Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Actually, God was Always Good: a review of Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan

          The Old Testament’s stories and laws have become a hay-day for all those cynical of God and His followers. In a society that strives for equality and peace, why would one consider the input of those who uphold a book that primarily tells stories of a God who seems to perpetrate, support, or at least allow barbarism, weird legalism, racism and genocide? Many would say such a God is a hypocrite, or he mellowed out between the Bible’s Testaments. From 20/20’s comparison of the Old Testament with Islamic terrorism, to the closing monologue of God on Trial, all the way to the arsenal of the New Atheist movement (including frequent quotes from the late Christopher Hitchens, who Copan mentioned we should pray for, due to Hitchens’s then-diagnosis of esophageal cancer), the pre-Christmas God is getting quite the bad rap. 
          And many Christians don’t know how to respond. Some Christians tend to ignore the Old Testament. Some act as if God did go through some type of change in personality or even the mode of salvation after Jesus’s birth. Some proudly confirm all the cynics’ allegations against God, painting Him as sadistic and power-happy and contradicting verses about His character in both Testaments. None of these approaches are biblical.
          But if you’re someone that takes on a lot of doubt about the character of the God of the Old Testament, whether it’s persecution or self-imposed, this book is for you. Paul Copan, in his book Is God a Moral Monster?, is very thorough, historic, and biblical in his effort to rightly portray God as the Sustainer and impartial Valuer of human life, as well as the Bearer of wisdom for righteousness and cultural flourishing.
          Copan, curiously, opened the book discussing the New Atheist movement, namely establishing the problem I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. He explains his paradoxical friend/foe relationship to various of the four prominent New Atheists (he’s had and enjoyed Daniel Dennett’s company) and gives the reader a taste of their rhetoric. Copan rightly asserts that the issues of the Old Testament should not be “shoved under holy rugs” by uninformed Christians (20).
          Copan does well to slowly walk us deeper and deeper into the issues at hand like stepping a hot tub. He starts with the accusation of divine arrogance, and then he eventually addresses the alleged ethnic cleansing in the end of Part 3, which takes the biggest portion of the book. 
          The answers to most of the hostile inquiries of the Old Testament God’s character involve exegesis and require a better understanding of Ancient Near East history and literary style. As it turns out, some of the prominent New Atheists‘ arguments have a bit of what C.S. Lewis would call “chronological snobbery” and they lack the aforementioned understanding. I can’t go into detail here, but once rightful context is established, the purpose of the “weird” laws of the Torah look similar to the New Testament’s principles of discipleship and selfless cultural flourishing. And amid the barbarism and chaos that was the other Ancient Near East, understanding its history and literature, the armies of Israel look the most just, humane and, in some cases, virtually pacifist.
          When I read through Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell earlier this year, I positively reviewed it as a layman’s reference on the doctrine of damnation. Is God a Moral Monster? is also best used as a reference guide, but arguably removing “layman” from the description. This book took me a while. Copan is very meticulous and thorough (he probably referenced every Old Testament verse anybody ever had a problem with!) in the body of this book. He categorized them well, and some topics take up multiple chapters. 
          If there’s one thing that’s lacking in Is God a Moral Monster?, it’s Copan’s modern contextualization of divine national judgment (160-161). I wish he had further unpacked that a bit more, given the explicit expansion of the Gospel to the Gentiles, the diverse modern connotations of “nationality” and the increasing transience and individualism in Western society. Some more could have been shared, especially with Westboro Baptist on the prowl, proclaiming divine national judgment upon -well- almost every nation in the world.
          Otherwise, I am planning on keeping Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? on my shelf. It was a long but very encouraging read to understand the New Atheists’ misunderstandings of the biblical text and, more importantly, my God who was (and is) consistent and good.
Next: Lupton’s Toxic Charity or Piper’s Bloodlines

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gilly’s Choral Christmas Playlist, trk. 2: “. . . which was the son of . . .” - Arvo Pärt

          Believe it or not, we’re still in the Old Testament. Well, kind of. We’re in the New Testament’s account of Jesus’s genealogy, specifically, in the book of Luke. The genealogy, however, mostly consists of Old Testament characters.
          I can’t remember where, exactly, I first found this choral work. Off the top of my head, I don’t know of any other genealogies put to music. The repetition of the text itself can provide many opportunities for minimalism, but that’s not the direction Pärt took. While a 20th century composer, he has an appreciation for some of the pre-Renaissance music that accompanied the ancient sacred liturgies he likes to write (e.g. the Magnificat).  
          I do appreciate the different chord textures and melodies Pärt gives to each member of the genealogy, giving honor to the genealogy and it’s ending member, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Memories of Christmas Giving

To Russia With Quacks
          I was a 3rd grader in a Christian grammar school. Everyone in our classroom had a pen pal from a 3rd grade classroom in Russia, which was regularly visited by one of our students’ missionary parents. Our class was thrilled to have these distant friends. After a few months and a several letters, we were excited when we got to see a videotape tour of the class.  
          My Russian pen pal was named Maxim. In the video, his desk was right by the window, so I could only see his silhouette against the snow outside. He slowly stammered his English as he stated his name and mentioned that he liked Donald Duck. When it came time to mail them again, I remembered that I had a small plastic Donald Duck figure that I didn’t play with anymore, so I sent it along, only hoping that it would make him happy.
          The next time my 3rd grade class heard from Russia, it was in the form of a big box of individual gifts to all of us from each of our respective pen pals. Apparently, they really liked the gifts we sent and wanted to give back. I received a small purple robotic figure and a knight on a horse, which I still have to this day. 
          But I remember what really stuck with me. As I panned across the room of my happy fellow 3rd graders, I saw their joy as, both simply and strangely put, creative and righteous. Our Christian grammar school had had costume parties with themes and Valentine’s Day parties where we gorge ourselves on candy and ice cream (also where giving cards to everyone was mandatory, lest someone feel left out), but this joy was different. It was the joy that came from an unexpected response to our act of charity. And it was a creative way to teach children the joys of giving while further introducing them to the world outside their own country.
          Lesson Learned: It was a good example of the truth of 2 Cor. 9:6-11.
Stomping Goombas with Dad
          One of the questions of empirical research that organizations like  Advent Conspiracy ask, in order to encourage more biblical Christmas giving, is what your favorite Christmas gift was . . . ever. Usually one has trouble answering because fads quickly die. For those who do answer, “favorite” gifts are remembered usually because of a significant memory that was given with them, or because the material gift was, at face/monetary value, much more timeless (or at least enduring) than any short fad.
          When I was asked that question during a Bible study, I thought about it for a short bit, and then said, “Super Mario Bros. 3.”
          Of course, most gamers (especially the remnant of loyal Nintendo fans) will affirm Super Mario Bros. 3 for the Nintendo’s original 8-bit, two-button system from the 80’s as a significant and even foundational milestone in the development of action/adventure gaming, the “Mario” franchise and video games in general. Its themes and approach are regularly used even today. In its original cartridge form, it’s still sought out. Super Mario Bros. 3 is arguably a “timeless” gift, judging by the aforementioned criteria.
          But, being in grade school, I didn’t understand all that. What I did understand, however, is that my adoptive father, who hadn’t even been married to my mom for even 18 months, was smiling and driving me to Toys ‘R Us to buy it. (As I recall, video games were a similar price back then, but the consoles were a lot cheaper). 
          So I had the gift of a loving relational investment from a member of my immediate family, and I had the coolest new video game. It was a good Christmas. If I only had the latter without the former, it wouldn’t be the same.
          Lesson Learned: Give what lasts. It won’t be forgotten. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Gilly’s Choral Christmas Playlist, trk. 1: “A Spotless Rose” - Herbert Howells

