Should we hear other people sing at church?

I had a great time with our college students last night kicking off College Midweek, and had a great discussion of how we interact with one another in worship. Probably like most young adults, their perspective was “We like it loud, so that no one can hear us sing.” The argument is that we’ll be more enthusiastic in worship if no one can hear our missed notes or voice crack.  And I think that’s true.  As someone who is “tone challenged,” I know I get into it more when it’s loud.

That being said, there is something to hearing one another in worship, even in our imperfections. Two of my favorite blogs have brought up this question recently (Justin Taylor and Jon Acuff), each from his own distinct perspective, and it’s fresh on my mind. One of our students led the time of singing last night, the first time she had done so.  With only a small group of us there and no amplification, there was nowhere for her voice (or any of our own) to hide. While she did a good job musically (in guitar and singing), what stuck with me was how her singing came out of a place of honest emotion, and that was an encouragement to me.

As Justin Taylor points out in his post (linked above):

Paul says in Ephesians 5:18-19 that we are to be “filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”

Singing is a horizontal (in addition to a vertical) act. I benefit from hearing your singing not just if it is beautiful, but if it is broken.  It reminds me of the gospel. Broken voices reflect the need for a healer God.

What keeps us from singing loudly? For me, it’s shame. I don’t want you to know that I’m not exactly David Crowder behind a mic. That’s okay, though. In Christ there is no need for shame.  The God of the universe, who knitted together your vocal chords and your neighbor’s ears, wants to hear your singing.  You’re going to be shy because some mortal might find it less than perfect?  As Psalm 98 says, make a loud noise. Don’t be ashamed who hears it. You might bless the people next to you with your flawed voice more than the singer up front does with her perfect one.

What is marriage? (Matthew 19)

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Matthew 19:4-6

I’m speaking this weekend on marriage and divorce. I’m not an especially romantic man (shocked, I’m sure) but spending all week thinking about Jesus’ words on marriage have reminded me afresh of the amazing institution that I get to participate in.

We were young (maybe too young) when we got married. I was 22, she was 21. I didn’t know myself. I was 22. Yet I committed that the me that would be in 30 or 40 years from then would love the her that would be 30 or 40 years from then. As I think about how wrong that could have gone, I shudder. I feel enormously grateful that the woman I married has only become more loving, gracious, wise, brilliant, and beautiful with time.

But what if she had not? What if she had become petulant, grumpy, bitter, and cutting?  (I certainly am aware that I could have turned that way myself, too).  Now, you might think that this could be avoided by delaying marriage until 24 or 30 (or 40). But do we ever know who we will be in 30 years? Why make a lifelong commitment at all?

I have looked at a variety of statistics this week on divorce, and while they might differ on the exact extent, they all basically agree that divorce is widespread in both the general culture and the Christian community, suggesting that a great many people cannot (or at least do not) fulfill the “til death do us part” vow they made. These statistics (“50% of marriages end in divorce!”) create fear that often leads to defensiveness – we feel compelled to “protect” marriage, afraid that our children will see our example and abandon an institution God created in the earliest human relationship.  (Nevermind that humans in all places at all times have married, we must protect it!)

C.S. Lewis once said that a sign the gospel is true is that it has that peculiar quality that only true things have, that it is too odd to have been invented. It seems marriage is the same way. It is too odd of an institution, with too great of a natural pull, to have any origin other than from the divine. And if that is true, we must not be so silly as to put ourselves in a position of authority over it.

Why am I surprised when I’m confronted? (Matthew 18)

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Matthew 18:15

Here are some things I believe:

– I sometimes (maybe even often) do ugly things. I say ugly things. I think ugly things. I sin.

– Because Jesus died on the cross, my ugly things are forgiven by God. They do not define me.

– Still, other people see those ugly things.

– Some people in my life love me enough to tell me about those ugly things. They help me notice sin that I have become blind to or would prefer to ignore.

So, in light of all that, why am I surprised when I’m confronted?

Knowing that I’ll say, think, or do something (maybe many things) this week that are ugly, and that at least some of those things will be observed by people that love me, shouldn’t I expect someone to come to me and talk about it?

And since I’m already forgiven for those things, shouldn’t I (and other Christians) be the easy people in the world to confront?

Continue reading “Why am I surprised when I’m confronted? (Matthew 18)”

Why forgive?

“Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” – Augustine of Hippo

My sermon on Sunday is on Matthew 18, where Jesus outlines the process of establishing reconciliation when your brother sins against you.  It’s an amazing passage, closing with the brilliant parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

In the parable, Jesus describes a servant who owes his master 10,000 talents.  A talent was worth about 20 years salary for a regular worker, so figure $25,000 x 20 x 10,000 = $5,000,000,000. It’s a purposely absurd number for Jesus to use, and highlights the desperate situation of the debtor.

Can you imagine what you’d say to Visa if you were $5 billion behind on your credit card?  “Just give me another month”?  That’s the servant’s reaction. Yeah, like another month or two is going to make the difference.

Then something weird happens: the master forgives the debt, because he has compassion on the man that is $5 billion is debt. Impossible?  Of course.  That’s the point Jesus is trying to get across.  The sort of forgiveness God gives is impossibly extravagant.

The servant then goes out and finds someone who owes him 100 denarius.  A denarius was a days wage, and 100 was about a third of a year’s salary.  Using the $25,000 number from before, that means we’re talking about a debt of $8,000 or so.  The bummer is that sometimes people misrepresent this as “just a few bucks” or an insignificant value. The debt is significant.  $8,000 is a lot of money. Just not in comparison to $5 billion.

Why do I care? Because the debts people owe us (debts Jesus asks us to forgive) are real. Being sinned against hurts, sometimes extraordinarily so.  It’s not insignificant, but it can still pale in comparison to the debt we’ve been forgiven by the One who is perfect.

Why would Jesus want us to be like children?

Matthew 18:3 – “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I like kids. I think they have a number of admirable qualities. But for every positive quality they have (optimism, openness, honesty, etc), I could just as easily point out a negative side to that same quality (gullibility, selfishness, meanness, to name a few). So forgive me for saying that when I think of the ideal Christian, I don’t picture a 5 year-old.

Thankfully, Jesus’ endorsement of childlike faith came with an explanation of what he meant, found in the very next verse:

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (v. 4)

Jesus is not asking us to behave like children in all ways (or even in a multiplicity of ways), but in one specific way: live a humble life if you want to be great in Jesus’ eyes.

In the first century, kids were property of their dad, totally reliant on him economically, socially, and legally.  How is that different from today? There was no mandatory public school.  There was no Department of Family Services.  Your father could do anything to you he wanted, and no one stopped him.  After all, they were his “property.”

So when Jesus told us to have the humility of a child, that’s the world he was thinking of: just as children are totally dependent on their earthly fathers, so we ought to live life in similar humility before God.

The problem is that we don’t really like humility as Americans.  Imagine it this way: there are three friends who are about to move out of their parents’ home and get an apartment.  Sarah has been saving for months from her job at In ‘n Out, and works three nights a week there, til 2 in the morning.  She figures she can contribute $400 a month to the rent of the apartment. Melanie works at Starbucks every weekday, from opening til 10 am.  Thanks to her 4 am wake-up calls, she’s able to throw in $500 a month to a prospective apartment. Now the third roommate, Jen, does not have a job at all. She’s simply asked her parents to pay for her rent, and she has $900 a month to chip in, buying her her own room, while Sarah and Jen will need to split a room.

Whom do you respect least? Jen, right? Sarah and Melanie are industrious, hard-working women who deserve their own apartment.  Jen is just a mooch off her parents.

We want to live before God like Sarah and Melanie, hard-working and deserving of his love. Then, we want to be able to compare ourselves (favorably, of course) with deadbeats like Jen. 

But Jesus calls us to live like Jen. He provides all the grace that we need.  And not just us, but all around us, too, so there is not need to rank ourselves against one another (as Jesus’ disciples could never keep from doing).

Should we try to get people to like Jesus?

Recently I was listening to an ESPN podcast (Bill Simmons with Chuck Klosterman) in which the two hosts debated whether bringing one’s 5 year old daughter to an NBA game was appropriate. Klosterman then made a helpful point: The NBA is at its worst when it attempts to get people to like it who do not normally like it. Whether it’s the contrived contests during the breaks, the pop music going off in the background, or the creepy guy who says “The Laker girrrrrrls” (okay, I added that one), it’s all distracts from what’s actually there: a basketball game.

Klosterman briefly mentioned that this might be applied to other areas of life, including religion. And I think he’s right. Now, this seems weird coming from an evangelical pastor, I realize. We encourage people to “share” their faith all the time. But the idea of being willing to let Jesus stand on his own (without our “improvement”) is something very similar to what Jesus said: “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:14)

I desperately want people I know to become fascinated by Jesus, and I would go to great lengths to do so. But change him? Improve him? To paraphrase Meatloaf: “I won’t do that.”

