Retraction – or – Do you worship like a Sex Pistol or a Megadeth?

If you know me at all you probably know that on numerous occasions I have vehemently denounced what might be termed ‘comentemporary praise and worship’ music.

The funny thing is that I used to religiously attend an all-singing/prayer Sunday evening service known as ‘catacombs’ when I was a student at Gordon College.  This service was basically an hour straight of these ‘contemporary praise and worship’ choruses.  I went every Sunday night for three years.  Three years.  Then one Sunday I snapped.  It just hit me that every single song was terrible.  They were simplistic, sappy, self-centered blather.  So I walked out and I never went back.

I think part of what turned me off to praise music was the fact that I could actually sing it well and play it on the guitar.  I’m not a great singer or a great guitar player.  Yet I’d find myself harmonizing and belting out the notes with little effort.  Once, a girl even complimented me on my voice after the service.  I basically thought, ‘If I can sing this stuff, it must be terrible’.

Another issue was the lyrics.  They were like magnet poetry.  The words were all just given to you in a box and all you had to do was rearrange them to make a new song.  Lots of times they didn’t even rhyme.  I chafed at the perpetual apology of ‘I’m Coming Back to the Heart of Worship’ who’s second line repented ‘I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it.’  First of all, any writing teacher will tell you never to use the word ‘thing’ in an essay, let alone a piece of poetry.  Second, this vagueness leaves the audience to assign their own sins to the ‘thing’ and have to come up with some new hypocrisy to swap in week after week.

Another lyrical issue is the fact that sometimes it is hard to tell whether the songs are about God or some romantic liaison.   I remember standing next to my friend Grant in church one Sunday morning and the lyrics, “Have your way inside of me” were projected on the screen.  I remember being horribly ashamed at the sexual connotation I assigned to the line… until Grant leaned over to me and whispered, ‘Dude, that line is really sketchy.’

And so I wrote off praise music altogether.  Until this past Sunday.

I was at Dane St. Church and there was this adorable little emo-praise band leading worship – a talented bunch who rocked the house in a way that made me uncomfortable on behalf of the more elderly and infirm among us.

“You might not know a lot of these songs,” the lead singer said. ‘No kidding,’ I thought. “But they’re really easy to learn,” he went on.  And they were.  I found that I could easily sing all the notes and even anticipate where the melody was going, even on the first run-through.  By the third chorus I knew it as well as ‘This Little Light of Mine’.

That’s when the virtue of praise music finally hit me.

For years, I have been an avid punk rock fan.  Yet metal has never appealed to me.  Indeed, both metal and punk tout counter-culturalism and rebellion, but fandom in these genres is mutually exclusive.  You just can’t like metal and punk.

Now I’ve thought this over and even wrote a paper about it for a college course.  The appeal of punk is that there is no real distinction between audience and performer.  At most underground punk shows, the band plays on a very short stage or actually on the floor, among the crowd. The songs are incredibly simple.

So simple in fact that metalists often sneer at punk-rockers.  Metal is meant to be showy and flashy, as well as loud and abrasive.  Metal bands ask not only to be identified with, but to be worshipped for their amazing chops, licks and time signatures.  You might commonly hear the phrase ‘gods of metal’.  You would never hear about a ‘god of punk’.

Now I attend an Episcopal Church where we sing wildly difficult tunes in odd time signatures; notes just all over the bars. And I love it.  I love the technical challenge of it.  I love that the lyrics are poetry I couldn’t even hope to aspire to writing.  I love that the notes push me to the top of my limited register.  And the organ postludes?  Holy Mackeral!  They actually sound like metal sometimes with these horrific minor chords and sixteenth-notes flying all over the place.  And talk about loud. That pipe organ wails.

And praise music is just the opposite of all this.  It’s simple both to play and sing.  It’s easily accessible to the masses.  Even the most vocally challenged among us can sing most praise songs reasonably well.  The lyrics don’t contain any talk of ‘bulwarks’ or ‘ebenezers’, opting instead for simple words of hope and praise that can be shared by everyone in the crowd.

I realized on Sunday that all these years I’ve been contradicting myself.  Why is it that I love the Metal of worship music, while I love the Punk of rock ‘n roll?

