Am I a Dinosaur?

I was recently called to task for preaching the Deity of Christ. Simply stated, that’s the Doctrine that God actually existed in human form as Jesus Christ. It is a belief taken to the Nth degree by some Biblical writers. The book of John and Colossians, to name only two, flatly state that the spirit that lived as Jesus Christ also created all things.

When it comes to preaching, I use the Bible, and when it comes to the text, I calls ’em as I sees ’em.

I can hear the applause of fundamentalists everywhere die down as I continue. To accept every word of the Bible does not mean that I buy every restriction Paul allegedly placed on women. (Allegedly because it looks like some of those restrictions were written by Paul only to quote rumors and letters, as evidence by the seeming contradiction when he subsequently addresses and refutes those same quoted passages.) Accepting every word of the Bible gives me no assurance of knowing the details of creation. (Who knows what happened before that first “day”, when darkness covered the face of the deep?)

I accept that the Bible is true and divinely inspired. I also accept that just because someone in the Bible actually said something, that doesn’t make said statement true, reliable or applicable today. Let’s face it, the Bible is by and large a history of humans behaving badly and misunderstanding God. Unfortunately, reading and accepting it as true is too often a different act from studying and learning from it.

And while I’m on a rant, let me point out that accepting every word of the Bible does not mean that I agree lockstep with others who claim that same level of faith in scripture. Some of their more extreme views can only be formed by failing to read scripture carefully and thoroughly, failing to accept the corrective commentary provided by Jesus Christ Himself, and failing to obey the commands of Jesus on how we are to think, live and treat one another.

Having started with a Fundamentalist’s literal acceptance of scripture, I proceeded to read it in order to know what this was that I was willing to literally accept. That being accomplished, I was surprised to draw conclusions so dramatically at odds with those being taught as “Bible-based.”

This view puts me in the line of fire between religious liberals and conservatives. Liberals preach forgiveness and social responsibility — and also scriptural skepticism with outright rejection of unpalatable or unbelievable verses. Conservatives preach judgment and personal responsibility — with unquestioning scriptural views and dogmatic interpretation.

(Apologies to self-declared liberals and conservatives who take offense at my generalizations. I’m talking tendencies, not absolutes.)

Christians who find themselves at odds with conservative fundamentalists are too quick to surrender Biblical ground. If the Bible inspires you to call that Christian, they say, then something is wrong with the Bible. Using the Bible to disobey Christ is surely one form of taking the name of the LORD in vain.

Conservatives, on the other hand, might say you liberals (usually inflected as a slur) can’t call that Christian because the Bible says this.

But there’s another possibility — perhaps the Bible IS the inspired word of God. When it says Moses, Joshua or David said that, then Moses, Joshua or David said that — but Jesus said this, so this is Christian. That is important, that is historical, that is interesting as something men said to or about God, but this is what Jesus said, and He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. “You have heard that it was said” — and indeed it was said! — “but I say … ” and Jesus clears up where God stands on the subject.

What? Is Jesus saying that the Bible was wrong? No, but He is making it obvious that the Bible was and might still be unclear to modern hearing or understanding. He is making it obvious that even if every word is true and inspired, every word is not equally important to living in the Kingdom of God. He is flatly saying that we live by the Spirit, by the Living Word, and not by the selective mimicking of some random slice of scripture.

I hope I haven’t offended anyone, but I might have offended everyone — Fundamentalists for my challenge to their exegesis, and Liberals for my salute to scripture.

People who don’t read the Bible think doing so will make them like most people who claim to “stand on every word of scripture.” People who stand on every word might truly want to please God, and people who don’t might nevertheless want to please God. Both camps are dead wrong on one topic or another — so I accept that I, too, might be mistaken here or there. It is good and right that all of us let Scripture challenge us. It is also good and right for us to challenge one another’s understanding of Scripture, and to accept these challenges with humility and Christian love.

Am I a dinosaur for thinking the Bible is divinely inspired, true, and important for Christian living? Knowing that I feel that way tells you nothing about my opinion on anything else. All I know is that if you feel that way, please don’t jump the shark to conclude that you have perfect understanding and are therefore right in everything you say and do. And if you quote scripture, then you must, simply must, accept any challenge found in the Gospel accounts of the teachings of Christ. He’s the Alpha and Omega, the Cornerstone, the Creator — and the One who is authorized to judge our translation, interpretation and application of scripture.

You have heard that it is written, but I say … “

Vinyl Pops on the Ipod

It’s a mellow ending to a great day. Celebrate Recovery had 73 people, and now the church is empty. Stan Getz is swinging on my Ipod via Pandora Internet Radio. The hiss of the vinyl is as clear as the breathy slur of his low notes through the tenor sax. The Lord is in his holy temple, and his servant is groovin’ at the Mac.

It’s the irony of it all I find most entertaining. My 21st Century notebook has the same qwerty keyboard arrangement as typewriters from the 1800s, when the clumsy pattern was designed to slow down typing on the sluggish mechanical machines. Music recorded direct to disk in the 1940s and 1950s sounds as scratchy on that little ipod speaker as it ever did on a dusty record.

