The Something Wrong

a.k.a. “There’s something wrong with traditional hymns and I just figured out what it was.”

It was a Wednesday evening service. It was late – towards the end of the very last hymn-singing services that they would ever hold. The youth group was in the sanctuary flipping through the hymnals for songs that the praise band would play so we could all sing them together. #10 – ‘How Great Thou Art’, #317 – ‘Only Trust Him’ and #410 – ‘It Is Well’ had already been sung. “Why are there around 650 hymns in this book if we only ever sing about two dozen or so of them at the most – counting seasonal Christmas hymns?” I asked myself as I started at the last hymn and worked backwards looking through the lyrics for something meaningful. When I found the perfect hymn, I raised my hymn and confidently requested number 500 something. The praise band shook their heads when they realized that I had chosen one of the hymns they had never heard of in all of their life-times combined. They gave me another chance to choose a different hymn; #187 – ‘In the Garden’ was the one that we compromised on.

Some years later, singing hymns reached an all new low for me when we ended up at a church where we had no choice but to sing hymns a Capella for a few Sundays in a row. I couldn’t understand why everyone else had warm, fuzzy, happy feelings about singing these same old hymns over and over again when within me there was a growing sense of frustration, of dread, and while I was smiling on the outside, I was crying deep inside. I was desperately crying out for something, anything to fix what was wrong.

Contemporary Music proved to be as refreshing as an ice cold bottle of water in the middle of the desert, as restorative as Aloe Vera gel on burnt skin, and as wonderful as an evening spent gazing at the most starry sky I’d ever seen all wrapped into one experience. It helped me to learn that while I can’t read sheet music, I can still sing the notes even if I don’t know what they are. That I can actually sound good when I sing even if I don’t know how. That songs can be in words I understand because I use them day in and day out. (Granted, I like the word thither, but there’s not a lot of opportunity to use it daily.)

My current church is a hymn-only church. They do contemporary songs as a choir special on occasion. Since I’m expected to quietly sit and listen, I don’t get to join in and that takes some of the fun out of it for me. So I’ll be the one listening to my MP3 player with my favorite contemporary music on it. You don’t have to like my music and that’s okay with me.

I’m not asking that you completely get rid of hymns – I’m just asking you to get rid of certain expectations. I’m asking you to get rid of the expectation that I know the hymns that you know, that I grew up singing the hymns that you grew up singing, that your favorite hymn happens to be my favorite hymn, and that I once sang Kumbayah around a campfire at summer camp because that’s something you did.

I’m not the only one – on a scale of 1 to 10, my brother’s dislike of hymns was an 8 because they were old. My mother said that they were terrible musically, terrible vocally, and that they were old too – she gave them a 9.5. As for me, I’d have to say I’m at 9, I dislike them with the fiery burning passion of a thousand suns. Between the repetitive devotion to a handful of hymns, inclusion of hundreds of hymns only to ignore them, the difficulty of singing songs given an inability to read music, and then there’s that something wrong.

I don’t feel it so much at the current church, but the old church was worse about it. It was the primary reason I was happy to get out of there. It feels like being the person who is wearing the wrong thing at the wrong time and the wrong place. Like everyone can see that you just don’t belong and wondering how you could have possibly missed the memo. It feels like being a person who talks the wrong way. Like everyone thinks that every word you say is too slow or mispronounced. It feels like being a person who shows up at a party they weren’t invited to. Like there’s an awkward silence and a palpable tension in the air. All of this is felt in my core when the dusty old hymnals are pulled up from the pews and they creak open to the creases where the same song is sung so often that the book naturally opens up to that page. I look around and see joyful anticipation and happy exhilaration and glad elation. I feel none of those things. That something wrong is something I don’t think hymns can fix. Neither is pulling up stakes and going to another church an option. The ones that offer contemporary music feature the wrong sort of theology that we are trying to flee. The ones with the theology that we like feature old fashioned hymns. There is nowhere we can go – hence the MP3 player.

