Friday, November 22, 2013

Confessions of an Incomplete Liturgical Nerd

True Confession: I’m a liturgy nerd.  

I’m a sucker for good order, for letting Scripture “dwell in me richly”, for the beauty of a chanted kyrie (even if I can’t do it), and a reverent Eucharistic prayer that places Christ’s inauguration of the New Covenant squarely in the context of God’s entire salvation narrative beginning in Genesis, for a full-on cross-led procession in and out of the service.  I like this stuff because I think it points to Jesus.  I like it because it’s different, and it reminds me that, as a Christian, I participate in a reality that is simultaneously “not of this world” and also the most real of all realities.  I like the liturgy, and “high church” because it’s the Sesame Street method of learning the faith – lex orandi, lex credendi, and when we pray and sing and read the actual words of Scripture, over and over and over again, we learn them, we marinate in them, and the Word that goes out and does not return empty transforms us, slowly, deeply, over time.  I love the old hymns.  I love that they were written by people with a deep faith and love for the Lord, and I love that they were written to teach and defend the faith.  “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is a beautiful, haunting, lovely, deep, rich hymn – more so when you know that it was written in the 4th century at a time when the debate about the quality of Jesus’ divinity was raging, threatening to tear the Church apart.  In short, I believe in mystagogy.

I’ll be honest – I think that when we scale down or eliminate altogether the depth and richness of our liturgical heritage, of our hymnic tradition, of the Eucharistic celebration in favor of a couple spontaneous prayers, a few songs that were mostly written for performance rather than congregational singing, and a “message” (however orthodox and well-delivered) given from a “stage”, we have lost a lot. 

And I’ll continue to be honest – I think that a great many congregations that make the decision to adopt this sort of “contemporary” worship have done so in order to play to “what people want”, to take the easier route of creating an “on-ramp” to the faith that never actually merges with the rest of traffic rather than doing the (admittedly difficult) work of teaching appreciation of the historic patterns and language of worship.  That’s harsh, I know. 


True Confessions: I also love “contemporary Christian music.”  My alarm clock is set to KLOVE, it was Northwestern College’s radio stations that got me through seminary.  My “fav” playlist on my iPod is chock full of Lincoln Brewster and the Newsboys and Matt Maher and Brandon Heath and Sara Groves and Moriah Peters.  On Sunday morning I want “Lead On, O King Eternal”, but on Saturday night, what’s wrong with “How Many Kings?”

This is where my liturgical friends start to get antsy, I think.  CCM is so vapid, it’s so “emotive”, the theology is crap, it’s impossible to sing congregationally, it’s all 7-11 songs, “worship leaders” perform like they’re at a concert rather than leading others in worship of the Most High God, why do I feel like “Jesus is my boyfriend”, it’s unsacramental, etc.  I get it. 

These are all valid critiques.  Every one of them.  There is a lot of CCM out there that is garbage, especially if you subscribe to a sacramental, non-Arminian version of the Christian faith.  It’s part of why I don’t like CCM in worship – because it’s so hard to find music that is theologically acceptable and congregationally-singable – and even more so in smaller parishes with far less musical resources to support using it in worship.  Personally, I’d be pretty happy if I went my whole career without ever having to deal with that. 

But.  But, as a former pastor used to say, “the organ is God’s favorite instrument never mentioned in the Bible.”  There’s something slightly ironic about claiming to want the most ancient liturgies of the church revived – and played on an organ.  And even more than that, is the fact that culturally, the organ is rapidly falling into disuse.  Organs are expensive to buy (for new mission start congregations) and expensive to maintain once you’ve got them.  Organists are expensive to employ.  Very few congregations can afford a full-time, well-trained organist who can properly prepare for worship each week.  A goodly number of congregations are “getting by” with the (admirable, dedicated often heroic) efforts of near-volunteer musicians who serve the church as something of a moonlighting opportunity.   In no way do I wish to denigrate their service.  Most of them are hard-working wonderful people who love the Lord and love music and love serving their congregations in this way.  But most of them are also on the far side of their midlife crisis, and in 10 or 20 or 30 years at best, they will no longer be able to serve in this capacity.  Fewer and fewer people are enrolling in “sacred music” degree programs – the ones who do will have massive student loans to pay once they graduate, loans which will require a better pay/benefits schedule than many congregations can offer.  It’s chicken and egg, to be sure, but I don’t think that anybody has really come up with a good long-term solution. 

