Daddy at work", and do it in such a way as to make focusing on Jesus and to make deeply expressing love, honour, awe, praise, thanksgiving, supplication toward him easier for everyone.

Some modicum of modesty is indicated (ask yourselves, sisters, what would your granny approve of?) but probably not the narrowest definition ever (we are under grace, not Torah or Shari`a) -- walk this one out as your conscience and local scruples balance out.

Some level of physical expression is probably a good idea: break dancers would be distracting in many settings but triumphal notes and rousing words, such as the repetitions of "There is no God but Jehovah" in Robin Mark's "Days of Elijah" becomes comical when the worship band is as animated as zombies. You can find some balancing point between those two extremes in your own setting, so do so; something appropriate to the lyrical and musical content of the song being used and the congregation you're serving.

Serving, yeah... That's not just a nice religious word, it's what you're doing. And if you're not leading worship with serving in mind, then you're probably heading off the rails soon if you aren't already in the ditch. Whom are you serving? Primarily God, of course, but in your context, the band is serving the congregation (or the individual leading in a homegroup is serving the, um, homegroup) and you as a member of the band are also serving the leader and your fellow team-mates. So, sniping is out. Competing for spots is out. Ignoring the arrangement the leader said he wanted to follow is out. Even, ignoring the arrangement the leader is actually using is out. If the music says "A major" but the leader keeps playing "A minor" in that one place, and you notice it, following the music too closely is out. Do what he/she says (or does, in a case like the wrong chord) or the result will be distracting from the primary purpose: corporate worship.

This extends, especially for the older and/or more educated and/or more skillful members of the band to further issues. Sometimes the arrangements suck. For whole sets. Sometimes the songs suck. It's what the congregation loves but you're finding it cheesier by the week. Sometimes the same lame chord progression is used for the whole song. Including the chorus; AND the bridge. Sometimes secondary key signatures are introduced in the most bizarre fashion imaginable. Sometimes the theology of the lyrics is weak -- even bordering on heretical. Like "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" implicitly denies the resurrection. Like why are we singing about absolution? We're not Catholics or anything -- and I'll bet they wouldn't even use the word that way. Like how do you "walk upon salvation"? Tim Hawkins has highlighted some lovelies here. Do yourself a favour and look for him on youtube -- all I can say is "I can only eat margarine."

So what do you do? Step one is not "I quit." In fact, "I quit" doesn't show up on the list of things to do at all. You know that saying about making a silk purse out of a sow's ear? That's what you get to do. At least, sort of. The truth is, no worship leader's arrangements, songs or set -- unless the worship leader is about to be sacked by others for other reasons -- is really a sow's ear. But even if it were, we're working in the Kingdom Dimension now and it is Jesus' promise that every gathering of two or more of his loved ones will be graced by his presence, not just those that feature a "perfect" song set. So if it all sucks, suck it up, princess, and play your best for the Audience of One, in support of the ones around you, so that they, too, will be able to do their best in the same endeavour. It may leave you cold. You may long for something better to happen. But in the meantime, the Body will be blessed and that's what the job's about. Remember point one? When Jesus becomes greater and we become less, that's when the Body is most blessed.

Sure the worship leader likes every song to start in the same ways (or in too different ways that seem to jar when you play the set). Sure there are rhythm and/or tuning problems but the best response from YOU in that situation is to stay loyal to Papa's side in the fight, which for that moment means pulling together with the ones you're serving with.

Your day to dictate what should happen will come -- or maybe not. And whether it does or not (as it really hasn't for me; probably never will) God will use you to extend his kingdom in big and small ways. And please believe that whatever reason others might have for saying that, I at least am not saying this to keep you down. I'm saying it because this set of attitudes has blessed and sustained ME in my in-again out-again, up-again down-again career as a volunteer member of worship bands wherever it has been my privilege to contribute. And I'm sure they will be of benefit to you even if you never hear me say it in person.

Sometimes you'll be involved on the platform -- or even in a homegroup -- more, sometimes less. And maybe the changes will happen because of the carnality of the worship leader, like David was delayed in getting to the throne by Saul. So be more like David than like his son Absalom -- Tale of Three Kings, there's another book that helps outline what kind of a heart you should have within a worship band. Only not just in a band but in life generally: see to it that you're more like David away from the platform, too. To put it another way, live like Brother Lawrence did (skillfully re-set by David Winter in "Closer Than a Brother" if the medieval sounding translation of "Practice of the Presence" is too crusty for you): Jesus' presence is available to all of us individually. Speak into the silence when no one else is listening and wait. Answers do come.

