Thursday, January 28, 2010

State of the Union

I've been wondering if my silence on politics has been telling to some of you. My last entry was back in February last year. It seems that even by then I was already straining toward some sort of optimism about our new president. I've been trying to hang on to much of that same optimism, but honestly it is getting harder and harder. I wasn't able to hear the State of the Union address and haven't had the inclination to read it either. Mostly, I'm not sure that I'll be encouraged by what he had to say.

These are hard things to write. It is not a matter of protecting my ego because I fear eating humble pie. It is hard to write about these things because hanging on to hope is vulnerable. There is a reason why lots of people avoid talking about politics and religion. It's scary. Yet, what I'm trying to do here with this blog is put forth some thoughts on these kinds of important matters precisely because we need to be talking with each other. We need to be sharing our ideas. The only true hope of our democracy is if we can continue to practice the art of good, charitable conversation. What truly tempts me to despair is the lack of good, thoughtful dialogue. What saddens me most right now is not just the sobering difficulties of Obama's first year, but the further partisanship, a further tearing apart of our country. Some might argue that it is Obama's overly ambitious first year that has caused this rift. Yet, my suspicion is that these are deep divisions that have always existed in our country. Obama's presidency has just brought those divisions to the surface.

I really appreciate my friendship with David Taylor. He's the one who has edited this book I have a chapter forthcoming in, For the Beauty of the Church. During the writing of that essay, David continued to encourage me to keep the voice of my writing optimistic and hopeful and to avoid condescension. David wanted me to maintain the voice of a loving pastor who can come alongside people with humble help. It is no surprise that David recently quotted Conan O'Brian's final words on the tonight show (see below) in his blog. I find it ironic that it is a satirist who is challenging us consumers of popular culture to remain optimistic. I don't know very many satirists left who I think are still truly satirists. Most have just become scoffers making a living tearing things down cashing in on the fact that misery loves company. But here are some bright words that I think about after the State of the Union.

"To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I'll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism -- it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere.

Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."

Monday, January 25, 2010

What Music Feeds Your Soul? VII

A local worship leader and I have exchanged some song ideas this past year. In our last exchange I made mention of our use of corporate readings of creeds, prayer and confessions. He asked me to elaborate on these things and I thought I’d use the occasion to post these thoughts for others (Hope students especially) to consider. I’ve placed this in the “What Music Feeds Your Soul?” series because it seems to me that my convictions about corporate readings fits into the discussion I’ve been developing about music that not only expresses our true feelings and thoughts to God, but music that forms us into the kinds of worshipers that God intends us to be.

In an email this leader asked,

“What you were saying about corporate readings, creeds, and confessions is interesting to me.  Do you feel that is great for the Hope [College] culture specifically, or the Reformed Church?  Or do you see it working well in church across the board?”

First off, let me say my journey toward these more traditional movements in worship has been a long one. My background is contemporary, independent, non-denominational churches. Ultimately what motivates me to practice readings, and confessions is a sense necessity; to feed and nourish our worshiping community, I need far more than what the typical contemporary worship song can offer alone by itself. I really enjoy and get excited about the possibilities of new music, but without the greater context of these more deliberate worship movements, contemporary music can seem vacuous and even exhausting. It is like I’m chasing fads jonesing for the newest just because it is new. I’m leery of Churches trying to compete with popular culture, yet I am enthusiastic about contextualization—finding a kind of music that makes sense to the students I lead. These historical worship practices have become a source of comfort in how they relieve the burdens of my leadership. These are worship practices that have served the church for a long time and so I can be sure the Spirit will continue to work through them still today. I know that seems like a counter-intuitive statement to our contemporary way of thinking—that all things fade and become obsolete. In my experience and in my reasoning, I’ve come to see that this is just not true. There are historical practices that endure. The trouble is not so much with the tradition, but with the vitality of the practice of the tradition. Tradition has nourished most of the world’s greatest cultures. Our present culture is ahistorical, and this is historically a young and seemingly naïve view of the past.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s well quoted statement is very helpful, “Tradition is the living faith of those who are dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of those who are living.”

