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Turning Point

I went off Prozac at the end of my sophomore year. God, that was wonderful. Antidepressants numb you and take the edge off your emotions, to stop you from being acutely miserable and wishing you were dead. But they take the edge off all your emotions, and you spend most of your time feeling like a tired, lazy zombie. So when antidepressants have done their work, and you stop taking them, it’s like cool mountain air after holding your breath for six months.

But I was still pretty numb and hesitant. Not about Christianity–like I said in the previous post, I still believed as a Christian, and still tried to basically live like one. I just kept my distance from the emotion of it all. And I felt guilty about the distance I was keeping. I believed, as I always had, that I should have been all in, enthused and excited. But I was worn out. I envied the hand-raisers in chapel, and the people who seemed like they had close, deep relationships with God. I was even a little–not very, but certainly a little–bitter. That sincere, enthusiastic worshipper used to be me.

One time in the chapel, the music team was playing a song. I don’t remember what song it was, or if it was contemporary, or a hymn. I don’t remember if the occasion was the morning chapel service, or the weekly evening worship service. But I will always remember the acoustic guitar being played gently, then building, until the lead singer was basically pounding on the thing. I’ll always remember that when the lead singer started playing really hard, he went from singing the straight melody, and powered the chorus (or bridge or whatever part of the song it was) through an improvised line about a third or more above the melody. I’ll always remember that as he started doing those things, hands went up everywhere. And I’ll always remember all of those things because of one cynical, slightly bitter little thought that popped into my head: are those hands responding to the Holy Spirit, or to the chord progression?

I can’t know what was causing the response of everyone in that chapel. The cynical part of me would like to say that everyone in there was just being emotionally manipulated by the music, but that’s unfair and condescending to everyone in there. But I can say that in that moment, I realized that so much of what I had been responding to for all those years was the music. The presentation. The same songs done by less talented musicians would have evoked so much less of that feeling which, as I wrote in the previous post, I believed was worship. Those sermons, based on the same text, with the same points, but written and delivered by less gifted people, would not have inspired that same tingle that I associated with God’s love and forgiveness. It wasn’t that I had been uber-close with God at my old church, then because of my sinfulness or lack of holiness, I drifted away from Him during college. I had just been deceiving myself about how close I had been to God in the first place. I thought I was feeling the Holy Spirit, but really, I was just feeling the music.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not blaming my old church, and I’m not bitter towards them. They taught me that God loved me, and that though I am a sinner, He forgave me. They gave me my first inklings of the church calendar, of church history, and of theological depth beyond “Jesus loves you, so don’t get drunk and have sex.” I learned to take Christianity seriously in an intellectual sense as well as a personal one. They taught me orthodoxy, and gave me hints of orthopraxy, with the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed and the corporate confession of sin. I met good, holy people at that church, and I am a better person for the time I spent there.

Worship at the Speed of Life

The biggest problem with my conception of worship while I was evangelical was nothing my old church had taught me. It was my understanding of the role of emotion. That feeling that I had during church was, I believed, an encounter with God. And encountering God changes people. So when I had that feeling that a well-executed church service inspired, I believed I was encountering God. I believed I was being edified, cleansed, even sanctified. In short, I treated emotion, or emotional engagement in worship, as sacramental. So of course, going from an exciting, goosebump-inducing rock and roll service every week to Doris faithfully playing the piano every week (just like she’s been doing since the Eisenhower administration) would result in a period of spiritual dryness. If emotions are sacramental, then to be removed from those exciting, emotional services is something like excommunication. My error–which I think is probably very common in evangelical circles–was to treat emotional engagement in worship, and in Christianity in general, as sacramental.

But that’s an exhausting way to live. And it’s divorced from reality. I used to try to get juiced up on Sunday morning, then ride the wave through as much of the week as I could, until the next Sunday. But does that reflect the way of the life for which Sunday morning is supposed to prepare us? Let’s be honest–how often is life really exciting? How often does life produce extreme joy, or earth shattering, life-altering tragedy? Something far less than once a week. Does work produce previously unknown ecstasies of human experience? Does coming home to loved ones at the end of the day bring us to tears of joy? No. Occasionally, life is a thousand foot cliff with jagged rocks on the bottom, or a mountaintop experience rivalling the Transfiguration; but most of the time, its slopes are gentle, predictable, and unremarkable. Life is a largely mundane affair. Even the events that do hit us the hardest are common. The best day of someone’s life, predictably, is the day they got married, or became a parent. And the worst day usually involves a death. How is worshipping in a way that attempts to scale unknown heights of emotion or revelation every week helping us live the life that God has given us? If we’re having life-changing experiences on a weekly basis, is our life actually changing?

