Tuesday, December 15, 2009

12 Women in Gilded Cages?- A Critique of John MacArthur's "Twelve Extraordinary Women"

I'm in a book group with some of my gal pals, and we meet at a local coffee shop on Saturday mornings to drink coffee, laugh, encourage each other, and discuss a Christian study book. We recently finished up "Respectable Sins" by Jerry Bridges, which was very convicting and very useful. The next book we have just started on is "Twelve Extraordinary Women" by John MacArthur.


I knew going into this book I would probably have issues with it, because I'm familiar with John MacArthur's view of women and also his theology in general. Let's just say he and I don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. But after reading the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2, I realized it was much, much worse than I expected.

My critiques of his teaching fall under two categories-- 1) his antiquated, patronizing view of women (which could simply be a product of the generation in which he grew up); and 2) his poor exegesis and intepretation of the Biblical passages, which is a much graver charge.

I consider myself a "pro-life feminist," a differentiation that wasn't necessary in the 19th century, when most feminists were staunchly against abortion. I also support many aspects of the "modern feminist movement" that get criticized in church circles (as if the feminist movement were a monolith thing, but that's a discussion for another day). Yes, men and women are different, but you will have a hard time convincing me that a woman shouldn't do this or that solely because she is a woman. I agree with the idea that there are more differences within the sexes than between them. For instance, some think that women shouldn't be combat soldiers because they're "weaker," or "they can't handle the intensity of combat," or "what about if they are taken prisoner." I say that being a combat soldier is based more on a person's temperament than their gender. Some men would completely fold under the pressure, just as some women would. But many women would rise to the occasion and prove themselves "tough enough," just as many men would. On the flip side of that coin, if we are going to deny women the right to enter whatever field they want, then to be "fair," we should also deny men the right to certain fields, such as being OB/GYN doctors. Sure, men can do the jobs, but aren't women better suited? If someone doesn't like that last argument, then they should reevaluate their opinion on women doing "men's work."

This brings me to MacArthur's antiquated view of women. He talks often of "feminine virtues," by which, ironically, he means things like "hospitality" and "ministry to the sick." I was under the impression that those were Christian virtues that both men and women were to do. He reverences "feminine beauty," and while he does clarify that true beauty comes from having a good character, he spends a whole paragraph talking about how Eve must have been a real knock-out. ("Eve was the flawless archetype of feminine excellence. She was magnificent in every way.... Physically, too, she must have personified all the best traits of both strength and beauty. There is no doubt that she was a living picture of sheer radiance." More on this later.)

He also talks about women like they are dainty little creatures who need constant protection ("... women are now being sent into combat situations, subjected to grueling physical labor once reserved for men, exposed to all kinds of indignities in the workplace...") or as a special type of creature whose character is open for judgement and critique by men in general. In reference to "stunningly attractive" Sarah, Abraham's wife, he says, "Wherever she went, she instantly received favor and privilege because of her good looks. That kind of thing can spoil the best of women." (Emphasis mine.)

But more disturbing to me is how he is "teaching" from scripture when it seems like he is basing his opinion on conjecture and hypothesis. For instance, in the quote about Eve above, he is making a conjecture on her appearance, even when he admits that scripture "give us no physical description of Eve." If scripture doesn't mention it, I find it curious that he feels he needs to spend a whole paragraph hypothesizing on her looks. He often explains a verse and then throws something out there as if it is a foregone conclusion, even though the text doesn't support it. For example, when he talks about how God took a rib from Adam to form Eve, he says, "Adam would feel no pain, of course." Now, many assume there was no pain before the Fall, but I don't think that scripture implicitly says that--especially since later, in the curse, God said he would increase Eve's pain in childbirth, not introduce pain (a point MacArthur tries to explain away). He also makes conjectures about how Adam might have altered God's instructions about the forbidden fruit when he told Eve, since, as he says, "It is likely that Eve had heard about God's only restriction not directly from God, but from her husband." We can speculate about that, but we don't know what happened with any certainty. Now, I think it can be useful to think through the "what-ifs" and the "I wonders" in regards to scripture, but when your speculation cannot be clearly delineated from the facts, then that is poor teaching in my mind.

My biggest gripe, and the most disturbing, is how MacArthur portrays a woman's relationship with God-- He doesn't! He spends all his time describing Eve's relationship to Adam. He never says Eve was created for God's glory. He says, "Adam was created first; then Eve was made to fill a void in his existence." Eve "perfectly met every need Adam had, satisfied every longing he may ever have felt and delighted every faculty of his senses." Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up the truck. So Eve was created solely for Adam's needs and pleasures? In addition to the way this sentences objectifies Eve, it ignores the fact that she was created for God. In His image, both male and female He created them, for His (God's) own good pleasure, not his (Adam's) own good pleasure. Yes, Adam needed a helper, and yes, Eve met many of those needs. But if Eve could "perfectly [meet] every need Adam had," then why on earth would Adam need God? MacArthur also says that Eve was "Adam's complement in every sense, designed by God to be the ideal soul-companion for him," but he doesn't mention the reverse--how Adam was designed to complement Eve and be a companion for her.

Another troublesome sentence is when MacArthur is discussing the curse and says when it addresses Eve, "it deals with the two most important relationships in which a woman might naturally seek her highest joy: her husband and her children." Obviously a woman's most important relationship should be the one she has with God. A statement like this seems oblivious to the fact that not all women have children and not all women have husbands. Eve may be an example for women in many respects and the Fall certainly influences all humanity, but we must exercise care in applying the particulars of her situation as a general rule for all women everywhere.

The general idea I get from reading MacArthur's teaching is that woman is for man and man is for God. A woman must go through her husband to reach God, and God reaches woman through her husband. Now, in all fairness, I haven't read the rest of the book, so he may deal differently with single women. But his message for married women seems to be our sole purpose is to serve our husbands, meet their needs, and thus in that way, glorify God. Yes, we do glorify God when we support, respect, and help our husbands. But that's not the only way we glorify God as women, nor do I even think it is the most important way.

MacArthur seems to trace most trouble in our families and our churches back to women and men not fulfilling the roles he thinks they should have: "I'm convinced that if people today would simply embrace God's purpose and seek to fulfill the roles God has designed for our respective genders, both men and women would be happier, the church would be healthier, and marriages would be stronger." Does he really mean to say that before the "modern feminist movement," families and churches were healthier and stronger? When exactly was that, Mr. MacArthur? What golden age of utopia in our marriages and churches are you referring to? Even when men and women stuck to their "gender roles," there was just as much trouble in families and churches as there is today. I'm not a believer in the "good ol' days" and that somehow we are worse off or more sinful today in our modern age. Sin has always been sin, and to think that a change in gender roles has led to a more sinful time in the life of the church seems a bit naive to me.

I'm struggling with whether I should finish the rest of the book or not. If I do, it won't be to gain any insight but rather to critique the author and his teaching. I know I can't look at it objectively now that I'm riled up, ticked off, and upset. The thing is, I want to look at the Bible and see what it says to me as a Christian, not just as a woman. I get the feeling that MacArthur feels true Bible study is for men, and women can find a few nuggets just for them here and there. This book is a companion book to "Twelve Ordinary Men," a discussion of the twelve disciples. I haven't read it, but obviously it's not a manual on how to be better husbands and fathers, since the lives of the disciples as told in the scriptures do not reveal much about that aspect of their lives. Yet all I've learned so far is how MacArthur thinks I should live as a wife and as a mother, not as a Christian. I assume for him, being a Christian woman is synonymous with wife and mother unless circumstances absolutely prevent it, in which case God makes an exception. Maybe I'll read the rest of the book and see if I'm overly harsh in my criticisms. Expect more ranting if I do finish the book. =)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sparrows in the Snow

Last week, we were hit with a major snowstorm that closed all the schools and many businesses for two days. High winds and freezing temperatures made the roads hazardous, and the snow drifted over 4 feet in places. Since temperatures have been hanging out below 10 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, most of the snow remains.

I was washing dishes this morning and looking out our kitchen window at the snow that covered our yard and drifted up against our neighbors' fence. Then I spotted a commotion in our neighbors' yard—a huge flock of birds descending on the small bird feeder in their backyard. I'm not very good at identifying birds, especially at a distance, so I'm not sure what kind they were. Small and dark brown. The birds flitted en masse between the feeder and the fence, the feeder and the fence, as if they were moving on cue. Those that couldn't squeeze their way in at the feeder were pecking at the ground below for any morsels the sloppy birds above dropped. I noticed there was no snow below the feeder, and I'm not sure if it's because it drifted in such a way to leave a bare spot, or if our neighbors cleared the ground below for the birds. Either way, our neighbors are older and both disabled, and it probably was no easy task for them to trudge through the snow to fill the feeder.