          I’m a bit of an explorer when it comes to Christmas music. It feels like I’ve blogged about everything from Sarah McLachlan and Stephen Colbert to David Crowder*Band and Yo-Yo Ma’s duet with Allison Krauss. This year, I’ve decided to give a bit more of a nod to my classical side and attempt to make my conservatory alma mater proud. So . . . choir nerds take heed! This is for you.
          During my years in the Chicago area, my wife and I decided to see St. Olaf’s traveling choir (a very excellent program) as they stopped for a concert at Fourth Presbyterian in Water Tower Place. The sanctuary in the middle of that flourishing tourist haven was visually stunning, and had quite the impressive acoustics. This concert is actually where I first heard the first two “tracks,” of this playlist, the first of which is “A Spotless Rose” by Herbert Howells.

A spotless rose is blowing,
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winder,
And in the dark midnight.

The rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary purest maid;
For through our God’s great love and might,
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s night.

          The text (Winkworth’s English version of the original German) is arguably based on a combination of Isaiah 11 and 35, where the prophet, using agricultural metaphor, foretells a time of redemption from famine and injustice, and this time of peace and flourishing would come from a descendant of Jesse: Jesus Christ.
          Herbert Howells was a likable English composer among myself and my conservatory colleagues for his borderline atonality. He wrote much in the arena of church music, including a few Magnificats and the longest Stabat Mater.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Brainstorming on How to Really Keep Christ in Christmas

          It seems to happen every year. Christmas season would not be complete without an issue/dilemma (or a few) of political correctness. This year it’s the naming of a tree in Wisconsin’s Capitol rotunda a “Christmas tree.” Religion is an undeniable part of history and culture. It’s just interesting that anyone (mostly because they lack a little historical and etymological knowledge) could think that it’s even possible to remove all traces of religion from the public square. I could go on and on about that.
          Meanwhile, some have taken up political arms to “keep Christ in Christmas.” This is a good goal for the heart of every Christian: to strive for Christ-likeness in celebrating His birth. However, this cliché mainly seeks to keep Christ’s name (but not necessarily, inadvertently, His honor) in the holiday’s over-commercialization and appearance in the public square.
          If we “fight” to keep Christ’s name and face upfront in the holiday season, yet still celebrate it as do the non-Christians, Christ’s name will be meaningless to them. To keep Christ in Christmas is to honor Him, and emulate the sacrifice, love and charity inherent in His incarnation and earthly life.
          Christmas, in our country, however, has become diluted and drowned in countless traditions. The top lists of Christmas songs have no theological content. Kids behave themselves to get gifts from a creepy, legalistic old toy-distributor who employs elves and flying mammals (kinda sad since he’s based on the legend of a very charitable Christian saint). And it’s become a hay-day for smart retailers who stir up materialism, gluttony and greed. America spends about $450 billion on Christmas every year. In this economy, I’m sure a few could think of a more beneficial or God-glorifying way to use that money. Nonetheless, Black Friday shoppers have literally killed for great deals. Should any Christian want to attach Christ’s name to all that? We should really know what we’re “fighting” for.
          Each Christmas, I try to discipline my mind to downplay the distractions of eggnog and ornaments and I try to remember the original Christmas. I think of the faith of a young married couple, originally pregnant out of wedlock, shamed and rejected by their community, who sacrificed time, energy and reputation to bear the child they (rightfully) believed was the Messiah. I think of how the God of infinite glory was born in a barn and His first “visitors in the hospital” were laughable lowly shepherds. I think about the patience of the faithful followers of God whose families waited through centuries of oppression for a savior.
          But, most of all, I think about Jesus, who didn’t cling to His equality with God, veiled His God-ly attributes and came from the glory of Heaven to the muck of the earth, in human flesh, and lived an impoverished life of love, sacrifice, giving and Truth to His foolish and hurting children. It’s the most loving, sacrificial, relational and communicative thing that’s ever been done. 
          How do we celebrate the arrival of such a sacrificing and all-loving Savior? I’m not totally sure, but the hoarding of opulent food and presents doesn’t seem quite so appropriate anymore. Recently, there debuted a sermon series known as Advent Conspiracy, operating under the tagline that "Christmas can (still) change the world." They have plenty of ideas that arguably make the celebration of Christ’s birth more Christ-like, such as:
  • Spending less on gifts (think of it as a “possessions version” of fasting) to better focus one’s mind on God
  • Giving gifts to the poor, either directly or through supporting charities, sponsoring children, etc. Some have made donations in another’s name as their Christmas gift to that person to encourage charity.
  • Giving the gifts in other love languages. Material possessions aside, there are a lot of people (maybe even in your family and friends) that could use the intangible but eternal gift of a loving relational initiative, whether it’s words of affirmation, quality time, or even forgiveness. Many possibilities on that one.
  • General self-downplay of distractions from worship, which include some Christmas traditions, event and other related logistics, and the shallow over-commercialization that permeates the culture. 
          Yes, Christmas is a “time of giving.” But, using Christ as the model, it’s a time of sacrificial giving to those in need, not so much the time for the newest iPod. If we think of Christ’s incarnation as a template “gift,” we need to remember that His life and death were a sacrifice for the health (physical, relational and spiritual) of others, including those who didn’t love Him back.
          Like I said, I‘m still brainstorming and trying to apply things myself, but I’ve thus far concluded that we need to, simply put, be more Christ-like (and less like a mere Christian version of the complacent American consumer) in order to truly keep Christ in Christmas.        
*More information about Advent Conspiracy can be found at

Monday, November 14, 2011

Happy Birthday to Abby, Our Creative Trooper Princess

          My older daughter is three now. 
          Normally on birthdays celebrated over social media, people post baby/toddler pictures to show how much someone has grown, or “how far he/she has come.” I actually can’t help it but think about how far we can trace Abby back in our crazy and chaotic married/family life. 
          When I first found out my wife was pregnant with Abby, I was a seminary student scrambling behind a sound board at a church plant. When we went to Lake Geneva for our 1-year anniversary, Abby was a baby bump. Christina held her first baby shower while I was doing missions work in Romania. 
          It was a foggy damp night as we drove 20 miles through empty Chicago roads to the big hospital in Evanston, IL (home to the Big Ten’s Wildcats) for Abby to be delivered. She was the 2-week-old star of the Thanksgiving reunion as our parents and some grandparents from both sides of the family crammed into our quaint 2br apartment in a lower-income part of the northwest ‘burbs. 
          When I graduated from seminary, Abby was there. When we moved to Memaw’s house for lack of employment, Abby was there, sleeping in a playpen. And now she’s been courageously participating in the community of our new church family. She likes to dance and sing on the stages at church and wants to go to Awana and ballet class. 
          She was along for the ride of the adventurous and sometimes troubling transitions of our family’s life. 
          A little known story about Abby: Just a few months into Christina’s pregnancy, there came a day that her stomach was so sensitive that she couldn’t even keep water down. We took her to the emergency room late one night to get rehydrated with an IV. I sat and watched my wife sleep there in the half-room, worried about both her and my child in utero. We didn’t know what to expect when Christina was stabilized and a doctor came in to do a sonogram.
          But what we saw was our little baby, bouncing around the womb and clapping her hands. “Oh, you’ve got a feisty one there,” the doctor smiled and said. Our Abby’s a trooper.
          Abby, you are, stubbornly and willfully, our creative little drama-princess. I hope you never lose your imagination or your bleeding heart. I like it when you cuddle up to one of your parents or give your little sister a hug or some help. I like it when you sing and dance, or try different color dresses on your princess dolls. I like it when you take conversational initiative with guests and visiting family, sometimes even more hospitably than me. It’s my privilege to raise you, and you’ll never lose my love and support as a father. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Word Study: “Relevant,” and How We Need to Let It Be