This is not to echo the cry of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes. Mundaneness is not meaninglessness. Far from it. The mundane is often the most meaningful. Coming home to loved ones at the end of the day isn’t life-changing because we are brought to our knees with waves of love and joy every time we do it. It is life-changing because we do it every day for our whole lives. How boring. How mundane. How beautiful.

And that is why I like boring churches. It is worship at the speed of life. It doesn’t attempt to get a lifetime’s worth of soul-saving done in a single moment. It understands that its work takes years–in fact, it takes a lifetime. When people read the Bible and don’t sound excited or urgent, maybe its because they don’t care about Christianity. Or maybe because they are content to let the Bible soak and take time to do its work. (Or maybe because they didn’t sleep well last night. Why are you judging them?) In Peter Pan, Peter is a hero because he flies and fights pirates courageously. But we forget that the kind of courage we are called to is far more like that of Mr. Darling than Peter Pan. The worship I desired was the type that would prepare me so that in an epic spiritual battle, the Devil couldn’t take my soul. But I didn’t know that the Devil prefers to take souls with heavy courseloads at school, or relationships gone sour, more than with epic spiritual battles.

So here’s to worship that doesn’t try to change your whole life all at once. Here’s to worship at the speed of life, even if that speed isn’t always exciting. Here’s to remembering that still waters run deep. Here’s to boring churches.

I like boring churches.

I like it when the person giving the sermon isn’t very engaging, or has an awkward speaking style. Part of me feels warm inside when a priest reads a prayer, and he sounds a bit sleepy, or bored. When the Bible is read, and there are arbitrary pauses, after every few words, regardless, of the sentence structure, of the passage…I feel a little bit safe. Songs with melodies that weren’t catchy at any point in the 20th century, sung by someone with an okay voice and the stage presence of a three-toed sloth, will never let me down.

Growing Up

Through middle and high school, and for about a year and a half after college, I went to a church that increasingly was a production. Now don’t get me wrong–as far as contemporary, evangelical churches go, it’s solid. The people who run everything there are all very godly people. The theology was pretty deep, rarely trite, and nearly every sermon came back to the love and forgiveness of Christ. The church’s overall vision is not the masturbational model of building the Kingdom by building itself into an enormous juggernaut with more amenities than a YMCA. The pastors frequently encourage people to get into local community ministries, and the money that could have built a gym or a state of the art sanctuary went to India to build a school. But, the services were definitely a production.

The musicians were very talented. The music director had played professionally for over 20 years, and was a genius on guitar, and drums, and keyboards. At first, he was the only really, really good one out there. But by the time I left, the entire band was made up of professionals, and they’d played together long enough to build a really good rapport. Whatever feel they were going for–fun, or rocking hard (I mean, for evangelical baby boomers), or emotive, or quiet but beautiful–they would nail it, and sound damn good doing it.

The pastors all gave pretty good sermons. They caught your attention. They were honest and reflective. They were creative and unpredictable. And they built into a powerful, fairly energetic, extremely sincere reminder that God loves you, that He died for you, and that your sins are forgiven. They were moving. And after the sermon had pretty well softened you up, the band would come on and play the perfect song, exactly the way it needed to be played, for maximum emotional impact. Quick benediction, and out you went, reeling from the experience.

I loved it. I craved it. I thanked God for that church. Every Sunday, I tried my best to savor the way I felt, and to sustain that feeling through the week. When I prayed during the week, I remembered the impact of Sunday morning, and tried to cultivate that feeling in my prayers. I wanted the words “You are forgiven,” to be as impactful on Thursday afternoon when I prayed or thought them to myself, as when they were spoken with sincerity, assuredness, and carefully restrained passion at the climax of a sermon. And every Sunday, I would go back, and feel that way again.

That feeling, I believed, was worship. It was the presence of God’s love and approval. It was that for which we had been designed. It was the height of what a human could experience, and in a sense, the entire aim of the Christian walk.