So what are we to do?  To oversimplify, there’s nobody left to play the organ, and all the non-organ music is crap. 

But, of course, not all non-organ music is crap.  There’s some that’s good.  Virtually all of Matt Maher ‘s work is fantastic.  Stuart Townsend rocks.  Some of Chris Tomlin is good.  Tenth Avenue North is usually pretty solid.   But it’s hard to get around the fact that if you’re from a sacramental (read: Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox) tradition there’s very little CCM that is acceptable.  Why is this? 

I have a theory: my theory is that we (traditional, liturgical, organ-loving worship nerds) have so wedded ourselves to Bach-ϋber-alles, that we have effectively suppressed the potential gifts of our own congregants, our own theologians, our own musicians.  “Styles” of music come and go – Gregorian chant sounds different than medieval choral anthems which sound different than antebellum fiddle songs which sound different than early 20th-century-jazz which sounds different than Elvis which sounds different than hippie folk music which sounds different than…well, you get the point.  So it stands to reason that modern-day writers and composers aren’t going to be coming up with the next Beethoven symphony.  They’d probably write something that sounds more like Matt Redman than Charles Wesley.  If we let them. 

But do we shout down “contemporary” so loudly that our high school youth who love music but not so much Isaac Watts think that if they wrote something that was Biblically and theologically sound we’d reject it out of hand? 

In recent years, I’ve really taken to Matt Maher.  If you don’t know who he is, think of songs like “Your Grace Is Enough”, “Christ is Risen,” and “Turn Around.”  He’s a sensation on the Christian music charts, he plays “modern-sounding” music that resonates with those less enamored of Martin Luther or Ralph Vaughn Williams.  And he is thoroughly Roman Catholic.  Maher’s songs are drenched in Scripture and liturgy, in the words of the daily offices and the wisdom of the saints.  They are theologically rich, and avoid trite “Jesus is my boyfriend” style clichés.  They open a new world of contemporary music to congregations who would like to use a particular style without compromising orthodoxy, they provide words for individual praise and prayer among the faithful.  And in a CCM culture that tends toward deep suspicion of “pre-written prayers” and sacramental traditions, especially Roman Catholicism, he has steadily been making inroads and building friendships and showing that the RC church isn’t scary, and it gets a lot more right than it gets wrong.  So, yay, Matt Maher. 

But it makes me ask – how many other “Matt Mahers” are out there?  How many grew-up-Lutheran (or RC or Anglican) composers and lyricists have we pushed to non-denom Baptist/Reformed circles because we explicitly and implicitly communicate that any music less than 200 years old (theirs) is inherently inferior?

Once upon a time, the pipe organ was new.  Once upon a time, Bach was but a gleam in his father’s eye.  Surely, because there is nothing new under the sun, once upon a time somebody thought that “kids these days” needed to stop trying to reinvent the wheel, when God hath so clearly ordained the psalms for the purpose of corporate worship why do you need anything different isn’t what we have good enough for you? 

I’m not giving up on my homeboys, Watts and Wesley.  But I love me some Matt Maher.  Someday my congregation isn’t going to have an organist (we only barely do now).  So how do we, who love and respect and honor the Tradition of the Church and the sacred words and music it has given us, also find ways to lift up and honor the gifts of today’s saints, as well?  If God has given them the gifts, then it must be because the Church has need of them.  What do we do with that?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Killing Me Softly

If for this life only we have hoped, we are most of all to be pitied.  