          As a disclaimer to my fellow closet-seminary-nerds out there, this isn’t the type of word study from a Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic lexicon of the Scriptures that delves into exegetical and etymological studies. This is, rather, a deeper (and somewhat deconstructive) look into various words of modern Christian discourse. In other words, I’m re-evaluating the language of “Christian-ese.” 
          Today’s word: “Relevant”
          It started off as a key element in church advertising. A cutting edge church would brag about its “relevant” messages. Caricatured examples involve frequent references to current events, pop culture and lingo, as well as a watered down and thinned out biblical portion. Many churches with this approach have done well to grow in their regular attendance. I mean, who wouldn’t want to hear an eye-catching and understandable message on a topic that very applicable to an individual’s life?
          There are opposers, however. They (rightfully, I’ll add) question the predominantly topical approach and the shallow involvement of Scripture in sermons. However, the seeming “non-relevance” in what is often their approach (which I’ll get to later) does little to nothing for church growth and even discipleship.
          My stance? Preach the Word, and let it be relevant.
          I think the term is embarrassingly redundant. The Bible is relevant. All of it. To everything. When one looks at a box of mac & cheese and reads the caption “Made with Real Cheese!”, one would think, Of course it’s real cheese. As opposed to what else? Sadly, people have used fake cheese. We do not need to make the Bible relevant. We can only make it irrelevant. We need to let it be relevant.
We make the Bible “non-relevant” when we:

          1. Treat sermons like classroom lectures. Having studied the Bible and theology in academic seminars in my undergrad and grad school, I learned the difference between education and edification. There’s a reason that, in seminaries, there’s a difference in pedagogy between preparing a sermon and preparing a lecture. Academic lectures are primarily meant to feed the mind, and, by New Testament standards, were never meant to be a primary part of gathering. Sermons, on the other hand, are meant to be a healthful and applicable interpretation of the Word that feeds the soul. 
          One animated missions/outreach pastor I once met spoke against his own received compliments, saying, “God doesn’t want to hear ‘nice talk!’ He wants your life.” We need to always remember to “not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says (Jas. 1:22).” Do we really apply the Word to our daily life and strive for biblical living? Or do we just peruse sermons (or even churches) like we’re auditing a class?
          2. Drown the Gospel in temporal addenda. One reason that some people oppose any type of “relevant” message is because they see their own and familiar approach to ministry as more biblical with less or no “packaging.” The problem with this argument, however, is that the Gospel is always “packaged” in some way, and canonizing the cultural “packaging” makes the Gospel itself more implausible and “non-relevant” to others. “Relevant” services, arguably, are a seeming over-reaction to the American church’s aura of insistence that, to be a Christian, you must immediately wear certain professional clothes, appreciate only limited styles of music, speak and understand “Christian-ese,” attend weekly and seeming inapplicable theology/doctrine lectures, and sometimes a whole host of other extra-biblical additions that more than detracted from the life of Truth-inspired love and sacrifice we’re all called to.
          The Gospel is transcendent and timeless. Influential ministers, musicians, ministry fads, kitschy cliches and extra-biblical traditions will all pass away, but the Word of God will remain forever. The communicability of the Word of God from the pulpit to wandering unbelievers is an arguable call Paul makes to the Corinthians. The Gospel, at its core, is a beautiful gift for all the world. Let’s not wrap up the message with any ugly “non-relevant” packaging.
Question of Relevance
          So, how “relevant” is the Bible to you? You’d be surprised. Take for example, Jesus’s command not to divorce (Mt. 5:32). At first, one might brush it off after face value as just another taboo for those in struggling marriages, but it actually applies to everyone. Jesus was, in fact, speaking to a people who had (and used) the power to divorce at the slightest thing (e.g. my wife burned my supper!). Therefore, His command not to divorce isn’t a dispassionate and legalist statement, but rather an encouragement for more grace, forgiveness and love in marriage. This could apply to all relationships and friendships in general.
          Hmm. That passage just became more relevant. I wonder what the rest of the Bible has to say.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Go Ahead. Go to Starbucks.

          There’s always a few questions with how Christians should use their money because there’s always paradox and/or tension. We ought to be frugal and charitable, but we can’t always trust what’s cheap. We try not to support business that fuels greed, materialism and other unhealthful mindsets. I’ve, personally, heard a lot of jokes at Starbucks’s expense, but I can tell you that I’d support a Christian that gets their coffee at Starbucks. Contrary to perception, buying from Starbucks is one of the most charitable everyday things an everyday Christian can do.
          Now I know that Starbucks doesn’t always have the charitable aura. They multiplied (maybe even overpopulated) across the world and toted their endless possibilities for coffee-tailoring to fit your style. If there was to be a poster company for kitschy over-commercialization, self-serving materialism and corporate greed, both Christians and non-Christians would nominate Starbucks, along with McDonald’s and maybe a few other hackneyed chains. 
          But that’s an unfair stereotype of Starbucks. There’s a reason or two Starbucks has, unlike many other chains its size, made it onto Forbes and Ethixphere’s list of “most ethical businesses.”
          Their coffee beans and food supplies are “responsibly grown” and “ethically traded,” supporting the farmers' businesses and communities across the world. Their paper is primarily recycled, and many stores give the leftover pastries to a local homeless shelter. Starbucks also supports various charities that don’t get much support, such as Ethos Water or the Red program.
          And what also makes a business ethical is how they treat their employees. About five years ago, I put on a Starbucks apron (as many other seminary students did) looking only to fund my grad school living costs with maybe some pocket change, but I also learned how to better meet people and provide for their needs. Both of my daughters were provided the best local pediatrician care under Starbucks’s very affordable health insurance (and both of them were born during the economy’s downturn).
          I worked at Starbucks for three years, and I still don’t like coffee. It isn’t the perfect business, but it’s not the scrooge that the cynics make to be, either. People may complain about their prices (and believe me, I got more than an employee’s earful when the cost of a drink went up a whopping 10 cents), but they can rest assured that it’s much more likely to fund a local nonprofit charity than a CEO’s personal jet.
          Myself, I’m looking forward to a peppermint eggnog chai, and I’m very curious as to what charitable alliance they will promote this year.          