Of course I immediately thought of the verse in Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” And also Matthew 10:29-31: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."

God was providing for these little birds through the thoughtfulness of our neighbors. My thoughts then drifted, as they often do when contemplating the goodness of God, to a quandary-- a seeming exception. What about starving children, Lord? How many in the world will go hungry today? I have given, Lord. Should I give more? What more can I do? You could fix it so easily. It's not as simple as setting up “bird feeders” of sorts. Handing out food is good, but it's not always enough. It's drought, it's floods, it's disease—things within the natural world which are within Your control to direct and change. It's also politics, war, and bloodthirsty demagogues—things that are a direct result of sin, and while You don't promise to remove the consequences of sin, could you not spare more of the innocent? (I obviously was ignoring the parts in the passages exhorting me not to worry.)

I have no answers on this cold, wintry day. My family and I have shelter from the cold and plenty of food to eat. We have coats against the cold and a furnace that runs. We live in peace in a wealthy, stable country. We have access to medical care. We have a church that is free to meet without fear of repression. Relatively speaking, we are living in the lap of luxury in many respects. And yet so many in the world don't even have enough food for today.

As we approach the celebration of Jesus' birth, I realize more and more that stuffing ourselves with everything we set our eyes on and filling our houses with gifts upon gifts not only misses the true reason for Christmas, but it may even be offensive to our Savior. And while we all pay lip service to this sentiment, we still go out and buy the gifts, we still make the mountains of food, and we still run ourselves ragged all in the name of the “Christmas spirit.” Yet I think of our neighbors, who despite the difficulties they face on a daily basis, wanted to show kindness and compassion to some of God's creatures and did it in one of the few ways available to them. How much more can I give, to fill the feeder, to scatter the seed, and to spread the blessing to others this Christmas?

We've made it a habit to give to a ministry in honor of our family members in lieu of Christmas gifts. If you are looking for an excellent ministry to donate to, consider the Zimbabwe Emergency Relief Fund through TEAM. (My mother is a missionary in Zimbabwe with TEAM, so I know the money goes to help the people they are working with). Of course there are many wonderful charities and ministries that would be worthwhile places for your gifts.

"He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty. "

Mary's Magnificat, Luke 2:52

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Anne Rice's "The Road to Cana"

Earlier this year I posted a blog on Anne Rice's book, "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt." I had intended to pick up the companion book immediately after finishing the first one, but I didn't get around to it until a few weeks ago. "Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana" has since made its way to the list of books that have significantly influenced my faith for life.

I won't go into a lot of detail here, because a summary doesn't do justice to the masterful way Anne Rice handles the subject matter and how she seems to make the prose sing (I can't say this about many authors, but I literally read one chapter aloud just to hear the words dance). The book further paints a picture of what it really means for Jesus to be well acquainted with our sufferings and temptations. She imagines, for example, what it would have been like for Jesus to be in love in a romantic sense, to be tempted in physical ways, to experience the heartbreak of love unrequited, and to remain sinless through it all.

Chapter 21 (the chapter I read aloud) is worth the price of admission in and of itself. It depicts Jesus, alone with his thoughts and in prayer with His Father, as he struggles for the 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism. I will quote a bit of it just so you can get a taste:

"Oh, Lord, God, what is judgment and how can it be, if I cannot bear to be with all of them for every ugly word, every harsh and desperate cry, for every gesture examined, for every deed explored to its roots? And I saw the deeds, the deeds of my own life, the smallest, most trivial things, I saw them suddenly in their seed and sprout and with their groping branches; I saw them growing, intertwining with other deeds, and those deeds come to form a thicket and a woodland and a great roving wilderness that dwarfed the world as we hold it on a map, the world as we hold it in our minds. Dear God, next to this, this endless spawning of deed from deed and word from word and thought from thought--the world is nothing. Every single soul is a world!"

And later: "What judgment can there ever be for man, woman, or child--if I am not there for every heartbeat at every depth of their torment?"

It gets better, but I obviously can't quote the whole book here.

I know some people may object to a fiction book putting words in Jesus' mouth that scripture doesn't record Him saying, but Ms. Rice does not give Him words that seem out of place with His character. As in the first book, she shows great restraint in her depiction, and in this second book, she also shows the amazing restraint Jesus Himself must have shown in all aspects of His life. Reading Jesus' "thoughts," one begins to grasp how humanity and divinity might have overlapped and tugged at Him and how He denied Himself many things and endured much so that He could be the perfect sacrifice He came to be. I think I now can better understand the passages in Hebrews that talk about Jesus being "made perfect," because His sinless self had to undergo suffering and temptation in order to be the empathetic, substitutionary high priest and "the source of eternal salvation" (Hebrews 5:9). It is a great encouragement to me to seek to do what's right even when it's hard, to choose the path of love even when my mind cries out for justice, and to follow His commands because I know He's been there before and will walk with me through it again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

With God All Things Are Possible... but Not Guaranteed

Five loaves and two fish. With this meager offering, Jesus miraculously fed the 5,000. Slice it and dice it however you want, and you can get lots of sermon illustrations out of this. How God can take our meager offerings and do great things with them. How we tend to look at human circumstances from our finite perspective when we need to see the world from God's eyes. How with God, the impossible becomes possible, for nothing is impossible with God. With faith as small as a mustard seed, mountains can be moved.

What I find interesting is that I've never heard a sermon preached (that I can recall) on what immediately precedes this story in Matthew chapter 14; namely, the beheading of John the Baptist. Where was John's faith? Where was John's meager offering? And more importantly, where was God to make an impossible situation—namely, saving John's life—possible?

Granted, there's an underlying assumption that God's sovereignty is always at play in these circumstances. He will make the impossible possible if it is His pleasure and desire to do so. What we think is best is not always in line with what God has in mind, so when “sometimes [He] just don't come through” (to quote Tori Amos), it feels like either His hands are tied or His heart is unmoved.

When I find myself in a seemingly impossible situation, as I do in my life right now, the loaves and fish don't bring me much hope. I know God can do the miraculous, but I've rarely seen it, and never on such a grand scale. More often than not, my impossible situations seem to turn out more like John's, and rather than find joy and surprise in the moment like the 5,000-plus hungry people, I have to quietly rest on the hope that somehow in the grand scheme of things, it's going to work out for His glory and my good.

I wonder if I've been “having faith” in God much like a person engages in wishful thinking or rubs a good luck charm—holding out for the big, magical moment when God sweeps in a fixes everything. What if it doesn't come? What if the 5,000 go home hungry? What if the axe still falls? I know God is not any less powerful or less good. But am I trusting Him for what He can do, will do, or might do, or am I trusting Him for who He is? I know He is loving. I know Jesus loved his cousin John just as He loved the little boy with the loaves and fish and just as He loved every person He fed that day. Just as I know He loves me even when my impossible situation remains impossible.

Just because God can doesn't mean He will. Just because He is able doesn't mean He should. He gives, and He takes away, the sun rises and it sets: life marches on. Sometimes His intervening hand sets aside the laws of physics, of cause and effect, of natural consequences. But sometimes it doesn't. Praise Him anyway.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Psychosis and the Spirit-- Christians and Depression

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” Psalm 13:1-2

If you ask me, I think King David struggled with depression. A lot of scholars have suggested that King Saul was bipolar. Jeremiah certainly hit the dumps when he wrote Lamentations. Even Jesus felt extreme sadness and pain in his heart. So where do we get this mindset that Christians are supposed to be happy-go-lucky all the time?

Perhaps it's all the verses on joy and rejoicing-- especially during times of trials. Somewhere along the way we equated joy with a state of emotional stability rather than a conscious decision of how we will think and act based on God's promises. Since Christians are supposed to be “joyful,” we started assuming they are in a state of disobedience and sin when they are not “happy.” The gospel became a vehicle of prosperity, not only in material things, but in emotional health. Thus, if you're depressed, surely you are screwing something up in the spiritual department. As Christians we have the Holy Spirit in us, and the fruit of the spirit includes joy and peace--so if those traits seem absent, perhaps one is not walking by the Spirit... or so the thinking goes.