Listening to these songs at church is my way of trying to capture that same sacred experience – if only in part – that others seem to get from hymns that I don’t. I wish that I could share that experience – like the part of Winter Jam where there’s a stillness while thousands of believers all put their collective effort to praising God in the midst of such music. Hymns do not work for me, I doubt that my contemporary songs will work for everyone. I just can’t help but feel thirsty for more on Sunday mornings. More than unsung hymns. More than difficult to sing hymns. More than musically awkward hymns. More than old hymns. More than the same hymns over and over again. More than frustration. More than disappointment. I don’t want to be thirsty anymore.


My Words

Sometimes I struggle to find my own words. You’d think that this would not be the case after (mostly) ten years of blogging. Some days I wonder if I’ve said it all, some days I wonder if I haven’t said enough. Mostly, I try to be aware of the teachings – the words of others – and how I respond to them. Sometimes somebody says some really powerful words and I cannot help but want to see them take shape into action: “I have a dream” is one big example.

But In Christian theology, I struggle against a tide of words that threatens to overwhelm me. Some words I don’t understand as well as I should, hermeneutic, exegesis, eisegesis. Some words area curiosity from days long past, sabellism, montanism, nestorism. Some words are from popular televangelists, mega-church preachers, and famous Christian authors that are ubiquitous and hard to keep from absorbing. Some are buzzwords – intentional, purpose-driven, inspired.

When I started blogging, I was more of an echo, the words of my teachers were more prevalent than my own words. My own personal beliefs hadn’t yet formed. Over time, I learned to ask one of the most dangerous questions of all: Why? I began the process of seeking out answers. Reading more different interpretations, and searching for the words to articulate what it is that I believe.

The more I searched, the more hectic the rhetoric became – warnings about departing from truth, the nature of heresy, of wandering into the wilderness of disbelief. It reminded me of the scene in Labyrinth with the false warnings:

False Alarm 1: Don’t go on.
False Alarm 2: Go back while you still can.
False Alarm 3: This is not the way.
False Alarm 4: Take heed, and go no further.
False Alarm 5: Beware, beware.
False Alarm 6: Soon it will be too late.
Hoggle: (to Sarah) Don’t pay any attention to them. They’re just False Alarms. You get a lot of them in the Labyrinth, especially when you’re on the right track…
False Alarm 7: Oh, no you’re not.
Hoggle: Oh, shut up!
False Alarm 7: Sorry, just doing my job.
Hoggle: Well you don’t have to do it to us!
False Alarm 8: Beware, for the…
Hoggle: Just forget it!
False Alarm 8: Oh please, I haven’t said it for such a long time!
Hoggle: Oh, all right, but don’t expect a big reaction!
False Alarm 8: No no no, of course not! (clears throat) “For the path you will take will lead to certain destruction.” Thank you very much…

But do you know what I found? Not holding a majority view makes one unimportant. Anyone can agree with everyone else and receive affirmation. Anyone holding a minority view is a curiosity to be indulged, but ultimately ignored. They just remind you how right you are by the virtue of how wrong they are. While they are strolling into the wide and easy gate of ‘errant belief’ you and all who agree stand in line to get into the narrow gate. Or, perhaps, they are among the few who got it right, who heard Jesus’ call and found the narrow gate of ‘personal belief in Jesus’ and isn’t in the wide and easy gate of ‘majority belief’.

That’s why I keep on searching for more vocabulary, deeper understanding, and spiritual insight so that I will know that I am one of the few, that I have found the true gate, that it is not the wide guide that has been disguised as the narrow one, and that I’m welcome on the other side (for it’s easier to to disguise the wide gate as the narrow one than the narrow one as the wide one. Come to think of it there would be no no need for the narrow gate to disguise itself as the wide one.) Which is why I think I haven’t departed from the truth, no, I’ve found the way, the truth, and the life … and best of all, my very own words – beliefs.

Which apocalypse is near?