I’ll lay out some thoughts here, but for further reference I encourage you to consider any of the late Robert Webber’s books especially The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Webber is the person who coined the term “ancient-future faith,” what has also been called “blended worship.” I’m afraid I have seen Webber’s good thoughts turned into another kind of contemporary trendiness where the worship seems like a strange hodge-podge. The last thing we want is to create a kind of “worship mutt” that pays lip service to different traditions out of a sense of obligation. At Hope, we’ve felt very led toward these practices. It has taken time, and thanks to the work of the Spirit, it seems to me that we have learned how to combine both old and new worship expressions in a way that doesn’t feel forced or awkward.

So yes, I believe there is a way for any and all churches to learn the disciplines of corporate readings and confessions. Yet, how and when this becomes the regular practice of a church will depend on discernment and patience. The dean of our chapel, Tryg Johnson, had already started movement in this direction before I started at Hope College four years ago. This campus ministry has always been committed to taking communion every week, but Tryg added the recitation of the complete words of institution when serving. He also started our habit of beginning each service by lighting a candle and invoking the presence of the Triune God, and he also initiated the practice of ending each service by singing the doxology. In the past two years we’ve added weekly corporate recitation of either the Apostle’s or the Nicene Creed along with corporate confession. This year we’ve also made a weekly practice of a ‘prayer of the people’ that encompasses prayer concerns both locally and globally.

All of this is principally a question of the liturgical shape of the wholeness of a worship service, an intention to guide worshipers through rhythms that continue catechetical formation. Most contemporary styled churches don’t have formal catechism, some type of believer confirmation. Some don’t even have church membership anymore. Yet, all churches, even a ‘seeker’ church, will need to somehow provide direction for believers to mature in their faith. It is interesting to note that the contemporary model tends to draw a distinction between the purpose of a sermon in relation to the rest of the service. The music is often used only as a call to worship, a way to warm the hearts and make worshipers ready and attentive to the sermon, and in this case the sermon then is the primary tool used to form the believer. This distinction does a disservice to both the music and the sermon. We consider the whole of the service to be worship and the whole of the service to be teaching—in some way forming believers into the character of Christ.

I don’t intend to offer an exhaustive explanation of these worship practices here, but I can tick through some of the ideas that mean a lot to me.

I appreciate that the direction we’ve been moving in is more intentional in being thorough in its worship leading. In my previous entry on “What Music Feeds Your Soul?” I listed various categories that fill out what I’ve called “Full Gospel Worship.” The point is that the local worshiping community needs to cover the whole amount of Biblical teaching. The task is daunting. While the non-denominational Bible churches that I grew up in claimed to be especially concerned about teaching the Bible, what that really meant was that they wanted the pastor to go much deeper into the exposition of specific books of the Bible. Compare this to the common practice of preaching the lectionary, a schedule that leads a congregation through the whole Bible in three years. The former expositional model emphasizes the depth of teaching and the teaching powers of the preacher. Further, it places the emphasis of the service upon the sermon as the high point of worship. The lectionary model emphasizes breadth of Biblical reading and places the sermon alongside the many important movements of the worship service.

We have chosen not to preach through the lectionary and follow the church calendar closely in the context of our campus ministry primarily because we are on break during the high holy days. Yet, we do want our worship to be as thorough as possible.

In terms of music, my concern is to find songs that cover a larger breadth of the Bible’s teaching. If we had an index of Biblical references for the bulk of most popular contemporary worship music, we’d find that most of our songs seem to be rather repetitive of a select few Biblical themes. What I notice most often is an overemphasis on the atonement, “Jesus, you died for my sins…your blood washes me and now I’ll spend eternity with you.” This is of course our Good News, but there are many other themes that a believer needs to regularly rehearse.

This brings me then to the help of corporate readings: these corporate readings help me frame the songs in a more deliberate manner that leads to more thorough worship. It is an issue of attention to worship language. How many of us listen to music but rarely concentrate on the language? I know I do. I had high school students who used to tell me this was their rationale for listening to hard-core hip-hop. I’m not talking about that kind of a lack of attention to lyrics (because I don’t know how it is possible to tune out such shocking lyrics). My concern is that while we may be aware of what we are singing, we may not fully engage the lyrics because we get lost in the emotions of a song. I’m thankful for corporate readings if only because they remind our worshippers that we really care about language. My hope is that we can do the readings with a pace that fosters alertness to all of the language used in the whole of the service. We want to lead our worshipers into a full worship: heart, mind, soul, strength. With this kind of attention, then the worshipers can see the deliberate connectivity that we have laid out between the music, the prayers and the sermon.