Those, like me, who have suffered from bouts of serious depression don't even like to talk about the differentiation between happiness and joy. Both are elusive and impossible when you are at your worst. No Bible verse, no promise of God, no hope for healing can bolster your spirits. You find it difficult to pray, even if you want to pray. Other people seem supportive at first but then start to get irritated when the depression lingers.

How silly of us to think that the effects of sin could taint every part of our world and leave our brains and emotions unscathed. Only the health-and-wealth nuts think cancer or other life-threatening illnesses are a result of unconfessed sin. Granted, illnesses can result from our sin, such as the alcoholic who now suffers from liver failure. But a lot of Christians assume depression is not a legitimate physical illness. I think this disconnect comes from the current form of gnosticism that pervades the church-- the mentality that this world and everything in it is just going to be left behind when we fly away to glory. We elevate our spiritual nature and denigrate our physical bodies. We think of them as two separate entities rather than two parts of the same whole, interconnected and intertwined, one constantly affecting the other, and vice versa.

It should be said that depression CAN be caused by sin or outside circumstances. If I'm perpetually living in sin, then the Holy Spirit is going to make me feel conviction, which may make me depressed when I don't want to confess it. Sins like discontentment, unthankfulness, and impatience can cause me to be perpetually unhappy. Situations in my marriage or work may make me stressed and frustrated, which can make me depressed. But what's the explanation when everything in life is just peachy, and I still wake up with this unexplainable weight holding me down? When I can't think clearly? When all I can work myself up for is sleep?

I came up with my own little test years ago-- if I pray and ask God to show me what sin might be causing depression, and I've confessed all the sin I know of, and if I'm not in conflict with anyone or anything in life, and I still feel like crap, then I think it's okay to just say I'm sick and treat it with medication. And thank the good Lord for medication! My Mom always says that Satan never fights fair, so it's okay for us to use chemical warfare when appropriate. When medicine DOES help, I think that's a good indication the depression is rooted in physical causes-- medicine would not remove the guilt of sin nor the consequences of rebellious living. If taking medicine helps clear one's mind to pray and actually helps a person feel well enough to seek God, then I can't see how it is a bad thing. There may be a time when medication is no longer necessary, as I found in my own case. And later down the road, other physical causes may be to blame-- again in my own case, I found my thyroid was way out of whack, and when I got on thyroid meds, my depression went away almost immediately.

But what do we say when a Christian suffers from not only depression, but severe mental illness, to the point that they are suicidal? My husband (who gave me permission to blog about this) also suffers from severe depression and emotional irregularity. Counseling and anti-depressants just didn't seem to help. It all came to a head last week, when he had a gun and a plan. Thank the Lord he willingly checked himself into a psychiatric hospital and gave his shot gun to the police. Six days and several medications later, he's remarkably better. He feels clear headed and hopeful. He is on different medications than he had been on, and it's made a world of difference.

So how should he as a Christian respond to this? How should I as his wife respond? How should the church respond? I can tell you that if someone had said he was just living in sin and needed to repent, that wouldn't have done one iota of good and might have done a world of harm. Yes, his severe depression caused him to sin-- the conflict we have had in our marriage directly stems from sinful responses on both our parts to his obvious illness. But to say his own sin made him psychotic would not be true. To say the fallen state of our world made it inevitable that some people's brains wouldn't work right would be more accurate. Just as some people are born with visible disabilities, surely some people are born with impairments in the wiring and chemistry of their brain. Yes, the fine line between nature and nurture is constantly debated, and there's no way to know which source is the major contributer. They both play a part. The sin lies in how we choose to deal with our inborn weaknesses. If I'm prone to depression, will I acknowledge it? Will I seek help from health professionals and counselors who can not only prescribe the right medications but also help me learn to process my thoughts and identify warning signals? Will I be open and honest with my brother and sisters in Christ so they can uphold me and encourage me?

Since depression runs in my family, I've had ample opportunity to observe the church's reaction to depression. I've seen the church react in very negative ways. I've seen judgmental attitudes and heard very hurtful things said. But I've also seen the church step in to help when appropriate. The same has been true this past week. It's hard to be open and honest with fellow believers about the junk in one's life and in one's brain, but the body of Christ has been incredibly supportive and understanding to us. I'm sure it confuses some of them, but even the approach of “I don't quite understand your situation or know what to think of it, but I'm here to help and pray in any way I can” is a blessing.

It would be great if the church at large would be willing to address depression and mental illness out in the open. It is a fairly common problem. I used to joke that depression was a luxury only those in developed countries could afford to have, and it's true that as a whole, we probably over-medicate ourselves in this country. But that doesn't make the problem any less real. I also think it is best addressed by someone who has either experienced it or at least feels empathetic towards those experiencing it. It wouldn't do much good to have a person with no experience in this regard to get up and start telling people how they should act or what they should do. I find that people who understand depression through first-hand experience can recognize others who have been there through how they talk about it. And I tend to disregard those who speak about it when they obviously have no clue.

For those who are trying to support a person with severe depression, I'm finding that a good support system of friends and a counselor makes a world of difference. Asking for help is a very hard thing to do, but no one knows you need help unless you ask for it.

Finally, I never want to underestimate the power of prayer. The times when you can't seem to pray are the times when you need other people to intercede on your behalf. Those are the times when you'll just have to trust that a simple “God, help me” is heard and understood at the throne of the Father.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Insidiousness of Sin

I've been reading "Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate" by Jerry Bridges and meeting to discuss the book with a group of women on Saturday mornings.  Let's just say this book is smacking me right in the face-- in a good, but uncomfortable, way.  If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it.  

The basic premise is that we as evangelical Christians are very good at recognizing sin in other people and in society at large, especially the "big sins" that also double as hot-button social issues.  But we are not as good at examining the subtle sins in our own lives and dealing with them.  Bridges addresses sins such as ungodliness, anxiety and frustration, discontentment, unthankfulness, pride, selfishness, and the list goes on.  We all struggle with these sins, but if we hope to grow in Christian maturity, we have to recognize them as sin and turn those areas over to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Reading this book and examining different circumstances in my own life, I've come to realize that I have downplayed the seriousness of sin.  I've tended to pass the buck on to God and his supralapsarian sovereignty.  Yes, sure, we are responsible for sin, but God is ultimately responsible for electing to make us beings who would sin.  (I work some pretty fantastic mental gymnastics in this regard.)  I've also, sort of, come to the conclusion that I probably don't really believe in hell (how's that for hedging?).  I've done all of this in my mind just so I can sleep at night and keep myself on decent terms with God.  

But then... wow, I see just how destructive my own sin is.  How little sins, un-confronted and unconfessed, can drive deep wedges in relationships over the years.  It's like termites, gnawing away unseen at the foundation until the house collapses.  Or Chinese water torture... drip... drip... drip... Nothing drastic, but just as devastating.  I've been convicted of some major sin issues in my life, and it's never pleasant to realize the extent of one's guilt.  And yet, what a glorious reminder of how amazing grace is.  To be reminded once again of just how evil my heart is, and how far from God I am, and how I would be stuck here if it weren't for the cross.  

The best part is the assurance that God still loves me, even though I feel like a dirty, broken-down piece of crap.  I don't understand the balance between His justice and His mercy (Who does?  Who ever will?), but I'm thankful that He extends to me His mercy even as His justice dictates that I must live with the consequences of my sin in this present world.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Gentle Rebuke

The internet is a funny thing.  People tend to feel less inhibited--and often, a little meaner--when they are safe behind their computers making comments than when they are talking to someone face to face. 

I'm no different (although I'm proud to say that in the 2+ years of watching videos on YouTube, not once have I used the proverbial "you suck" comment).  But just this morning I received a gentle rebuke and immediate conviction that it is wrong for me to post things on this blog that I wouldn't be willing to say to someone's face.  Most of my "ranting" posts have been about general frustrations that don't necessarily apply to one specific church or one specific person.  But a few of my posts did criticize a specific person, and I regret that I did that.  I'm rather bad at that "be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry" thing.  I think I'm going to include a "be slow to blog about it" caveat as well.  