Having had quite a nasty case of writer’s block, in the last day or so, I watched both Noah and Left Behind – Russell Crowe and Nicholas Cage – deal with the apocalypse. Noah’s apocalypse wasn’t the apocalypse, but it was an apocalypse – an end to a way of life and a beginning of something new. Rayford Steele’s apocalypse was hinted at in the plane and in full view from Chloe’s perspective. Their apocalypse is the one that generations of Christians have been looking forward to because of the something new that happens after it. I guess the difference is that once it takes place, there’s no more of the Bible left to be fulfilled, it will have been finished.

The comfort of apocalypses is that it gets you off of the hook: why bother preaching at all the unrighteous people when you can just not and watch them suffer for seven years? That’s the same attitude that Noah had about the upcoming destruction of Ninevah. He got mad when the people actually repented of their sins. “But God, I wanted you to destroy them the old fashioned way! Fire! Brimstone! Hail! Flesh wounds!” Come to think of it, some of Jesus’ disciples wanted a town to be destroyed for not throwing out the welcome mat for Jesus. I know that they took hospitality seriously – I’m just glad that modern Christians weren’t put to that test, we’re worse at it. But hey, we’re great at loving – or so we think.

It’s also comforting to know that as bad as things get here and now, the apocalypse will be so much worse for the people who are left behind. You won’t be among them, (hopefully.) You can look forward to the big feast. Then again, if we truly consider ourselves to be an enlightened civilization, would we want to cease suffering, not perpetuate it? I guess that points to us not being that enlightened. We’re okay with others suffering on the other side of the world so long as we ourselves do not suffer any pain or loss. We admire pacifists for their principles, but endorse violence even from a young age. I just don’t think I could hurt anyone, and I know I certainly don’t want to hurt anyone. So why should I be okay with it if my inaction leads to lots of suffering?

Perhaps Christianity is a cycle of apocalypses – it’s creation the apocalypse of the end of the system of temple worship. It’s acceptance the apocalypse of the Roman Empire and the start of the Holy Roman Empire. The apocalypse of the one church that began a pattern of division and schism. The Reformation – another apocalypse. Even now, we’re seeing a lot of destruction in the lives of believers – quite apocalyptic in a sense – as we deal with questions about sin and acceptance.

I know, when we picture the apocalypse we picture unprecedented death, destruction, and suffering. But there’s another meaning to the word – uncovering. What if we started to do more than wait for the end? What if we uncovered compassion and tried to end suffering here and now? What if we did more than get the word out that the end is near, but that the kingdom of God is at hand? What if we realized that our righteousness was nothing – that we were Ninevites who needed to pray for mercy? What if we extended that mercy to everyone? Now that is an uncovering I would look forward to.

Human Error and Biblical Inerrancy

… an inerrant Bible doesn’t amount to much without inerrant readers who can understand and interpret it inerrantly …

Imagine, for a moment, that very soon the original manuscripts of the Bible will be discovered. They were carefully preserved and sealed in a jar. Using our technology, we managed to copy it exactly, stroke for stroke. Then the world’s best interpreters spend a few years on coming to a consensus on the best possible translation. Not long after that, every single Christian publishing company in the business mass produces the new translation and it sells very well. Does that mean that denominations would reunite and we would enter a new era of Christian understanding? No, not really. Ultimately, even if we could be certain that there are no mistranslated passages, cultural misunderstandings, or questions over what Paul meant with which word, the Bible would still find itself in the hands of people who tend to interpret it differently.

Who are the Christians that you read? The bloggers? The famous authors? Well-known pastors? Do they always have the exact same interpretation on everything? I’m guessing that there are areas where they all differ. Does that make just one of them inerrant and correct? Are all of the rest errant and incorrect? One thing I have had to learn to accept is that just because a point of view is different does not make it incorrect or invalid. That’s true of Scripture as well.

People have interpreted Scripture to be against drinking alcohol and to be for drinking alcohol. People have interpreted Scripture to be against slavery and to be for slavery. This is nothing new, and I think so long as people continue to search, they will find an interpretation that supports what they believe, or their beliefs are supported by the interpretation they happen to find. This complexity is difficult to accept. We want things to be yes or no, right or wrong, good or bad. It’s not easy to choose between yes and no, right and wrong, good and bad.