Children, music used to be stored not on websites, nor on laser discs, but as a squiggly groove running around a vinyl platter. The platter would spin with a needle riding in that groove, and the music played. As amazing as it was that a plastic impression could be turned into sound through a needle and an amp, it was even more amazing to skip the amp and listen to the music through a straight pin in a paper cup.

A few nights ago, I was playing with a 30-something-to-40-ish musician in a combo. When someone suggested that the song reminded them of Bob Dylan, my friend said, “Bob Dylan? Who’s that?” I think/hope it was a joke, meant to imply the speaker was too young to remember such an ancient celebrity. I assure you, Bob Dylan is alive and well, and still bragging about his fondness for Woody Guthrie. He’s older than me, but I’m not ashamed to say he was top 40 when I was mid-teens.

There is no shame in understanding ancient things. I play saxophones that are older than I am, on hymns written long before the sax was invented. And when the power goes out, my bass fiddle can still rock the house.

There is also no shame in understanding new things. A ranting Eminem reminds me more than anything of a bebopping Charlie Parker. Those who forget the past are cursed to repeat it, but those who understand the past have the same option, and it can also be a blessing.

Jesus said that the man who understands the gospel is like a homeowner who pulls from his storehouse treasures both old and new. He said no one puts new wine in old bottles or sews a new patch on old cloth. In the first case, the new wine is wasted; in the other, the old garment is ruined. The parable is not about merely encouraging the new, but about preserving the old as well.

I never heard of Don Byas. His music is new to me, but the song I’m enjoying was recorded in 1952. Now it’s Dizzy Gillespie — I remember him. He broke through on trumpet in the 1940s and was still performing in the 1990s. Miles Davis replaced Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s band, but Davis was still considered a contemporary artist 40 years after Parker’s death.

There really is nothing new under the sun. It’s been a long day, and what a thrill to enjoy old music on a new techno gadget. Eminem’s rap is stored by the Library of Congress on vinyl 78’s, because unlike magnetic and digital medium, those records can survive a serious nuclear blast and still be heard using a sharp stick and a gourd.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Your loss. Just remember, treasures old and new are equally treasures. Time to log off and drive the pickup home. In times like these, I wish I had a horse to feed when I get there. You see, we possess more than the scope of subjects we master, acres of land or square feet of floor space. We also possess years of experience, whether studied or lived directly, and the treasures of years gone by are more valuable than ever, like vinyl pops on an Ipod.

Youth Among the Prophets

“After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person.”

As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day. When they arrived at Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he joined in their prophesying. When all those who had formerly known him saw him prophesying with the prophets, they asked each other, “What is this that has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?”

As a preaching musician who became a musical preacher, I sometimes wonder whether music per se has gained unworthy supremacy among the elements of worship. Formality and production values look very similar from the pews, and that look has something in common with silk flowers and faux finishes.

I remember the days when I would play opening and closing hymns, then go outside for a smoke during the sermon. Musicians, I note, are sometimes held to a far lower standard of behavior because they are so vital to the church. And the impact on churches of losing a worship leader can be as devastating as the loss of a beloved pastor.

But for some reason, these verses from 1 Samuel 10 came to mind just before tonight’s weekly youth gathering. Maybe it was that pile of bongos and ukuleles in my office. There’s a lot of musical talent in our youth group, but some of our youth are reluctant to share that talent in a worship setting.

So I gathered up the bongos, tambourines, ukuleles, song flutes and the like and spread them out. I prepared communion and read how Saul went from a good son seeking donkeys to the first king over Israel after a worship experience. He became a different person.

Our youth group often prays, certainly studies a lot of lessons, but rarely worships. For too many years, Sunday morning youth group has been their escape from worship services that fail to inspire them.

So tonight, I told them that worship was historically a way to communicate with God, just like prayer and meditation. I encouraged them to grab a drum, uke or flute and simply worship, freestyle and without regard for quality of sound. As they worshipped, they were to listen for inspiration from God, however they might perceive it. Upon gaining said inspiration, they were to each take communion and return to the worship circle.

The results were amazing. After five minutes of what settled into a nice rhythmic melody, they took communion one by one and returned to the circle. The music faded and I invited each one to share what God had told them.

One habitually bored youth noted that he was energized, and it showed. Another with chronic gothic depression noted how happy it made her feel. The shy one confidently shared the sense of unity and potential she felt in the circle.

I was envious of how God spoke to them. One teen was inspired to feed the poor, then spent several minutes challenging and testing the idea before deciding it was truly God’s message and not his imagination. Two related expansive visions, one of our worship parade passing the sick and depressed, inspiring them to turn tools, weapons and crutches into their own instruments of worship; the other of this circle of makeshift musicians drawing crowds to hear the word of God.

I urged them to hold on to these visions and use them to shape a worship experience that would be inviting to their unchurched friends. I told them my visions of a recurring drum circle of youth, and a “third service” tapping something beyond the traditional/contemporary divide.