Thus, I've edited a couple posts to remove material that was critical and judgmental of specific people.  If I've missed something, please bring it to my attention.  In the future, I'm going to refrain from using specific people as the fodder for my frustration.  In other words, if I wouldn't say it to their face, then I'm not going to post it here.  And I trust you'll hold me to that.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Healthcare and the Church

When I started this blog, I had intended to address political topics once in awhile.  I obviously haven't done that.  I used to be a political junkie of sorts, but I've grown so weary of trying to keep up with the current debates and legislation.  Politics will never save us, obviously, so it's hard for me to continually devote time and energy to the process.  Still, I think it's important for Christians to be engaged, thoughtful citizens.

But one doesn't have to be paying much attention to politics to know that the healthcare debate is a-raging and will continue for some time.  I honestly don't know what to make of the mess.  Our current system is broken, no doubt about it, but I don't know the best way to fix it. 

My husband is a nurse practitioner whose patients are generally low income and usually do not have health insurance.  It saddens me to hear of patients who have treatable medical conditions that go untreated because they can't afford to buy the medicine, have the procedures done, and so forth.  Thus a treatable problem deteriorates into even more severe medical issues.  Then it's only a matter of time until they have a heart attack  or a stroke or some other severe medical event that lands them in the E.R. (or they attempt suicide because they can no longer endure the pain.  It happens far more regularly than we would like to admit.)  I don't think anyone would dispute the fact that preventative medicine is far less costly both in terms of money and quality of life.

I've heard conservative Christians put up a lot of resistance to Obama's healthcare plan, but I haven't heard a lot of alternatives offered.  I don't want to debate the pros and cons of nationalized healthcare.  I do want to know why we accuse Obama of trying to covertly fund abortions by withholding healthcare from the elderly, but we don't seem to give a rip about the fact that every day, in our communities, children don't check-ups when they need them, adults don't treat their diabetes because they can't afford it, and immigrants get abysmal care just because they can't speak English fluently.  Churches could find lots of ways to minister to their community in the healthcare field-- host health screening clinics, help fund non-profit clinics to low income families, help families pay for medicine and doctor visits, teach community health classes, pay for someone to get their cavities filled, and so forth.  In general, I've seen Christians rally together to help support someone in a time of a sudden medical crises (cancer, car accident, etc.), but there doesn't seem to be a lot of thought going into ministering to people in preventative medicine.  

Obviously, this is a big charge, but it's one I think the church could handle.  Our community hosts a huge dental clinic once a year-- they use the sports arena, and dentists from around the area volunteer to see people for free.  They treat what they can at the arena, and more serious cases are scheduled for follow-up.  The place is filled to overflowing with people who couldn't afford to see a dentist all year long.  

I just get so frustrated that we either 1) keep waiting for the government to save us or 2) criticize the government every time it attempts to help the people we are content to ignore.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Essential Elements of a Church Service

My brother always joked that he was a Presbyterian dressed in Southern Baptist clothing.  He even pastored a Southern Baptist church for a time.  But he and his family recently joined a PCA church, and they couldn't be happier.

I spent a few years in a Presbyterian church, sandwiched in between my Baptist and independent Bible church years.  I really grew to love the liturgy.  I suppose if one grew up with it or did it long enough, it would get dry and stale.  But I loved the intentionality of it and the "meatiness" it built into the service.  If the sermon stunk, at least you had Bible reading, prayer, confession of sin, and worship all built in.  I realize that many churches have moved away from liturgy because it was becoming a hindrance for some people-- it lacked spontaneity, it seemed too rigid and contrived, and so forth.  People wanted to leave room for the "Spirit to move," or, at the very least, the freedom to mix it up on occasion. 

But lack of liturgy becomes its own liturgy.  We still sing x number of songs, do announcements, do x number of songs, take the offering, throw in some quick prayers, have a sermon, quick prayer to wrap it up, then leave.  Isn't that a structure built in to every worship service?  Can that not also become stale?

I have privately bemoaned many churches' pitiful lack of meaningful prayer during worship services for some time now.  We tend to use prayer as a filler and a transitionary device:  "Song is done, thus let us pray for 30 seconds to give the pastor time to get to the pulpit to preach."  I remember a few months back when one of our assistant pastors prayed, he actually prayed.  He prayed for the world, he prayed for us, he confessed corporate sin on our behalf, and he took his good old time with it.  I started crying, it was so refreshing.

[Original post edited here to remove disrespectful attitude towards a specific person.] Another essential element we are missing from our church services is SILENCE.  To corporately allow God time to speak to our hearts and allow time for us to confess and worship him in silence is a valuable thing that is often overlooked.

I know many of these issues are a matter of preference.  There is no right or wrong way to order a service (well, there may be some wrong ways!).  My pet peeves may be someone else's favorite part of the service.  For instance, I can't stand the "tinkly piano music" that often accompanies prayer and the last minute of a sermon as the pastor gets really serious and starts hammering home his point.  I'm a musician, and my mind immediately focuses on the music, not what is being said.  I also know that music is a great manipulator of emotions, and what one might mistake for the Holy Spirit was really the swelling transition from the minor sixth back to the root chord.  (Or, to quote Derek Webb, "I don't want the Spirit, I want the kick drum.") But other people like that tinkly piano music.  It helps them focus their thoughts and examine their hearts.  If it's doing something for somebody, well, then, I can suck it up and deal with it.

But opinions and preferences aside, there has to be some elements that are essential to every worship service.  I'm rather ignorant as far as church history and liturgy in this regard, so these are just things that I assume are important:  worship and confession through prayer, worship and confession through song and silence, worship through offerings (monetary or otherwise), the reading and exposition of scripture, and the edification of believers.  How those things are accomplished could certainly vary.  And I'm probably missing some things.

So, what elements do you think are essential to a church service?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Women's Bible Studies-- All Fluff and No Substance?

I don't like going to Bible study.  There, I said it.  

I love studying the Bible.  I love getting together with fellow believers to examine, learn from, and apply God's word.  I love fellowshipping and praying for one another.  But when it's time to sign up for another "Women's Bible Study" at church, I sigh, I shake my head, I look for excuses, I hem and haw.  Sometimes I cave and go.  But other times, like this year, I just decide not to bother.

Why?  First of all, what is generally meant by "Bible study" is really "doing a workbook that references the Bible occasionally."  The times the Bible is referenced, it is often taken out of context and molded to fit the idea the author has formulated herself.  It's poor exegesis, which leads to incorrect application.  In addition to the workbook, "Bible study" involves watching a DVD where the author speaks to us, and through personal stories and a few more verses pulled in for good measure, we are supposed to feel warm and fuzzy.  If the author/speaker is really good, women may even get teared up.  

I'm not saying these studies aren't helpful; on the contrary, I'm sure many women are learning things that are, for the most part, true.   The sticky issues of exegesis could be easily corrected and discussed in the course of the group study.  What bothers me the most is that this is all many Christian women know-- how to study someone else's study about the Bible, rather than how to study the Bible itself.  As a result, I fear many women are missing out on the depth and riches of scripture because they are too afraid or just don't know how to get started without their well-dressed, dynamic female author/speaker to lead them on the journey.

(Two caveats here-- I'm not just referring to a particular female author/speaker, although some are worse than others in terms of poor exegesis and application.  I'm referring to the whole body of curriculum generally used for Women's Ministries in the U.S.  Also, I can't speak for men's Bible studies as to the quality or substance, though I'm assuming they can run into the same pitfalls as women's studies.  I will say, though, that at least at the churches I've been involved in, a much higher percentage of women participate in Bible studies than men do, so while it may have it's problems, at least women are making an effort to grow and learn.)

For a new believer, these studies can be a good way to ease into the practice of getting into God's word.  They can guide and explain scriptures and help someone process it.  But we shouldn't get stuck there.  We have to learn to read and think through scripture with the Holy Spirit as our guide.  Of course we often need outside help to clarify and explain scripture, and I am all for using commentaries, concordances, dictionaries, and other study aids.  We can't fully grasp scripture without understanding its original context and setting, and the average person doesn't know beans about the 1st century world, pre- or post-exilic Judaic culture, or what have you.  

Maybe that's part of the problem.  Most churches expect too little from its members as far as what they should know.  We all should be eager theologians, but often what we hear from the pulpit is, "I won't bore you with the theology here" as they glaze over a really significant point.  Women tend to shy away from theology often because it is seen as a "man's domain."  If women can't be pastors or elders (as in my denomination), then they are never challenged to attain that level of Biblical knowledge.  That is a terrible shame.

