Hey! Lay off Chris Tomlin: A Response

Jonathan Aigner, a UMC music director and worship blogger, took on a reader recently. Quoting his reader, the anonymous "Glenn", Aigner fires back on Glenn's accusation that Aigner often unfairly takes shots at Chris Tomlin, one of America's modern leaders of music in worship.

Aigner often has a lot of smart things to say, particularly about theology in worship. That's convenient because that's literally the URL of his site.

Though I respect much of Aigner's work, I feel as if this time Aigner missed the mark. In what I can only imagine is a defensive work so as to continue his personal vendetta against Tomlin, Aigner inaccurately describes Tomlin's music, blindly points out the speck in Tomlin's eye, and in the process secures his readership in their own personal dislike of the modern worship scene.

Aigner organizes his thoughts by way of several key aspects of Tomlin's music. I'll do the same here.

Tomlin's Music Isn't For Congregational Singing

 I've many times over been led in singing by Chris Tomlin and those he's raised up as new leaders and songwriters. I also consider myself to be a student of the worship artists who are writing new music for the church. I, as a seminary graduate and music leader myself, think often about what I call the "sing-ability" of the music we lead with.

I'd argue that Tomlin's music is often melodically and rhythmically simpler than almost every other mainstream worship writer. My argument might even consider the fact that his music has caught on more than others' precisely because of this.

Aigner doesn't use this argument, though. His assertion centers on the fact that Tomlin's Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) hits a "high G" in its refrain. That's factually inaccurate. Tomlin's refrain, one he tagged onto the beloved hymn, makes use of a high F, a whole step down from the G to which Aigner is referring. Most basses are going to drop the melody down an octave anyway. Most altos are going to sing it in octaval unison with the tenors (Tomlin, for instance) and the sopranos will sing it just as normal. A G above middle C is unattainable for most baritones, relatively high for most tenors and sopranos, and right in line with with altos. An F (the actual pitch Tomlin sings) is a more agreeable pitch simply because it finds itself below most sopranos' and tenors' passaggios, reachable for baritones, and again in line with an alto melody. I'd criticize Tomlin for writing a G too.  But he didn't write a G. He wrote an F.

Aigner also references the problem of the "solo" worship leader. He remarks that Tomlin's vocal stylings do not allow for congregational singing, instead presenting the congregation with the opportunity to merely sing along. It's true that our modern worship culture doesn't see anything wrong with worshipful singing being described as singing along, but to attribute this solely to Tomlin is unfair. To critique this on the basis of Tomlin's musicality alone is worse yet.

Because He Writes Poor Texts

Here, Aigner tackles Tomlin's poetic skills. The lines he chooses to prove his point are these:

  1. And like a flood His mercy rains
  2. He wraps himself in Light, and darkness tries to hide…
  3. And if our God is for us, then what could stand against…
  4. I will rise on eagles’ wings / Before my God fall on my knees…

My commentary on each: 

  1. Tomlin's (worth noting that Louie Giglio is also given songwriting attribution here)  obvious intention here is to metaphorically draw the connection between never-ending rain and God's never-ending mercy. Aigner suggests this is a weak metaphor but I've never heard of anyone using a water metaphor for God's mercy before.  I, too, wish Tomlin hadn't used a destructive force of water to describe God's mercy.
  2. Criticize the guy on weak and strange metaphors, sure, but criticize him for quoting the psalmist?  No. This isn't a fair critique at all. Here's a concession critics should make: songwriters are allowed to quote scripture and not be criticized for poor poetic skills.
  3. See above. I've heard the argument before that this line does not properly assign an object to the preposition whereas Paul does in his Romans text.  That might be a fair assumption but, again, Tomlin wouldn't be the first hymn writer to stretch the English language to fit a rhyme scheme or rhythmic structure. 
  4. I can only imagine Aigner's frustration with this line is its imperfect rhyme structure. Ok, sure. Or maybe it's the irony of "rising" by "falling on my knees". At the skin level, the latter critique seems humorous. I think there's something beautiful, though, about drawing the connection between humility before God and rising as Christ was risen. 

Because He Is A Worship Superstar

I'm with the high and mighty idea that those who write music for the church ought to do so for the good of the church and the church alone. Their work is kingdom building work and ought to be seen as such.

But this celebrity-status isn't a new phenomenon. Do you think John Wesley wasn't a big deal? He famously learned to preach to the multitudes of people gathered from George Whitefield. American churches vowed to follow his every instructions(sort of). Isaac Watts trained pastor after pastor at his large church in London. Tomlin may be an overpaid worship superstar but he's certainly not the first and certainly won't be the last Christian celebrity.

And whose fault is it really that Tomlin's presence has the gravitas it does? Tomlin's? Or is he simply trying to make the best music he can for a modern generation? Is it the nature of us, the people, that want to celebritize everything we come into contact with?  Likely.

And before you go on pointing to the "showy" nature of modern worship music as the reason for this, I'd like to point to this, a church organist competition (utilizing the playing of hymns) with a cash prize. So maybe, just maybe, let's step off that high horse for just a second. After all, a quick Google search of Jonathan Aigner's name returns a few professionally-shot-in-a-church promotional head shots. Speck, meet log.

 

Aigner thinks it right and proper to criticize the work of the church so as to make it better. I'm with him. But these types of critiques of the modern worship world cannot be generalized, must be factually accurate, and ought to be approached with humility. It's only in that moment that we'll actually make any progress as a church and enable ourselves to speak to generations to come. 

 

-B

How I Tried to Watch "Divergent": A Rant

iTunes Digital movie redemption is great. You open the app, navigate to the store, click on "Redeem" and redeem your legally purchased digital copy of your new favorite flick.

One problem: all iTunes movies are digitally protected so that they will not play on an external monitor (including a home projector or secondary display) that is not connected via HDMI. There's no way for them to check the copyright. Thanks, Hollywood.

No worries, though! My purchased BluRay comes with an UltraViolet redemption too! So, I log in with Flixster, my chosen UltraViolet redemption service. That's a whole thing because you actually have two logins: one for UltraViolet and one for Flixster. Nevertheless, I get logged in and attempt to redeem the code.

It starts downloading. Great! It'll play on an external display. Great!

Problem: it's downloading in SD quality. Less than 720p. At the same quality as a DVD. This is beneficial but on a home HD projector, it looks, well, bad.

But why? Why wouldn't I have an HD copy? My physical copy is in 1080p. Certain studios, it seems, only authorize standard definition downloads for all redemptions, regardless of the quality physical media that is purchased.

Piracy of digital media (mainly movies and television shows) may have been curbed *slightly* by the existence of digital redemption codes, but it hasn't come close to eradicating it. Nowhere close.

What would have been an easier way to watch the film? Find it on an online streaming site, load it in the cache, and click "Full Screen". I didn't do that because I've begun to have a conscience about such things. I paid the price as I attempted to watch a film I paid for on an external display that I owned in my own dwelling. And why? All because my display used a different connection.

If I buy an iTunes music file on Apple's service, there are no longer any digital restrictions on what I can do with the file. With it, and the existence of cheap legal streaming options, music piracy has been severely curbed. We're moving that way in film but it's taking far too long.

Some say that film and music are different arts. This is true. Steve Jobs once famously said that no one wanted to rent music, they'd rather own it. Because you might want to watch a movie once or twice in your life, but you may want to listen to a song thousands of times. The music and movie industry are different business models and different arts. But their distribution methods are much much the same.

Some say that the intention is to curb the unlawful presentation of films to large audiences. This isn't true. If I had an HDMI display, I could have played it easy peasy. Or, if I had chosen to play the physical media instead of the file-based media, I wouldn't have had a problem either. But, WHY WOULD I PUT A PHYSICAL DISK INTO A MACHINE? Yuck. What is this, 2005?

Movies, and the consumption of them, is moving to a sans-physical distribution method. It needs to move quicker and reward those who purchase legal material. To do so, the business structure may need to change. It may change the prices we pay.

But until then we'll fight. And cry. And be forced to watch our newly purchased film on an internet-connected television device. But we don't want that. Consumers want to watch what we want, when we want, and how we want.

Sell that to consumers in a non-proprietary way, and you just might sell more films.

-B

Dave Blocked Me, Part Two: Some Clarifications

My post regarding Dave Ramsey's dismissiveness to me and the poor has blown up. I never expected such a response. I've had a welcome amount of agreement along with a surprising amount of "I've been there". It seems to me as if Dave and his team make a habit out of closing off disagree-ers by blocking them on social media platforms. As you can imagine, this is both comforting and frustrating for me.

I've also had a fair amount of criticism.  That's fair because when I put something in the public sphere, I don't expect everyone to agree with me. The criticism can be separated into three categories as best I see it. Rather than responding to each and every comment or thread, I thought this post might help. The main critiques are:

  1. I shouldn't have put such a thing on social media to begin with (either the blog or the original tweet).
  2. Dave Ramsey is immensely generous because of his wealth and most churches turn to rich people first in order to accomplish their calling in helping the poor.
  3. Capitalism is not bad and has been proven to be far more successful than socialism in this world. 

I'll attempt to briefly address each critique.  I think these critiques suffer from some presumptions that are American in nature and not, in my view, Christian in nature.

1
I shouldn't have put such an argument on social media. This isn't the first time I've heard such and argument. That's ok. I think the world is still experimenting with what is appropriate in a social forum like the internet and those lines have been both defined and blurred throughout time. For all who say that this conversation is inappropriate to have on the internet, I've got a ton of people who say they appreciate reading this stuff via the same medium. It's both a win win and lose lose situation and as long as I'm willing to put up with the consequences, I'm ok riding that line.

2
Anyone familiar with Dave Ramsey should be familiar with the amount of money he makes. He makes it clear within Financial Peace University that he's a multimillionaire and that he advocates giving as a part of being a financially peaceful. I'll go as far as to commend him for a line he often tells callers on his radio show: giving isn't about percentages or anything else, giving is about giving with a giving heart. Dave advocates giving, especially when you've developed wealth.

But this is a fundamentally American view of wealth. After all, if there were no rich, who would support our moralistic endeavors? This is American in nature because it presumes free market capitalism and few Christian virtues. Funny enough, Dave presents this theory under the guise of scriptural authority in FPU. He quotes Proverbs 21 saying that wise people store up food and oil, fools gulp theirs down. You can only be of help to the world if you have money saved up.

What type of scriptural authority is it though, if it ignores perhaps the most famous exchange about riches in Scripture? The gospel writers tell us that when a rich man was asking the very question of salvation (inheriting the Kingdom of God), Jesus quoted off some laws he must follow. When the man said that he had followed all those laws, Jesus introduced him to one more idea: sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.  After that, he said, come follow me. I don't think Jesus is strictly saying here that you can't have money and be a Christian, but I do think he's making a point: you can't love your possessions more than following Jesus. Christianity does not function under the assumption that we need rich people. Christianity functions under a devotion to the lordship of Jesus Christ and nothing else. This is a fundamental difference between American views of wealth and Christian views of discipleship. 

3
My argument against capitalism isn't that it's unsuccessful. Financially speaking, capitalism makes more rich people. My argument is that socialism helps us equally value each and every member of society based on their worth as a human, not only off their work ethic or success in business. I don't think the United States could ever move to a socialistic form of government or economics (and I don't think Obama is moving in that direction--I think that's largely rhetoric), but as a Christian I can see how socialism mirrors the way God looks at all God's children. I can at least see the holiness in it. The US could not move to to socialistic values for precisely that reason: it values things Christianity does not.