It’s because I am a snob.  Admittedly, when I hear the sorry crooning of a tone-deaf man or woman I think like the disciples did, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  Now I’m not a great singer, but not being able to sing would be one of the worst punishments I can imagine.  Singing is probably the only thing I enjoy and still do well during Sunday worship services.  So I cling to it.  I have an attitude about it – a highfalutin, holier than thou attitude.

So I’m sorry.  I can’t say I’ll become a fan of ‘contemporary praise and worship’ based on this revelation.  But I apologize for my negative attitude and I will try to respect it from now on as a way for people to come together for a common cause, with a common attitude and a common ability to achieve a common good.

Just… work on the lyrics. Deal?


Temple of Doom – or – Who’s Got Your Heart?

The other night I went to a friend’s bible study and we watched a short video to get the discussion rolling.  The video was called “Sunday” and featured a young, hip-looking pastor of some mega-church out west sitting at a table in some local diner.  He had frosted blond spiky hair and a pair of thick, black-rimmed glasses.

Now, I must diverge here for a moment to point out that everybody from Rivers Cuomo to every slightly visually impaired hipster in Cambridge wear these type of glasses, but I remember a kid named Shawn McGoldrick who wore these things when we were in high school.  High School.  We’re talking 1996 here.  The only people wearing thick, black framed glasses in 1996 were Garth from Wayne’s World and Shawn McGoldrick.  So props to Shawn.

So anyway, twelve years post-Shawn McGoldrick, here’s this youngish pastor in a somewhat hip short video sermon and he’s talking about going through the motions of church attendance and tithing.  He’s talking about the passage in which Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for their practice of public prayer and fasting, going through the motions so that they’ll be viewed as devout by the people in their neighborhood.  But their hearts are far from God.  Right.  Not Good.

So the gist of the pastor’s point is that we shouldn’t go to church and tithe just to go through the motions.  The young pastor said, “Do you think God needs you in church?  Do you think God needs your money?  No.  God wants your heart.”

Now, I think he had a decent point to some extent but I couldn’t help but think how many people might be fast asleep this Sunday morning with fat wallets thanks to this video sermon.  Why haven’t you gone to church?  Oh, I’m just not feeling it this week.  Why haven’t you tithed?  I’m just not sure my heart is in the right place right now.

What does that last statement even mean?  I swear, I’ve heard these words from Christian friends and I’m willing to bet that you have too.  How many abstract terms can we fit into one excuse?  What is this heart?  It’s certainly not the organ that pumps blood through our circulatory systems.  What is the right place?  How does this indefinable heart get to this vague right place and how would you know when it got there?

How many dollars might not be given while Christians convicted by this video sermon sought to achieve this state of joy and passion they were supposed to have about giving away their money.  This pastor was essentially arguing that if you’re not feeling excited about God and church and if you’re not feeling passionate about giving your money to the church and to the poor, then you’ve got a problem.  All of your church attendance, all of your tithing, all of your charitable giving, it’s not pleasing to God if he “doesn’t have your heart.”

Well, okay, but does that mean we should stop going to church?  That we should stop giving our money away?  Here, this pastor charges us with making sure we have “given God our hearts” before we can please God through church attendance.  But how do I know when I’ve given God my heart, barring some special revelation on God’s part, except through a certain subjective feeling of having done so?  And might it be possible to confuse the feeling of wanting an extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning with a failure of my heart to be with God that particular day?

I think this system of “giving hearts to” and “getting right with” God is dubious at best.  I remember talking to a friend in college about a short-term mission trip we were both considering going on.  She told me that she would like to go, but that she just wanted to be sure that God was really calling her to go.  We were going to build a school for poor children in Guatemala.  Why does God have to call you to do that?  Even if he doesn’t call you, do you think he’ll mind if you go build a school for poor children in Guatemala?

I told her I was pretty sure it’d be okay.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think our Evangelical culture places too great an emphasis on feelings.  We feel God’s calling in our lives; we feel that our hearts are right with God, etc.

You know what?  Sometimes I don’t feel like going to church.  Sometimes I find church downright boring.  Okay, if we’re being totally honest here, sometimes I can’t wait ‘til church is over and I can go out to the pub and watch football with a nice, juicy hamburger and a frosty beer (preferably a pale ale).  And if we’re being TOTALLY honest, sometimes I think organized religion is inherently corrupt and populated by self-righteous, power-hungry hypocrites and that I ought to give it up altogether.