Then, College

Grove City had churches aplenty. There were three Presbyterian churches within a five minute walk of the campus, and a fourth was started by the time I graduated. And that’s not even getting into the other denominations.  There were plenty of options, and I looked at a lot of them.

But none of them offered the experience that my old church offered. Some of them tried to go that route, but they weren’t half as polished, and even less effective. And some of them didn’t even try to create an experience. They’d have hymns, with Doris or Mary Ethel banging away the melody and chords on the piano like she had for the last 62 years, and a sermon. That was it. The traditional stuff briefly had a bit of cool factor, because it was different and quaint. But once I got used to the format, it ceased to make an impression. I missed my old church for the passion it engendered and for the energy it had put into my daily spiritual life.

Because you see, my daily spiritual life had started to fade and dwindle. Without that weekly energy shot and reminder of God’s love and forgiveness, daily prayer became dry. When I felt evasive, it was a chore to be shirked; when I stopped and actually allowed myself to be open and honest (which was becoming increasingly rare), it was a mirror that reflected back a barren, unsatisfied image that I did not enjoy viewing. It used to be that I really, intensely, almost palpably, felt God’s love and forgiveness. Now, I felt like something must have been wrong with me to have forgotten that feeling, that worship, that closeness with God that had been so ever-present at my old church. That guilt made me hate daily prayer. So I avoided it, and promptly felt guilty about that. The spiral consumed me, and there were points when I truly wished I was dead. I spent most of my sophomore year of college on antidepressants.

Despite all this, I still went to church every Sunday. It wasn’t like I ever started hating church; it had just lost its relish. Now that I think about it, it’s very possible that, if it hadn’t been something I did every week with my girlfriend, nonchalance towards church and laziness in general might have caused me to stop going. But I did still go. I was still a Christian, and it was a habit. I didn’t have any high expectations of the service–no mind-blowing spiritual revelations, no powerful, intimate moments with God during the music, or anything like that. Just okay songs, done by okay musicians, and an unengaging, but not especially boring preacher saying things I already knew. I didn’t care that the services were nothing special, because I was a bit burned out on spirituality. (And because making you not care is what antidepressants do.)

Bieberianity

There’s been a lot of talk about how we can get the economy up and running again. Well I’ve got an economic stimulus plan that has been proven time and time again. Sell pop culture, but make sure the label says Christianity. The money will flow like booze at a frat party.

“Justin Bieber: Never Say Never”: Will Paramount’s Christian outreach program get young men to see it? I’ve copied a few excerpts below.

Paramount has held 20 screenings in 20 markets at the end of January for Christian leaders, some of whom then offered written endorsements, arranged group ticket sales for their fellowship, or requested a copy of the study guide produced for the movie titled “Never Say Never: For Nothing Is Impossible With God.”

Execs recognized that the film’s message of hope and Bieber’s strong Christian beliefs, about which both he and his mother Pattie Mallette have spoken extensively, were an opportunity to reach out to the faith community. The study guide is a collaboration between Bieber’s mother and Allied Faith & Family, an arm of Allied Integrated Marketing…

Indeed, marketing to Christian groups became quite popular post-The Passion of the Christ…

So how effective will Paramount’s efforts be for this film? The study guide made its way into the inbox of Sean Meade, who serves as the National Network of Youth Ministries‘ national coordinator for middle school groups and also runs an organization called Stuck in the Middle, which holds events for middle school-aged students in the U.S. and Canada and does training for youth pastors. ”Big picture, I know a lot of people are planning to use this movie within their ministry,” he tells EW. “I work specifically with middle school students and with youth pastors who focus on that age group, and if you have middle school girls in your group, they’re gonna go see the Justin Bieber movie, and they’re gonna be talking about it, and those themes are something that really resonates with that early adolescent age. Youth pastors want to be talkin’ about this with their kids.”

I suppose I could write an essay explaining my thoughts about this, but I will simply offer these three quotes and allow the reader to infer what I think.

“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of robbers.'” Matthew 21:12-13, ESV.

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Johann Tetzel

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” (incorrectly attributed to) P. T. Barnum

This article was in the Sunday edition of my local paper. My dad pointed it out to me in the hopes it would bug me. Does he ever know me.