I greatly appreciate everyone's interest in my original post. I reiterate that I find Dave's general principles helpful but that his outlook and general despise for socialism for no other reason than love of money hurts his Christian witness.

 

-B

Dave Ramsey Blocked Me On Twitter

A little background info: A few months back Allison and I took Dave Ramsey's "Financial Peace University" course at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL.  We were greatly entertained by his video presentations, we had a wonderful group leader and group members, and we came away from the experience with a new, fresh set of eyes to the world.  Since the class we have treated money in a very different way, being unbelievably careful in our budgeting.  I strongly recommend the course for anyone with money woes as it appears to me to be the best thing going for getting out of debt, saving for retirement, and becoming financially peaceful instead of financially and persistently worried.

But having said that, a story.

I spent the last three years of my life studying Scripture, homiletics, liturgics, exegesis, evangelism, and more at what major portions of the Christian world might call a "liberal" seminary: Duke Divinity School.  Duke's seminary is far from overtly liberal, but that's a story for another day.

There is, however, a persistent and common theme among many of Duke seminarians' worldviews.  Many who attend Duke's Divinity School (not all, just many) see significant problems with the economic status of this country. Without entering into my best impression of Michael Moore, I'll suffice it to say that Capitalism, as it is practiced in the United States, seems contrary to much of Jesus's teachings about caring for the poor. Capitalism seems antithetical to our command to care for the poor. Capitalism, as they and I see it, exemplifies and glorifies the successful ones making generalizations about the less successful, generally resulting in a lower quality of life for the less successful. Capitalism is economic survival of the fittest and fundamentally less compassionate than other systems.

Due to poor judgment (I guess) and a genuine interest in the financial woes of this country, I make a regular habit out of listening to Dave Ramsey's podcast.  For the most part, The Dave Ramsey Show consists of callers who call in and either 1) need advice on a business or how to get them or a friend out of debt or 2) a family or individual celebrating their new debt-free life with a "debt-free scream".  (I'll admit to getting teary-eyed on more than one occasion at the debt-free scream after hearing the story.)

Every once in awhile though, The Dave Ramsey Show features a belligerent and angry Dave Ramsey who counters any new measure President Obama has made. Or, if he's feeling greedy, any movement of the Left.  Dave takes it upon himself to show his listeners how "stupid" (yes, he uses the word frequently) Obama's "socialistic" ideas are. To Dave, socialism has no virtues.  Spreading the wealth has no business with he hard-earned money.

Dave started into a rant one day about how people asking for higher wages in minimum wage jobs don't deserve a higher pay--their economic value isn't high enough.  He drew a distinction between a person's inherent and economic value.  While the human has value, the market dictates someone's economic value (and therefore their paid wage).  It's free market, capitalistic jargon at its best.

I struggled here.

Someone's economic value is completely separate from their value as a human? The two are not related or interact at all? Is the proper response to the poor a lesson on their economic value? Is that how Jesus responded?

So I posted this tweet when I got out of the shower (I listen to his show in the shower):

I literally didn't even get dried off completely before Dave responded.

I was caught off guard here as I didn't expect Dave to respond. I wondered if Dave and I were referring to the same "Word."  I was imagining he meant the Word Became Flesh. Intrigued, I pressed on.

I was lost now.  There was no way he and I were reading the same Bible.  The Bible I read points to a God who came in the form of a man, in the form of broken humanity, to redeem humanity in new life through death and resurrection, to teach God's children how they were to be, and to present a Kingdom that was unlike any other. Jesus's ministry on earth dealt largely with compassion toward the poor and healing of their often sick and diseased bodies. Never once did Jesus say, "You know, you're poor.  And you're poor because your economic value isn't high enough." This just wasn't clicking for me.

I responded:

Note:  I threw in the bit about giving because I thought we could find common ground.  Dave's class encourages students to build extravagant wealth and then GIVE like no one else. Dave's class encourages his students to cut down their lifestyle to an affordable level, he says, "Live like no one else so that later you can live and GIVE like no one else."  I was attempting to throw him a good and helpful bone.

He responded:

For what it's worth, I believe the Parable of the Talents to be about discipleship in growth of the kingdom, not a study in economics (though he's not the first person I've seen point to it as an economic lesson and I doubt he will be the last).  

And that was that.  Dave, I'm assuming, added me to his increasingly popular "blocked" list. I can no longer follow him and I assume that any @reply to Dave's account will go unseen when coming from my account.  One short seemingly harmless conversation in which a student of Dave's decided that he didn't quite agree with Dave and Dave decided that he never wanted to hear from that student again.  A relationship ended over a disagreement and nothing more.

I learned two things:

  1. If you disagree with Dave, you're no longer a friend of Dave.
  2. Dave doesn't even believe what he says he believes.

Regarding #2, to close.  Every single time a caller calls in to Dave's radio show and asks how Dave is doing, his go-to response is the same: "Better than I deserve".  If Dave is really doing better than he deserves, how can he be so territorial with his own money? He's unwilling to live in a society where the poor can be helped by society at large.

The gospel writers put it this way when they quoted Jesus, "You can't serve two masters...You cannot serve both God and Money."  Dave is attempting to do both.  But in the process, he's devoting to one and disposing of the other.  Just as Jesus predicted.

-B

 

UPDATE: Due to overwhelming and unforeseen interest in this post, I've been fortunate to receive some copy editing from a good friend, Mat Hotho.  If you're rereading this article and things seem smoother, thank him. Thanks to all who have been interested;  I greatly appreciate your support and critiques.

Obstruction

I often find myself in the position of defending baseball as a sport. I get criticized for being a fan of such a boring sport and I find myself having to defend its virtue. During one of these sessions, I was explaining to the conversation partner that baseball is such a fantastic sport because of the dynamics of offense versus defense.   In how many other sports do you have nine members of the opposing team playing defense against (at most) four players of their opposing team? More often than not, nine players provide the defensive strategy against just one of the opposing players. I still hold that offense in baseball is one of the hardest things to accomplish in sports.

Because of that, the nature of the game, baseball’s official rules provide adequate protection for the members of the offense. On a force out, a tie between the ball’s arrival in the defenseman’s glove and the runner landing on the base will usually be awarded to the runner. Fielders cannot obstruct a runner’s path to advance to the next base, etc.

We found this all incredibly relevant last night at the end of World Series 2013 Game 3. After a bad throw from the Red Sox catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Sox third baseman found himself lying on the ground in the way of the baserunner, called for obstruction of the baserunner awarding the baserunner home plate therefore losing the game for the Red Sox.  It was highly unfortunate, especially for Red Sox Nation.

Many articles and opinions have been written since last night, many of which were written by authors far more qualified to comment than I (me?). But whether it is appropriate or accurate or not, this is my perspective.

We’ve seen time and time again players running from first to second on a ground ball to the infield do all they can to obstruct the fielder from making the best double play he can.  Baserunners are taught to play mind games with the fielders, slide in hard, throw their hands up, and all kinds of crazy things that can prevent the defenseman making a double play attempt from doing so successfully.  You can see the results of this on almost any double play.  Typically the shortstop or second baseman making the play fall down over the baserunner, even though the force out has already been made.  As I see it, the baserunner has always had plenty of leeway in making obstruction part of the game. It is true that baserunners can be called for getting on the way, but more times than not it is simply seen as justpart of the game.

Take for instance last night’s play.  By most angles I saw it, Salty at home threw to Middlebrooks at third and did so a little wide.  Moving six inches to a foot would have solved this problem for Middlebrooks; he might have made the catch and saved the run. But he stayed on the bag and staying on the bag, and consequently NOT interfering with the baserunner reaching third, caused the ball to hit the baserunner, bounce off behind the bag and caused Middlebrooks to make a last minute jab at catching the ball.  As a result, Middlebrooks falls on the ground and the baserunner gets up from the slide and trips over Middlebrooks.

Technically, by MLB’s rules, obstruction isn’t something an offenseman can be guilty of. Obstruction is a different call than interference. But even with interference, if the offenseman whether intentionally or not interferes with the ball or the play, the ball is often called dead, bases are typically not awarded or taken away.  But this umpire last night, Jim Joyce, doesn’t (rightly) call interference; he lets play continue.

When Craig, the baserunner, gets up from the slide, he has an option to run to home if he thinks he can make it safely.  He does. But instead of getting up off the ground and running on the baseline chalk, he gets up and tries to go over Will Middlebrooks who is, remember, still on the ground.  Under a replay you can see that Middlebrooks makes the attempt to get up and is pushed back down by the runner.  Like normal in baseball, the runner has a right to do that.  But think about the runner’s choices here…

The runner could get up and run in a straight line on the baseline chalk, and wouldn’t had to have stepped over Middlebrooks at all.  He had a choice and chose to step over Middlebrooks.  As he does this, he pushes Middlebrooks down, “obstructing” Middlebrooks’s ability to 1) get out of the baserunner’s way and 2) field the ball (assuming outfield backup is unavailable).

 So Middlebrooks, who does not obstruct Craig, the runner, from reaching third falls over on a bad throw and is unable to move to avoid an obstruction call because the runner choose to step over him rather than running on the baseline and pushes him down in order to get over him, resulting in the runner’s tripping.

Jim Joyce is one of the best umpires in the business and I gained incredible respect for him when he apologized publicly for ruining Galarraga’s perfect game with a blown call at first base. I don’t doubt that Joyce knows the rulebook through and through and called the play according to the rulebook.

My argument is, and has been for a long time, that baserunners are on the borderline of having too much leeway because of the nature of the game.  The runners can make decisions that get an obstruction call on the defense, even if the defenseman doesn’t intend any such action (because intent isn’t factored into the call). We love a game that literally has everyone against you while you try to attack on offense.  As a means of making it easier for you, baseball rules that you’re given the tie and the right of way.  You get to make the decision you want to make, to a certain degree, even if that decision means that the defenseman is guilty of something he tried to avoid.

Last night ends differently if Salty holds the ball.  Last night ends differently if Middlebrooks comes off the base.  Last night ends differently if the runner runs in the basepath and avoids Middlebrooks’s useless body on the ground.

-B

Change, Community, Communion, and Curation

It often seems unnecessarily radical to change one's ways of doing things.  When systematic ways are changed, either by brute force or previous failure, many many react negatively.  This is happening in Congress as the GOP-controlled House fights against the already-lawful-and-upheld-by-the-Supreme-Court-as-constitutional Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). It's something different, very different, being treated with hostility because of its difference and perceived (and somewhat realistic) hardships.  

Difference and change are difficult for so many to comprehend.

There are viable reasons for this. Many arguments made against Obamacare are valid and backed up by numbers and inevitable cost to typical Americans. In many ways Obama will take more money from each American in order to make health insurance for all Americans a reality.  It is very different from how America has traditionally treated her citizens since her beginning.  Valid concerns are heard, but change keeps on trucking.

The thing about change, historically, is that it is easily delayed but essentially unavoidable.  It only can be re-steered to go in the "proper" direction. Change is inevitable; direction of that change is somewhat controllable.

[Quick change of scene.] 