So in my post yesterday, I think I didn’t know just how deep the “pride” of “changing the world” ran, and it has been interesting to see and hear responses to related conversations on Facebook and elsewhere today.  Unfortunately, I also had the um, displeasure, of coming across the following article from The Lutheran: “Business as Usual is Off the Table".  Two quotes: 
“The pastor's work will be more community organizing and startup entrepreneurship, and less presiding at the table. That will require new skills, a new self-understanding, and a new tolerance for ambiguity, conflict and collaboration.” 
“Needs outside the door will matter more than customer satisfaction inside the door. The pushback on this basic change of focus will make battles over gender, sex and language seem incidental.  Privileged cohorts will protest; established leaders will protest; people accustomed to being served and flattered will protest.”
I'll take the second one first: Is the only thing we currently do "inside the door" "customer satisfaction"?  What of the "needs" "inside the door"?  The need to hear the Word preached, to need to have sins forgiven, the need to receive the Sacraments? All of that is simply "customer satisfaction"?  And anyone who protests is only doing so because they are currently "privileged" and "accustomed to being served and flattered"?  Are you fucking kidding me?  

Second, the first.  Let me be clear: I have been a “community organizer” and a “startup entrepreneur.”  My “past life” was staffing political campaigns.  I have worked everything from state legislative races to Presidential caucuses.  I have worked issue campaigns.  I have worked 80-hours-per-week one full year prior to a primary election, for the love of Pete.

All of my time on campaigns was in the “political” division (as opposed to finance, communications, or policy).  “Political staff” is in charge of “building the organization.”  My job, on each of these campaigns, was to do the following: recruit general precinct and county chairs, recruit county coalition chairs (think pro-life, farmers, veterans, hunters, etc), organize and drive turnout for “events” with the candidate (the rallies you see on CSPAN with the perfectly smiling veterans and perfectly hairsprayed-and-coat-hangered-into-submission American flags behind an enthusiastic candidate), find volunteers to doorknock and call and doorknock and call again every registered Republican in county after county after county, coordinate entries/walk in/find more volunteers for every last “Corn Daze” and Fourth of July and Memorial Day and Veterans Day parade I could find, secure locations for hundreds and hundreds of yard signs and barn signs and drive all over the state to drop them off and get them erected, coordinate with other campaigns on the ticket, as well as the state party, to make sure that we’re all on the same page and not accidentally duplicating each other’s work (which generally happened anyway), attend county party meetings and conventions on behalf of the candidate or the issue, be the ground-level public face of the campaign which more often than not means letting people complain at you about things like “if he was really a Christian he wouldn’t have said ‘damn’ in reference to mosquitos”, and in general, handle anything and everything that doesn’t involve fundraising or media.  

Bonus tasks: go toe-to-toe with (er… “tolerate”) the true wingnuts – and believe me, they are out there, have my integrity personally questioned by opposing candidates (“Do you really believe in him, or are you just doing it for the paycheck?”), carve out enough time to attend the earliest worship service on Sunday morning but be back in the office by 10 am, routinely stay at the office until 10 pm or later, rack up numerous speeding tickets, get yelled at by my boss when I can’t convince enough people to leave work at 2 pm on a Tuesday to attend a meet-and-greet with the candidate at Pizza Hut, watch totally unqualified people be promoted to tasks they are utter failures at only because they are sleeping with the campaign manager who is abusing campaign funds to pay for hotel rooms to be with her, collect name/birthdate/ssn of all 500 people who want to see the President at a rally, lie to farmers about gas mileage and engine damage caused by ethanol, never ever take anything remotely resembling a vacation, man the phones reminding people to attend a caucus 2 weeks away until noon on Christmas Eve, shall I go on?????

Some people can do this.  And I want to tread somewhat lightly, because there are people reading this, including some very dear friends, who have made careers of staffing campaigns.  They do it, and they do it well.  And being involved in our semi-democratic-sorta-republic is a good thing; our approximate political freedom is a gift from God, and so too, is the government in general (Romans 13).  Working hard for the advancement of worthy causes in the Left-Hand Kingdom is not inherently evil.  If God has called you to serve your county/state/country in this way, do it, and do it well, with honesty and integrity.