For those too lazy to click on the link and/or read the article, here’s a summary. It’s a Christian weight loss program called “Thin Within.” At TW, people don’t lose weight; they “release” it. It’s like losing weight, but spiritual and tingly. “‘Thin Within’ deals with your heart,” said Kathy Joyce, who leads the program at a church in Kannapolis. “God is dealing with your insides, and what happens on the outside is a result of what happens inside.”

You know, there’s nothing wrong with Christians losing weight. It’s good, healthy, and difficult to do. And if people are losing weight and feeling good about themselves, wonderful! I applaud them for it.

But why, dear God why, must we Christianize it? Why can’t we just lose weight like normal people?

It’s like that with everything, these days. If Christians want to do something, they don’t just do it. They form a Christian group to do it–and then they do it. Struggling with debt? There was all kinds of good financial advice out there before. But we need Dave Ramsey. Lots of people have lost weight with Weight Watchers, but we need Thin Within, or maybe the Daniel Fast. Need a prepubescent pop star? There’s Justin Bieber (unfortunately), but here’s Johnny Hammer. And how many Christian businesses are there that function just like normal businesses, but mention Jesus in their mission statements?

See, that’s what bothers me. It’s not people losing weight, or getting out of debt, or listening to music. Those are good things, and part of being human. It is the spiritualization of something that, inherently, is marginally spiritual at best, and that does not need to be Christianized to be legitimate. Vocation, and doing the nonreligious parts of life well, require neither justification nor explanation.

For me, the money quote that highlights the silliness and the danger in all this, comes as Joyce is talking about people who are unable to keep weight off, and have been through the program many times:

“They’re not willing to give up that food and wait for true hunger or stop at satisfaction,” she said. “They are so used to following weight-loss rules and measuring because they’ve lived a lifetime with that type of dieting. This gives you total dependence on God and listening to your body.”

What bullshit. What goofy, heretical bullshit.

Weight loss as a means to dependence on God? Or is it dependence on God as a means to weight loss? Please. You aren’t trying to lose weight because you want total dependence on God; you’re trying to lose weight because you want to lose weight. And that’s okay. But don’t go bringing your relationship with God into this, or you will be in danger of turning the Gospel of Jesus Christ into something petty, worldly, and self-centered.

Jesus didn’t die so the Body of Christ could be well-toned and have tight little buttcheeks. And He doesn’t sanctify you so you will have the self-discipline or willpower or self-denial to lose weight and feel better about yourself. He wants to redeem humanity, not your waistline. He didn’t die so you could be everything you want to be–debt-free and in shape. He died to bring you into Himself–to make you a creature very much like Him. The kind of person you would like to be, even if there is nothing wrong with that person, is not what Jesus wants to make you into. And the church needs to stop giving voice to the lie that the good person you wish you were, and the person Jesus is creating, are the same person.

Thoughts on Legalism

I follow the conversation over at Internet Monk daily. The posts are always insightful and brimming with grace, and the commenters are intelligent and thoughtful. It gives me hope that the Internet can be something other than ignoramuses throwing poop at each other.

The other day, they had a post regarding how to get people to show up to special church services, such as Christmas Eve, Good Friday, etc., without being legalistic. The moderator’s opinion was that these services were important, and that people should make their schedules fit the church’s, and not vice versa. But how do you encourage people to do that without being a legalistic jerk?

It made me think about the way we think about and perceive legalism. And it led me to write on this particular hypothesis which has been in my head for a while now. Accusations of legalism, more often than not, reveal more about the accuser than the accusee these days.

As always, please view this statement in light the historical context we are living in. I am not saying that there aren’t or haven’t been legalists. You might recall that the people Jesus bashes the most are the Pharisees. I just think that today, in this current age, accusations of legalism are, more often than not, unfounded whining. We live in an individualistic culture. We grow up hearing about our rights, about freedom to do as we please. The government offers up anti-obesity initiatives, and we don’t respond with “That’s probably a good thing, because there’s a lot of fat people who are dying simply because they’re fat”; we respond with anger. The government has no right to tell us what to eat! If I want to be stupid and eat 70 boxes of Twinkies for breakfast before smoking a whole carton of cigarettes then that’s my right! Please don’t think I am making a political point one way or the other. I am just pointing out that we believe, moreso than most ages in history, that individuals can do as they please, and if you don’t like it you can kiss my (increasingly large and mushy) ass. And we carry that individualism with us everywhere we go, including church.