The Bible may very well be inerrant, but it is in the hands of people that most certainly are not. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Each and every one of us are to have a personal relationship with God. That means that my recovery program will be different from a person who tends to sin in different ways than I do. Were I to follow their regimen, it would be useful, but not as beneficial if I followed a plan crafted for myself. Same goes for them. They won’t get as much out of my plan as I will. Both of us might look at the same passage and see different interpretations and both of us could very easily be correct.

In my newly acquired book, it was pointed out that Americans know the story of the Prodigal Son very well, but when it came time to recall the details of the story, almost every one of them forgot about the famine. People from a country that was no stranger to famine recalled that detail clearly. By virtue of being in a land of plenty, we ignored a vital part of one of Jesus’ parables. We thought that the prodigal, wasteful son had done the equivalent of live it up in Las Vegas, lose it all, and came home because it was better to be a servant in his father’s house than homeless in the desert. They thought that hunger was more of the point and the motivator for his reconciliation.

If there is no unimportant detail in Scripture, then we have to more carefully understand how our upbringing changes how we interpret Scripture. We have to ask: Why is this here? What does that mean? Is there a cultural significance to that? Only once we understand where it is that we go wrong, how we go wrong, can we get closer to less errant reading of the Bible, but inerrancy will always be humanly impossible.

On Morality

A lot of Christians are under the opinion that without Christianity as a standard of morality, the whole world would erupt into the sort of chaos in any given apocalyptic disaster movie … only worse because it would be a reality that doesn’t end after two hours.

It might surprise you to know that it’s not necessarily the case. Not everything that we think of as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ originates in Scripture. There are a few gestures or words that are unnaceptable in polite company; not because the Bible says it is so, but it’s a cultural norm. Does that make them any less true without having a foundation in Scripture? I don’t that’s the case. It just goes to show that there are some things that as a society we deem to be right or wrong by majority opinion.

It is also true that cultural bias is a part of who we are and helps us to form our understanding of the world. It’s also a part of how we internalize scripture and interpret according to a modern understanding of the world we live in. And we also define what is right or wrong from Scripture, too. But our understanding of Scripture is not devoid of that cultural influence.

I know that its not an easy thing to see. We are steeped in our culture. We never think of it at all – it’s just being normal. Most of us will never leave our states or the states to go elsewhere. So we never wonder how a person from the other side of the world would percieve us if we were suddenly teleported to their country. The East and the West do have very different outlooks about the world in general. This is true when we consider the modern world and the ancient world. Because we come from a modern Western culture, we lose out on many shades of meaning when we study ancient Eastern culture through Scriptures. We don’t understand their customs or what they knew as right and wrong culturally – the sort of thing that just goes without being said.

I guess I said all of that to say that what we think of morality, things being right or wrong isn’t as clear cut as we might like to think culturally or biblically. Without Christianity, society would still create a moral code agreed upon by the majority. The only difference is that Christians would not be contributing to that conversation.

Questioning Christianity

Sometimes the only thing more dangerous than a question is an answer. – Ferengi Rule of Acquisition #208

“… each person that we interviewed had very specific experiences and challenges and the church was, in some way, inadequate in their mind to that …”

“… And, in a nutshell, what we learned is that churches aren’t really giving them an answer to these complicated questions that they’re facing, these lifestyle issues and challenges that they’re facing. And it’s not really a deep or thoughtful or challenging response that most churches are providing to them …”You Lost Me NPR Interview

Christianity – the world has some really tough questions out there. Not only as to what are the basics of what you believe – but also why and how you act upon your beliefs. So It’s important to ask questions and seek answers. And that means steeling yourself for the toughest questions of all … the ones about the subjects that older generations would not have discussed freely.

To that end, I think it’s a good practice to host a question and answer meeting every month, to gather to consider questions and answer them – to get the perspective of the leaders as well as those of regular people. That way when a shocking question gets asked the momentary disbelief of: “I can’t believe you’d ask that!” doesn’t overshadow a good answer or cause them to wonder if they asked the right person.