Surely, my heart cannot be much further from God in these moments.  But I go to church anyway.  And I give money to the church and to Christian causes because I think it’s the right thing to do.

The pastor is right.  God doesn’t need our money.  But poor people definitely do.  And the church probably appreciates it as well.
What I’m saying is that there is no way I can be sure that my heart is right with God because this heart, as we’re defining it, does not actually exist in actual, real life.  But my butt does exist.  And I can sit my actual butt down in church and I can sing with my actual voice and I can listen with my actual ears and I can think with my actual brain and I can actually write a check with my actual hands and give actual money to actual people who actually need it quite a bit.  Sometimes that’s all I can do.  And I’m not excited about it or passionate about.  I just do it.  It could be called obedience or doing the right thing.  And I think my heart gets closer to God through obedience, not vice a versa.

Published in: on May 5, 2009 at 4:16 pm  Comments (2)  

The List – or – God, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do.

For the Lenten season of 2008, I decided that instead of giving something up, I would add something to my day: Bible reading.  This was something I knew I was supposed to do as a committed Christian, but had been really bad about throughout my life.  I never had a daily “devotional” with any regularity.  I would constantly lie about how often I read the Bible, sort of like I lie about how many times I usually exercise during a given week.

Anyway, I actually stuck with it throughout Lent and have stuck with it until the present day.  Honest.

The problem?  Well, the problem is that rather than read the Bible in happy, inspirational chunks, as most devotional guides encourage us to do, I decided to read the Bible as if it were actually like, well, a book.  And that meant slogging through it from page one.  Keep in mind that I only read a couple chapters per day so I’m still in 2 Chronicles.

Far from inspiration and a greater understanding of God, I have found my experience with the Bible thus far to be profoundly disturbing.

Now, we tend to skip around and not talk about the ugly bits of the Bible, but there is some really messed up stuff in there.  I usually feel bad bringing it up to people because nobody can really explain or justify it and I hate putting people on the spot like that.  Most people say that ultimately we just can’t understand God’s master plan.  They say it’s one of those things that we’ll understand when we get to heaven.

Well, I hope so, because I started a list.  I’m writing it right on one of those maps of Palestine and the Sinai peninsula that are at the end of some Bibles, actually.  The list is called, “Verses to ask God about when I get to heaven.”

Just this morning I came across this gem:  The army of Judah also captured ten thousand men alive, took them to the top of a cliff and threw them down so that all were dashed to pieces (2 Chronicles 25:12). Now I’m not a pacifist or someone who is disturbed more easily by violence than the average person.  I can understand that if two countries are at war, people are going to get killed.  But this is a clear example of sick, mindless slaughter, ostensibly under the blessing, if not the direction, of our God.  Could you imagine the outrage if the U.S. did something like this to insurgents in Iraq?  How is that we have a moral code that is greater than that of God’s chosen people when it comes to warfare?

Way to start the day, right?  I might as well be reading the Iliad every day before work.

Anyway, if you think that’s sick, check this out.  This is the passage that first inspired me to create this list. “Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. 54 Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, 55 and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating” (Deuteronomy 28:53). Seriously. What the hell?

It’s funny because as I’m writing this, only my second post, I’m wondering whether to include swear words or not in this supposedly ‘Christian’ blog.  Then I looked back at the passage with all the people eating their kids and I thought, hmm, swearing probably isn’t that big of a deal.

Okay here’s another one that is completely outrageous.  In Numbers 31, Israel really wallops the Midianites.  They kill all the men and capture the women and children.  Pretty extreme.  But wait, here comes Moses himself in verse 15, and he’s pissed.  “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

Of the slew of genocides carried out by the Israelites, this one takes the cake.  Whatever shred of human decency this army was clinging to by sparing the women and children is soon stamped out by the man closest of all to the Lord.  ‘No, actually, don’t spare the women and children.  Kill them all.  Oh, except for the young girls.  Them you can keep as sex slaves.  Yup.  Good work boys. Don’t forget to introduce your new virgin sex slaves to your wives when you get home.’

Well, I’d like to keep this post under 1000 words.  So if you want some more highlights, check out Joshua 7-8, Judges 20-21 (which begins with someone chopping up a dead concubine and mailing her pieces – and here i thought the mob came up with that move – and gets more and more baffling as it goes on), and 1 Kings 13:16-34.

