Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Death of the Local Church?

I promise: I was going to remain silent; I got this from Christianity Today, but I resisted comment. But then I read Jonathan Marlowe’s blog on the matter, and I can be silent no more.

Jonathan’s blog starts this way: “This is what you get when you divorce Christology and soteriology from ecclesiology. It is also the natural outgrowth of Barna's other books on church growth and church marketing. The gospel for Barna has become so privatized that the local church is no longer needed.”

Can I get an amen?

I know I’m starting to sound like an old fart, but we seem to be content to throw away any notion of corporate worship or church membership. We might as well ditch the Apostles’ Creed, any understanding about the universal church, what baptism into the Body of Christ means, and any other corporate understanding of church. Just give into American individualism and make Christianity the “Jesus and Me” religion and be done with it.

The critics will say, “Ah, you’re just worried about job security as a pastor.” To which I would respond, “Hogwash.” I imagine I could find a job to make ends meet. But will I find a place where faith, accountability, unconditional love, and worship intersect outside of the local church? I think not.

Barna writes of fictional folks who stopped going to church because they did not find a ministry "that was sufficiently stimulating" and "their church, although better than average, still seems flat." It sounds like people want to be catered to and entertained. Maybe so… but I don’t recall any definition of family or church that assumes those things.

I had a wonderful visit with a church member today; we went for a country stroll on this beautiful winter day, and talked about the blessings and necessity of the local church. How it keeps us centered, challenged, held, and loved. And we wondered aloud how in the world people get by without it?

Maybe it’s time for a sports analogy; I don’t recall any coach I ever had winning us over by being “sufficiently stimulating” and entertaining. Some days I felt chastised and unworthy; however, I can honestly say that I was always treated fairly and with the intent of bettering myself. The dependence and strength gained from fellow team members challenged me and encouraged me.

Giving in to Barna’s observations is to not only give in to American sentiment, but to validate it. I suspect we are not to render to Caesar in this matter, but rather to God. Privatizing the faith is not just a mistake; it’s blasphemy.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Sing to the Lord

Praise God with trumpet sound;
praise God with lute and harp!
Praise God with tambourine and dance,
praise God with strings and pipe!
Praise God with sounding cymbals…

- from Ps. 150

Music has always been a part of my life, from listening to my father play the piano in our home to swapping guitar licks with Carl Perkins and Steve Patterson (old Jackson, Tennessee friends). I was never good enough to make a living doing it, but I loved to play. More than that, I love to listen.

My brother has turned me on to the nearly forgotten music of Mason Proffit… the old days of John Michael Talbot and his brother. It’s religious, it’s political, it’s radical – and it speaks to the soul. As I get older and see folks seemingly more and more apathetic about so many things, I guess I find such music refreshing to my soul. It pulls me out of my occasional funks of depression and renews my soul.

Not that it has to be religious music. An Angus Young hard-blues guitar lick, an Elton John piano ballad, Robby Steinhardt of Kansas playing his violin along with a classic/progressive rock genre, hearing E. Power Biggs play a Bach organ fugue, listening to Andrea Bocelli singing Verdi… they all speak to my heart and allow it to soar.

Let all that breathes praise the Lord.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Elvis is Dead (So Are Carl and Johnny), But He Got His Revenge Last Week

I got in enormous trouble a few weeks ago; I made an Elvis crack in the pulpit, and how I thought Carl Perkins’s rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” was better than Elvis’s rendition of it. That was a bad call; my secretary didn’t speak to me for a day, and handed me a plaque that had a poll on the matter, showing that Elvis was indeed preferred over Carl by a few percentage points. I still maintain that Carl wrote it, therefore, he sings it best.

By Tuesday, I had the worse case of the flu I have ever had. “Elvis’s Revenge” I suppose. Two blogs below, I told you it was a 24hr bug. It's ended up being a 96+ hr bug.

I rarely get sick enough to have to stay home. But this bout of flu kicked my backside. I curled up on the couch in the fetal position, shook like a leaf from chills, didn’t feel like eating a thing, and tried to drink liquids in an effort to stave off dehydration. It's been a week, and I still don't feel 100%. As a result of staying home, I worried about things not being done at work. I worried about getting behind. And the worryfest continues.

Why? Why do we worry so much? Is it an innate protection device, or a device of our own making? I’m convinced that it’s my lack of faith in God. I could quote numerous biblical and wisdom quotations about worry… but I think in a Christian context that it comes down to a simple lack of faith and trust.

God has a way of getting my attention; in the past few days, I’ve found myself among some people who have undergone horrible ordeals of losing a job, finding themselves in a hospital, or in the midst of divorces. And yet they’ve found their faith and trust and God.

If they can, so can I. So can we all.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

One More Political Rant

Yesterday, I stayed home from the office and several church meetings; I felt awful. A 24-hour bug, I suppose, because I feel fine today.