As a United Methodist, I have a common joke I make about our church: we are always 20 years behind.  It's only a joke but it strikes a strong chord on the reality guitar.  Take contemporary worship music for example.  Simply put, the United Methodist Church, for better or for worse, ignored the contemporary worship scene for years upon years.  "Contemporary" worship music pushed through the evangelical and hippie-ish movements in the late 60s and early 70s and began to refine itself in the mid-late 80s and early 90s.  Evangelical churches (read: non-United Methodist churches) were often the first to jump on board.  There might be many reasons for this, of which the fact that many of those churches do not submit to any larger governing body ought to be at the top, but evangelical churches by and large beat Methodists to this punch. United Methodists have moaned and groaned about how badly the music is written and how non-theological the lyricism is ever since, but the general public has seen some churches grow and some die.  United Methodist churches have been on the dying side of things far too often.

We are late to the game and they seem to be "winning." How to combat this then? Well, of course: We have to raise our numbers so that our church doesn't die! We must start a contemporary worship service! How then do we do that?  Well let's look at some resources.  Where are these resources?  Oh great, there are tons of resources available!  There is tons of music available! Who is providing this music? Oh! The Evangelicals. Great!  Let's hire a worship leader!  Great! Most of the good worship leaders are at the evangelical churches, so we'll get the pretty-good ones.  They should be able to lead the United Methodist Church into the next generation of worship! Great! This is going to be so great! 

And, what do we end up with?  We end up with a church whose tradition of well-written, theological singing is nearly lost because in the switch to the new medium/genre, we picked up someone else's tradition and theology simply because it was already there for us. We blindly took the cookie left for us without considering the consequences. Change came and we got on board and took the road-too-often-traveled without considering where it was taking us.

20 years behind, then, may mean that we need to curate a bit more than we'd expect.  What's the trade-off of simply using someone else's work?  What's the trade-off for our congregations and disciple-building? Have we fully examined this change, its constant insistence upon itself, and where our destination lies?

The same has happened in online communities.  Online communities, if you can believe it, are old now.  They began, essentially, with the advent of email and have continued to be refined and refined over time. What one sees in Facebook, and all Facebook is meant to be, is simply and refinement (albeit a very well done refinement with its share of quality innovations) of the original idea of communicating and communing online. Online communities may seem like a new thing to people (and maybe especially to United Methodists) but they're simply not.  Hey, United Methodists, you're late again.

And so we pick up where we left off. Many non-UMC churches are offering well-done online churches in which a church attendee can log on, converse with a online pastor, watch the worship service, and even pray online with the guidance of the pastor.  The difference is, of course, one doesn't feel the pastor's hand on your back as you pray; she's generally miles away from you.  This sort of idea isn't new, it's simply new to United Methodists.  A popular church in Florida is doing just that (a high school friend of mine is heading it up...you can check it out at www.engagemenow.net).  

The new conversation (happening right now in Nashville, TN) is whether or not United Methodists ought to offer the sacrament of Holy Communion over the internet.  Practically speaking, it's exactly as it sounds.  The viewer (and I use that term intentionally) provides their own bread and grape juice (or wine), while the pastor blesses the elements through your computer or TV screen.  It's along the same lines as that pastor praying over you but without being able to physically feel their presence...except it's with the sacrament of communion.

Perhaps this is an controversial concept to speak about because many of the other churches don't hold communion (Eucharist) in the same regard as United Methodists (or, if we're speaking honestly, maybe many of them actually hold it in HIGHER regard simply due to their insistence on the frequency of participation in Eucharist) . In other words, maybe Methodists are trying to graft United Methodism onto a medium and evangelism technique that someone else, someone different than us, already created. The difference is that the penalty for moving in that direction on that road of change is a loss of traditional practice that has been important to Methodism. In my mind, it's not much different than us trying to sing that one song and trying to change the lyrics because the song is so...like...Calvinist. We couldn't write a comparable one!  We just have to graft Wesleyan theology onto whatever trends come because we were late to the game and not innovative enough to pull ourselves out of the hole.

Goodbye, Wesleyan sense of community.  Goodbye, Wesleyan understanding of Jesus's presence in the Eucharist and the necessity of physicality for incarnation to be experienced.  Goodbye, sung Wesleyan theology with an emphasis on the unending and unchanging love and grace of God. 

I'll maintain until I die that change is inevitable and good in this world.  But, change comes with responsibility.  Change comes with the need for curation.  Change also comes with the need for innovation and outside-of-the-box mentalities. And, while all those seem so poorly connected, it is indeed necessary that they all work together cohesively so that the good parts of what we have are not lost. The danger of Calvinistic theology creeping into Wesleyan churches--even if only through the music--is, and has been, upon us.  The danger of cultural definitions of "community" and "experience" is creeping in on us and our livelihood is at stake.

Online communities are coming.  The challenge and calling is there for churches to attend to.  People want religion and they want to be online.  Ignoring it seems silly and simply jumping on the bandwagon blindly seems sillier. Change is necessary and inevitable.  Curation and innovation are necessary and often forgotten.

Let us not be so persuaded by a new movement that we forget who we are.  Maybe, just maybe, we can feed a need within our society in a new and better way.

-B

 

The Dangers of Singing About a Dangerous God

I heard this song on Spotify's radio this morning.  That link is a Spotify link.  In the event you don't have a Spotify account, I'll drop the YouTube video here as well.  It can be found to the right.

The song is "God of The Angel Armies" by Jonathan David Helser.  The chord charts to the piece can be found here. 

When Chris Tomlin's "Whom Shall I Fear?" appeared on the most recent Passion album, I asked a question similar to this one on Facebook, "Is anyone uncomfortable with the blatant military language being used in this song?"  I got a mixture of reactions from my Facebook friends.

The themes of both Tomlin's song and Helser's song above are much the same: there are enemies against us, God is stronger, we have nothing to fear.  It's a typical and empowering refrain. Tomlin even uses it in the unquestionably popular "Our God" where he uses the Apostle's word in writing "And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us? And if our God is with us, then what could stand against?"  The question I posed on Facebook, though, was something different.  Is the militaristic language in the song helpful to the modern world who has seen the damage of things like the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb?  Perhaps, asked differently, this question might capture the sentiment better: If violent language is readily and repeatedly used to relate God to humanity so that we might better understand God, are we faithfully developing and promoting the fullness that God shows to the world through Christ?

The initial reaction many have to such a question is to provide evidence of violent imagery within the pages of Scripture. "God is violent, " they say.  "How can we understand God's power and might without being faithful to the violence found within God's Word?"  This is, in my reading, a fair assessment; throughout the powerful words of Scripture, we are faced with a God who uses brute force, if need be, to get God's way. After all, God has been known to wipe out entire cities...even the entire world...if he has become convinced that the world is in need of a change and return to his ways.

I preach a lot of peace on Facebook.  I'm constantly arguing that weapons, especially guns, are fundamentally bad for us and that Christians are called to live a different life in which Jesus's message of nonviolence brings peace to the world. In the midst of these conversations, I have to be careful to not do what Marcion did, accept one version of God over, and even at times against, another.  I'll admit that I struggle with letting Jesus's words to Peter in the garden supersede the words of God to Joshua outside of Jericho.

But I return to my question, is the fullness of God and Jesus's message overshadowed by a repetition of God's almighty nature? Is it helpful for Christians to sing songs about the "God of Angel Armies" post atom bomb? Or, more accurately, is it helpful for Christians to sing songs about the "God of Angel Armies" in a world where violence is seen as the sole solution to persecution of liberties?  This is where I think I'm beginning to draw the line.

Violence, in this world, is the way in which we understand how to get our way.  If an intruder enters our house, we are allowed to shoot them if we feel as if our life is at risk.  That's called self-defense.  At an extreme level, though, it is using violence to combat violence.  Violence is also how we seek out our enemies.  If a country wants to grow, say in the 1930s, it uses military violence to expand its land property and "save its economy." If dissenters are opposed to the work the government is doing to "better" their lives, the dissenter is shot (violence) in the street. Violence is the way in which we have learned to communicate in today's world.  To get what we want when we want, we often resort to violent means.  At a basic level, this is the foundation of terrorism.

Consider terrorism for a minute. What is it that we are opposed to about terrorism in America?  It's not the dissenting voices; we believe in freedom!  We are opposed to terrorism because of what separates terrorism from freedom of speech: violence. However, we respond to the terrorist's violence by sending hoards of troops overseas to seek them out, murder them, and bomb them. Violence is not truly bringing peace, it's teaching violence (we're just too blind to see that the American definition of "peace" is too narrow). 

We Americans get to see this.  We get to see the response to violence with violence.  We see it on the nightly news and hear the means of justification from Obama's mouth.   We do it all in the name of liberty.  We do it all in the name of freedom. 

And then, just days after we see this on the news, we go to church and sing a song about how great God is; God is so great that he is above everything and can defeat everything. We even use the word "army".  And suddenly, without much warning, our American definitions of freedom, liberty, justifiable violence, terrorism, and God mix with our Christian understandings and they all collide into one message that the worldly violence we see on TV is the only way God can get what God wants. We've placed all these things into one lump understanding.

How much, though, is the confusion of terminology affecting the way we understand God, God's grace, and how God gets what God wants? 

Ironically, I'd like to suggest this: the song, because of the worldly context its sung in, is doing the opposite of what it's trying to do. While trying to proclaim that God is almighty, ruling over everything and able to conquer all, it cannot successfully and adequately do just that because of its limiting language which is equating God's power to solely violent means.

 

Rebranding My Facebook

On Monday I begin the next 'chapter in my life' (though I'm not fond of that phrase) as I take a position at Florida Southern College as the Associate Chaplain. Florida Southern is my undergraduate alma mater and I couldn't be happier to be beginning work at such an institution. I'm even happier still that I'll finally be with my wife again after a long hard year living separately.

Attending seminary at Duke was a mind opening experience. I've written about it previously on this site, you can browse below to find it. What most seminarians will tell you but you might not realize is that the power behind the learning doesn't really happen in the classroom. The learning happens in the conversations, the study sessions, and the field education placements, in which you and those around you discuss communally and practically those things which are so important to the faith.

I've become infamous over the last three years for living out those conversations very publicly online. I've said things I still, to this day, agree with. I've also said things that, after going back and reading them, I have no idea how I logically arrived at the conclusion I did. Whatever the case and my feelings toward my statements now, they officially live in the permanence that is the Internet.

Many who see the Internet as a dangerous place will tell you that this new pervasive permanence is a bad thing. While the degree of pervasiveness is likely higher than at any other point in history, the idea of publication being permanent is not new at all. In fact, since the printing press, ideas could be easily distributed among the masses. These ideas came from people whose, say, Board of Ordained Ministries were watching and reading them. Conveniently, when the time was right, the Board would be able to pull up their latest published book and say, "In your last book, you said ________. We think that's foolish." Though the American criminal system allows one to keep words they say from being used against them in court, our extrajudicial bodies have no such ties. Since publication was a possibility for humans, the idea that their words could come back to haunt them has been in strong force.

What the Internet HAS done is this: make it so that every single person on the planet can publish themselves. There is no overseeing publishing company saying things like, "Should you really say that?" Or even, "Should you say that in that way?" Now, because of the gift of Facebook, we are all treated to an abundance of knowledge and record of what everyone in our lives had for dinner last night and what their position is on gun control. And now every word and picture can come back to haunt them later in life.

Back to me. I've chosen to use the road of Facebook to engage in what I consider to be worthwhile conversations regarding real things that affect us day in and day out. As someone who has scoured Internet forums for years, I see Facebook as a far more accountable tool for conversing. Facebook has my daily activities, places of employment, pictures, name, and other useful information attached to it. If I say something that is unfair, unkind, or egregious (and I do), my name is attached to it. Anyone who took considerable time to read online forums and compared them to my Facebook wall would quickly realize that the conversations are far less vindictive and quite a bit tamer on my wall. Facebook, because of its nature, allows that.