So we are stuck with frivolous fluff that has more to do with how we "feel" about a certain passage of scripture rather than what it says.  We rarely dive into a whole book of the Bible, or even an extended passage.  We can only think in bits and pieces.   (When we tried doing the book of Hebrews, the women did amazingly well thinking through difficult passages, but they voted at the end of the study that they didn't really like it and wanted to go back to the workbook/DVD format.  !!!!)   We rate the value of a study based on how many emotional nerves it hit; the more the author seems to be speaking to an area women can identify with, the more they feel they are "getting something out of it."  They don't realize they are feeding off of regurgitated blessings and insights from someone else rather than seeking it directly from scripture.

It wouldn't be fair to categorize all women's Bible studies this way, and I know several other women that feel my frustration about these types of studies.  But the vast majority eat them up like they are chocolate, scrapbooking, and chick-flicks all rolled into one (pardon the gross female stereotypes!).  Add to that the fact that the Christian publishing industry knows how to market these babies with amazing demographical precision.  I just feel like screaming, "There's so much more, gals, there's so much more!"


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Man vs. Nature- A Lesson from the Dust Bowl

My Daddy was a dry land wheat farmer in the northeastern plains of Colorado for over 2 decades, just as his father was before him.  Growing up on a farm, I always swore that I would never marry a farmer.  Not because I didn't like the dirt or the hard work.  I just wasn't fond of the gamble involved.  My Dad poured his blood, sweat, and tears--quite literally--into a small, dry piece of land, hoping to wrench enough life out of it to make enough income to live on for the next year. We watched the skies, praying for rain while the wheat was growing, praying for dry weather when it was time for harvest, and praying that no hail would come in the interim.  Most years, nothing seemed to go right for my Dad.  If it wasn't the weather, it was the old equipment breaking down.  Nothing was ever easy and very little seemed to go right.

What a precarious relationship exists between man and nature.

I recently finished reading a book a friend lent me about the Dust Bowl called The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan.  I've always known the Dust Bowl was an extremely difficult time; in fact, I remember my grandparents telling me stories about it, although they were on the fringes of the area actually called the "Dust Bowl."  But this book was rather shocking to read.  It's hard to picture millions of tons of dirt blowing across several states-- even harder to imagine standing in the middle of it as it blew over your house, your fields, and your livestock.  I can't fathom watching every sign of life around you wither and die or be buried under a mountain of sand.  Year after dry, dirty, hopeless year.  

A severe drought exacerbated the problem, but the weather was not to blame--humans were.  Irresponsible farming methods, short-sighted government plans for homesteading, and record harvests to aid the war effort left the land vulnerable and exposed.  Interestingly enough, the book pointed out that not everyone believed humans were responsible for the crisis.  Some said it was just a cyclical change in the climate.  Some just said it was the drought.  It couldn't be helped-- it was governed by a force stronger than humans, and thus humans couldn't have caused it nor could they change it.  Some thought it was a punishment of God.

One can't help but notice the similarities between the rhetoric of that time and all the continuing debates about climate change today.  Many Christians still feel reluctant to admit that humans have affected our world in significant, harmful ways or that we really have any power to undo some of the damage.  The earth has gone through climate change before, they say, and this is just another one of those cycles.  We had nothing to do with it.  Therefore we have no compelling reason to change our behavior, especially if it's going to cost us.

Of course, many Christians see the need to be better stewards of this earth and are thus working to change our habits and our policies.  I believe Christians can be leaders in this endeavor, and should be, because we see the value of both creation itself and the human lives within that creation.  Many policies that aim to help the environment put human welfare at risk.  Policy makers during the Dust Bowl faced similar questions.  Should we encourage the people to stay and establish conservation practices to save the land?  Or is it so far gone that we should move all the people out?  Where should they go?  How will they live?  Some people thought the government had no business bailing out the "Okies."  Others thought the government didn't do enough.  

There were no easy answers then, and there are no easy answers now.  But after reading that book, I realize that the fragility of our current climate situation is not overstated, as sometimes I tend to think.  Just because we don't see all of the effects of it now doesn't mean we should continue to rip out every last fragment of prairie grass to plant a crop, so to speak.  The consequences don't come until later.  But we have to make decisions today, with foresight informed by science and a sense of stewardship.  

The land, after all, is a gift, and it is our livelihood.  Even if it seems a little bit beyond our control.  Even if it lets us down, year after year.  "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein" (Psalm 24:1). 

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Homosexuality-- A Plank/Speck Analysis

Today I read Mark Galli's article in the July 2009 edition of Christianity Today entitled, "Is the Gay Marriage Debate Over?"  Quick summary-- he concludes that, despite the church's hypocrisy in regards to marriage, we still need to fight for traditional marriage, even if it feels like we are losing.  

This is an issue that I've wrestled with in my mind and come to no satisfying conclusions.  A few months ago, a Christian friend of mine (who recognized my liberal leanings and was curious about them) asked me to explain where I stood on the issue of homosexuality in our culture and help her think through some of the issues.  Here's what I wrote:

Homosexuality is a difficult issue for the Christian who wants to honor God's standard of righteousness and at the same time love people with Christ-like love.  It is a balance none of us can master, let alone hope to get right the majority of the time.  Every point I can think of on either side of this debate can immediately be countered with an equally valid concern.  I can't make many statements in regard to how Christians should approach homosexuality without qualifying it with a, "Yes, but..."   Needless to say, I don't have this figured out at all.

With that in mind, here's some thoughts.

The Bible calls homosexuality a sin-- and by homosexuality, I would consider it to mean homosexual acts, not just the temptation.  We all are tempted by various sins, but it only becomes a sin when we give into it.  Some Christians try to err on the side of love so much that they no longer call homosexuality a sin.  I don't think that is the loving thing to do-- to ignore the Bible so as to not make someone feel bad.  However, it is high time the evangelical church undergo a "plank/speck analysis" in regards to our condemnation of homosexuality versus our condemnation of other sins.  1 Corinthians 6:8-10 says homosexual offenders will not inherit the kingdom of God, but neither will thieves, the greedy, slanderers or swindlers-- in which case, we're all in trouble.  Romans 1 speaks of God giving people over to their shameful lust, and we point to that as an example of how homosexuality is a more debauched, depraved sin.  Yet we forget to go on to chapter 2, which says, "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?"  

We often think Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction was due to the homosexual acts that were rampant in the city.  But Ezekiel 16:49-50 says, "'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen."  If the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was included to be an example of the consequences of errant sexual behavior, then Lot--who offered up his virgin daughters to the mob-- should have been turned into a pillar of salt or burned up with the rest.  But what does God say?  Arrogant, overfed, unconcerned with the poor and needy.  Yes, they did other "detestable things," but God's main indictment was against how they treated the poor while they stuffed themselves with excess.  That could very easily be God's indictment against the church in America, yet we seem to lack the fire and drive to go after these sins like we do homosexuality.  When have we circulated a petition to end our arrogance?  When have we rallied our fellow Christians to support legislation in favor of the poor and needy?  This is not to say that we have to ignore homosexuality, but we certainly need to put it in perspective.

Perhaps one of the reasons we argue so vehemently against homosexuality is because we perceive it to be a threat to the institution of marriage.  Again, a little plank/speck analysis.  Look at our abysmal divorce rates.  Was that caused by homosexuality?  No.  That was caused by heterosexuals giving up on their commitments and taking the easy road out, aided in part by no-fault divorce laws that let people get divorced on a whim ("irreconcilable differences").  It is easier to get out of a marriage than it is to get out of a business contract.  That is not the fault of homosexuals.  

Perhaps it's because we as Christians know that God ordained marriage between one man and one woman, and we see anything outside of that as a threat to what God ordained.  A husband and wife is a picture of Christ and His Church; a sacred union that is unlike any other human relationship.  What makes this union sacred?  Is it the state?  Is it the church?  Or is it God?  Marriage in the eyes of the state, for all practical purposes, is a purely legal matter.  It is official paperwork for the purposes of taxes, beneficiary designation, and other formalities.  There is no spiritual or sacred dimension in the eyes of the state.  God, through the avenue of his Church, is the one that makes the union sacred.  We may wish the state to enforce the church's designation of marriage, but we cannot force the state to do so on Biblical grounds.  In many (most?) European countries, couples that want to get married have a civil union at the court house where they are legally married in the eyes of the state, and those wanting to then have a separate ceremony at church to get married "for real" in the eyes of God.  Those are two separate steps.  People can be united in legal marriage without uniting before God.  Those that believe marriage is a declaration made before God and His Church are free to undergo such a ceremony-- the state doesn't care either way.