Friday, October 28, 2011

Visiting the Billy Graham Library, Learning Spiritual Disciplines of a God-Empowered Legacy

          I recently took milady with me to a worship leader conference in Charlotte. We enjoyed the plethora of sugar in authentic sweet tea and the good taste of grits. My stomach needed a little time to adjust to the fried chicken and hush puppies, but by far the highest recommendation was to visit the Billy Graham Library. We had some spare time after the conference, so we went on over.
          The free attraction features Billy Graham’s childhood home, moderately preserved and relocated just a few miles from its original site. It also features a large, comprehensive biographical museum, a bookstore, “Prayer Gardens” and the burial site of Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth.
          I’ve spent most of my childhood as well as my undergraduate years just a few blocks from Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College, which also features a museum and many other honoring collections in their archives, but the experience of the Library gave me pause to think about, specifically, as a teachable pastor myself, how God was able to use Billy Graham to leave a legacy of love, evangelism and biblical influence that really won’t be matched for a while. 
          I took a few notes:
  1. Simple, yet creative communication. Billy Graham always spoke biblical truth into the microphone. One of his signature phrases is “The Bible says . . .” He acknowledged the biblical reality of future judgment and wrath from God, but he, rightly (unlike textbook hellfire preachers) and certainly did not let that define God’s character. Graham’s been criticized on occasion that his “packaging” of the gospel is out-of-date, but as a student of cultural exegesis, as I watched Graham interviewed by various pop culture icons of the past and present (e.g. Woody Allen, Johnny Carson), I’d have to disagree. Graham also put his work early and often in newly-created television, and that helped his ministry like the Romans‘ roads. (Unfortunately, there’s so many more options in technology now and getting people’s attention is a bit more difficult).
  2. He never took a strong political side. Christopher Hitchens, the celebrity atheist, would know if he did. Hitchens has a hobby of doing research on his opponents (who are mostly Christians with a proud political agenda) and ripping them apart in his writings. I’ve seen him do that to many, yet he had little-to-no political dirt on Graham who, for several decades, strived to follow 1 Tim. 2:1-2 and was a sincere and biblical friend to consecutive Presidents of all shades.
  3. He was for unity. Graham didn’t want theological non-essentials to keep the Church from being united in its priority mission: evangelism and outreach. He worked with many Roman Catholics and also the Baptist churches that stubbornly insisted on baptism in their facility. (He’s, therefore, been baptized many times). The simple biblical-ity of his words and mission makes our bickering look embarrassing.
  4. He was humble and prayerful. Graham’s always made strides to avoid mistakes and scandal. Every evangelistic “Crusade” was audited and shown in the local paper. Legend has it that decoy employees preceded Graham into almost every room to avoid a photo scandal. Graham has turned down opportunities and money, insisting on simple living in a smaller town in North Carolina. But when he was approached about mistakes he did make, he remorsefully acknowledged them. He doesn’t attribute his ministerial “success” to any of his felt qualifications, or even the aspects of his ministry I’m writing about right now, but only to the power of God. I’ll never forget his three steps to a successful “Crusade”: Prayer, prayer and prayer.
          I left the Library very much humbled by the life of this exemplary man. He seems to shine like a diamond among many modern Christians that are known primarily for something other than preaching God’s love to the broken. It’s my hope that I (and many others) can strive to be more Christ-like as he was. And it starts with letting God do the work through you. Without you.       

Friday, October 21, 2011

Thoughts and Some Babbling on Worship (and) Service

          In the debates over the philosophy of worship (I’ve been a part of a few), a fairly hackneyed tactic of research is to look into the etymology and history of the word “worship” itself. I say “hackneyed” because D.A. Carson, an authority on exegesis and its fallacies, has gone on such a mission and forewarned (in Worship By the Book, 14-15) that the journey will not reap an absolute and conclusive finding. 
          One of the alternate translations of the biblical terms for “worship” is, interestingly enough, “service.” It makes the term “worship service” seem a bit redundant. Of course, we may know the rightful cliche that a Christian’s worship is not limited to the musical gatherings of Sunday mornings, or even to any events under a church’s roof. 
          But how much do we really believe that? 
          Humble service to God is worship, and worship is meant to be a lifestyle. It is to flow like a fountain from our hearts in the forms of love, Truth and service to our fellow depraved man, out of celebration of the grace, love and hope we’ve received and want to share. This, in my opinion, shines the light of Christ to broken hearts and shows a more God-glorifying resolve than words sung in a private gathering of believers.
          We need more of the former. We may believe that true worship isn’t limited to Sunday mornings, but we don’t act like it. I fear that, for many in this country, we have, in James K. A. Smith’s words, “appended a domesticated Jesus to our American dream . . . something we can add to our life without disrupting the rest of it.” How so? Well, to start off, we give stingy tips at restaurants, hang up on telemarketers, and give the same ungracious respect political leaders we’re called to pray for. These are just a few examples of how we are called to be counter-cultural, striving for the biblical model of love of all God’s creation, charity to the poor/sick/neglected and submission to the government.
          Musicians also need to adapt a model of servanthood to their training and giftedness. We can’t expect to merely attach God’s name to musical prowess and expect ministerial results along with the amenities of a good musical performance. How different is such a “Christian” group, then? How about playing for a fundraiser for a hospital, charity or prison? How about giving away free food? How about attaching your relational love and care to the concert?
          True worship is not just music and a Sunday morning. It’s a lifestyle of service. Not because you have to, but because you want to.
          I recently went to a worship gathering held by one of the world’s premier worship-leading ensembles, Hillsong United. I gave them that introduction for good reason. Their songs reflect deep Scriptural Truth and poetry and professional musical execution and are played by churches worldwide. They preach the Gospel and encourage Bible-reading and church involvement. They’ve also fundraised for the diseased in Africa. In their recent tour, my wife and I were a bit disappointed they didn’t play a few of our favorite songs about salvation and heaven, but we sensed an obvious theme: service.
          The songs they did choose had the following phrases in them: “our praise and all we are today, take it all,” “we’re giving it all away, we’re giving it all to go Your way,” “take my life, take all that I have, with all that I am, I will love you,” “the rhythms of grace overcome all of my ways, realigning each step everyday, to live for Your glory,” “I don't care what it costs anymore, ‘cause you gave it all and I'm following you, I don't care what it takes anymore, all day I’ll follow you,” “shine as the nations collide with your story, Your life on display, Your strength in our weakness,” “I give my life to follow, everything I believe in, now I surrender.”
          Is more holistic service a seeming trend? If so, it’s good timing. The world is hurting. We all can talk about how worship is more than just on Sunday morning, and how we’re to “do it all for the glory of God.” Let’s start acting like it.    