Speaking more directly to the importance of specific elements, let’s consider the value of corporate confession. The weekly corporate confession is a very tangible way for us to examine ourselves and receive forgiveness. I insert a moment of silence either before or after the reading to allow for a movement of the Spirit, for each individual to remember their sins. The advantage of confessing corporately is the awareness that we are not alone in our struggle against sin and darkness. We can take comfort in knowing that our brothers and sisters all around us are contending for righteous and holiness in their lives too. Finally, the best part of the corporate confession is the Words Of Assurance. Some may fear that corporate confession seems heavy and can lead to shame and soul sick guilt. The Words Of Assurance allow us to accept God’s grace and mercy which he so freely lavishes on us. Recently I’ve been drawing from Ephesians chapter one for this kind of rich language of our inheritance in Christ. Pronouncing the Words of Assurance is one of my favorite parts of the service.

There is much that could be said about the importance of the creeds. I’ll highlight two things: first it is the same question of thoroughness that I mentioned above. The creeds help us cover the core and yet full dimensions of our faith in summary form. Their substantial worth to the church is inestimable. Second, the creeds connect us with the church universal. There is so much division in the body of Christ that it is a joy to regularly rehearse the teachings that orthodox believers have confessed in common for centuries, across generations and cultures. The modern self—or the so-called post-modern self—is a person who is for the most part adrift without moorings for their identity. The driving forces of our culture are attempts to help the individual define him or herself out of the vacuum of the self. The creeds are sure footing because they help us maintain our participation in the ground laid by the witness of Christ through the church throughout the bulk of the church’s history. This is the testimony of our faith that many have articulated before me, that we have not created our faith just like any other cultural expression. Instead, it is our faith that creates us; it is our creedal confessions that make us essentially who we are.

I’ll conclude by confessing that I’m still really new in all of this. I’m not formally trained in liturgical coursework. I’m having to learn as I go, and the final result of what we bring together may not necessarily be the bread and butter of the Reformed Church in America partly because what I’ve come to understand is that there is variety within the RCA in how churches practices liturgy. My hope in offering these thoughts through the blog is to grab the attention of some (especially of our students) who may have perhaps never considered how thorough and beautifully intentional a service can be crafted, a kind of intentionality that does not constrict the work of God by stodgy ritualism, but instead works together to artfully demonstrate our collective love for Jesus.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Our tragedy and a remembrance

We lost two students on Sunday morning in a terrible plane crash. David Otai and Emma Biagioni were two of our brightest and most beloved. I knew David well and Emma in passing. I'm not ready to say much about the pain we are experiencing here, but since this is Civil Rights Awareness week on campus and since David, a beautiful Kenyan young man, taught me how to sing a song in Swahilli, a song that has helped shape my heart for growing diversity here at Hope College, I want to offer the prayer I wrote for the ending of our march of remembrance across campus today as a remembrance of him too.

This isn't the greatest prayer about these issues of reconciliation and healing. It is my first of its type, but it's been a significant experience for me to write it. I only wish I could have looked back in the group of gathered students, staff and faculty to see David's face. I borrowed loosely from a few prayers found in The Worship Sourcebook put out by the Calvin Institute of Worship, a great resource.

Friends, Brothers and Sisters,

As we gather here at the end of our march, it is no insignificant thing that we end with prayer. As we remember the courage of Yuri Kochiyama, Viola Liuzzo and Irena Sendler, as we remember the suffering of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. many of us want to do something, to take action and not to stand idly by while injustices continue all around us in this world, in our country, our own state and our city.

I am reminded of the life and work of the late Henri Nouwen, a brilliant scholar who left his teaching at both Yale and Harvard to serve physically and mentally handicapped adults in the Le Arch community in Toronto, Canada. In his book The Wounded Healer, Nouwen writes about his own experiences of solidarity with the poor in Central and South America. For Nouwen Jesus is our model of a full, complete human being, because Jesus is the consummate activist and contemplative. Jesus is the ultimate ‘wounded healer’ because it is only in Jesus that we see suffering fully answered by justice.