Now, I've found the conversations on my Facebook wall to be eye opening. They're a lot like the lunch conversations in seminary. Some of the highlights include my recent tirades on why guns are fundamentally bad for us, Beyonce's Super Bowl performance, and my constant avoidance of difficult topics like abortion. Many have characterized these threads as hateful and rude, but I don't see them that way. I don't approach anger in disagreement as a negative thing; I approach it with excitement. The chance to learn, to see differently, and ponder anew is right around the corner. What fun!

The Internet, more specifically the Facebook News Feed feature, brings a new dynamic to Internet publication and response though: it forces it into the faces of your thousands of friends whether they wanted to read it or not. The anger in some of these threads is perceived by many as a a negative way for a Christian to interact with the world. Many many many have brought this to my attention, even calling into question my character because of the threads. Their point is this: I publish a status, I get a response, I respond, the thread goes down a dark way, and it feeds my ego that people comment on the status. While this isn't how I've perceived it at all, the point is well taken. Their argument often follows that no real conversing is done here. Instead, we have fighting for the sake of fighting.

Those who tell me such things have their own opponents in this regard too. I can't describe how many people have privately contacted me or commented in the thread itself letting me know that they're glad that I say the things I do. They're glad that I have the courage to be as outspoken on issues that normal Christians won't touch. Their comments often fill me with confidence and joy; being in the heat of arguments like those that occur on my wall can be depressing.

Both sides have a point and up until this point I've shown little regard for trying to walk the balance beam that exists between these two sides. Like a free agent, I've kind of done whatever I want, whatever I feel is right, with little regard for the political or social implications of my actions.

While this ignorant world that I've been living in is incredibly fun and freeing, I'm also keenly aware that this is not the real world. As a Christian and pastor I know that my words have meaning. My words speak. My words matter. And not only that, my words are accompanied by the manner in which I speak. This is where those Internet haters have a point. The way that I say things matters more, often, than the things that I actually say. This is perhaps where I have been loosest in walking that balance beam.

And so, with this, because of the pervasive permanence of the Internet, my new role in representing institutions, the dynamic differences in Facebook publishing, and the constant bombardment of threats on my character, I'd like to announce a rebranding of my Facebook. From now on, I plan to keep most controversial things that I feel like need to be said to places like this blog where I can be more thorough in my approaches, I can think through more, and where the blatant information and conversations are not thrust into the faces of every Facebook friend I have. Knowing me, some of it will creep in and out of my statuses from now and then, but I fully intend on those updates being a lot more trivial than they've been in the past. The old material will, for now, remain on my wall. However, I'm not going to go back to engage in conversations like I did before. Facebook will, hopefully, not play that role in my life anymore.

These conversations are worth having, but the context of them will continually need to be rethought. If I feel like something is missing here, I'll reevaluate, but I think it'll work.

Keep up with me. I greatly enjoy it.

-B

People Change. I Fear My Own Change.

I've been meaning to write this for awhile.

I believe in human change. I believe that humans, no matter their upbringing, are able to change who they are. As a Christian, who has seen the change that God can make in an individual's life, I believe in change. As a Christian I believe that God's grace can show a child of God (all of us) who we truly are, so that we might set eyes on God alone, the one with the power to transform. Our hearts are aimed inwardly, God can change such a heart.

Humans can change not only for the better, however. They can also change for the worse. We've seen that all throughout history. People who have been known to destroy the world with their power and violence were often unrecognized as violent people previously. We see this in some of the mass shootings too. How many of the mass shooting criminals were caught beforehand? After, we often hear family and friends say, "He was quiet, but I could have never foreseen something like this," or "He was a good kid, made jokes, etc. How could he even be capable of such a thing?" This is true in immediate history as well as we all watched Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's parents claim that America had framed their children for this tragedy. A parent can rarely imagine their child doing that much harm.

At the heart of this issue is something we know deep down inside our souls: people change. Some people grow up in loving households with loving parents. Then something happens. Something makes them angry. Something depresses them. They become passionate about something. They play a violent video game. They begin to dream.

And one day they walk into a high school and kill 12 of their classmates. Or they mail a box of evidence to NBC news. Or they walk into an elementary school and open fire. Were there warning signs? Sure. There always are. Did the signs go unnoticed? Sure. They often do. Because of the lack of friends, a parent's unbelief that their child would be capable of something like that, or the busyness of others' lives, blind eyes are often turned and terrible tragedy strikes.

There is much discussion as of late as to how to prevent such tragedies for fear that if we don't do something it'll happen again. As it has over and over and over again. Many supporters of personal gun rights argue that the problem isn't the weaponry itself. They have a compelling argument; after all, guns require human intervention to actually inflict harm on another being. If legislation involving guns, however, is not feasible because of Second Amendment guarantees, those wanting to stop such violence turn to other means.

Many pro-gun people are advocating that mental screenings ought to come into effect at the point of gun sale. This seems helpful to me. If we can stop someone who is mentally unstable from purchasing a dangerous weapon, perhaps it will not only save others' lives but it will save theirs as well. What about, though, a person owning a gun for years before they use it to mow down a classroom of elementary schoolers? What about a mother who stores the guns in the violent child's bedroom? What about a grandfather passing a gun down to his grandchild just for his grandchild to develop depression later in life and decide to take life into his own hands?

There are many, many questions. None with perfectly viable solutions.

At the heart of those questions above though is the principle discussed previously: people change. If a weapon exists that allows them to cause damage and they're able to get the weapon before they go crazy, or through other means who won't ask them about their craziness, what is the solution? The NRA suggests that more gun owners would mean a safer environment. But if more people, who have the potential to change from good to bad, own dangerous weapons, doesn't that mean that the potential for more bad people to have dangerous weapons is there? Couldn't a good person with a gun, under the right circumstances, turn into a bad person with a gun? Isn't the issue, then, in some sense the gun itself? Isn't there a point in which we realize that the weapon simply isn't good for us?

We cannot control the change in people. America is a society where the winner wins and the loser gets screwed. America is a society where community is only valued in nationalistic sense and where someone who does us harm or simply doesn't fit in is written off in an instant. America simply isn't set up to care about the change in people (see how criminals are treated when they're released from prison as an example). If America, then, can't prevent a change from good to bad in its citizen, what then can it do?

People ask me why I'm "anti-gun" all the time. The answer is simple, really. I'm scared of this change. I'm scared of the change in me. I recognize my own brokenness. I am what I consider to be a "good person" who "could never do something like that." I have no history of violence. I passed my psychological exam for ordination. I'm a normal guy who cares for people, loves his family, and wants less people to die in the world.

And yet I fear, under the right circumstances with the right tools, the damage I could do...due to my own brokenness.

Further, I think anyone who denies that their brokenness couldn't, given the right situation, get the better of them is fooling themselves. And they're not familiar enough with Peter, who is the rock upon which the Christian church was founded yet who denied Jesus three times, raised a sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, and who Jesus referred to as Satan and an obstacle.

People change. It's time that we realized that. And cared. We can't prevent every human being from being violent in the midst of their change. We can't prevent them from changing. What we CAN do is affect the damage done during such violence, hopefully resulting in less people dying.

That's all I want. In the midst of change, I want less people to die.

-B

On Guns

"Guns are bad for us" my repeated refrain often reads. It's simple and to the point: guns do little good for our society.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about guns and their impact on our society lately.  Two obvious events have brought the conversation to my mind.  On July 20, 2012, a man walked in (dressed in armor) to a packed movie theater and opened fire on the room during the opening of a movie. I have yet to watch that movie because of the incident.  He killed 12 people and injured 58 others in one of the largest mass shootings in the US's history. All of that occurred in what witnesses say was about three minutes; from the moment he shot until he was arrested was less than ten minutes. Later that year, one week after the 71st anniversary of the 'day that will live in infamy', a deranged 20-year-old entered an elementary school in Newtown, CT with no intentions of walking out alive, or letting anyone else survive.  Mercilessly he continued his shooting rampage that had begun against his mother, killing 28 people in total (including himself and his mother) in about 11 minutes.

These were two horrifying tragedies.  I grew up in the age of Columbine and 9/11. I was in college for Virginia Tech.  I, and the rest of my generation, have experienced more mass school shootings than any generation should.  We are beginning to see a time in our nation's history when, through the internet and other means, young people have more access to more things.  These things include immediate information, pornography, instant access to all their friends, and…most of all, guns. James Holmes, of the 2012 Aurora shooting, bought his weapons, legally, from shops around the Denver, CO area. He bought an unbelievable amount of ammunition on the Internet, where massive quantities of product are available in two days with free shipping.  Guns, as we have understood them, are a different threat to our society than they've been in the past. So, if they were bad to begin with, they've become worse.

Let's think about the nature of guns, shall we?  What is it that makes guns different than say, a knife?  Most agree that the first effective projectile weapon used predates any recorded history.  That weapon was the bow and arrow, best known in the United States for being used by Native Americans to hunt for their food.  Perhaps, when processing projectile weapons, we ought to begin there.  Why would the bow and arrow have been invented?  Generally, tools are developed by humans (because we are an innovative people) so that our lives could be made better.  Think about the first people to use spears.  The spear is technically a projectile weapon which humans used to capture their prey.  What if a human could invent a device that could essentially throw a spear, but from a further distance and more accurately?  Wouldn't that be better for killing prey?  Wouldn't that be better?  Enter the bow and arrow.

The bow and arrow did something innovative, something new.  It, for what some consider the first time, allowed a stationary human being to inflict harm on something else (human, animal, or whatever) without moving.  A spear, for any accuracy at all, required a human to be close to its target.  A bow and arrow allowed the human to shoot from a distance with increased accuracy.  Humans were suddenly able, with their innovation, to kill with more accuracy and deadliness than ever before. The earliest guns are typically dated to around 1,000 years ago, appearing first in China (where else?).  These guns accomplished what many were seeking to do: improve upon these projectile weapons.  The Chinese were able to use their extensive knowledge and experience with explosive powders to create a projectile weapon that could inflict harm on its target from a ways away.  The shift here is significant: humans beings were now able to inflict harm on something that they were not touching.

This shift is fundamental to my argument and one I think we cannot take lightly.  If, prior to projectile weaponry, humans wanted to inflict harm on other beings, humans needed to be touching them.  Once spearing became popular and bow and arrows progressed from that idea, the ability for defense against such an act by the other being was eliminated.  The power shift happened.  Because of innovation, one being had declared power over the other being by simply employing a 'tool' that could cause harm to the other. This shift is significant.  How much could a person well trained in the martial arts defend themselves against a weapon that sent its destructive force through the air?  If one is not in contact with a human body, how could someone defend themselves?  Innovation, here, meant a paradigmatic shift in how we understood defense and violence.  The winner of a wrestling match used to be the smartest and strongest one there.  One could be smart, but it was likely that in order to defend oneself, they would also need to be able to physically combat the other.  Fighting back, in other words, required brute strength as well as smarts.