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where I Stand: Let Pastors Be Pastors, Churches Be Churches

          There’s been some talk within the new phenomenon that is the Christian blogosphere about highly influential lead pastors (namely, the recent Francis Chan and Rob Bell) who leave their churches, not necessarily due to a proverbial fall from grace, but for seeming more “positive” reasons.
          Churchgoers in cyberspace have conjured many broad conclusions about the supposed biblical-ity and practicality of such a move. Some progressives seem to say it’s both a wise and tragic move, necessitated by the inability of church structure to meet the needs of the local culture. Others have strongly questioned why the priority of these more “positive” reasons are higher than that of the local church.
          I really don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all right or wrong answer to the dilemma. Every situation is different.  Bell, for example, intends to bring his teachings to a “broader audience,” according to Mars Hill’s site. More recently, it’s been reported that he’ll have a speaking tour and then co-create a TV series. Chan, however, was and has been more vague about his departure from Cornerstone.
          I think we (as the Church) need to let pastors be pastors, and churches be churches. Both cases in the biblical sense of the word.
          First, the word “pastor” comes from the Hebrew term for shepherd. Sadly, its modern connotation smacks much more of “public speaker with a religious agenda.” In the New Testament’s church, the sermon was far from the predominant role of any church leader. It was much more the wise oversight of the spiritual health and growth of a small community. This involved relationship-building, counseling, conflict resolution, and spiritual leadership amid many pressing issues in addition to doctrine and its logistics. In short, when the Bible speaks of the Lord as Shepherd that pastors are to imitate, and analogically lists His provisions (e.g. green pastures, still waters), and when the apostle Peter calls pastors, as shepherds, to be “eager to serve,” is it really just referring to teaching?
          I’ve served at churches where the senior pastor is, almost literally, a regular guest speaker. He has almost no visible friendship with the congregation, and the rest of the staff seems to scramble in preparation for his weekly sermon, as if rolling out a red carpet. I’ve also seen pastors who have a shepherd’s heart, but their church grows substantially, without branching off. More paid staff are hired to handle the logistics of a church with big numbers. It seems sometimes, that the pastor’s job description is more like that of a CEO. 
          For the sake of church health, a pastor that both teaches and shepherds should be allowed to do just that, and a qualified other can be appointed for the various other tasks, following the disciples’ call (Acts 6:2).
          Secondly, churches need to be churches. They need to be defined with the headship of Jesus Christ and constant leadership regeneration. (They also need to be different than some businesses). They exist to be Jesus’s hands and feet, too, not just His mouth. It’s a bit eerie how, in ministry and in business, the definition of success sometimes seems similar. An individual church, in essence or practice, should not be defined by its leader. Otherwise, that leader will leave a big hole, maybe even taking the church’s foundation with him.
          I think it’s obvious that, when an influential pastor leaves his church, sometimes it’s good; sometimes it’s bad. Some are called to teach, perhaps, exclusively, but some are called to shepherd. It’s hard to argue that you can shepherd while living out of a suitcase. However, I have one colleague who (similar to Chan) stepped down from his leadership position because he feared a “him-centered” church and wanted to pass on the proverbial torch to the trained leadership.
          While the Christian blogosphere debates this (and many other things!) and likely does not come to an answer, I do believe that this issue brings into perspective our respective philosophies of leadership and ecclesiology. It’s my hope that we hold to biblical principles. Bottom line: the world needs more shepherd-like servants in the pulpit.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Five Things I Wish I’d Listened to and Learned at Wheaton College

          Tomorrow, my wife and I head back to our ol’ stomping grounds. It was where we met each other. During the impoverished and nomadic years of grad school, we occasionally visited Wheaton College and felt unsettled, like college was so recent that we didn’t feel fully graduated. Now, however, since I have a job and toddlers who have walked the halls of my alma mater, and I’m being formally invited to Homecoming (it’s my 5-year reunion), I feel like an official alumnus. For the first time.
          Dwelling on and anticipating the reunion, I know I can’t sum up the themes of my education. No doubt a lot has happened since I set foot on Wheaton’s campus as a timid and insecure music nerd, anxious to make new friends. I’d had enough relatives who had graduated from Wheaton to tell me that it isn’t perfect. I dined on a feast of musical education and my creativity blossomed. There were a few regrets and unpleasant experiences, though, where I feel Wheaton and I share the blame. 
          This post isn’t against Wheaton, however. These are important life lessons for the Christ-follower that the Wheaton experience taught (and can also be learned in many other ways), but I didn’t learn until later. This post, therefore, is a grateful thank-you to Wheaton and an encouragement to all wishing to educate and qualify themselves (in all senses of the word). 
1) Scripture first. Period. The Truths and applications of the Bible take first priority in how we live in every aspect of our lives. Not just in how we choose candidates to vote for and what we do on Sunday mornings, but also how we answer telemarketers, obey traffic laws and treat people that don’t agree with us. In college, I was falling in love with the depths of essence of the Bible, but I wasn’t quite brave enough to live and speak opposed to the cultural status quo or even the unbiblical ways of parts of the Church on Scripture’s behalf.
2) The Church should never be complacent. It should always be growing in maturity and numbers, and should never be resistant to constructive criticism. Otherwise, it’s ignoring its biblical mandates. I’ve seen students grow up in mission trips overseas only to misunderstand both cultural exegesis and spiritual need in our very own country. Our own backyard needs the work of the hands and feet of Christ, and it will take more than the suburban and seeming lethargic approach we’ve been having. I didn’t hear these facts as much as a music major, but when I did, at chapels and from more mature friends, I stubbornly denied them. 
3) You are not what you do. My journey to learn this nugget actually started at Wheaton, as I had a mildly-depressing quandary during my seeming failures in a very competitive program. I thought I was redeeming myself by trying to get better grades in grad school. I still hadn’t learned. Defining your existence and purpose on something earthly is precarious, at best. That foundation will crumble. Why not define your existence in the love and purpose of God? Many Christians today, though, have given into the temptation of defining themselves by their successes, even their work and sanctification in God’s name.
4) College is education, not a way of life. I know this applies, certainly, to many twentysomethings out there who treat life like a frathouse, but that’s not what I primarily encountered at Wheaton. There were students (myself included) who interpreted Jesus’s gift of “life to the full” as a call to make the most (practically and academically, not socially and recreationally) out of their college experience, and, for many, this turned into unhealthful and stressful over-production. Much of the strive was to counter the inevitable. There was likely never going to be another time, in my life, where I had so much resource, time and opportunity to qualify myself in so many ways. For example, I may never be able to write music like I did when I was studying at a Conservatory. But that’s okay. I’m using so many things I learned in college in my daily work and life.
5) Your college is like a family member. You aren’t perfect, and neither are any of your relatives. Despite faults, there’s gotta be the smallest degree where you’re grateful for them. How you treat them speaks a lot about you and how you emanate the grace of Jesus Christ. Myself, there were times I wanted to walk away from Wheaton and never look back, but now, as an alumnus, continually striving, by God’s grace, to be more mature and less complacent, I’m looking forward to the reunion.            

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Worship Leader/Shepherd: The New Norm?