So when the guy up front says that we should go to a special church service, that we ought to make an effort to attend, because it’s what Christians have historically done and therefore a good thing that we ought to do, we bristle. Never mind the back-breaking commands from our job or our kid’s soccer schedule that we submit to, without question, every week. What right does that guy in the collar or the suit have to tell me what to do? So what if I don’t go–is it a sin? You have no right to impose that on me! What a Pharisee.

Why do we ever ask the question, “So is it a sin if I don’t?” I think that can reveal a lot about our true motives.

Do we ever think that maybe the problem isn’t so much legalism in others, but a lack of obedience in ourselves? Because that’s where Christianity tells us to look for the flaws–ourselves, not others.

Individualism runs counter to commandments. And commandments are part of Christianity. They must, must, MUST be viewed in light of what Christ has done. And there is so, so much browbeating and guilting that can go on in church. But sometimes, guilt is legitimate. We are sinners, after all. And sometimes we just need to obey.

The rock of the 1960s was revolutionary. The rock of the 70s was virtuosic and could be prone to self-indulgence. In the 80s, it became commercialized, synthesized, and downright narcissistic. And in the 90s, Kurt Cobain looked across the music landscape, saw the commercialism and narcissism, and made rock nihilistic. Then he saw his art become a commercial product itself, and shot himself. The nihilistic, I’m-no-good angst quickly became a product, and reached its cynical, artless nadir in bands like Creed and Nickelback.

But looking at the history of philosophy, the response to nihilism was existentialism. People refused to believe in nothing. I think it’s fair to say that in indie music, there is a bit of existentialism in response to music’s recent nihilism. And it is in this light that I am interpreting Mumford and Sons.

This is music that believes in something, that refuses to surrender to despair. In the title track of their latest album, Sigh No More, the singer acknowledges his faults and frailties (“My heart was never pure/You know me”). But he doesn’t wallow in his humanity, nor is he trite about it. He celebrates it: “Love, it will not betray, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free/Be more like the man you were made to be.” The guitar sets a percussive rhythm, the banjo is frenetically joyful. The foot-stomping kick drum is completely unironic; it’s the pounding heartbeat of someone realizing that a lover they thought was gone forever has returned. It’s a sunrise, and wonderfully sets the tone for the rest of the album.

The music is sincere, and brimming with life and energy. Absolutely worth a listen.

On the eve of the Rally to Restore Sanity (which I’m going to! Hooray!), there have been some people asking whether it is simply a get-out-the-vote effort for the Democratic Party. Others, too, have expressed the fear that it could become political. And that certainly is a danger; viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report do tend to lean to the left. And the Democratic Party would love a bit of momentum to stem the Election Day shellacking they are likely to receive, and would love to use this rally to gain momentum.

I really hope that doesn’t happen. If the message of Stewart and Colbert became politicized, it would be terrible for America, because their message is exactly what our national discourse needs. Consider these two videos: the infamous head-stomping at a Rand Paul rally, and Keith Olbermann’s Glenn Beck-esque declaration of the Tea Party’s intention of bringing back Jim Crow and hanging union leaders.

Both sides are losing their damn minds. The increasing hysteria only serves to allow one side to hysterically point out the other side’s hysteria as proof that the first side is the non-hysterical one. And the media, conservative and “lamestream” alike, treat it like a boxing match, without ever asking why they give the hyperventilating fools a platform. What do they care if the country goes to hell? It makes for great TV.

In the midst of this stupidity, Stewart and Colbert point and invite everyone to laugh at the stupidity. And in the midst of the laughing, they hit on a pretty important idea: the governance of the country is not a reality show or a sporting event. It should be more grown up than this. While we laugh, we stop and realize, hey that’s a good point.

That’s why I’m going to the rally. Because it invites us, after we’re done laughing at stupid people, to realize that America is bigger than an ideology. We’re attempting to “create a more perfect union.” You know, union–like a marriage. And unions don’t work out when the husband is stomping on his wife’s face, and the wife says her husband wants to bring back Jim Crow and hang union organizers. You have to stop the name-calling, and try to see it from the other person’s side, and admit that sometimes you’re wrong, and work out a livable compromise. That’s what the rally is about. And that’s why I’m going.