Sometimes I think the noninstrumental Church of Christ is on to something — musically, not theologically. But on this night, I am reminded of the power of music to capture and tap imagination. I remember how I felt when worship music was inclusive and encouraging, and I long for those days again.

I don’t know if there has been a permanent change in our youth group, but I know that I have a revived appreciation of the power of worship to connect us to God. I pray we can find ways to strip the elitism that has turned worship into a show, and restore the sacred jam session that makes each of us a different person, one who dares to dance among the prophets.

The Wages of Sin

“For the wages of sin is death” … the evidence surrounds us. It shows itself in pelicans struggling under a coating of oil, arteries blocked by a layer of cholesterol, highways littered with the aftermath of driver distractions and impairments.

A special curse settles around those who think that life is fair and we all deserve what we get. Consider the pelican. This swamp of “sin” that we so cautiously label flows over the innocent and the guilty alike. Each generation’s innocent vice has a legacy in its mortality statistics. Believe it or not, the wages of sin is death.

To me, the equation is a definition. “Sin” is sin because it leads to death. Thus the sin of eating pork falls to cooking technology, only to rise again with enlightened dietary guidelines. The nuances of Mosaic Law are lost as the plague loses steam or the mode of transmission shifts.

Too many people have been driven from church by the concept of a kill-party God, a Deity somehow offended by the concept of human enjoyment. Others fail to see the mercy of Christ in so-called followers who delight in declaring, “I told you so!” Still others see the death that comes from practices and attitudes that believers might excuse as not specifically prohibited.

Addiction recovery was underground at my church. AA meetings were held at arms’ length, happening off to the side, after hours. There was, and still is, a subset of members who “tried one” cup of coffee, never touched a cigarette and settled down with one lifelong partner. But even in that subset, every family has someone who’s doctor shopping for pain pills, babying an overtaxed liver or taking a sabbatical in rehab.

I had a friend, a soaring violinist, the equal of any concert musician I’ve ever heard. He played at my installation service. Despite his humility and encouragement of others, there was no disguising his talent, that it was head-and-shoulders above anything else in the room.

My friend was both a Christian and a “Christian.” He was active in another, more conservative church, one with exacting standards for deacons and membership. He was a member in good standing, probably a deacon, a good boy in Sunday School.

My friend died of an overdose of inhalants. We never knew. He had been sober for years, a 12-step soldier in NA for years. He was also a non-participant for many more years of sobriety — and a few weeks of relapse.

It has been said that AA and 12-step recovery programs are the biggest development in western spirituality since the Protestant Reformation. Luther rejected the Pope; 12-steppers rejected religion in all its trappings, including the priesthood. It’s truly a priesthood of believers in a Higher Power that goes unlabeled, peer-to-peer ministry, sinner-to-sinner therapy. If you want to talk spirituality with Boomers and X-ers, you’ll find common ground with more people quoting the Big Book than quoting scripture.

But a funny thing happens on the way to sober living. All this Higher Power talk leads some people back to the faith of their fathers. Jesus takes on the Higher Power role and does a darned good job of it. The bad news is that the church and Sunday School take on the role of small groups, with mixed results. Too often, the pastor becomes the sponsor without knowing what the sponsee has been through.

My friend found a church, but he lost touch with his recovery community. He had no sponsor to call, no meeting to attend where he could confess his sins and find absolution. So he fell off the wagon and died.

The wages of sin is death. That doesn’t mean that my friend deserved to die. Nor was it entirely his sin that caused this death. Some people knew and said nothing — can’t embarrass my friend in front of the church, can we? Some chose to ignore the telltale signs of intoxication; others were relieved when he started skipping the worship service. Still others survived similar struggles in their own lives and kept them hidden, trying to fit in with the never-a-sip, never-a-puff sainthood.

Sins all around, and their wages is death.

About half of my hospice deathbed vigils have been with people who were too young to die but too burdened by addiction to carry on. My generation knew that our drug of choice was slightly better than tobacco and booze, then translated “less harmful” to read “harmless.” Our children listened and found their own intoxicants. People who were too embarrassed to ask the pastor for a good rehab center have nowhere else to turn for a decent memorial service.

Morality for me is a matter of life and death, but that’s again definitional. It isn’t about impressing me, or God, for that matter, or honoring God by hitting some arbitrary, ceremonial standard. It’s about living another day.

Oh, no, we don’t talk about these things. What’s the big deal about putting a buzz on? “Be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” I’ve shredded my buzz permit for the sake of those who think if I can do it, it must be ok. Because for them, if not for me, it might cause trouble.

My friend is honored every week at a fellowship meal. The meal follows six simultaneous small group meetings, which follow an hour of worship and 12-step lessons or testimony. No one is put down for their particular “sin” because all of us have sinned. Recovering addicts find a safe worship environment where they aren’t led into temptation by those who take lightly the power of “sin.”

And those teatotalers? They’re learning to speak 12-step, to turn their lives over to a Higher Power, to accept people as they are. We learn that redemption is real, that no one is scarred for life.

“… but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Where wrath, judgment, prejudice and the Law have failed us, the grace, mercy and humility of Christ prevail. Love does indeed cover a multitude of sins!