Between chills and feverish hot flashes, I watched C-SPAN and the Alito confirmation hearings (yes, I was that sick!). I've never watched a judicial confirmation hearing, and if this one was any indicator, I'll probably never watch another one. Judge Alito actually didn't say much - he didn't have the opportunity. Our senators talked an awful lot, though.

I don't know much about Judge Alito, but I know a whole lot more about our senators than I used to.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

Worship in Our Time

I was tempted to entitle this “Contemporary Worship,” but I like the phrase a colleague of mine uses better: “Worship in Our Time.” The thinking is, any worship in our time could be defined as contemporary worship. What does it mean to worship in our time?

I don’t think it means to entertain people. Conversely, it doesn’t mean to bore people, either. The fact of the matter is that some people are “bored” by what I think is exciting. When it comes to worship, I love high church liturgy, I love traditional hymns, and I love Bach fugues and toccatas on a pipe organ. But it isn’t about me – it’s about the worship of God. And in the words of the 150th Psalm, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” That includes using tambourine, harp, pipe, string – and our voices.

So our church went out on faith this evening; while our morning worship services reflected traditional worship in a United Methodist Church, our evening worship took on a “Contemporary Evensong” look, with old and new hymnody being sung within the context of several scripture readings and opportunity for prayer, concerns, and thanksgivings. Our church’s youth director took the lead, and in playing and singing alongside of him I found my musical abilities were taxed to their limits. A good crowd came to worship, some out of curiosity, some out of church loyalty, and a few new folks who were drawn to a United Methodist Church “doing something different.” I began the service feeling nervous and uncomfortable – most definitely out of my comfort zone. When the service ended, I found it to flow with the Spirit. The older folks in the congregation were overjoyed to see younger folks. I needed the challenge. Above all of these things – God was worshiped.

When the pipe organ was introduced in Europe hundreds of years ago, people thought it was of the devil! When pianos started being placed in American churches, it was thought to be blasphemous as pianos were thought of as saloon instruments. When guitars began appearing in churches, they too were thought to be instruments of Satan, playing impure music that would most certainly lead us all astray. Yet all l of these arguments basically call the writer of the 150th Psalm a liar!

Singing a new song unto the Lord isn’t a new idea; a hymn doesn’t have to be 200 years old to be a good one. I need to remind myself of that.


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Politics As Usual?

I just read where Lynn Swann is going to run for governor of Pennsylvania. Yes… the same Lynn Swann that was a wide receiver for the Steelers. His fundraising efforts have even been dubbed, “Team 88.” My childhood football hero might become a state governor. I guess it’s no different than a former wrestler or movie star being elected.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff is in the news, too – and his scandal threatens to take down several congressmen. As if Congress didn’t already have enough trouble, with Bill Frist and Tom Delay both in trouble for other woes. Many are predicting a voter backlash as a result. But it turns out that some of the same top lobbyists (in terms of money) for Republican causes also turn out to be some of the same top lobbyists for Democratic causes. For tobacco producers, health care, communications and electronic industries, and the like, they’re always going to give to both to insure they gave to a “winner.” That proves to me that it’s more about protecting one’s assets to them. It’s far from simple, but the motive is fairly basic: we elect who will be best for us. That may or may not be the best for the country as a whole.

Political woes are nothing new, and they’re not confined to one political party. Bush (George the elder) and “no more taxes.” Newt Gingrich and broken promises to country and his wife (family values?). Reagan and Iran-Contra. Clinton with questionable campaign money raised and Zippergate. I used to be passionate about politics. Now, I’m no longer a Democrat or a Republican – I’m a Cynic (I checked Commonweath law, and there’s no such designation, so I’m an Independent on the books). I drag myself to the polls and feel soiled after voting. Some say you have to pick the lesser of two evils, but the lesser of two evils is still evil.

Years ago I heard Will Willimon (now Bishop Willimon) preach a sermon about rendering to Caesar, voting, and our faith. I found myself in agreement with most of his sermon, and it got me to thinking: if a Christian votes, how does he or she do it with Christian integrity? What receives priority: our Christianity or our American citizenship? Can we separate our faith and our politics? When given a choice, do we elect an inept president who is moral, or do we elect a president of questionable morals but an effective leader? Some say it is akin to a surgeon who is going to operate on your child; you could care less what kind of life the surgeon lives, you just want the best surgeon in the world to be operating on your kid. Others say that moral fiber is essential to national leadership. Hmmmm.

If the latter is true, politics and governing has got to change. It’s an old song, I know. But I think it’s a song that needs to be sung until the harmony sounds good. We shouldn’t settle for status quo faith; neither should we settle for politics as usual. I'm with Jim Wallis - we need politics to have a soul.

Render to Caesar… but be sure you render to God what is God’s.