          I was excited, as an ambitious college student, to be sitting across the cafeteria table from an influential speaker in modern worship leadership. I wanted to pick his brain, and I was talking all about my plans to go to seminary, let deep theology inform my creativity, and my hopes to produce powerful services and programs.
          “How’s your musical performance ability?” he curiously asked.
          Suddenly, I wasn’t as verbose. 
          “Some people are looking for the next Chris Tomlin,” he continued. “You might want to keep practicing.”
          I was a bit worried. I don’t play guitar, and I don’t have near the vocal range of Chris Tomlin. I lead from the piano, and I was entering the ringer with production/ideation as my strength, and musical/performance as my weakness. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about musical excellence . . . but I’m not necessarily a stage presence kind of guy and I lead from a stationary instrument.
          A lot has changed for me since that dinner, but my friend is absolutely right.
          When classical music was (and still is, for some) the basis for a church service’s music, the pastoral aspects of that of a Music Minister or Music Director were rarely mentioned or noticed. The musical resume, however, got plenty of notice. Such churches were (and are) proud of their music guru’s status as composer-in-residence, conductor of a local orchestra, etc. This notion has carried through the addition of contemporary worship services, as they (a minority, in my experience) like to post about a worship leader’s experience in a traveling band, ownership of a recording studio, etc. In both cases, very little (if anything) is mentioned about said leader’s passion and intentions for their role and service to the church.
          In some cases, a church’s musical excellence, in my opinion, is overstated (perhaps a better word is “advertised”?). Sometimes the reason that their pastor-like qualifications aren’t mentioned is because they have none. I’ve served under the leadership of worship directors with whom I’ve never even shaken hands. They run rehearsals without a smile, lead the congregation, ironically, in “community worship,” and then leave to get back to their choir, opera or band tour. But the music was more than excellent.
          Is worship leadership simply just a change in venue? Is it simply musical accompaniment that used and interpreted differently by a certain crowd such as a church’s congregation? There’s so many churches that have simply hired musicians (professional singers, conductors or rockstars) to bring musical prestige next to the pulpit . . . because that’s sadly what some congregants only care about.
          Yet have the proverbial winds changed? Some churches have seemingly heard the curious and cynic’s call away from facade and business-like ministry and to community and sincerity. There are more worship leaders who oversee more than musical logistics. These are more the type of worship leaders I meet at conferences. They preach, they reach out to their volunteers, they give to the congregants, they involve themselves and they see “service production” as a pastoral process. They have sacrificed musical dreams and even some of their musical reputation on the altar because they believe, first and foremost, in the mission of the Church.
          Some aspiring worship leaders have asked me how to qualify themselves. I tell them that worship staffs at churches don’t need more theologians or rockstars. They need more shepherds. And not just in the church staff, but in every worshipper’s heart.
          I once had an internship during college in worship leadership. The worship pastor (my mentor) had a strong electrical engineering background, you know, the type of person a right-brainer like me is supposed to hate. He wasn’t a strongly creative person or great guitarist, and he sometimes sang off-key. But, oh, did he efficiently and lovingly oversee and run an excellent, creative and culture-impacting department. His mentorship taught me a lot more than other internships I’ve had with much more musical mentors.
          Why? Because he is a shepherd. And I hope to be one, too. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Individual and Community Worship, Working for the Both-And

          When programming services and special events in the church, often this question comes up: Is this a worship song? This is rarely a question of theological content. Rather, it mostly pertains to the sing-ability and play-ability of the song itself. There are many good songs out there with professional execution and poetic lyrics that are good songs with which to listen, meditate, pray, and sing-along, but to which few church ensembles can do proverbial justice. “Worship Music” has become its own genre at Christian bookstores in the last decade or so, and I would define it as music that is written for the purpose of corporate musical worship.
          Now, how many of said worshippers, myself included, think about the entailment of the word “corporate” in that last sentence. Why don’t people simply listen to MP3’s at home?
          Community worship, including and beyond the musical, has its roots in the Old Testament. For the Israelites and for many a millennium, it was more than just submission and praise to God. The words of Jewish worship songs contain poetic recollections of God’s faithfulness through the best and worst of times in the past. They sing, as a people, of their experiences, as a people, and God’s faithfulness, to His people. 
          Worship in synagogues seemed a celebration not just of God’s sovereignty, but their identity, as a community, in him. They sang the stories of Moses and David, as they’re not just their past heroes. They’re their blood ancestors. As Christians, thinking of the worshipping Church as a community makes for a more intimate and edifying worship experience, better understanding God’s bigness as He has worked beyond one worshipping soul, throughout geography and history.
          We need to worship in community. We all have experiences of tough times and God’s faithfulness as churches and families. Recently, my wife and I held hands while being led in worship by Hillsong United in Milwaukee. We were familiar with the songs, how each song’s lyrics touched each other’s hearts, and what stories of sorrow and God’s faithfulness they brought back. It was a time of intimate community worship. At least in my life, it needs to happen more often.
          However, we can fall off the other side of the proverbial horse. Worshipping communities can become self-content, cliquish and uninviting. Worship does not only look to the past experiences with God but also to the future and glory.
          Corporate worship is not meant to portray the idea that a lone member of a worshipping community is simply an account number in Heaven. God’s love and work in humanity is both universal and personal. There are events, circumstances and other life aspects that not always shared by all of a worshipping community. This is why I often see people closing their eyes, raising their hands and maybe even relocating to a more empty part of the room during worship. God’s working in their heart in an idiosyncratic way.
          At the same time, there’s some truth to the cliche that worship “is not about you.”
          I’ve long believed that arts in the Church should be, at the very least, multi-functional. Corporate musical worship should encourage 1) celebration of God’s attributes, 2) communication and contextualization of His Word and 3) affirmation in our identity as members of the family of God. Our worship is to celebrate both family and individual, as well as welcome new individuals, so that this non-biological family that is the Church, will healthfully grow.               

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sincerity in Worship

          Those that know me understand that I have a lot of qualms with Brett McCracken’s wrongfully reductionistic review of “hipster Christians” in his book, Hipster Christianity. I have long held many of the biblical values that hipster Christians rightfully stand for. And I developed my convictions for those values out of deep biblical teachings received in seminary and God’s working in my heart, not from simply a longing to be seen as “cool,” as McCracken and other cynics might judge. (And, I honestly don’t feel any “cooler” than I was).
          Nonetheless, I will stand by one statement McCracken wrote for the Wall Street Journal, when it comes to our nation’s church reaching young adults. Speaking on their (our) behalf, he said, “We don't want cool as much as we want real.” He has an important point.
          Many church families have adopted growth plans that are eerily similar to business models. They buy the latest equipment, play the latest songs, speak on current events, put on unpredictably creative services, and offer a plethora of appealing programs and many other amenities. Very much a philosophy of “if you build it, they will come.” Such aspects can certainly be helpful to true ministry, but they’re meaningless if we’re insincere and detached.

          What does it mean to be sincere in church? Trying not to over-simplify, it means there is almost no difference between the way you are on Sunday (especially up front) and the way you are if someone were to visit your home or run into you at the grocery store. If someone is seen smiling and praising God on Sunday and then yelling at a waiter on Friday, that’s an inconsistency that makes a curious onlooker doubt the sincerity of the worship and, sometimes, the very character of God.
          Sincerity is the opposite of insincerity, and we’re more familiar with the latter. Someone can vivaciously engage the congregation from up front, but is strangely wooden, unapproachable or even rude in person. Some of us might of had a conversation with a good smiler, honestly wanting to get to know them, but could tell they couldn’t wait to get home, stop smiling and move on. All across the church, there’s people who don’t smile enough, and there’s people who smile too much, in both cases for the wrong reasons.