Innovation though, as it always does, won out.  Suddenly, with a projectile weapon, one could combat another who was significantly physically stronger than them.  This is a fundamental shift in how our world thought about winning.  In order to win, then, required no physical strength…it simply required you to own a projectile weapon.  Think about the change that has happened because of the mass production of weaponry as well: one doesn't even need the brains to out smart another with a projectile weapon, they simply need the weapon.  Even if I am both strong and smart, I will still lose to a gun. Every time. This principle is crucial to one's understanding of how to deal properly with talk of weaponry.  If a human's dependency on winning is no longer intimately connected to their physical well being or their traits, then the enemy of the human is no longer the human.  The enemy of the human, the one that can destroy a human's essence, is then the human who created the weapon which the human holds.  The enemy, in a sense then, becomes the weapon itself.  The enemy becomes innovation.  The weapon has put into place an entirely new power dynamic.

And so we have a situation like the one on 12/21/2012 (the day some thought the world was going to end) where someone could stand before a grieving America and make a statement like, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  Guns, projectile weapons that become extensions of the violent bodies we maintain, are unstoppable.  We can only defend ourselves by using the weapon itself.  LaPierre suggests that the only way to solve our murder crisis in America is to arm our schools.  So the solution to the enemy that he proposes is to carry more enemies, not to rethink the enemy itself.  Aren't we allowed to look back at innovation and ponder whether it was good for us in the first place?  Should these fundamental shifts be taking place?

Guns are different than anything our society has ever dealt with before.  They extend our brokenness on others, without the immediate danger of being broken ourselves.  This shift takes lives every day.  It has taken more lives since December 14, 2012 than those outside terrorists took on 9/11/2001 (talk about a reactionary shift!).  This shift, in the form of a weapon, not only shifted power but as the iterations of innovation rolled in it has increased the likelihood of one shot being killed.  Now not only can shooter warn an opponent, a shooter can kill an opponent without the opponent having the God-given ability to defend oneself.  An opponent, then, is left to resort to the manmade innovation, the enemy, in order to even have a chance at survival--and that's only if they get the shot off first.

It seems to me that playing in this territory is dangerous.  I believe some, in fact most, innovation to be good.  But innovation that exists only to kill?  That innovation is dangerous at best, and catastrophic at worst.  

This isn't a conversation, or shouldn't be at least, about 'rights' (even though this 'right' to bear arms is not what was considered a certain 'inalienable' right endowed by their creator).  This conversation must be about what is good for us. This is why I maintain that if statistics exist that point us to see that guns are regularly stopping mass shootings, or preventing more deaths than they're causing, then I am open to change my views.

Until then, I maintain that guns are bad for us.  They fundamentally change the way that humans exist.  This fact, above all, should constantly be brought into question.

-B

"With Every Breath We Sing"

The key line, perhaps, to Bellarive's hit worship song "Taste of Eternity" points to a relatively new phenomenon that's been occurring in our churches' worship music for the past few years.  If you're unfamiliar with the song, it might help to check it out below before moving on.

The song is simple, catchy, relatively singable, and sincere. It has everything that one might imagine that it needs for it to be 'successful' in the ever increasing worship music genre.  Bellarive, as a band, is catching on in popularity.  They're a great band with a unique sound and a strong following.  The world is likely to hear much more from them.

For fun though, let's parse the trend we see in the video above.

A trendy band, gathered in a circular fashion, singing a psalm-like text together, as one. The communal nature of the singing is evident in the group around them as well.  Many eyes are closed, hands are raised, bodies moving passionately.  The video conveys to me this: these people love God and are singing their love to God, together. This is typical of what mainline Christians are often calling "charismatic" or "evangelical" worship.  As someone who falls somewhere in between those two sides, I can testify that I find what you see in the video above very powerful.

The comparison to David's Psalms is not that far off.  Many of his Psalms are emotional.  The experience you see above is emotional.  Many of David's Psalms are personal.  This song is, without doubt, very personal (while using the pluralized first person to describe the community).  Compare this song, though, to many Wesleyan texts from the beginning of the Methodist movement.  Wesleyan hymns (written mostly by Charles, John's brother) were often very personal and often didn't use the pluralized first person (but were still sung communally).  They were, however, written on a different intellectual level than what you might hear above. Charles, after all, was interested in conveying theological insight of the goodness of God's grace and love into the text of the hymns.  It's a sung theology. This kind of singing was high on Charles's priority list.

In a Wesleyan text, you get a clear in-depth theology in the music. Above, you get a heartfelt communal response to God but you don't get a clear in-depth theology.

And so we find ourselves at the same argument that's been made for years about the state of contemporary music: there's not much lyrically there. Some even make the argument that our communal theology has become weaker as a whole in our pursuit to fall in love with God.  A summary of such an argument might be to say this: our love for God has overshadowed and replaced a deep understanding of God's infinite grace that used to be explicitly expressed in our worship music and no longer is.  Sure, Bellarive's lyrics acknowledge "all that [God] has done," but a Wesleyan text, for instance, would likely describe it in further detail.

I observe a lot of worship groups in many many different situations.  I even participate in a fair amount of them.  After all, my age group is currently leading this revolution.  I think it is inevitable that groups like Bellarive will form and shape the future of worship music in our churches.  They already are.  If you ask me, that's ok; they're a really good band. But it is undeniable that a sung theology that you might see in a hymn writer like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley is lost in most of our current music. It used to appear to me to be something the "theological astute" would argue about because they disliked the style of music.  I now see it plainly: it's simply the truth of our current situation.

A rich, sung theology is traded for an excitement in a singable melody, a band using musical elements to engage the emotions (at 2:20 you can hear the band building, the lead singer taking his melody up an octave, the band pausing for the anticipation of the coming hit on the word "sing"…it's like waiting for the drop in Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble"), and simplistic, heartfelt, personal, and emotional lyrics.

Perhaps within this movement the church is returning to a more Psalm-like (and yes, I recognize that this is a shallow and over-generalized interpretation of the Psalms) approach to worship.  Perhaps.  You might argue that this is bad.  Or you might argue that worship is once again "authentic" (as if it ever wasn't).

Imagine, though, a band like Bellarive using the musical elements that build the excitement through their musicality (that inevitably convey a strong sense of power within the music), mixed with singable melodies and unbelievably deep texts about who God is, who God is calling us to be, and what eternity really looks like.  That sort of music, that sort of movement, gets me really excited.  Then perhaps the taste of eternity, in all its fullness, might more fully be on our lips so that with every breath we could sing to the one who reveals that very fullness to us.

-B

To Whom Much Is Given, Much is Required

I'm not positive where that phrase came from. Someone with more energy than me should do the research.

To be honest, I've never really given the phrase much consideration. The world, from my view, has always cared only for itself and its own success. That is to say that those who make most of the difference in the world likely care only about their own popularity, their own success, and how well they can do. Maybe instead of "world," I should say, "America." However, my statement above is also to say that we are inherently a self-centered people. So, maybe it is the whole world.

In my constant pursuit of turning the world against itself via Facebook posts I have stirred some controversy over the past week. During the Super Bowl, I posted a criticism of Beyonce's halftime performance and made some pretty bold (and probably unfounded) claims about her reversing the work that had been done for equality in both black and women's rights by forming her artistry in a sexual manner. Of course I posted it at the exact right time, at the exact right place (during the world's most popular time to engage social media--the Super Bowl--and on my Facebook page, which inevitably is the home of unrighteous and righteous dialogue about the wrongs of the world). The post blew up almost immediately and I was told by several people whose opinions I greatly respect that my thoughts were unfounded because of my white maleness. "She is empowering those like her, reclaiming sexuality, I am proud" they essentially said.

Today news broke that a fraternity on the campus in which I live hosted a party on February 1st whose theme and advertising were overtly racist. While more people were in support of my criticism of such a fraternity's action than they were of my critique of Beyonce, the post still engaged a conversation. I knew that friending all those people would pay off. While in class today, I saw a classmate reading about the party on none other than Yahoo News. "Great," I thought, "Duke University once again makes the national news scene because some smart but oh-so-stupid undergrads made some awful decisions."

"What's the impact of the national stage?" I wondered. And then it hit me. This is not too unlike my critique of Beyonce's performance.

My argument over Beyonce's halftime performance was based around her potential as a performer. If she really has the "power," as many have suggested, then she has the "power" to make a significant impact on the way our culture views things. It seems to me that one of the messed up understandings in our current society relates to sex. We live in a world where more high schoolers are pregnant than ever before. Pornography is one of the larger industries in our society. Sex Slavery is a real thing in America. Our daughters, sisters, and friends are literally getting sold to the highest bidding John. Pastors, teachers, policemen, and politicians are arrested more often than we'd like attempting to have sex with underaged minors (males and females) after soliciting it online. Like, really...they actually show up at the house. Our society is in a sexual crisis. The way to fix this, to me, doesn't seem to be being scantily clad (no matter how well you can wear it) on a national stage, dancing in a semi-erotic fashion. Beyonce is an incredible performer, few doubt that. She has a large audience (some might argue, the largest) these days. She, having built much of her career on her strong sense of sexuality (she's gorgeous and sexy and shows it), has the potential to make a change in this culture. My argument is that she didn't.

The same might be true of Duke undergrads (and administration). Duke is an elite university which fluctuates between an 11% to 13% acceptance rate. Students who score a 1400 on their SATs (on a 1600 scale) are the dumbest kids here. Duke students are often the future leaders of our economy, our churches, our political system, etc. Duke University has a huge national stage. And guess what, friends? Greek life, and college partying in general, is in a bit of a crisis in our culture. Duke, whether it be the students or administrators, has the potential to make a huge impact on the surrounding culture. Duke University could have put an end to the "Asian Prime" party. Duke University could have come down hard on these groups and partying years ago. My argument is that they didn't. And, based on the past, they likely won't.

When someone or someones have prestige and popularity, they have the potential to influence a self centered world. When they don't, it becomes harder and harder to have hope for the future of our society. Christians, since Christendom became a thing, have had that worldwide stage. We have miserably failed to affect that change in the culture because of our own self centeredness and brokenness. Societal change often relies on those who have been given much.

I honestly don't expect much of that change from those enslaved to album sales or popularity, or 18-22 year olds who have had much of their life handed to them. Christians can do better. Because we have been given much.

-B

Macklemore's "Same Love"

I'm a sinner. At least, that's something I believe.

Every week, heck sometimes even multiple times a day, I pray a prayer in church that recognizes that sinful nature and confesses it before God and our neighbors. Then, as one whole body, those gathered partake in the meal that Jesus instructed us to partake in. It's a bit of grace, reconciliation, confession, mercy, atonement, and love all rolled into one mysterious experience that Christians have been sharing together since Jesus Christ himself.

We live in a society where sinfulness is celebrated. In much of the secular world, it is becoming increasingly acceptable to act in a certain way.

The only thing that holds one from acting in a completely "wrong" way is the fear of the consequences of their actions. The world acts within a framework of consequence. In example, if I'm willing to be held to the consequences of my actions...that's something I am totally ok with...then I can act however I'd like. The individual becomes the standard for what is "right." How else is it to be judged? Respect the individual because they are being themselves.

Now, look at this individualism in a different light. From this comes respect for the individual comes a respect for the unique. This, perhaps, is something a bit more modern. If someone challenges the status quo in today's society, they are looked up to for their courage and uniqueness. There was once a time in our society that if you didn't conform to the status quo (either in your very being or your thoughts and actions), you could be tried and killed.

So, to recap: sinfulness is celebrated in our society now because the only standard against which actions are judged is the willingness of the "sinner" to accept the consequences of their actions. That's the secular world. The reason that this is the judging standard is because individualism is the dominant force and uniqueness is celebrated. This is the secular world. This is the world of Macklemore's "Same Love."

