Saturday, June 18, 2016

Why NOT Sing in Church?

A friend shared a blog post on Facebook, and he tagged me in the post—implying that he wanted me to read it. I think he wanted my honest opinion. So, here it is…

The title of the post is “Why WOULD Anyone Sing in Church These Days?” The author Jonathan Aigner is director of music at a United Methodist Church and an active blogger. Aigner’s premise is critical of contemporary music. He writes, “We began by changing our understanding of corporate worship. It’s not for the church, it’s for those who aren’t part of the church.”

Did we? When? Aigner is critical of Hill Song-style worship music. A quick internet search of “hillsong worship songs” yielded the following hits (these are the top five): “Broken Vessels,” “Christ is Enough,” “This I Believe,” “With All I Am,” and “Open Heaven.” The lyrics of the first song, “Broken Vessels,” start:
All these pieces
Broken and scattered
In mercy gathered
Mended and whole
Empty handed
But not forsaken
I've been set free
I've been set free

Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I'm found
Was blind but now I see

Oh I can see you now
Oh I can see the love in Your eyes
Laying yourself down
Raising up the broken to life

Full disclosure: I do not typically listen to contemporary worship music. However, I see the value in worship songs. Every hymn was new, at some point. A hymn like “Amazing Grace” was once part of 1779’s new hits.

Going through the remaining songs on the Hill Song list, to me, each one could edify a Christian just as easily as it could excite the spiritual imagination of a new Christ-follower. For lifelong Christians and new Christ-followers, the music will be most effective when it reflects sound theology. A worship song that refers to God’s grace as a “choice you have to make” is semi-Pelagian, giving a nod to works-based salvation, which is a heresy clearly repudiated by Romans, 1 Corinthians, etc.

Not all worship songs reflect sound theology. Some are insipid and repetitive. Worship leaders need theological education. In order to pick doctrinally sound worship music, theological education should teach ministers and worship leaders sound Christian doctrine. Hence, a Presbyterian worship leader will be comfortable picking songs with a Calvinist/Reformed theology, and a Baptist worship leader will be more comfortable with an Arminian tone. Methodists will see prevenient grace, “I once was lost but now am found.” Almost all traditions would be comfortable with that song, and many, many songs will satisfy most traditions. Spotting the difference is essential training for worship leaders.

Perhaps there are churches that have abandoned worship in favor of mass-marketing. Culture is cluttered with noise, pulling people in different directions. Churches have the opportunity to respond with the powerful good news of transformation in Christ. If there is no transformation, then what is the point of being a Christian community? God calls people move from where they are to where God wants them to be. Each person is on a journey of transformation toward of becoming a new being in Christ.

The blog that inspired me to write this makes other points, and I or another thoughtful Christian could respond to each one. The author likely intended to motivate people to have deeper worship. Christians are not called to dissect one another’s thoughts. Helpful critique can inspire people to have more meaningful engagement with God. And, that’s something to sing about!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Book Review—'The Art of Choosing' by Carlos G. Valles

My friend and mentor Stephen Brachlow gave me some of his books when he retired. Over the last few years, I meandered through them, pausing at some interesting titles, and occasionally stopping to read one from cover to cover. The other day, The Art of Choosing by Carlos Valles caught my eye. We all face choices, and as a pastor, people call on me to help them discern a path in a cluttered world. Valles’ book promised to offer help. The back cover listed its subject matter as “Spirituality/Self-Help.” What a combination! I was intrigued.

Carlos Valles (b. 1925) is a Spanish-born Jesuit who spent a half-century teaching and writing in India. He retired to Madrid, where he still lives and writes. He taught mathematics and wrote extensively in the Gujarati language. In The Art of Choosing, he explains that he began writing in English in order to improve his language skills. His style is practical and accessible. Anyone, including intrepid teens, will be able to follow the flow of Valles’ argument.

Valles has a unique author’s voice. Although The Art of Choosing (New York: Image, 1989) is one of his early books in English, he was already established as an author in India. He writes in conversation with the reader, as if I (the reader) know that he is an author, is writing a book, and needs to explain why he chose this subject. The opening is almost an apologetic for the subject matter, which was slightly off-putting to me, but other readers might not be bothered by it. After getting past the opening, the content is worth the effort.

Having lived in India since the 1950s, Valles dances between Christian references, especially to Ignatius of Loyola and Peter Faber, and Hindu spirituality. In the early chapters, there is an almost synchronistic flair to the movement between Eastern and Western religious references. He borrows wisdom from each, and the lessons he relates have an earthy tone. The opening lines of the book elude to a secular undercurrent. Valle writes:

When I told a friend I was writing a book on how to make choices, he cut me short and said categorically, “That’s very simple: First listen very carefully to what all others have to say about it. And then go and do what you damn well want.”

Few theologians would have the confidence or need to include profanity in the first sentence of a book. (N.B. That was only profanity in the entire book.)