But let’s also consider the perspective of the one asking the question, giving the correct answer is not always the best answer, nor is the best answer always the correct one. It’s the sort of distinction you learn when somebody asks a tough question because they have been sinned against and don’t know how to interpret Scripture as they are not familiar with it. They might not let on that they are hurt or angry or confused and telling them that the one that sinned against them gets to go to heaven forever too if he or she asks for forgiveness as well may not be what they need to hear right then and there. Or telling a grieving widow that her husband is most likely in Hell at his funeral is another good example of what believers ought not say depending on the situation. I think that’s why Jesus said: “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16)

Not long ago, my pastor based his sermon on the faith/doubt paradox. We don’t like to admit it, but we need both – faith to shape our doubts, and doubts to shape our faith. Only when we see doubt as our strength will we realize that there’s a lot more to Christianity than just faith. John the Baptist doubted if Jesus was the one who was to come – so he sent his disciples to find out the truth. His doubt led to questioning, questions lead to answers, answers brought about more faith. Same goes for Thomas – he represents us in a lot of ways.

There are kids that grow up on the Children’s Bible – where lots of the stories are edited to be more appropriate – it is only fitting that as they grow they develop doubt as the learn that there is always more to the story. Likewise, there is more to their story as believers and doubt will help them become more faithful, so long as we welcome all questions and seek all answers.

Sincerity and Humility as a Solution

I think the first thing that a sincere Christianity has to do is to humbly declare: “We messed up.”

Pretending that we have it all down is a big mistake. In case nobody is keeping score this is what people see and hear about when the conversation turns to Christianity: decades of abuse coming to light in Roman Catholicism, televangelists extorting money from believers by playing on their fears, any and every scandal that was big enough to make headlines in the last twenty or so years, Christianity isn’t so much known for the love that we sing about, but the causes we champion; supporting Republican ideology, support gun rights, supporting biblical marriage, as well as supporting pro-life campaigns.

The loudest Christian voices out there are not representative of the majority, but we do a terrible job getting the word out that we disagree with them. So that’s the image of Christianity: an angry middle-aged white man with a bible in one hand and pointing at us with the other. We don’t show the reality that Christians are from every walk of life.

We have a hard time acting as the ‘check and balance’ to famous televangelists and popular authors. So it is not surprising when a popular teachings gets out of hand. Like our ancient ancestors who said: “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Paul” we have our favorite teachers that we follow. Not all agree on a particular interpretation, but each may hold to his or her own understanding that they pass down to their followers. Which is why we have such contradictory teachings when all things are considered. But we are also leery of declaring “this is right” for we have studied the mistakes of our past – how people would take away the livelihood, the right to attend church, or the lives of those in disagreement with them.

Some Christians think that they have to cut ties with the sinners in their midst. Some kick their children out of their homes in the name of ‘tough love’. To get them to repent of their ways. They drop friendships with the unrepentant. They turn their backs on Christians who have fallen from grace. This is not the kind of love that Jesus wants us to be known for. Some Christians donate useless items like high heel shoes to charities – this junk is called Swedo(w) – Stuff We Don’t Want. This is not the kind of love that Jesus wants us to be known for.

This all contributes to our image problem and public relations issues – what people see and think about Christianity as it presents itself. We already know what people think for they do not hesitate to tell us when asked: Christians are judgmental, bigots, self-righteous, controlling, and any number of synonyms for these words. You know that song: “They will know that we are Christians by our love…”? That’s not how they know that we are Christians. They don’t think of us as gracious, accepting, warm, kind, or helpful and most certainly not loving.

So that’s why we have to be sincere and humble and admit that we messed up. It won’t be easy not to fall upon our old ways, they are deeply ingrained. Odds are we will continue to mess up so long as we follow anything and everything that isn’t Jesus Christ. But if we try following just Jesus, we will be far more like the Christians that He wants us to be and show the real true love that He wants us to be known for. Only then will all the things that have gone wrong be set right.