Many Christians argue that this is bad. They argue that the standard against which we ought to be judged is God. The closest tangible evidence that we have of God's standard is the Bible. Hence, they argue, the ways of the world ought to be judged by what is outlined in Scripture. Since the beginnings of Christianity flowed out of Judaism and Judaism was ruled by a "Law," they argue that the words of Paul and many other biblical writers ought to hold the world to account. Paul was against homosexuality, they argue. Therefore, homosexuality in the world is wrong. It's unnatural. It's unbiblical. It's just wrong. This is a different language than the one Macklemore is speaking.

Macklemore, in his song "Same Love," argues against the "paraphrasing of a book written 3500 years ago." He argues against a church preaching hate. He argues against the idea that it's a changeable thing. He argues that the "right winged conservatives" are "playing God." The hook of the song says, "I can't change...even if I tried, even if I wanted to...my love, my love, my love, she keeps me warm." The individual wins, here. "Just be yourself," Macklemore raps.

The church doesn't speak that language and it never really has. The church has been in the business of telling an individual that how they act is wrong. That it's keeping them from God. That it's sinful. That they need to change in order to follow Jesus and live into holiness. The church speaks a language of sin. And, now, perhaps more than ever before the world is speaking a language of uniqueness. A language of the individual. A language where the understanding of something being "wrong" is reliant completely upon the individual and their level of comfort with the consequences of their uniqueness. Two different languages.

Because so many Christians today live in the "individual" world and yet still belong to the church, the conversation, the argument, goes in circles. It tears us apart, eats us up, spits us out, and leaves us for dead. The conversation even hurts souls.

How, then, to mend ourselves? Ah, yes. Remember what I said? I'm a sinner. A perpetual sinner. One who (at least) weekly comes before God to confess my own sins before I partake of the grace that Jesus conveys. Sometimes I know my own sins. I'm aware of what I've done wrong. Many times (in fact, probably more times than not) I'm unaware of all of my sins. And yet, not even knowing all that I've done wrong, I come before God routinely to confess and pray for forgiveness. I pray that I may be joyfully obedient. The best part? It's not just me. It's the whole church coming before God for such a task. The whole church coming to confess our sins and pray for forgiveness.

It seems to me that the conversation over homosexuality is not one of just individualism. It's not one of just sin. It seems to me that the conversation in the Christian church over homosexuality is both. It's a conversation over a dinner table of bread and wine, where all at the table confess their sinful nature and are gravely aware of the significance of the meal. They're aware of themselves. They're aware of their brokenness. They're aware of the grace offered to them and the call on their lives to be better.

"I can't change" the song says. "Even if I try. Even if I wanted to."

Well, then, thank God for grace. A trust in that grace might result in a holier community: a community that can understand sin in light of the individual and the individual in light of the sin.

Macklemore is speaking the language of the individual standard. The church is speaking the language of the biblical standard. If we are going to keep this issue from tearing our churches apart, we're going to have to learn the language the other is speaking and figure out a way to understand each other. I bet if we tried it, God's grace would step in and help us out. Then, and likely only then, could rappers stop rapping about how awful the church is and the church could stop condemning people with a speck of dust in their eye.

Grace has got to be the key.

-B

If you're lost, you ought to watch this video. It's touching: http://youtu.be/hlVBg7_08n0

The Church and The Gym, Part 2

NOTE: I have no idea what the proper spelling of judgement (judgment) is. I don't really care enough to look it up either.

I reread my post from yesterday. I don't think I was completely clear and I think clarification might show us something that is a little more helpful.

Yesterday when I wrote about the gym I seemed to describe the gym as a completely non-judgmental place. That simply isn't true, no matter how good it sounds. Take yesterday at CrossFit for example. We were doing some back squats and I took on way too much weight. After you've done a few back squats, you're supposed to move up a bit in your weight but my legs were exhausted. I fell out of the next squat. Of course, the whole gym saw me. I couldn't help but think about what they were thinking.

And as much as I'd like to think that they didn't think to themselves, "that guy has no idea what he is doing," my guess is that several of them did. There's no doubt that people observe each other at the gym and judge what they're doing (for better or worse) against what they themselves are doing.

This CAN be good. "Oh, hey, that guy is really keeping his chest up and look how straight his back is!" might allow you to learn from the guy in front of you. But...it can also be bad. "Man, that guy just fell out of his back squat twice," is helpful for neither party. It, perhaps, even encourages a "I'm better than him" mentality that has historically led to a bullied existence in extreme circumstances.

If one were to read my post from yesterday and assume that CrossFit is this magical place where no one judges anyone ever, one would have taken away the wrong image. I like to think that people love watching others succeed and don't consider it when they don't, but that's simply not true. If the rest of the world's people are even half as bad at being a human as I am, then they judge. I know they do because I do.

We see this in the church as well.

Perhaps you're thinking that the vision that I presented yesterday is more of an eschatological one...like this non-judgment state of nirvana is the end goal. But I'm not quite so sure that's it either.

Judgement exists in several forms in both the church and the gym. Maybe understanding that more fully is the key.

See, in the church we do judge people. In fact, I'd argue that we are called to judge people. If that sounds shocking, it's likely that you and I are working with two different definitions of judgement. When I speak of judgement, I don't speak of someone making a judgement and then using that to make one feel like an outsider. I speak of a sense of accountability. My hope is that my judgement is more of an encouragement! The judgement I speak of attempts to spur one on toward Christian perfection, not keep one out of the walls of the church.

So perhaps what I truly mean is that neither the gym nor the church are free of judgement. The care that must be taken within these two bodies is in the type of judgement used. If I fall out of a back squat, I want someone to hold me accountable to the amount of weight I put on the bar and the poor form I executed the squat with. Will that be painful to hear? Perhaps. But if it is done in a mild and encouraging manner (as it often is at CrossFit), I can learn. And...do better than I did last time.

So is the struggle of the church. The church, in fear that it might be forced to apologize for who it is has--in the past 200 years--created this judgement that pushed others away. The intimidation, as I said yesterday, is too much. "All these people speaking another language and judging me."

What if, though, our judgement were initially perceived as an encouragement rather than a judgement? What would it take to pull that off? What might that pastoral tone sound like?

These are all the questions we MUST ask ourselves as Christians. Judgement is something we are called to. But it's not the judgement of this world. It's not the judgement that pushes people away. It's a judgement that has its own set of standards and practices and is unapologetic about that. It's also a judgement that spurs one on toward perfection in an encouraging way. It's one that reassures the judged that a community is standing behind them.

It's not that no one judges in the gym. Neither is it that everyone judges in the church. But...both entities ought to strive for a more encouraging accountability that builds up its members so that they might do better than they did before. I'm happy to say that quite a bit of the good judgement happens at CrossFit. I'm honestly unaware how much of it is currently happening in our churches.

It's a paradigmatic shift and it's one that is needed now in our churches. Pronto.

-B

The Church and The Gym

I once heard a pastor compare joining a church to joining a gym.

I grew up in the church. I was a good little Baptist boy, baptized at a relatively young age, who sang in the children's choirs, youth choir, youth praise band, and yes, when I was empowered, the big church praise band. My family went, primarily, to the contemporary service as my parents were actively involved in the planning and execution of it. Church was fun. I enjoyed going and I can't remember a time in my life when I gave me parents a hard time about going. I was into church.

Moreover, I spoke the language. Christians who are deeply integrated into the life of the church likely know exactly what I'm saying. In the church, we talk about things that the outside world isn't too concerned with talking about. We talk about grace, holiness, and judgment. We sing songs directed toward and about Someone not of this world. In the church, we speak a different language. As a kid who grew up in the church, I spoke the language. I knew what to do and when to do it.

Growing up I wasn't particularly concerned with athleticism (shocker, I know). I was an inside kind of kid who enjoyed watching sports but was pretty awful at participating in them. I was awkward and uncoordinated, generally lazy, and with that I never had the determination to get much better at any athletic activity. After all, to this day I struggle with keeping my heels on the ground during a squat because I've lived my life walking around on my toes. I even have students who recognize me across campus because of the way that I walk. Needless to say, I was never an athlete.

Recently, I've joined a CrossFit gym. It's the first gym I've ever joined and I decided to pay the outrageously high monthly fee just so that I'd force myself to go. Now, I live on a college campus with a more than adequate gym--that I technically pay for--and I can count on one hand the amount of times I've actually gone to it to workout. I pay for CrossFit. Today it was snowing and it was a 10 minute drive to CrossFit. I went to CrossFit.

Gyms scare the hell out of me. There, I said it. When one goes to a gym, they encounter a different kind of person. They encounter a person who is big, strong, and intense. They encounter a place of judgment. (If you can't dead lift 300 lbs, you obviously don't belong here.) Or, maybe we should say that that's the place that one encounters in one's mind. For me, at least, that intimidation factor and my own self consciousness of my awkwardness is what created a 6'2" 230 lb individual. It created a person with a resting heart rate way higher than it should be. It created a person who is generally depressed and ashamed of their body. It created a person who stopped taking care of themselves. I gave up. The intimidation of the world of fitness was far too overwhelming for a weak soul like me living inside a weak body. In my mind, it was just too much to take.

I even bought P90X online because I figured I could work out in private where the intimidation simply wasn't there. I never made it through even half of the P90X program.

Last month, I joined CrossFit. CrossFit is one of the hardest workout programs out there; it doesn't matter how strong you are, it will kick your butt. You know what I discovered? That gym that intimidated me for so long? It's not reality. This morning I worked out with women that must have been well over 60 years old. They couldn't lift much and they sure couldn't do lateral jumps over a bar, but they were there and they worked hard. And yeah, the guy in front of me looked like he could bench press an elephant, but who cares? The intimidation factor went right out the door when I first went to CrossFit because I realized that there are people of all shapes and sizes there, all on different levels of fitness, all working toward the same goal: to do better than they did last time.

Yeah, awkward me can barely bench press the bar. And yeah, I get some weird looks when I get to the bottom of the back squat and literally can't stand up. Yeah, my push presses barely get my elbows straight. But the only time the coach has yelled at me? When I apologized for not being able to do something. I met a group of people who want me to succeed no matter how bad I am at it. I met a group of people who are so diverse, not only in their age and background, but in their fitness level. Once I realized this, the intimidation factor of working out began to fade.

I can't help but think that that's how the church is to outsiders. In their minds, it's got to be as intimidating as a gym is to me. People, so far along in their progress (toward holiness), speaking a language that only they think, who are intense about everything they do in that realm. I can only hope that there are some new Christians who walked into the Body of Christ because their friends said they should and hoped for the best. And, when they came, they met a group of real people, all at different points on their journey, all working together in their path toward Christian perfection and hoping to do better than they did last time.

In the midst of a time when the church seems to be dying, gym membership isn't. People are learning the gym language. Less people are learning the Christian language.

As Christians, we have to opportunity to learn from such a trend. Gyms work to make themselves less intimidating so that more people will get excited about taking care of their physical bodies. Churches might do well to ponder this model.

How can we, the Church, work at conveying who we are (a disciplined set of believers who, while admittedly speaking a different language, are wholly excited to welcome others in so that they too might get started on their path) in a positive light? How might the world see our community? How might the world see our accountability? How might the world see Christ's love through us?

CrossFit doesn't apologize for who it is. It's hard. It's a lot of work. It takes discipline and practice. And yes, there is a new language to learn.