Be skillful; be as skillful as you can be -- don't short-circuit that for anyone. It takes just as much skill to play well one way as another. It takes another set of skills to select from your toolbox things you don't typically choose to do because the setting demands it. Wait and look for opportunities to contribute your ideas when arrangements and sets are being developed, sure. But be even surer that the worship leader you serve with is correctly confident that whatever he does, even if it veers away from what he or she said would be done, that you'll do your best to follow so as to make the result sound as good as possible: again, not for anyone's aggrandizement but so that there should be a minimum of confusion in what is played so that the attention goes where it belongs: our beloved bridegroom.

There. Now I'll be like the rich man in James and "fade away, even while I go about my business..."

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Paul Event

I had a thought recently that with all the justifiable attention we pay to the Christ event, we might well miss the potential significance of the Paul event.

Think of hierarchy. Think of succession. Think of disciples. Think of those entrusted with Christ's own teachings. And then think of a compleat interloper having the majority say on the meaning of all that happened in the presence of those same guardians! Such a thing flies directly in the face of the whole concept of succession. It should have called into question the whole fantasy of the rule on rule, the whole quasi-talmudic approach where everything is built on something else. But instead, the early church got around the issue by declaring the interloper an Apostle after all. And we have since based much of our teaching on his. There's a weird irony around the word "Apostle." It's supposed to be the same as missionary, which Paul obviously was. The irony is the historical assumption that it also means something akin to "benevolent dictator for life," which I just don't think was Jesus' intent.

But really, doesn't it blow everything wide open, that someone so from the outside of everything could have a personal revelation of Christ and leave such a deep mark on a movement that he had nothing to do with starting? It says to me that actually we are all equal partners in the New Testament conversation after all. God starkly and astonishingly ignores the fledgling hierarchy of the church right at its outset. Maybe he was trying to help the church set aside any idea of hierarchy. Such an action on God's part means that potentially we all have a voice. We are nobodies in the church but Paul was less than nobody -- he was, to borrow a biological term, an antibody. If such a one as he can look on the Christ event and commentate on its meaning, ought we not also to be able to do the same?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Missing the point with Mary

Somewhere in my bible school music training one of the instructors quoted something like the following, which, regrettably, I can't immediately source:
Christians are more likely to sing heresy than teach it.
Well this Christmas, I am guilty. I'm part of a group that will be performing a chant that extols Mary as "Virgo semper intacta" which renders in English as "virgin ever pure." Now in one sense, that of redemption through the death, resurrection, and return of her firstborn, I have no problem ascribing to her any amount of purity. But the literal sense of the Latin doesn't lead us in that direction at all. "Intacta" signifies untouched, by which we may assume that she never, through long years of 'marriage,' ever copulated with her husband Joseph. And that idea I find viciously problematic.

Now the Gospels clearly state that the couple abstained until the birth of Jesus. And I wonder how anyone could extrapolate "never" from such a statement. I mean, why include the limiting preposition "until" if you really mean "never?" But that is by the by. I have been sometimes accused of being a grammar cop, but I shall try to avoid that here.

It's not the misuse of the text that is so problematic, but the damage that the eternal "purity," and (let's go ahead and say it) 'Immaculate Conception' of Mary does to the whole story of Incarnation. To me the point of Jesus' coming was for God to come as an everyman and not have any advantages that could compromise the worth of his sinless life. Think how much easier he had it, if throughout his whole upbringing, his mother was without any faults. How is that fair? And take yourself back to the time he lived in and imagine that he was the only boy in his neighbourhood of probable one room dwellings who had not experienced the childhood trauma of waking up to the sound of his parents' revels at midnight. "Go back to sleep, son -- no, everything's alright, we'll explain in a few years..." Paul's idea is "tempted in every way that we are" and I think he's right. I think he gets the Incarnation in a way that those who wish to ascribe all sorts of fairy tale virtues to Mary just don't.

In black and white, then, the more we embellish the character of Mary, more we detract from the redemption. If Jesus had some unique advantage, he can't be our Saviour and he can't be our Example.

But the quote stands. I will, as agreed, sing this heresy. But not without comment.