It is in contemplation and prayer that we reflect on our Gospel hope and gain vision for Gospel action.
In this spirit, as we remember these people of action, those who have suffered, it is appropriate that our first response before God is silence.

Would you please join me in a moment of silence.

Father of mercy,
open our eyes, that we may see the pain of others.
Open our ears, that we may hear their cries.
Open our hearts, do not let them be without help.
Let us not be afraid to defend the oppressed
because of the indifference of the strong,
Let us not be afraid of solidarity with the marginalized
because of the indifference of our society
and even the indifference of our neighbors.

Show us where love and hope are needed,
and use us to be agents of peace and givers of love.
Open our eyes and ears, so that today we may
help establish your kingdom upon the earth.

We hear the Spirit’s call to love one another,
to oppose discrimination of race, sexual orientation or gender
We hear the Spirit’s call to accept the other,
to love those we don’t know or understand,
to call the stranger our brother, the outsider our sister
and to share with them our homes,
our marriages, families and friendship,
to share our jobs, our churches and our government
and so to fulfill the love of Christ.

We give our thanks for the men and women
of the past and the present 
who in the face of loneliness,
monotony, misunderstanding, and danger
have persisted in their work of shalom,
to establish peace on this earth.

We pray to you, O Lord, our God and Father,
because we are encouraged by the example of Jesus Christ,
your Son and our brother. By the power of your Spirit
teach us to love as Jesus loved, to go where Jesus would go,
to touch those who Jesus would touch, to listen as Jesus would listen,
to bless as Jesus would bless, to forgive as Jesus would forgive.
And so we fix our attention on him, in who is life and whose life
is the light of all of humanity, unto him be all blessing
and glory and honor and power forever and ever.  AMEN

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Four Months & Six Days...Dexter Review

I'm counting the days until I become a father. Typing the word 'father' sends my gut a twinge of electricity. It is not that I haven't wanted to be a father, it is that up until the last few years, I haven't given it much consideration. Having children has always seemed like an inevitability, but not something that I have ever taken time to literally imagine. Like marriage, I am told, there is no way to fully prepare for this life transition. I don't find myself really wanting to do much preparation to Susanna's consternation. I just want the dern kid to get here already. Nothing in my life has seemed so wild....I'm contributing to the birth of new life. Weird. Wacky.

Susanna has been doing all the reading, planning, and advanced purchasing. We've got two strollers. One is a traditional one with the removable bassinet. The other is one of those for joggers to push their kids in. And we have a bunch of cloth diapers. Something like 20 different packages have arrived. All purchased second hand. I've come home to several different sets of different styles of diapers. Funky colors. Some with snaps. Some made from wool. That set could double as really nice winter caps. Can't you just imagine a little baby butt in this? I know she would appreciate it if I'd work more on the learning curve. I was never a very good student when it came to prepping for exams, and now I feel like a slacker again--just in a much more significant way. I won't be getting a "B" on a test. I'll just be more useless to Susanna and the poor kid.

Nine months really does create a visceral sense of anticipation.

We had our first chapel of the semester yesterday. I was nervous. That is the downside of such long holiday breaks. I get pulled out of my rhythms. The re-entry is intense.

We have our Winter retreat Friday night. I found a cozy cabin to rent in Saugatuck a few years ago. This will be our third year using it. It's big enough to give most of the 25+ us beds.

Other exciting things: *I finished a review of the television series Dexter for the Cresset. Click HERE to. *We finished What Strength Remains last weekend and cried for a good ten minutes. *Susanna is a finalist for yet another major book prize. She has been a finalist with this manuscript so many times that I really hope this one is it for her. Her current title for the manuscript is Entering the House of Awe. I think its a better set of poems than her first book. *I did spend lots of time on the Ordinary Neighbors record over break. I'm starting to really like what I'm hearing and that is a huge relief. I don't know when it'll be finished, but I can better hear what this project as a whole is going to sound like. Some favorite moments from my time in the studio: playing electric with a small rock I brought back from the Olympic Penninsula, singing harmonies through my classical guitar and best of all...sampling a lecture of Reinhold Neihbur where he talks about Agustine being the father of both Catholicism and Protestantism.