If the Church is going to get serious about evangelism, I think it is time we work toward that end by beginning to understand how the world sees us and figure out a way that the world might understand the gospel message through our presence rather than being completely overwhelmed by the intimidation of such a presence. That, to me, is how the Church's evangelistic mission might better be lived out in the world.

The Church can welcome others in without apologizing for who it is. But, in today's society, it's going to take a bit more work. Don't worry though, my guess is that it will be worth the investment.

-B

Change. Renewal. Faith.

In May, with any luck at all, I'll go on to graduate from Duke University's Divinity School with a Masters in Divinity.  As if someone could ever get a degree in the Divine.

I've thoroughly enjoyed nearly every moment, nearly every friend (honesty), and nearly every course (only Jesus was perfect) at Duke Divinity.  It has been challenging, downright difficult in fact, and it has even--at times--made me want to quit and go back to playing music for a living.  Music, while a terrible business to be in, can be far more soothing to the soul than attempting to recount every early church heresy for a seemingly silly exam.  I worked hard in undergraduate school to make top-notch grades (in fact, if I had a B at midterms in a course, I withdrew from it if at all possible). At Duke, if I can scrape by with a B, I'm more than happy. 

Duke, as an institution, has changed my world.  At Duke Divinity I learned that worship is so much more than I had ever imagined.  I learned that seminary students drink and cuss just as much, if not more, as any other human being on this planet (they're real people too!).  I learned that basketball is a life changing activity.  At Duke I also learned more about a loving God than I might have ever imagined.  Duke has been a wonderful place for a future minister to grow in their own faith while discerning a call to help others do just that.

Over the next few months I hope to provide anyone who stumbles upon this blog even the smallest insight into what it's like to be changed by an academic environment that teaches about the God who changes us.  It's an odd dynamic to be sure, and one that might take me years to fully comprehend.

One thing is for certain though:  I'm changed.  For better, I hope.  No matter the direction or difficulty of the journey, I'm changed.  

Perhaps I could even say it like this:  I've been made new while studying the God who makes all things new. That's good, right?

Yeah.  It is. If a divinity program, which hopes to form ministers to preach to the world that change and renewal is an essential part of our life of faith, is to be successful then the self-acknowledgment of said minister's own renewal is a necessity of the divinity program. Duke's done a fantastic job of doing that for me.

I'm incredibly grateful. Change. Renewal. Faith.  All large reasons why I will leave Duke acknowledging the importance of my experience there.

-B

Just Because We Can Doesn't Mean That We Always Should

Mayor Bloomberg wants to outlaw large containers for soda and sugary drinks.

The Libertarians come crying out, "The government shouldn't be able to tell us what we can and can't have! This is America!" When I tell people that I think this is a good idea, they cry to me about how crazy I am. "You're going to let the government tell me what I can and can't do? Because of your lack of self control?"

Yes. Because drinking large quantities of soda is bad for you and I learned the bad habit because it was available to me, anywhere and everywhere, and I took advantage of it. And I've fought my body ever since.

Just because we can (either in our minds or legally) drink 40 oz. sodas, doesn't mean that it's a good idea. Nothing good comes from that.

James Holmes was arraigned today on multiple counts of murder.

He shot 70 people with a high powered assault rifle that costs a little over $1,000 and can be bought, legally, in a store and picked up with a short background check within the hour. He bought 6,000 rounds of ammo on Amazon. It was legal for him to own the gun and to buyt that ammo. He could do that.

We, as Americans, can own weapons that allow us to defend against ourselves. We can do this, legally. But, does that mean that we should?

Today, the NCAA handed down unprecedented sanctions upon the Penn State football program.

Sandusky was accused, JoePa was fired and then died, Sandusky was convicted, anyone else powerful at Penn State University who had any connection was also fired, the Freeh report came out and made the situation appear even worse than we all feared, they removed the JoePa statue, and the program's reputation that had once been legendary was ruined, not simply tarnished. Joe made a huge mistake that cost him everything. Jerry made several huge mistakes that cost him everything. Spanier made a huge mistake that cost him everything. And together, with a few others, they cost the university's football program everything.

Today it got worse. The NCAA had the power, because of their system, setup, power, influence, and total control over anything college sports related to do what they did. They had the complete ability to flex their muscles. They had the ability to make an example out of a once untouchable football program. And they did.

But just because you can, should you?

(I'll forego the argument for the sake of this post that the NCAA completely stepped out of the way of due process, allowing the almighty Emmert to personally intervene, unlike anything he has done with programs that violated specific NCAA regulations...**grunt grunt** UNC **grunt grunt**. I'll also forego the argument that this is a criminal act and therefore is left for the legal system, not the silly constantly over reaching NCAA)

Did the NCAA need to come down this harsh, effectively killing this program for an entire generation? Was this necessary?

Many say, "Yes! Child molestation and the covering of it up is atrocius and unacceptable!" Those people are right. Child rape and molestation is unacceptable. Those who cover it up for the sake of a program are in some ways just as guilty as those who committed the atrocities, too. This is unacceptable.

But, should the NCAA destroy the future of the program, making it effectively impossible to recruit for, simply because it can? No. Should it make an example out of a group that has already through the court system and the media been made an example out of? Again, I don't think so.

When we drink 40 oz sodas, we must ask ourselves, what good does it do?

When we buy assault rifles, we must ask ourselves, what good does it do?

When we enforce unbelieveable penalites on people who had nothing to do with an atrocity, we must ask ourselves, what good does it do?

What's hoped to be accomplished? Show the world child rape is wrong? We're already there, guys. We get that. Show the world how powerful you are? The good in that is questionable. Make a change so that this doesn't happen again? Maybe, but in order to make that believable you're going to need to articulate your process for how in a very convincing way.

If the NCAA hadn't done anything, they'd been looked at as weaklings. But they needed to flex their muscles...to show the world that they're actually paying attention and that they are the almighty voice to which programs must listen or else all the benefits from having an athletic program might be lost.

What's the good in that? Little. What do I think they should have done? They should have invested in figuring out ways from preventing this from happening again (the $60M fine is the one sanction I can understand). They should have done investigations into all programs. They should have helped Penn State football recover from such a devastation. They should have sent the message in another, healthier, better way. In a way that brings good, rather than stabbing in the dark hoping that good would be found somewhere.

They could flex their muscles. But should they? Not unless they can clearly articulate the good that will come from this.

I shouldn't drink 40 oz. sodas, even though I can. I shouldn't buy an assault rifle, even though I can. I shouldn't flex my muscles even though I can either.

Because, in all things, I must ask myself, "Can I clearly articulate the good that will come from this? Can I point directly to the good that the world will see from this?"

Otherwise, it's useless punishment and an example. And that's not good enough.

-B

True Freedom and Its Costs

Early yesterday morning, shortly after midnight, the freedom that a young man (younger than I am) named James Holmes had to own an assault rifle, legally, cost 12 people (maybe more) their lives. It cost 12 families their loved ones and it cost the world 12 individuals who could have made it a better place.

James Holmes was free to own the weapons that he used to shoot those 71 people yesterday. He legally purchased those guns, all that ammunition, and likely anything that he used to booby trap his apartment which he knew he would never return to.

James was free, like you and I. He had a right, a freedom, to own those guns.

Interestingly enough, that freedom that James enjoyed was paid for by the lives of soldiers who fought courageously both here in the States and abroad so that no one would take away that freedom. People lost loved ones in war, terrorist attacks, and random acts of violence, all because we were fighting to maintain our freedom. Simply put: we must defend ourselves in order to keep our freedom.

This concept isn't new. We know this. In order for us to have freedom, we must defend our freedom. But it does get more complicated.

Last night I asked a still-unanswered question via the wonderful world of social media and it went something like this: Is there any reason that non-military or non-police citizens should be allowed to own a semi-automatic rifle? I didn't phrase the question well, and I was unsure of what verbs to use, but I think the message was semi-clear: what good, honorable reason would there be for someone to own a weapon like James used in Aurora? Should it be legal to own a weapon that can do that much damage?

Of course, as many of my posts do, it sparked controversy. Americans are only as free as they can defend themselves to be! People attack us? We must fight back! We are only as free as we can assure ourselves that we are. Otherwise, those attacking us impending on our freedom have every opportunity to take away our freedom, which makes it so that we aren't truly free.

I should be clear: I think this is a giant load of crap.

If we define freedom in this way then we are saying that freedom only comes from the way in which we defend ourselves.

Friends, this isn't freedom. This is fear.

I'd invite you to take a step back and look at what this freedom has brought us: countless wars ending with much of the world hating our arrogance, machines in airports that send radiation into our bodies, racism, patent wars, and undying greed.

I have family members that carry a pistol wherever they go. The idea is that if anyone were to attack our family, they'd have a way to defend themselves. Again, I ask, is this freedom? Can we truly enjoy such a "freedom" if we are always concerned with who might be following us, ready to attack us? What is it that this freedom truly gives us?

Perhaps the question really is: what is the point of such a freedom? What is this freedom all about anyway? Is freedom the right to bear arms? Is freedom the right to say whatever we want, even if it is harmful? Is freedom the right to put up a fence so that the neighbor can't see me mowing the lawn? Is freedom the chance to eat BBQ, drink beer, and party with fireworks?

This, to me, doesn't sound like real freedom. It doesnt sound like a culture ready and willing to make this world a better place. It doesn't sound like a culture who cares about one another. No, this freedom sounds like a culture in which online bullying meets crazy heights and encourages suicide. This freedom sounds like a culture that encourages the defense of religion rather than the religion itself. This freedom sounds like a culture that has at least one mass shooting a year. This freedom sounds like a culture that is so obsessed with the work of the individual that it encourages such an individual to refuse to recognize the assistance they've received that led to their success.

In short: this freedom sounds like it delivers a worse product and costs more. It costs us the lives of soldiers overseas. It costs us the lives of moviegoers in a theater. It costs us a dying reputation. And what do we get? A degraded culture who cares nothing about what we should care about.

I sense a very different freedom in Christ. Christ assures us, because of his death and resurrection that the chains that once bound us through sin are broken forever. This freedom, true freedom, allows us to live into the people we have been made to be. This freedom, true freedom, allows us to recognize the gifts and graces of one another. This freedom, true freedom, inspires us to live as one with the peace that only Christ can give us. This freedom, true freedom, gives us life and life abundantly. The other freedom results in death; this freedom, true freedom, results in resurrection.

And the best part: the price for this freedom has been paid. The sacrifice has been given, by the very one who gives us life! It costs us nothing but the willingness to follow in the steps of the one who said "Come, follow me."

Many may say, "Wrong! This freedom costs us everyday. It costs us because the life of discipleship is one of martyrdom. It costs us because of the persecution of the world." AHA! The world wants us to buy into its version of freedom. But we must not. It wants us to pay the cost (and many many before us have). But we must not. Even if we are persecuted on this earth, we know that true freedom of being forgiven for our brokenness is still had. That price has been paid.

This freedom is not concerned with our rights as individuals, it is concerned with our holiness. It is concerned with who God wants us to be. It has nothing to do with our individualistic rights, it has to do with our calling.

In America, for some silly reason, we have been defining freedom in terms of the right to defend ourselves and right to do what we want. That freedom has a poor outcome and costs a lot. And that doesn't end well. It ends with dead bodies on the floor. It ends up with bloodied theater seats.

If only we would desire true freedom.