Well, this is the point where a Donald Miller type would turn this all around to show how all this madness has some important, positive implication for our lives.  But I got nothing.  In these disturbing passages, God never expressly gives the order to carry out these grisly acts, but he is complicit in them at the very least.

So I’m thinking about being buried with this list in my jacket pocket.  And just in case that doesn’t work, I’ll commit the passages to memory.  And when I get to heaven I plan to demand a little face time with God, whip out this list and say, ‘God, you’ve got some serious ‘splaining to do.’

You might say that I’m not right to question God.  But I think you’re just making excuses. He gave me a sense of morality, a conscience which this stuff offends at the most basic level.  We have to be appalled at these passages.  No more dismissing them as too complicated.  No more saying they’re beyond our comprehension.  If anything like this happens today, there is a worldwide uproar. I’m using the rational mind and conscience that God gave to me and, like David in the Psalms, I’m gonna just be honest and say, ‘God… seriously… what gives?’

This I Believe – or – Does the Spirit Dwell in my Heart or my Spine?

My this I believe essay didn’t make it onto NPR so I’m sharing it here…

I believe music is proof that God exists.

As an adolescent evangelical, I once attended a massive Christian music festival out in Pennsylvania. In a moment while 70,000 of us were holding hands and singing worship songs, I suddenly got this tingling sensation up and down my spine. This, I thought, must be the Holy Spirit moving.

But just a few weeks later, riding in a friend’s car, Billy Joel came on the radio singing “Piano Man.” It was loud and I was listening intently when… uh-oh… God? I was getting that exact same tingle! This evoked a minor faith crisis.

Perhaps you’ve had the same sensation. It feels like someone has rigged electrical wiring throughout your vertebrae. And when Billy Joel belts, “It’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes,” it’s like he flips a switch that sends a current down the wire that alternately makes you want to weep or hurl with a profound, simultaneous sense of crippling grief and rapturous joy.

I feel it during “Amazing Grace”, in the last verse when the organist instinctively slows down and the congregation booms, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun.”

I also feel it during Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” a song my pastor commonly denounced in his Sunday sermons as typical, wayward attitude of popular culture (we should be doing things God’s way, not our way). Sorry, Pastor Dave, but it’s still a great song.

I feel it during the Allman Brothers’ final choruses, when the vocals rest for a beat while the rhythm section pounds on, “like I been… TIED to the whipping post.”

I felt it when we sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness” in the campus chapel on September 11th.

The national anthem gets an honorable mention because I know people feel it in “O’er the land of the freeeee.” I don’t feel it here, maybe because I am trying to force it or maybe because I am always distracted with worry over whether the soloist will actually hit that high note.

Of course, not only great hymns and classic tunes hold this power. The oft-forgotten 90’s grunge band The Toadies have a song called “Tyler” that gets me every time with its creepy crescendo. And local Boston group, Big D’s “Take Another Look,” has this quiet, brooding build-up that culminates in a drop-off of everything but the horns, then a distorted pick-slide that brings the rhythm section back in full-force as the horns all hit this high note and the singer screams. It’s probably one of the most cathartic musical moments ever composed.

You might hear it, create it, or participate in it by singing along, but we all have the potential to create this physiological manifestation of emotion through the miracle of music – those seven notes and their slight variations that have been arranged into countless creations over thousands of years. There is no rational explanation for the fact of music, and certainly none for the way it makes us feel. And so I believe it is a gift from God, a sort of general revelation, accessible to all his people, to remind us of the beauty and sorrow of life and to make it all a little more bearable.

Welcome to Sword Drills – or – Disclaimer.

Welcome to Sword Drills.  I am not a pastor, theologian, or biblical scholar.  Just a person of faith with serious hopes and doubts, observations and aspirations.  This blog is not meant to preach at/to people.  It’s just a way for me to share all my crazy thoughts on faith.

Posts promise to be all over the map.  They may even contradict themselves.  But I think all of us have been all over the map and contradicted ourselves from time to time.  In a way this blog may more closely resemble the makeup of a true spiritual journey in that way than many books or websites that are more closely edited or ‘message-oriented.’

Anyway, I hope you’ll take it with a grain of salt.  I hope you’ll identify with something you read here.  Maybe get a new insight or at least a laugh out of it.  Thanks for reading.


Published in: on May 1, 2009 at 3:18 pm  Comments (4)