But for me, it was death.  It was death.  My mother used to call and ask if I had eaten lunch, and most days, I honestly couldn’t remember.  Yes, I worked 14 hour days, 6 days a week, and another 8 hours on Sundays, but who needs Sabbath or sleep when you’re jacked up on caffeine and adrenaline and paranoia? I yelled at elderly men to “walk faster” and would drive 2 hours at 11 pm to find extra cell phones for a phone bank the next day.  I accused my own mother of "giving up" when she refused to make GOTV calls after 8:45 pm on Election Night (polls close at 9:00).  I did conference calls at 6 am and 11 pm every day.  Once, a very cute boy tried to start up a “campaign fling” with me, and I turned him down not on moral grounds but because it would have distracted me from getting a whole city doorknocked for the third time through.

This life turned me quite literally into a depressed, paranoid, lunatic.  One year I was convinced the campaign manager had tapped my cell phone and was secretly listening to me share sob stories with my colleagues, testing my loyalty in advance of firing me “any minute now” for not being sufficiently “on board.”  On the day I decided to get help, I lied about doing event prep in a county near the border, and I crossed state lines to find a pastor who would listen because I firmly and absolutely believed that if I confessed how awful everything was to a pastor at my own congregation, he or she would tell everyone else in the whole church not to vote for my candidate, and we would lose the election, and it would all be my fault.  I don’t know what I said to that dear, sweet, godly man, but whatever it was, it was enough to get me the “suicide interview.”  

That life was death for me.  Politics – campaigns, elections, community organizing – is death, because it hopes for this life only.  It sees nothing but the next event, the next caucus, the next election, the next cycle, the wins, the losses, the reelects.  It cannot acknowledge or hope for the age to come, because to do so would be to admit that all the work, all the hours, all the energy, all the money, all the yard signs, all the convoluted policies are ultimately futile.  

And it took me a while, but eventually I got out.  I know, deep in my soul, what is to say that God lifted me out of the miry pit and set my feet firmly on the Rock.  I landed in seminary, where through a series of fits and starts, I ended up in the MDiv program, training to be a pastor.  Yes, sometimes I “work” more than I would like, or have to deal with stupid things or ridiculous people.  Sometimes I’m frustrated or sad or depressed or overwhelmed or overworked, but “on the first day of the week,” every week, I get to preach life.  Life, and life abundant.  I get to preach that every power which tries to speak death to the world has been defeated, that it cannot and will not win, because God has decided that even in the midst of the darkness – and oh, but it’s dark sometimes – even in the midst of the darkness, His light will shine, and it will never, ever be overcome.  

And if politics is a whore, then Jesus Christ was the powerfully gentle leader of the SWAT team, breaking down the door, cutting the handcuffs off the bedposts, wrapping me in swaddling clothes, and taking me home to a hot shower in a safe house.

So when someone – anyone – but most especially a leader of “this church” tells me that I need to do more community organizing and less presiding at the table, I feel as though they are literally taking my salvation away from me.  That person – those people – are attempting to re-enslave me, and to separate me from the only thing that ever freed me.  Yes, I react strongly.  But only because tonight I’m sitting on my couch, feeling like I’m not allowed to have Jesus, or preach Jesus, but only that I must go back to the place, to the life, that very nearly did me in.  

Is that what “this church” really wants me to do?  If so, then I was sold a bill of goods in candidacy, and at my ordination, and in my Letter of Call.  The prospect of returning to my old life brings me to tears, and yet the “leaders” in “this so-called church” seem hell-bent on pushing me back to Egypt.  Did my Lord deliver me only for me to die in the desert?  

“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”  ~ I Kings 19:10, 14

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Changing the World with Lentil Stew

So, apparently there’s now this new…group..or organization…or something…of “Seminaries that Change the World.”   
Seminaries that Change the World is an invitation to a generation of idealists, activists, volunteers and servant-leaders who have demonstrated a commitment to community service and social justice.”
According to this website (and I should note that mostly the reason I care is that my alma mater, Luther Seminary, is a part of this group), people should consider going to seminary as a route to changing the world.