Film and Theology: Alice in Wonderland

I had quite a hipster experience this week: some friends and I rode our bikes down (skinny jeans rolled up, of course) to the beach to watch Alice in Wonderland.  (For more on Long Beach’s great movies on the beach, click here).

(Spoiler Alert)

I enjoyed the movie much more than I expected (though it did make a big-headed ginger the villain – what’s that about?)

Here are the theological themes I noticed:

1. Free will – From the beginning, all the “good guys” (a mixture of talking animals and goofy but lovable humans) know that there will be a specific day when Alice will kill the evil Jaberwokie.  They have seen it foretold in the oraculum (a picture-scroll that shows them the future).  Even so, Alice maintains her free will throughout the story, making her own choices rather than following the destiny someone else has chosen for her (shown clearly through the nixed betrothal to a blubbering ginger boy in the “real world”).

At one pivotal scene, the white queen (Anne Hathaway) tells Alice that she must choose for herself, because it will only be her up there fighting.  In the end, Alice makes her own choice, and it leads exactly where the foreknowledge of the scroll said it would.  A very biblical idea, indeed.

2. Delayed awareness of mission – Much like Neo in the Matrix or the Penvises in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (and perhaps to a lesser extent Aragon in The Lord of the Rings), Alice is the last one to realize and acknowledge her chosen-ness.  While a noble and over-matched insurrection looks to her as their only hope, she insists she is not “the one” they are looking for.

Why is this a compelling narrative for us? There is clearly a tension in us, where we want to see her take her rightful place as a warrior, rather than living for the lesser things she wants to return to. We want to shout: “Don’t you see how important this is, Alice! You must stay and fight, not try to wake up or return to a trite life of waltzes!”  Perhaps we can say the same thing to ourselves: “You were chosen for a great mission, Bob!  Don’t settle for less!”

Tim Burton, you subtle theologian, you.

What I learned from Restaurant Impossible

Aside from ESPN, Food Network is my favorite TV station.  And even though their competition shows can feel contrived at times (“5….4….3…..2….1, TIME’S UP!  KNIVES DOWN!”), I can be a sucker for them.  One of the best is “Restaurant Impossible,” in which the hyper-aggressive but generally well-intentioned Robert Irvine tries to reverse the direction of a failing restaurant in 48 hours with $10,000.

So what did I learn about change in general from Restaurant Impossible?

1. Change requires pain – Every episode begins with a section on the owners and how much money they are losing (usually tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars), and how they will go out of business in a couple months, usually losing their home, retirement fund, and favorite pet cat in the process. Then they cry (they always cry), and promise they are willing to do anything to change.

2. Change hurts – At this point in the show, the host (Robert Irvine) shows up at the restaurant and bluntly describes all the things that are wrong. Now, since this is TV (and a reality show at that), he does this with a Simon Cowell-esq level of provocation, inspiring sympathy for the restauranteur.

Which brings up the central tension (and most interesting part) of the show: you know the restaurant must change (after all, it’s going out of business for a reason), and that the professional chef/host knows best, but you have to feel bad for the owner who is having their business and ripped apart, figuratively and literally, and with it his sense of self.

3. It costs more not to change – In order for the show to be compelling, it can’t just have endless resources to remodel the restaurant – then it would just feel to the viewer like Food Network took it over. Rather, the show imposes on itself a $10,000 and 48 hour window to bring about change. What is conspicuous about this is that the owners have sunk often 50 to 100 times that amount in making the restaurant a failure, though they have spread it out over years and not received the return on investment.

Sometimes I will talk to people who resist going to individual or couples counseling because they balk at the $120/hour price tag. But think of it this way: weekly therapy for two years with a good therapist would cost $12,000. Yeah, that’s a lot. But $12,000 (in the realm of the rest of your life), is a small price compared to increased earning potential or the cost of a divorce.

4. Change is rarely simple – The last ten minutes of the episode give the feeling of “It was worth it!” and “They’re going to make it!”  The restaurant is beautiful, the restaurant is packed, the kitchen staff are focused and reformed, and the owners are talking about how this changes everything for them. But if you stick around past the credits, the producers of the show provide a brief update on how the restaurant is doing since the episode was first filmed.  While some are positive, a number have reflected that the owners fell back into the same patterns that got them into trouble in the first place.

Makeover shows are all over TV (Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Biggest Loser, etc), and they all present the idea: if we give someone a second chance, and some tools and motivation to go with it, things can be different. However, change is rarely so simple.  Even if growth and change is moving in a generally upward direction over time, it only does so with many dips and turns backwards at times.