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.

Monday, May 4, 2009

R-E-S-P-E-C-T... From the School House to the White House

I recently started a job as a substitute teacher for middle school music classes.  It's a 5 week gig, and I'm about half way through.  It's been.... challenging, to say the least.

I didn't expect it to be easy.  I know how we treated "the sub" when I was in school.  Since I'm in a longer term position instead of just a one-day role, the students are finally figuring out they have to put up with me until the end of the school year, so they best get used to it.  Most of the students have been great, but a few of them make me want to pull my hair out.  They are rude, disruptive, hyper, angry, obnoxious, and snotty.  When I enforce the rules, they balk.  One sixth grader actually flipped me off the other day.  

Even the good students show resistance at times.  "We don't do things that way," they say.  I do my best to communicate my reasoning for why I'm choosing to run the class a certain way, and they just sigh and roll their eyes like I'm just another idiotic adult who couldn't possibly understand.

There have been countless times in the past 2 weeks when I've wanted to get a bullhorn and declare, "I am the teacher, and you will show me respect because I am the teacher.  You don't have to like me, you don't have to like my decisions, but you will obey the rules and treat me with respect regardless of how you feel."

Now that I'm in a position of authority, it has given me new insight into what it means to respect authority.  When a student approaches me with a kind and respectful attitude to discuss a problem or issue, I am more than willing to listen and come to some sort of compromise with him.  If a student comes with a bad attitude written all over his face and disdain in his voice, I don't have much patience for negotiation.  

Some church friends of mine have been talking a lot about respect these last six months.  They started a website and Facebook group called "Respect Our President."  They didn't vote for Obama, but they recognized that people--Christians in particular-- have gotten into the horrible habit of treating our President with utter disrespect.  We badmouthed Clinton, we badmouthed Bush, and we badmouth Obama.  

I was dismayed at the slanderous accusations about Obama that were passed around via e-mail by Christians in the months leading up to the election.  Suddenly facts didn't matter, and people didn't take the time to see what was true.  Hysteria seemed to rule the day.  Now that Obama is in office, I still hear Christians refer to the him as if they have a bad taste in their mouth.  

I voted for Obama, and while I'm not entirely happy with many of his decisions thus far, it's still fairly easy for me to respect him.  I did, however, speak about Bush and Clinton disrespectfully while they were in office, much to my shame.  It's one thing to disagree with their policy decisions; it's quite another to malign their character or make jokes at their expense.  As Christians, we have no business speaking of our leadership in this way.  We can thoughtfully disagree, but we should do so out of respect.

If you need some Biblical support for this idea, check out Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, and 1 Timothy 2:1-4.  

Some may argue that if a leader stands in opposition to the will of God, then we should not respect them or submit to them.  True, there is a time when we have to choose to obey the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of man.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego disobeyed the king's edict to bow down to the idol, but in their resistance, they still answered the king with respect.  (Check out Daniel 3 to see how they responded.)  I wonder if we here in 21st century America are too quick to jump to the resistance stage instead of using creativity, intelligence, and love to work out solutions on the cultural stage.  If we put forth half the effort into doing something positive that we put into maligning our leadership, we might actually be able accomplish something good rather than complain about all that we see as wrong.

Remember, too, that the Biblical command to honor those in authority also applies to the Christian in North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Zimbabwe.  I think it would be a much harder concept to apply in those countries than it is in our own.

If you are interested in some great discussions on respecting our President and what that means, I encourage you to check out Respect Our President's website as well as the Facebook group.  You'll find some practical suggestions as well as some lively debate.

In the meantime, I'm learning that respect is a crucial aspect of human relationships.  "Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king" (1 Peter 2:17).  We should show respect regardless of whether or not we think it is deserved, because respect and love seem to be closely intertwined.

At the very least, it will get you on the teacher's good side.