The leading quote on the website is, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth,” supposedly uttered by Archimedes (about, um, physics, not metaphysics, but whatevs, right?).  Anyway…no quotes from the Bible.  Nothing about the words of Jesus or the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  Not even anything about a generic non-denominational, genderless “God.”  

All, 100%, totally in curvatus se.  So, definitely something Lutherans would want to be involved with.  (For those of you who are sarcasm-impaired, that last sentence includes a gigantic eye roll.)

Now look, if they wanted to throw some Jewish or Muslim seminaries (is that what they’re even called?) on this list, and then they’d need to back away from the Jesus stuff a little, okay.  I get that it is possible to be a trained leader in a non-Christian religion, and I don’t begrudge people that. (I think they’re wrong, but I don’t begrudge them, and I certainly don’t want to take away their religious freedom to believe and practice as they see fit.)  

But.  But.  All of the schools in the group are Christian.  

And Christians know – or at least, they used to – that the only person who has any real power to change the world is Jesus Christ.  Even if you’re operating from the perspective that “changing the world” is coterminous with “God’s mission in the world,” you still have to contend with verses like Phillippians 2:13, “…it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

It’s just not about you.  It’s just not about you.  Say it with me, Christians, it’s just not about you. 

Carl Braaten, in discussing the “Two Kingdoms Theory” says this: 
Historical liberation and eternal salvation are not one and the same thing. They should not be equated. The gospel is not one of the truths we hold to be self-evident; it is not an inalienable right which the best government in the world can do anything about. There are many people fighting valiantly on the frontline of legitimate liberation movements who are not in the least animated by the gospel. The hope for liberation is burning in the hearts of millions of little people struggling to free themselves from the conditions of poverty and tyranny. When they win this freedom, should they be so fortunate, they have not automatically therewith gained the freedom for which Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1).”
This is excellent.  It is utterly, and absolutely, perfectly stated.  Yay, Carl Braaten.  (Why, why, oh why are there no theologians like him left in “this church”?)  “Changing the world” is great, so far as it goes.  But if we learned anything last week from Jesus’ takedown of the Sadducees, it’s that “this world,” and all it has to offer, is not the last word, and it is certainly not the only thing we have to look forward to do.  

“Changing the world,” is, I suppose, a noble task.  But it is not, in and of itself, Christian ministry.  And Christian seminaries should know this.  If the best we can be about is “changing the world,” with a little sprinkle of Jesus on top, then what the hell are we doing????  

“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied….If the dead are not raised, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:19, 32)

Should seminaries be encouraging their students to live and practice the faith, and not just hunker down inside their own heads full of knowledge?  Of course.  Go forth, “change the world,” if that’s your thing.  So much good has been done, so much love has been shown, and so much gospel has been proclaimed in the concrete acts of love and mercy done by the Church throughout the ages, and let us pray that these might continue!

But these acts of love and mercy, of “changing the world,” have been done by a Church that was, as Braaten puts it, “animated by the gospel.”  By people who know that the death and resurrection of Jesus has already changed the world, and that we live and move and have our being on the basis of that reality.  Any so-called seminary that can’t see clear to that (and by choosing to associate with this “Seminaries that Change the World” it seems that they can’t) really doesn’t deserve to call itself Christian.  

Not only that, but the mission will ultimately fail.  Because “changing the world” comes from God, at the end of the day.  Because the problem with the world is not just that people aren't nice enough.  The problem with the world is sin, death, and the devil.  And the only - only - fix for that is Christ crucified.  Christ, and only Christ.  “Then the one who is seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”  Not – “Then the one who is a nice person said ‘go out and make all things new.’” 

A seminary that is teaching its students to paint a veneer of religion over the mission of the Peace Corps is trading its rich heritage for a bowl of lentils, Jacob-and-Esau style.  

May the Lord have mercy upon us, and may He come quickly, to at last, once and for all, “change the world.”