          What does this mean for musical worship volunteers (since that’s under my job description)? Let yourself be a bit more expressive. Discard any facades or felt obligations to overt and extra-biblical propriety. Don’t the words and truths of songs make you want to raise your arms, look to the Heavens and shout for joy? Don’t worry about being a distraction to others; monitoring that is the worship leader’s job. If you focus on the authenticity of your own worship to God, your sincerity will be seen and imitated by the congregation.
          For everyone participating in musical worship, be honest with God. Don’t leave your burdens, qualms and doubts at the door so musical worship can be an easier emotional experience for you. Bring them forward, cast them at God’s feet, and let the sung truths, the love of the community, and the work of the Spirit work on them with you. 
          This is not call to extroversion or any tell-all confessionals, but a healthy degree of transparency in necessary for the building of community within a group of people, and this is true in worship and worship leadership. This is why most exemplary worship leaders today no longer eye the congregation with a exhorting smile like a children’s choir director. Rather, they’re raising their arms, and either closing their eyes or looking at their audience of One.
          There was once a church that sang only original songs, and some of them might have been, musically, pretty bad. The laymen congregation chose the song list each week, and many loud singers couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Plus, it might have seemed chaotic with all the animated expression during worship and the seeming disruptive loud praying. After all, this church could only meet in someone’s house. By many standards today, this church wouldn’t stand a chance.
          But this church was from the first century in Rome. It was a sincere and loving community that grew, and was a part of the largest “religious growth” in history. So, what’s holding us back from being transparent and welcoming so we can all, as a community, celebrate the love of Jesus Christ together?
          How are you really feeling?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Nostalgia, Good Distractions and Focused Worship

     During my second semester at a Christian college, an event-sponsoring committee produced a creative and brilliant idea into quite the attended bash: a full-blown rock concert where the repertoire was exclusively the Christian rock hits of the mid-to-late 90’s, with a few more throwbacks even further into the past. 
     Hundreds of young Christian collegians, myself included, scrambled into the small and dusty chapel building. This event likely garnered more attendance in the outmoded sanctuary than most other events, including mostly classical recitals and non-campus-wide worship services. Like I said, this concert was a hit. The vast and mosh-pitting audience was happily flashed back to junior high school memories as the peer-composed rock band cranked out tunes from the Newsboys’ “Going Public” album, dc Talk’s “Jesus Freak,” and they were some  extra cheers for the surprising performance of Michael W. Smith’s “Place in This World.”
     It’s rare, surprisingly, that you would see such a diverse group of collegial Christians in one room and so unified in enjoyment of and connection with the music and with each other.
     But was it worship? Not so much.
     Since I was there, and a happy attendant as well, I include my own heart in that assertion. Let’s take, for example, the Newsboys’ song “Spirit Thing.” It was played that night. It’s a great song that helped to teach me, in my adolescence, about submission to the work of the Holy Spirit in my daily life. I still have the chorus memorized:
     It’s just a Spirit thing. It’s just a holy nudge. It’s like a circuit judge in the brain.
     It’s just a Spirit thing. It’s here to guard my heart. It’s just a little hard to explain.
     Now, I will confess that, during that song’s “bring-back” in that chapel, I was not thinking much about how I’m currently submitting to the Spirit’s influence in my daily life. And I don’t imagine that really anyone else was, either. We weren’t paying much attention, in our minds, to the applicable didacticism of the songs or, in our hearts, singing some of the God-attributive lyrics directly to Him as a prayer. We were rather bathing ourselves in a wonderful nostalgic experience, going back to the good times of junior high school.
     Now a purposeful time of nostalgia is not, inherently, a bad thing in itself. But it is if it replaces and undermines what is meant to be a environment of corporate worship.  This is because you’re not thinking about the lyrics, and you’re not communicating with God. You’re thinking more about the memories (even good and spiritual memories) that are brought back by that song or style. Just as poor musical execution and many other things can be explicitly “bad” distractions for a worshiping heart, fulfilled nostalgia can be a subtle “good” distraction.
     And it’s really hard to argue against nostalgia, sometimes, because some people have wrongfully pinned down a certain musical style, worship philosophy, and/or various method as the singular functional way to lead worship.
     What we need to do is check our minds during musical worship. What, exactly, are we doing? Are we focusing our hearts to use the words of the songs as an honest and direct statement to God, all the while listening to what He might say via the music, Scripture or a friend? Or are we privately analyzing the logistics of the service? Or are we remembering the good old days? 
How distracted are we? How distract-able should we be? In our minds, are expectations for musical worship’s accompaniment and logistics so specific and absolute that our minds lose track of God easily?
     When it comes to musical worship, it’s a big and complicated world. I say that because things are changing and diversifying to the point that even remembering the Christian music of my junior high years (15 years ago) was a true nostalgic experience. In high school, I could name every artist on the pre-dominantly pop/rock Billboard and enjoyed going to Christian rock concerts. Now, the Billboard is no longer filled with pop-rock artists (who I can’t even name anymore) but with rap and hip-hop icons who aren’t my cup of tea. The Christian music industry is arguably on a decline, but worship music (which I define as music written for corporate singing) has become its own genre. This is only scratching the surface. 
     Big changes. Lots of music. I’ve got a lot of history to learn and a lot of culture to keep up with and understand (I’m only 27 and I already sometimes feel “out of touch” in even understanding pop culture). There’s so many different types of people out there.
     But every once in a while, I meet a holistic worshipper at my church. Someone that doesn’t care about style or even execution, but who will always use the theologically rich and deeply poetic lyrics of the songs I choose and reflect upon them, using them as an edifying conversation between him/her and God. Musically and logistically, I could really botch things up, but he/she doesn’t care. 
     That’s what a focused worshipper looks like. And that’s what we all (myself included) need to strive to be.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Death of the Consumer Church, pt. 4: Purposeful Family Reunions, not Extra-Curricular Activities

EDIT: The review of Chan/Preston's Erasing Hell has been delayed because, ironically, it got erased from my computer.
     It was a sad and humbling transition for my family and I. I didn’t have a full-time job, so I worked at a local coffeeshop for health insurance coverage and some pocket change while we all moved in with my wife’s parents, far from any place I, personally, had considered home. We had an uncertain future, almost no local friends, and we couldn’t afford anything. 
     We thought we’d attend a church plant in the area. It was led by my wife’s old youth pastor, and was in a denomination I respected. They met Sunday evenings in a rented and very traditional sanctuary in a blue-collar and shady neighborhood just outside of the crime-ridden portion of the general metropolitan area. 
     This church helped to define the aspect of community that should be found in more churches in our business-dominated nation. It was hard for any member of the community to compartmentalize or hide their life outside of it. It was a big deal (as it was usually because of concerning reasons) if someone didn’t attend a Sunday evening gathering. The pastor never said anything along the lines of “see you next week!” because we all knew we would have smaller gatherings and get-togethers at least four times again before the next service. After service dinners out (highly attended) were common. Community groups kept growing and reproducing. Social activities and parties between members were frequent. This was a church body that was much more like a family than members of a gym or country club. Whatever happened, we grew or bled as one unit.
     Was it partly because of our small size? Yes. But it’s also because it was a community of like-minded people who vulnerably bear each other’s burdens of impoverishment, drug/alcohol addiction, broken relationships and other trials of life. They took seriously the New Testament’s call (from Jesus, Luke and Paul) to regular community and fellowship, and were willing to sacrifice a lot (and I mean a lot) to compassionately, not judgmentally, bring the Gospel message and biblical love to what was clearly a godless and penniless town. 
     My family and I were obviously excited to take part in every “church activity,” not out of a felt obligation or duty, but because it was an opportunity to be with friends and family, to serve and to be edified. Yes, the church was “all we had,” but, in contrast, all other activities outside of a day-job/school (which many were using to witness, etc.) seemed futile.
     I invoke this true personal story because the consumer church (which we’ve been talking about for a few entries) is on the other side of the spectrum. Elsewhere, church involvement will find itself on a laundry list of other seeming extra-curricular activities, and it will have to compete hard to climb in priority. Some pursue heavy church involvement for the wrong reasons. Others scoff at it as a legalist method to feel holier-than-thou. But, for the stereotype that is the consumer church, the “commitment level” is on the checklist as they sometimes shop for churches because they want to know how much time involvement in a particular church will take away from the rest of their weekly lives. 
     Does that last sentence sound wrong? I think it should, especially from the perspective of the New Testament’s Church.
     The Church, as laid out in the New Testament, has much more the essence and structure of a family, rather than a business. This is why it hurts when people leave. This is also because the Church itself is based upon a Truth that is meant to infiltrate and affect every aspect of one’s life (like a family identity/relationship), not just part of it (like a day job). It operates similarly to a family in that the more time, energy and sacrifice you give to it, the more you receive. Sometimes I miss out on some of my extended family reunions or communications. Do I, then, even have the right to complain about how disconnected or out-of-the-loop I feel at the next reunion? I wouldn’t even dare complain about how my family involves too much commitment or time.
     Even though I have friends and colleagues who have sacrificed much (time, dreams, even financial stability) for service in the local church or some type of ministry, I’m not suggesting any rash decisions here. Simply put, church “activities” don’t even belong on the same list as Computer Club.      