Many Christians, recognizing that we can't get very far arguing our position from Biblical grounds in a secular society, try to argue that homosexual relationships will somehow erode our basic social structure.  For centuries upon centuries, the basic social unit of Western society has been centered around the marriage relationship of one man and one woman.  For us to change that now would to be launch out on some grand social experiment that could have disastrous consequences.  I would argue that no-fault divorce was our first great social experiment, and we are still learning the effects of that as a generations of children grow up as children of divorce.  This is not to say, "Well, we've already screwed up so badly, we might as well chuck it all and stop trying."  But if we are truly concerned about the social structure of our society, should we focus on stopping homosexuals from getting married or focus on strengthening the bonds of heterosexual marriage?  Here is where our prejudices and stereotypes come into play.  We hear that studies show homosexuals tend to have many more sexual partners than heterosexuals.  We hear they are less likely to stay in a committed relationship.  "See?" we say, "they aren't capable of staying in a stable relationship, so we shouldn't let them get married."  Our hypocrisy notwithstanding, does it make sense to say that two people of the same sex that are choosing to stay committed to each other for life undermines the stability of society?

The stickler of the argument for many Christians is children.  Should we let homosexual couples adopt?  Won't that harm children somehow?  Again, we hear studies of how homosexuals are more likely to be abusive.  (I haven't actually looked up any of these studies, but I've heard Christians quote them.  I'm of the mind that you can find any study to support your point of view, regardless of what it is, so I don't put much stock in them.)  Allowing homosexual couples to have children is like saying that a child doesn't need a father or mother.  Again, what of the children of divorce?  Or a spouse that is widowed?  Single parents have been able to raise normal, well-adjusted children, while many married heterosexual couples have abused and thoroughly warped their children.  No child gets to choose the family in which they are raised, but society does have a responsibility to try and protect vulnerable children.  That goes for children in any family situation-- living with heterosexual parents, living with homosexual parents, living with grandparents or extended family, living with foster parents, etc.  To say that homosexual people are incapable of loving and caring for a child and raising them to be a healthy, productive member of society is an allegation that has no proof or basis.  Children are raised in homes where the sin of alcoholism runs rampant.  Children are raised in homes where the sin of greed and pride runs rampant.  Whose to say which child will turn out better?  Is either one too far gone for the grace of God to reach?

Christian's well-meaning attempts to protect marriage as we understand it have resulted in us being labeled as hateful, narrow-minded bigots.  We deserve much of the rebuke.  We say that we love everyone, regardless of their sin, but when we speak out against homosexuality without acknowledging our own sin and complicity, our hypocrisy is so obvious that our secular culture has reason to ignore us.  As homosexuals have gained more support and acceptance from the general population, they have gotten more vocal in their cause for rights.  Often times, they are not asking for "special" rights-- they are asking for basic rights, such as the right to visit their loved one in the hospital even though they aren't immediate family, etc.  As Christians, we should defend everyone's basic rights as human beings and protect them from abuse.  Sadly, we have often been the ones heaping abuse rather than the ones protecting them from it.  An example-- I remember the Christian outrage at a homosexual being allowed to play the leading role in the Christian movie "The End of the Spear."  Did we make God happy by taking a "righteous stand" against homosexuality?  Or, like Sodom and Gomorrah, did our haughty, arrogant spirit anger Him?  We think we are being righteous and holy in this whole debate without realizing the kind of peril we are putting ourselves in. 

So what is a Christian to do?  First, on the personal level, the first step is obvious-- love, love, love.  Treat homosexuals with love and respect.  Don't see them as the enemy or some odd abnormality.  Is there some link to genetics that causes some to be more predisposed to homosexuality?  Perhaps; perhaps not.  It doesn't change how we ought to treat them.  We lovingly correct when necessary, but we let the Holy Spirit do the convicting.  If we do address the issue, we do so with all humility, freely confessing our own sins and faults and recognizing we do not have the moral high ground.

On the legislative level, we have two options.  We continue to "fight" for traditional marriage as we have been.  Maybe we will ultimately be successful, but I doubt it.  We have already moved too far in the direction of changing laws.  So we continue to "fight" but lose this legal battle and be further stigmatized as bigots and haters.  Or we could concede and let the state change the way it defines marriage-- any civil union between two consenting adults.  Let civil marriage become a mere legal partnership in which two people decide to live their life together for purposes of housing, taxes, benefits, etc.  We keep religious marriage a separate ceremony with a deeper meaning, and we focus on strengthening those bonds forged in the eyes of God.  Of course, once homosexuality gains legal legitimacy, how will Christians be able to call it a sin?  Will non-profit groups have to hire homosexuals even if it goes against their beliefs?  Will churches have to let homosexuals get married in their sanctuaries?  Will it lead to further errant arrangements, such as polygamy?  And how do we teach our children homosexuality is a sin when at school they are learning that it is normal and natural?  Therein lies the challenge of living Biblically in a secular society. 

We seem surprised by this challenge, because we have always assumed the United States was a "Christian" nation.  Now we are starting to see that the U.S.'s version of Christianity is just a folk religion of "In God We Trust" that doesn't really mean anything.  Congress is not the Holy Spirit-- we can try and enact laws to get other people to live like us and look like us, but would that change their standing before God?  We may not be comfortable living around certain kinds of sin, but we have become inoculated to so many other sins that we don't even recognize them.  We want the state to legislate morality for us, thinking that makes our job as Christians easier.  I think it is time we shift our energies and focus from preaching morality on the national stage to sharing Christ's love in our relationships and being the church to our communities.  (And if we're so concerned about what the state will make us do, then give up our tax-exempt status.  Problem solved.)  Not to say that we shouldn't get involved in politics; just realize that politics will not save us, and no law of man makes a person right before God.  We need to learn to speak the truth in love.  And we need to remember that Jesus' harshest words were not toward homosexuals but toward religious leaders who enacted laws that demanded outward righteousness.  They were the true stumbling blocks on the road to salvation.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Redefining "Christian" Music and Music Ministry, Part 2

I am disappointed with a great deal of the "Christian music" that is being produced today.  We are inundated with "Jesus is my boyfriend" type songs, as well as Christianized knock-offs of secular artists.  (Ever notice how often the next big thing in secular music finds its Christian equivalent in about six months?  The Christian look-alike/soundalike artist is just a cleaned-up, Jesus version of its secular counterpart and is often marketed as such.  I find this laughable at best and really pathetic at worst.)  We who walk in new life and commune with the Creator of the universe should be free to create and innovate in new, different, and better ways.  We don't need to copy someone else's formula.

Much of this happens, of course, because Christian music is an industry.  It is run like a business, not a ministry.  There are many, many Christian musicians out there who are being new and different and innovative, but generally they aren't the ones getting signed to labels. Christian labels (often run by secular music labels) want to make money and be successful--that is their primary goal.  We shouldn't be surprised or shocked by that.  I do think ministry does happen through this avenue, by God's grace.  But part of me wonders how much more beauty and worship we could be creating if we weren't squeezing ourselves into the secular music model for recording, distribution, and consumption.

To top it all off, much of the "good" Christian music, or at least popular Christian music, is full of bad theology.  (To be fair, there are a good many hymns with bad theology as well, so this isn't necessarily a new phenomenon.)

N.T. Wright has some great insight into the role of beauty and creativity in the mission of the church: 

"I believe that taking creation and new creation seriously is the way to understand and revitalize aesthetic awareness and perhaps even creativity among Christians today.  Beauty matters, dare I say, almost as much as spirituality and justice" (Surprised by Hope, p. 222).  

"But we don't live in the Garden of Eden, and art that attempts to do so quickly becomes flaccid and trivial. (The church doesn't have a monopoly on kitsch or sentimentalism, but if you want to find it the church may well be the easiest place to start.)" (Surprised by Hope, p. 223)

"When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission.... This will take serious imagination, imagination fueled by reflection and prayer at the foot of the cross and before the empty tomb, imagination that will discern the mysteries of God's judgment on evil and God's reaffirmation, through resurrection, of his beautiful creation" (Surprised by Hope, p. 224).