-B

 

We remember the lives of those who were shot in Aurora yesterday morning. May God's hand of comfort be on their souls and their family members. May God's comforting and guiding hand help this nation to recover from such a tragedy, and guide the world toward true freedom, for which the price has already been paid. We are a broken people. Let us remember that we are also a forgiven people.

 

Contemporary Worship Music: Unintentional Ecumenism

ec·u·men·i·cal

adjective

1. general; universal.
2. pertaining to the whole Christian church.
3. promoting or fostering Christian unity throughout the world.
4. of or pertaining to a movement (ecumenical movement), especially among Protestant groups since the 1800s, aimedat achieving universal Christian unity and church unionthrough international interdenominational organizations thatcooperate on matters of mutual concern.
5. interreligious or interdenominational: an ecumenicalmarriage.

In the United Methodist Church, we have a hymnal.  Every 20 years or so another one pops up, with great new hymns,  great old hymns, and...unfortunately...some of the same old, really bad hymns.  The church is trying to be 'progressive' (whatever that means), so we have seen little books like 'The Faith We Sing' and 'Worship and Song' pop up as well.  These are the technologically limited offerings aimed at keeping up with the rapid rate of song creation in the Church these days.  'Worship and Song,' printed last year, has only now included "How Great is Our God" and "Open the Eyes of My Heart" (Open the Eyes of My Heart was written in 1997, How Great is Our God in 2004).

When I purchased my copy of 'Worship and Song' at Cokesbury, the sales associate told me that this was the "first expandable hymnal!"  I asked her how the binding to the book played a role in its expandability and she gave me the scrunched-nose face. Technologically, these books have been limited.

Interestingly enough, in some Christian circles, this technological barrier has played a huge role in keeping the churches singing the same songs they've been singing for ages. In others, they have ignored the technological implications completely.  Many Christians are growing up in church environments (that alone is something to celebrate) and do not realize that Christians used to sing songs out of books that they held in their hands instead of on screens (I'll let you decide whether or not that is something to celebrate).

Long story short: music in the Church is rapidly changing.  Some people are changing it, some are avoiding it.  Others, like the United Methodist Church in large part, avoided it for 20 years or so and are just now trying to catch up. The last category of churches feel a little like RIM and Nokia do now when it comes to smart phones:  late to the game inevitably will hurt, no matter your customer loyalty.

Not long ago I presented a hymnal to a student of mine on which her name was imprinted.  I said to her, "These are the songs of our tradition." Ever since that moment, I've been thinking about what I meant by that statement.  Did I mean that these are the ONLY songs of our tradition?  Did I mean that these are the songs our of tradition and OUR TRADITION alone?  What is it that I meant?  Does that make the songs outside of our hymnal NOT part of our tradition?

In seminary we talk a lot about the music we sing being formative for the Christian journey.  We sing songs pertinent to the liturgical context we are in, usually having something to do with the morning's message.  We pride ourselves: the hymns we sing aren't, and shouldn't be, fluff.

In fact, the United Methodist Church has something going for it here.  Charles Wesley, brother to John Wesley and co-founder of the Methodist movement in England, wrote hundreds of poems.  As the search for a 'Wesleyan' identity is set before us in the UMC, a return to Charles's lyrics are usually appreciated.  Whenever I bring the topic up in UMC circles, eyes light up.  "Yes! That's the way it should be!" they seem to say.  Methodism was blessed from its beginnings with theologically based hymns and Methodists far and wide don't want to lose that.

This isn't the whole story though.  We sing songs every Sunday in Methodist Churches that were written by non-Methodist writers. Heck, we sing songs in church on Sundays that were written by the Gaithers.  We sing songs written by Calvinist predestinarians.  We sing all kinds of music in the UMC, no matter how much we pride ourselves in being 'Wesleyan.'

I was thinking about all of this, trying to put these pieces together in my head, so that I could sort out the proper course of action. Then I had this thought: We're not seeing this hangup with many who are writing music for the masses today.

No, in fact, these hangups of being strictly 'Wesleyan' don't matter to many.  The people who are constantly writing new, exciting, progressive, worship music are largely from non-denominational churches. These churches usually have some sort of vague mission statement and clearly defining themselves is not something they do!  The popular people writing music these days for the 'contemporary worship' setting are largely tied to movements.  Is Hillsong a movement or a church?  Yes.  Is Passion a movement or a church?  Yes.  What do these movements do? A little bit of everything.  Many of these groups don't even use the word "church." Being sticklers for quality, theologically sound music is simply not a priority.  They want music that is exciting and engaging, and the lyrical composition can be what it is.

The question then becomes: is the work coming out of these 'movements' unifying the church at all?  In other words, if those producing material are not hung up on staying true to their founders, are they free to write music that spans across denominational barriers? Are these songs acting, whether intended for it or not, as a form of ecumenism?

These songs, those written within the past 20 years for 'contemporary' worship environments are criticized all the time for being too "simplistic" or "shallow" in their theology. But it occurs to me that this  very criticism might actually be what makes these songs work across the barriers.  Charles Wesley wrote songs that were deeply explicit in their lyrics, calling out church heretics, heretical leanings, and teachings that were against his views of Christianity.  He even, from time to time, called out people by name.

We simply aren't seeing this in today's music.  We're singing statements about loving Jesus, about Jesus rising from the dead, and Jesus saving us.  While they might still be criticized for aligning themselves with Jesus and little else of the Trinity, these are overarching statements that don't necessarily apply to any specific denomination or tradition.

It seems to me that it is BECAUSE of the more universal nature of the lyrics within recent songwriting that these songs are becoming forms of ecumenism.  These songs are popular, easy to sing (choruses and refrains repeat constantly) and when played well, tug at the emotions of those singing them.  In a sense, these songs are unifying the church.  These songs are played in Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian churches, Catholic churches, Lutheran churches, and most prominently in non-denominational churches far and wide.

So, are they unifying? Yeah, I guess, in a way they are.  These songs are being sung all over, much like hymns like "Holy, Holy, Holy" "It Is Well" and "Come Thou Fount" were before.  Generalized lyrics and easy to sing melodies.  They surpass and tear down walls of division that have been placed there by theological and political arguments for 2000 years. To me, it's an interesting phenomenon.

See, the technological barriers of printing books has kept many denominations and generations infused with the idea that if it's not in our hymnal, it's no good.  This has allowed for boards and agencies to curate the contents of our singing, too.  But, these groups that work past those technological barriers (we don't print books anymore), are able to stretch beyond that. And, because of that freedom, they've explored new realms of communal singing.

The interesting question is, what if true, studied theologians had done this rather than the guy down the street who played guitar?  Would that have changed the outcome?  Could we have had a more universal set of songs that were ALSO theologically grounded?  I don't think so.  I think the "shallowness" of much of what we see set to worship music today should get credit for helping me attend a non-denominational service and know the music.

Contemporary worship style gets a lot of crap for the way in which it exists. All I'm saying is that its music (one of the biggest reasons it has been successful) deserves a look. A critique, too, perhaps.  But, definitely, a look.

Just some random thoughts.

-B

Ann Curry Leaves TODAY, With Nothing But Grace

Im not sure if I can explain it, or should, but I love the Today Show. Ever since I went to New York for the first time in 1998(1997?...can't remember exactly) and stood outside Rockefeller center, The Today Show has been my go-to morning show. In fact, I can't even stand the other morning shows.

Part of my fandom with TODAY is that I think Matt Lauer is easily one of the best reporters in the business. He can be hard on top celebrities, he can be funny, and he seems to have the best personality for a person in that seat. He's an anchor with a soul who talks to you and reports like there are no cameras. He's smooth, he's clear, he's jovial, and he's practiced. That's a perfect anchor.

Another part of my fandom with the show has to do with the second time (out of 2) that I was in the Today Show audience. It was June 26th, 2009. How do I remember? Because as we stood outside Studio 1A, the producers told us that there would be a very different broadcast that day. Michael Jackson had died. I only saw Matt that day, and that was through panes of glass. Al did his segments inside (as did Ann) and Meredith was live in Los Angeles.

I'll also never forget being in 2nd period band in 9th grade, and an administrator coming into the classroom to tell us that the country was in a state of emergency and that 2 planes had hit the Twin Towers in New York. We put our instruments away and turned on the classroom TV...to TODAY. I remember Matt and Katie's voices on that day and I've even been known to replay that broadcast via YouTube from time to time. How does a news anchor cover a story like that? The way they did.

When I was in the crowd at the Today Show in the late 90s, my aunt and uncle made up signs to hold, like many do. One of the signs said something along the lines of, "I eat breakfast with Katie, Matt, Al, and Ann." Ann was so thrilled that her name had made the sign that she kissed it and signed it. It was amazing. I remember her being so, so very kind.

I guess I didn't follow it enough to know the drama that occured when Ann was passed up for the anchor position after Katie left. But it was clear when Meredith left that this was something Ann had always wanted to do.

Ann is phenomenal human. She goes overseas as a reporter when others won't. She cries on camera and is even unafraid to make ghastly, embarassing mistakes. She asks pointed questions at times when it's needed. She flubs over and over again.

She's very real.

And I think that makes her a phenomenal reporter. She somehow manages to break all the rules of journalism while still drawing you in with her deep smile and heart for the individual. She worked brilliantly as the news reporter in studio for so many years and every assignment went on left the world in tears.

About 8 months or so ago (a few months after she got the job), I started to notice her flubs more often. And these were little. Before, whe was known to walk into a camera shot not paying attention. She was known to share too much to the viewing audience. But I started to notice that she was having problems reading the teleprompter. She had never been real great at it, but the way she covered before had worked at the news desk, and it didn't seem to feel right at the anchor desk.

Something just didn't fit. She didn't have the smoothness of Lauer. It started to bug me. I liked Meredith, but I like Katie better. I liked Ann a lot, but not at the anchor desk. Sigh.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one. Today, on TODAY, Ann Curry left her position as co-anchor. It was an odd departure but had been rumored for some time as Good Morning America had rivaled the Today Show's ratings. Ratings, in TV, seem to be the end all be all and one can only imagine that Ann's tenure at the anchor desk wasn't helping TODAY garner any more interest. When people are defecting to a competitor, you have to do all that's in your power to regain control. Over the past week, that's what NBC News has done.

The good news is that Ann has a new job. Sort of. It seems unclear exactly what that job will entail and look like on a day to day basis, but I hope we see more of the reporting that we were used to from Ann Curry. I appreciate her humanitarian work, reporting on those who have no voices, calling all viewers to see the worlds of other people and to offer their hearts to them much like Ann has given her heart to them.

In the end, Ann wasn't the right choice for the anchor position. It was her dream job and for that she was able to hold it for just over a year. Sometimes, though, we aren't fit to do what we do and we must nuance our dreams to work in the best way possible. Hopefully Ann will see this new position as a way to live out her dream.

Personally, I wish Ann the best of luck. I can't wait to see her on camera again. She's been a bit frustrating over the past year, but now that she's gone, I'm truly going to miss her.

When Conan left NBC, he drug their name, reputation, and money through the mud. He was so angry over the way that he was treated that he used his last month at the show to show NBC just how much power he had. When Ann left the Today Show, it what seemed to be a very similar situation, she was as kind as he has ever been. Her grace, in the midst of what must be a gut wrenching time, is remarkable.

She is a role model among role models and I hope we continue to have more of her influence in our lives. As Matt said this morning, "She has the best heart in the business."

So very, very true.

-B