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reasonable, Relational, and Inspirational: a review of Tim Keller’s "The Reason for God"

        Apologetics seems a different animal these days. The most well-researched books are shelved equally alongside editorial fluff at chain bookstores, and sometimes well-researched arguments are useless in a world of relativism and relational-ity.
        Enter Tim Keller, a pastor from Manhattan who differs in many ways from most the pastors that make headlines in media and Christian media. Described as “the pioneer of the new urban Christians,” (Christianity Today magazine) his ministry is in a geyser of new and pervasive cultural trends and thoughts, and is different from the suburban or small-town approaches that have come to define the stereotype of much of American Christian worldview. Keller is not politically argumentative. His congregation consists mostly of young singles and “nontraditional households (xiv).”  When his church attendance exceeded capacity, the church reproduced and appointed new leadership, rather than building a megachurch or simulcasting campuses. His church’s worship music mostly consists of classical music, with the participation of Julliard students, etc.
        Keller writes The Reason for God for “two kinds of people,” he told B&N Studio. It’s for the non-believers who have doubts that are, in Keller’s words, “passionate, well thought-out and deserving respect,” and it’s for Christians who want to gently and relationally approach those doubts with others.         
In his introduction, Keller relays his testimony and the events surrounding his planting a church in the heart of New York City. He shows himself as someone that, in the past, struggled with doubt as far as the existence of God and the trustworthiness of the Church, as well as the arguments of secular humanist thought. 
        One of his main points (which is significant for all readers) in his introduction is that, simply put, things are complicated. Whether in debates on political thought, theological non-essentials (and even some essentials) or church practice, the answers, Keller argues, are not as black-and-white and simple as anyone believes. However, there’s an unnecessarily widening gap between opponents, both in relationship and the spectrum of thought. There isn’t explicit instruction, but Keller might be discussing this pending schism upfront to call his readers (both Christian and non-Christian) away from stubbornness and demonization and to more of a relational (yet not necessarily compromising) form of conversing and living.
        Part 1 of Reason for God is structured by arguments against Christianity, all of which have surfaced in some form in his conversations with attendants (or would-be attendants) of his church in New York, and many of which have also been carried from skeptics of ancient philosophy to the leaders of the New Atheism. And like a conversation with a would-be Christian over a cup of coffee, he replies to the arguments gently, conversationally, and thoroughly. 
        One pet peeve among argumentative anti-apologists I’ve noticed is the notion that most to all of the defenses that Christians give are handed-down, quick-wit, simple cliches (and I’ll admit, some of them are). Keller, however, shows well that many of the defenses that non-Christians have are just as well.  These are one-liners that don’t usually have too much substance or justification, but they sure sound nice to abruptly end a conversation, and they’re a pain for the opponent to unpack. As both sides are using seeming cheap shots, not only in debate but even in constructing worldviews, it’s another good reason to strive for a more relational form of conversing and living. 
        Keller, however, does make some assertions that might make some Christian readers uncomfortable. He affirms some students’ argument that religion is an enemy to world peace (4) (but he does not believe the same for orthodox Christian living, by itself). He also acknowledges the possible truth of theistic evolution. In the chapter that responds to church hypocrisy, he dips into the classic Reformed view of depravity, seemingly (in my opinion) having non-Christians to expect little success from Christians in their strive toward moral purity. I wish, obviously, he could have further unpacked the latter issue, maybe bringing Bertrand Russell’s arguments to the table or using the opportunity to explain the crucial difference between (I’m about to use theological jargon) justification and sanctification, which many of readers, more used to the “I’ll-go-to-heaven-because-I’m-a-good-person” misconception, won’t know.
        After an intermission, we enter Part 2, where Keller discusses “The Reasons for Faith.” Although some portions of the chapters read more like a not-so-engaging philosophy textbook, Keller does well to maintain his conversational tone, and, through connecting his theological points to conversations he’s had in New York and to current issues, he makes the theological tenets of Christianity rightfully relevant to the reader, whereas a basic statement of faith (on which Part 2 seems structured) would come across much more detached.
        Keller’s references (which he cites thoroughly) are very diverse in history, geography, profession and spiritual status. His “notes” for this book fill up a chapter’s worth of pages at the end. In Keller’s closing epilogue, like the rest of the book, he concludes with what he (and Christians) believe as truth and gently leaves the personal application up to the reader, whereas another apologetics book or tract would be more aggressive and impersonal with conviction.
        In retrospect, I think there are a few more specific issues he would have tackled. Evolution is not the only snag in reconciling faith and science in many people’s minds today. Noah’s flood and the parting of the Red Sea are a couple others. I think it would have also been helpful to tactfully address the sinfulness of homosexual practice in the first section of the book, as that issue continues to make Christianity more and more implausible in Western society.
        I am a bit sad that I’m typing this book’s review on its 2-year birthday, and that I hadn’t heard of it before.  I wish this book had more attention. It stands out from most the popular moderns in Christian apologetics (e.g. Strobel, McDowell, P. Hitchens, Craig, etc.) not so much because of its substance or level of research (which certainly isn’t lacking), but because of its surprising relational and non-aggressive tone.
        The book’s very title uses the word “reason,” not “proof.” This book is not written like an argument in a courtroom or a laundry-list-filled textbook. Nor does this book have any distant association to any type of non-Christian movement or person. Keller is clear that there is no intention or capability (anywhere) to prove anything (e.g. “Nothing in history can be proven the way we can prove something in a laboratory,” 219), but there are, for him and Christians, very convincing clues and very good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the Truth of His words as found in the Gospels. Keller is not a lawyer or a professor by trade (though’s he qualified for the latter), rather a pastor. And because of that, readers will close the book and think that Keller lovingly hopes and prays that they will, one day, agree with the reasons and clues he sees, fully committing their lives to the love and service of Jesus Christ.
        And they would be right.