That's a pretty high charge we have been given.  As a songwriter, I feel completely inadequate to do such a task.  I don't want to write songs for the Lord and for the church that stink.  On the other hand, I don't want to be lured into the trap of capitalizing and profiting on ministry (yet another reason I am reluctant to be a "Christian artist").  There are a lot of sticky issues that a Christian artist today needs to consider, not the least being maintaining one's integrity in an industry driven by money and fame.  Many Christian artists have navigated this field brilliantly and have been a blessing to the church.  Many more... well, not so much.  

I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all guide for musicians and songwriters who want to glorify God with their music.  God uses all types, styles, and presentations for His glory.  But rather than having "hit-making" as our goal, or radio airplay, or big royalty checks, our goal should be solid theology, creative melodies, and top-notch musicianship.  I have kept my praise and worship songs "to myself" for the most part, because I'm afraid that I'm not ready to navigate this balance with integrity and honesty.  I know my own selfish heart, and I've tasted the cut-throat world of Christian music firsthand.  But I also know that keeping my gifts and creativity to myself and withholding that which could benefit the church is also selfish.  Still thinking and praying through this one...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Watching Tornadoes Form and Fizzle

We had some rather exciting weather this evening, as the pictures from out our front window indicate.  Thankfully, none of these funnel clouds touched down near here, but they kept forming and dissipating!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Redefining "Christian" Music and Music Ministry, Part 1

As I've mentioned in past posts, I'm a singer-songwriter, so music is a huge, integral part of my life.  I'm also, of course, a committed Christian.  But I don't sing "Christian music," at least not by CCM or Christian radio's definition.  (There are many reasons for that, which I may address in another post.)  I've been doing a lot of thinking/praying/struggling about how God wants me to use my music for His glory.  It's a question I've continually wrestled with, and I'm constantly reevaluating my conclusions over time. At this point, I'm still convinced that I'm where I'm supposed to be, singing in bars and coffee shops and not (necessarily) churches.

I'm of the mind that any music that points people towards God, even unknowingly, could be considered "Christian" music.  It doesn't have to be filled with Biblical imagery or Christian clichés or use the name of Jesus 15 times in a 3 minute song.   Case in point-- I covered the Metallica song "The Day That Never Comes" on my YouTube channel.  Metallica is generally not the first band that comes to mind when you think of Christian music, I realize that.  But because of that song, I was able to share the gospel with a guy on the other side of the world via e-mail.  He's a Muslim, but he was very open to what I had to say (er... write, in this case).  Now I wonder, if I was singing strictly "Christian" music and posting "Christian" songs on YouTube, would I have had this opportunity?  Is this not "becom[ing] all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22)?

And besides that, I like Metallica's music.  They are great musicians and songwriters, and their songs say things that many, many people can relate to.  I know that as a Christian, I have to be aware of what I'm putting into my mind, and Metallica's music can get rather dark.  But it is real and genuine, which is more than I can say for a lot of "Christian" music.  Life isn't all sunshine and roses and blue skies, but 20 minutes of Christian radio might make you think it's supposed to be.  I'm not sure that's doing justice to the message "Christian" music is supposed to be proclaiming.

More thoughts to come...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thoughts on Anne Rice's "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt"

A few months back I picked up Anne Rice's novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, at a used bookstore.  Not being a big fan of vampire stories, I had never read any of her previous books.  But I remembered hearing about this book when it first came out, and I was intrigued.  I finally got the chance to read it this week.

I'll admit, I was a bit skeptical when I started the book, just as I'm sure most of its readers are at first.  I mean, writing about Jesus' childhood in the first person?  Isn't that a bit... audacious?

Kudos to Ms. Rice-- she handles it masterfully.  

I really enjoyed this book.  She makes first century Egypt, Judea, and Galilee come alive.  The characterization is so believable.  And her return to Christianity in her personal life is evident in the fact that she portrays Jesus with such care.  She does a wonderful job of not only making Him fully God and fully human, but she also fleshes out what it might have been like for Him as a child.  I have often wondered about Jesus' childhood-- did He know He was God?  What age did He know?  Did He have miraculous power even then?  Anne Rice's imagination about how it might have been is both challenging and intriguing.  

Another part of the book I really enjoyed is the author's note at the end.  Ms. Rice describes a bit of her journey of faith and what led her to write this book.  She also describes her extensive research leading up to it.  (I was also delighted to find that she lists N.T. Wright as one of her biggest influences.)

Sometimes I forget that when Hebrews 4:15 says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin," it is referring not only to Jesus' temptation and suffering towards the end of His ministry, but also all the years of His earthly life.  To be teased by other children.  To feel childlike fear in a dangerous world.  To have adults brush aside your questions.  To be looked at with suspicion due to your questionable parentage.  To figure out just who it is God wants you to be.

I highly recommend this book, and I'm looking forward to reading the second one in the series, The Road to Cana.  It has being a blessing to my faith and will continue to be so as it prompts me to ponder the Incarnation more fully.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Glory and the Fall - Leesha Harvey

I got a request for some music, so here you go.  (This is for you, Dan!)  This is one of my more "overtly spiritual" songs, although I would say all of my songs have an element of faith in them.  I'll include the lyrics below.

The Glory and the Fall

Label me the skeptic
Are you so surprised?
All these years of sight unseen
have left me with some aching eyes

My hands are stained and shaky
From wars within and without
When You came to claim my soul
why did You leave behind the doubt?

Will I ever change at all
as I live this life between the glory and the fall

I could keep on asking
or I could bide my time
live with the uncertainty
and take all of these mysteries blind

Forgive my indiscretion
Please don't turn away
As I give voice to my darkest thoughts
and say the things the others will not say

But do You even hear at all
as I live this life between the glory and the fall

Can you hear the crashing sound
of all the arguments falling to the ground
Is the space just too far for me to ever know 
just what I am and who You are?

Ever broken, ever small
As I live this life between the glory and the fall

Ever broken, ever small
Trying to live this life between the glory and the fall

(c) 2009 Leesha Harvey

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thoughts on "The Furious Longing of God" by Brennan Manning, Part 2

At the end of each chapter of "The Furious Longing of God," Brennan Manning lists a couple questions to consider for further application.  The first question of the book is "When you read that phrase--the furious longing of God--what emotions or images does it evoke?"  Here is what I wrote on some notebook paper in response to that question:

Fury is a lightening storm, tearing across the night sky.  Fury is an earthquake, knocking down buildings and swallowing the earth.  Fury is a tornado, ripping trees from the ground and hurtling them through windows.  Fury is a hurricane, overtaking land and life with wind and wave.  What has fury to do with love?  Fury is a mother bear protecting her cubs from danger.  Fury is a father when he learns his child has been kidnapped.  Fury is a lover who has learned his lover has been greatly wronged.

Fury is vengeance, wrath, power unleashed.  But furious longing?  Does longing have the propensity to be furious?  Furious longing would be desperation, unquenched desire, unfulfilled need.  Longing implies lacking-- to long means one is not complete.  Yet God is complete and whole, lacking in nothing.  He has perfect union and fellowship within the Trinity.  What need has He of me?  And to call it furious-- I rather envision more a passive, "Oh, sure, it would be nice if she would join us, but no big loss either way."

The thought of God longing for me like a lover, a Father, a hurricane-- I cannot picture it.  And surely His longing is for His Church and not for me as an individual?  How rather arrogant to suppose I'm singled out.  One lost sheep versus the ninety-nine-- I've detached myself from Biblical exegesis so much, being careful to not apply which was not meant to be applied to me, that I  no longer can truly envision a passage such as this as having anything to do with me.  Furious wrath, yes, but furious longing?

Surely this is just the impassioned cry of a lover and not applicable to the place I hold in God's heart.  Then again, would God not love more deeply, more passionately, more fully-- more furiously-- than any human lover?

Love requires an other.  If God is love, His love must have an object.  He would be fully justified, in His perfection, to make that object Himself alone.  Yet He chooses to direct His love towards people and invite them into a union with Him.  Not just invite but relentlessly pursue, like a tireless lover.  I cannot grasp that imagery in relation to me.

Thoughts on "The Furious Longing of God" by Brennan Manning, Part 1

I read "The Furious Longing of God" by Brennan Manning today.  It's the first book of his that I have read, and I plan on reading "The Ragamuffin Gospel" now.  Overall, I liked it.  It wasn't as earth-shattering as I had hoped, but I don't fault Mr. Manning for that.  Just my own state of mind.