The 135-page book is organized into fourteen relatively short chapters. Valles begins by defining choices, and he makes it clear that choices go far beyond the biggest decisions in life, although he does address some big choices, like his decision to enter the Society of Jesus. One of the most helpful chapters is “The Fear of Choosing.” He writes about the dilemma of making a choice. “It is a simple fact that when choosing one thing we must give up another” (20). Highlighting the Latin etymology of decision—decidere (to cut off)—he writes, “We dislike having to give up all the other choices equally possible till then” (21). Making decisions, even small ones, requires courage.

The following chapter, “The Mixture Within Us,” addresses the conflict that can take place when people face a choice. There are mixed motivations for everything, even when people refuse to admit it. Valles shares a biographical story about his decision to be a Jesuit. His decision was a mixture. Part of him felt called, but there were other motives too. His decision was based, in part, on inertia and the practical expectations of the people around him. For many years, he would have articulated his decision as “called by God,” as one would expect. Later, after extensive introspection, he realized the roles of inertia and expectations in his “call.” People ask “why” questions, when “how” is much easier to answer. Instead of being able to answer the question, “Why did you become a Jesuit?,” he would explain how he became a Jesuit.

Clergy, teachers, therapists, doctors, and many other people will likely identify with Valles’ honesty. I knew a young doctor who, when I asked him why he became a doctor, said, “I wanted to see if I could get into medical school.” It was later that he realized, “I’m a doctor.” I asked a retired urologist why he decided to go into urology; he said, “During medical school, I had a professor who specialized in urology. He made it sound so interesting, and, besides, most of our patients survive.” Both people entered a lifelong profession for practical, even mundane reasons. Valles gives voice to the practical, and in some ways, he blesses it.

Choices are a process. Valles develops an approach to this process. First, attempt to free oneself from all that can destroy the choice. Be open to the different possibilities. Second, connect with everything that is relevant to the choice. Be at peace with one’s own soul and God. Third, trust in oneself and God who guides. Valles approaches choices devotionally and in a friendly, paternal way.

I had not heard of Valles before this book and enjoyed it. The stories he relates will surely resurface in future sermons, and his proffered wisdom with decisions have already begun helping me in my spiritual journey.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mass Shooting in Orlando—Do our prayers mollify action?

The shooting earlier today in Orlando was horrible. The story will monopolize the news in the coming days and we will learn more than we ever wanted to know about the suspected shooter, his motivation, and his struggles. We will learn about victims. Some will resonate with us. They will become human and we will cry specifically for each life the shooter took. Each victim has ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God’ (Magee).

People heard the news at different times. My phone flashed “Deadliest Mass Shooting in U.S. History Leaves 50 Dead in Orlando Gay Nightclub.” The sheer magnitude of this shooting is different than other mass shootings. Fifty people. Compared to Hiroshima in August of 1945, fifty is paltry. Compared to the number of refugees who have died fleeing myriad issues in the Mediterranean, fifty is not terribly noteworthy. Compared to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, fifty does not represent a large number.

However, this is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. We did not need to set this record today. We have the tools. We have viable solutions. We could respond to the crisis of repeated mass shootings. Yet, we, as a nation, respond to the devastation of mass shootings with little more than prayer and heartfelt grief. Offering prayers for the families, and then doing nothing is heartless. Religious leaders encourage prayers. The President delivered a statement. Political candidates respond. Tom Brokaw seems to be one of the few people to suggest starting a dialogue about guns.

All of the prayers are wonderful. Prayer can change people. Søren Kierkegaard is credited as having said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” But, do our prayers change our nature? Or, will we return to business as usual within a few news cycles? Based on a decade of following mass shootings, my experience suggests that Brokaw’s call to start a dialogue will yield little results. We will return to normal life soon after the people of Orlando bury the last of the fifty dead people.

Why do we lack the capacity to change? Why can we as a nation not treat gun violence the same way we treat other causes of death? My call for dialogue is not an attack on firearms; instead, it is an invitation to reevaluate the issue. If people can have honest dialogue, they might start hearing one another. Gun rights advocates probably do not want to see more massacres. They might have ideas about how to stop them. Our challenge is to have a conversation without letting it digress into a heated, polemical, political, or violent spat.

I freely admit my biases: hunting rifles and shotguns make sense, but handguns and assault weapons belong in the trained hands of law enforcement officers and the military. If a person wants to shoot an assault rifle, the person can join the Army. This is my point of departure, but I would hope that I am not intractable in my feelings.

Recently, I saw the following picture on Pinterest:

To me, the weapon does matter. The shooters in Orlando or Newtown or so many other places would have had more trouble killing as many people if (a) they could not get access to a gun, in the first place, or (b) they had to carry in a hunting rifle or shotgun. Am I proposing something specific? No. I want to learn more, and I want to hear from others, especially people who disagree with me.

Will I pray? Yes. I will pray for God’s comfort for the people who have lost a loved one. I will pray for the perpetrator and his family. Most importantly, I will pray for the conversation about why this keeps happening. I will pray for the elected officials, that God will give them the confidence and courage to address this issue. I will pray for future perpetrators—the ones only God knows about—that they get the help they need and never become a mass shooter.

Let us pray for change.