I appreciate his many descriptions of the love of God and just how wide and deep and completely immeasurable it is.  Conveniently he left out any mention of hell, which is frustrating since that's the one kink in my pursuit to understanding and accepting the love of God.  (God is love.  Yep, got that.  God is all-powerful.  Sure, I'm with you.  Those who don't believe in Jesus suffer in hell for all eternity.  Screeeech... this bus comes to a halt.)  I'm still struggling and thinking through the issue of hell.  Mr. Manning ignores it all together.  I'm sure he's thought about it lots, but I wish he would have shared his conclusions amidst all the love talk.  For now, it's a hurdle I can't get over.

My other frustration is that the first part of the book did a wonderful job of easing the guilt of trying to live a perfect Christian life.  Best line of the book-- "... I've decided that if I had my life to live over again I would not only climb more mountains, swim more rivers, and watch more sunsets; I wouldn't only jettison my hot water bottle, raincoat, umbrella, parachute, and raft; I would not only go barefoot earlier in the spring and stay out later in the fall; but I would devote not one more minute to monitoring my spiritual growth. No, not one" (p. 65).  Ah, that was reassuring.  But at the end he emphasizes how important it is for Christians to love other people.  Obviously this is true and right.  But I started the book feeling relief from guilt only to end with feelings of guilt for not loving enough.  Love obviously requires some work and action, and so I'm back to counting and making sure I'm doing "enough."  Again, not Mr. Manning's fault.  Just my own.

I think I have trouble with books like this because I've spent so much energy reacting against emotionalism and sentimentality in my own life.  My emotions can be a fickle roller coaster, and I used to use them as a measure for "where I was in my relationship with God."  I know better now, and so I tend to not trust my emotions, lest I mistake them for the voice of God.  Mr. Manning isn't calling us to emotionalism, but he does refer to mysticism and the experience of God.  This by its very nature seems to be a deeply emotional experience.  I start to doubt whether I've actually "experienced" God in this way.  Maybe I did once, at campfire sing-a-longs and church altar calls, back before anti-depressants and periods of agnosticism.  I don't know.  I suppose I could work myself up for such an experience, but it would inevitably let me down if it's not genuinely from God.  

More thoughts to come.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Creativity in Worship

Lately I have been struck by the potential and possibilities of human creativity.  As I've been substitute teaching for music classes, I've been scouring through albums and videos, trying to find top-notch performances to share with my students.  I've listened to a wide variety of genres, I've seen a number of different performances, and all I can say is-- wow.  It leaves me speechless what humans are able to do with some innate talent and a whole lot of practice.  I've been moved to tears on several occasions as I listened to a guitarist play, or heard a vocalist sing, or seen a dancer dance.

God made us in His image, and the best evidence of that is our own ability to create.  We have access to centuries upon centuries of human creativity-- in art, music, literature, and so forth.  And humans all over the world are creating new and wonderful things on a daily basis.  Something synergistic happens when human thoughts convalesce into art.  The whole becomes greater than its parts.  Emotions are evoked.  Beauty happens.

Just this evening, I watched my daughter's dance recital.  Some of the older dancers have become quite accomplished ballerinas.  The whole time I kept thinking, "How beautiful and strong the human body is.  How beautiful is this form of expression.  What a great testament to God's creative power.  How very... worshipful."  Indeed, one of the songs was a praise song, and you could tell it meant something to the three girls dancing to it.  They wore expressions of adoration on their faces as they lifted their arms and floated across the stage.  It caused me to worship God in my heart.

In stark contrast to this stands Sunday morning.  When I compare it to the creativity I've witnessed these last few weeks, Sunday morning worship seems rather... bland.  [Edit-- This is not an indictment of just one particular church--I've had this feeling in many of the churches I've been to and heard the sentiment expressed by friends and family in their own churches.]  That's not to say that it isn't true worship, or that it doesn't have beauty to it.  But it seems like we are trying to paint with just red, yellow, and blue when the whole spectrum of colors is available to us.  Sure, we can make some pretty pictures with the colors we're using, but oh, the possibilities if we would expand our palette!  What better way to praise our Creator than to use the full extent of the creative power He gave us?  Why aren't we doing it?

Throughout history, the Church has generated some of the greatest works of art known to humankind.  We still have that potential, and in many ways, the Church is still creating.  But I fear we've settled for lower expectations and have allowed ourselves to get stuck in the rut of a few formulas that (sort of) worked once upon a time.  We start thinking in terms of what people like, what people are comfortable with, and what's easiest rather than what best expresses our love and adoration to our Father.  We settle for "we've always done it this way" rather than "how can we do it better?".  We stop imagining, reaching, dreaming, and searching our hearts for new ways to express all that is within us in reverent worship.  Sure, a simple chorus song with a few words repeated over and over is easy to sing, but it hardly says all the things I want to say to my Father.  It seems shallow when my heart wants to cry out of its depths.

As a songwriter, I feel a personal responsibility to help remedy this problem.  I've avoided affiliating my music with so-called "Christian" music as a genre.  "Christian" music has a certain set of unspoken expectations of what can be said and what should be said, and I don't want to limit myself to overworked cliches and tired imagery that's been used a thousand times.  I have a lot of thoughts and ideas right now, and I'm not particularly sure what to do with them all.  I just know that I don't want to settle for mediocrity, and the Church certainly shouldn't settle for less than its best.  May the Creator be honored by our creativity, in all its many forms.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Thoughts on the "Church Militant"

One of my favorite Bible school songs as a child was "I'm in the Lord's Army."  The lyrics went like this:

I may never march in the infantry, 

Ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery. 

I may never fly o'er the enemy, but I'm in the Lord's army. 

Now as an adult, I tend to cringe when I hear kids sing that song.  I think it's because I now understand the unfortunate and often disastrous results that occur when Christians try to live militantly.

As a child, I liked the idea of being on God's side--everyone likes to be on the winning team.  I had no idea who the "Lord's army" fought against, but I'm sure I pictured some sort of caricature of Satan and his demons as the enemy.  We Christians are in a battle of sorts.  We are even given specific instructions on how to put on our armor (Ephesians 6:10-18).  But our battle is not "against flesh and blood" (Ephesians 6:12).  In other words, we are not fighting against people.  Our struggle is a spiritual one.  Jesus gave us clear non-violent principles for living when He told us to "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:38-40) and "pray for our enemies" (Matthew 5:43-45).  I see no hints of marching into battle or calls to arms in the gospel.  I see the willful relinquishing of personal power and control to effect an even greater victory.

In my last post, I discussed how often we Christians in America take a very disrespectful attitude towards our governmental leaders.  On the flip side, American Christians tend to be very patriotic--even nationalistic.  We've blurred the line between love for God and love for country so much that we often think "American" is synonymous with "Christian."  We've elevated our country to the position of "God's favorite nation" and think that all our country's actions to promote democracy are somehow an extension of building the kingdom of God on earth.  This takes the simple refrain of "I'm in the Lord's army" to a whole new, blasphemous level.

Greg Boyd has written extensively about this topic and so I'm not going to rehash it here.  I'm thankful Boyd has the guts to speak out against this idolatrous trend in the American church. He has recently been posting his thoughts about the "New American Patriot's Bible"-- I highly encourage you to read his review and be aware of this harmful Bible that will soon be showing up in our church pews.

I will, however, offer up a simple test that I use in determining whether something is better suited for the kingdom of God or the kingdom of America--whether it be songs, sermons, books, or whatever.  I ask myself questions such as, "Would an Iraqi Christian be comfortable sitting in this service or reading this book?  Would I be comfortable singing this song if an Afghani Christian were sitting next to me?"  

There have been many times in the last several years (most notably on church services over Memorial Day weekend and close to the Fourth of July) when I have to say, "No, an Iraqi Christian would not be comfortable with this song.  They would be very, very offended."  Then I picture how I would feel if the situation was reversed-- if my country was the one invaded by another, if suicide bombs were going off in my streets, if members of my family had been killed by the bombs of another country--and I was sitting in on a church service with fellow believers from that country singing songs asking God to bless their country or singing about the good and noble things their country had done all for the glory of God.  

And that's when I choose not to sing those songs, or listen to that sermon, and I spend the time praying for God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

The people of God are a family, a body, a building... not an army.  We are a family that transcends borders, a body that lasts throughout time, a building that will not be hemmed in by country or government.  Let our allegiance be firm in following our leader, Jesus Christ, who did not take up a sword, but a towel to wash the feet of His disciples and a cross to die for the world.