Vulgar Worship

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It’s been a few years since the whole “sloppy wet kiss” debate began happening. Most churches have safely landed on the phrase “unforeseen kiss” as opposed to the original “sloppy wet kiss.” To them, “unforeseen kiss” seems less vulgar (even though by using the phrase “unforeseen kiss,” I get the image of a surprise and I don’t like surprises). Churches want to sing “How He Loves” without the image of messiness as portrayed in the original version of the song.

This piece is not meant to bring up the whole debate again. There’s no use beating a dead horse. I use it as a reference because it shows a greater truth about modern worship music in the evangelical church: we don’t like vulgar worship.

The word vulgar was originally used to describe the language of common people. Today, it is generally used to describe something lacking good taste or referring to coarse and rude language. When I use the word, I’m talking about the language of common people.

Modern worship seems plagued by “Stepford Wife” theology. We say to people that even in the darkest of moments, they should still praise God. To, basically, put on a mask and sing words to God that you don’t mean. In doing this, we have robbed songs and hearts of authenticity. In the evangelical church, songs are sung each week that deal with God’s love, Christ’s love, God’s power and strength, grace, etc. Anytime we deal with dark themes, the song will inevitably redeem that darkness. It is uncomfortable for us to sing songs that do not resolve. But the Psalms seem to paint a completely different picture. For instance:

Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem. We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees. For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!” But how can we sing the songs of the lord while in a pagan land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget how to play the harp. May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy. lord, remember what the Edomites did on the day the armies of Babylon captured Jerusalem. “Destroy it!” they yelled. “Level it to the ground!” O Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us. Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks! – Psalm 137

I love this psalm. It portrays such depth and anguish. Even when they talk about rejoicing, we shudder at the thought of babies being smashed against rocks.
Psalm 22 is another psalm that is dark and yet still manages to worship God. It aptly describes the feelings of the author:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.
And then is able to worship God in those feelings:
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. Our ancestors trusted in you, and you rescued them. They cried out to you and were saved. They trusted in you and were never disgraced.
I am not advocating that our songs become morbid and depressing. I am advocating, however, that songs begin to echo the feelings of the common people. This is one of the things that I love about the Episcopal church. It is able to capture all of these emotions in one service through liturgy. There is nothing more humbling and beautiful than to say “Lord, have mercy” over and over.
There are several Sundays I do not want to sing about God’s grace because I feel like I have abused it and have lost the privilege to sing those words.
There are several Sundays I do not want to sing about God’s strength because I do not see it in the atrocities happening around me.
There are several Sundays I do not want to sing at all. I just want to sit in silence and repeat, “Lord, have mercy.”
Evangelical services carry with them a component of happiness. We want people leaving feeling energized and ready to take on the world. But as I have been rereading the Psalms, I see something different being sung.
I understand that worship isn’t about me and that it is about God. But you cannot say that all of these forced songs of happiness are about God. They are about us feeling better. They are about us escaping troubles. They are about us trying to assimilate the people into thinking/feeling the same way about God.
If worship is truly about God, then one will understand that there are several different words that need to be said. Not just words that point to happiness and satisfaction. Words that point to discord, words that point to anger, words that point to sin, words that point to abandonment, etc. These words need to be said because they are all part of the human experience with God.
Through these vulgar words, we will discover the greatness of God.
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The Sin of the Church

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ImageOne of my favorite films of the year has been Philomena. It is a beautiful story about a journalist who tries to find Philomena’s son. Philomena was sent to a convent by her father after becoming pregnant. While in the convent, she gave birth to a son who was then forced illegally into adoption and Philomena was never able to say goodbye to him. 50 years later, Philomena tells this painful secret that she has kept for so many years.

The film is difficult to watch at times. As a person who deeply loves the Bride of Christ, it is painful to see the wrongdoings of the Church. There are an approximate 60,000 women in Ireland that were forced to give up children because they were unwed mothers. Not only that, the Irish government has refused to release the records of these children and the adoptive parents. But Philomena is fighting within the church to see change. She even recently had an audience with Pope Francis.

Philomena Lee has said, “You can’t go through life being so unyielding …so you’ve got to forgive. You’ve got to. You just have to forgive.” This is a seemingly easy concept to live by when the pain the Church causes you is “mild.” Forgiveness is a little more difficult when the Church forces you to give up a child.

But no matter what the pain, “we can’t go through life being so unyielding.” Why? Because we are really being unyielding against ourselves. The Church is a community of people. And each of us make up that community. So when you are angry at the Church, you are, in a way, angry at yourself.

So the church said something with which you disagree? I’m sure no one has ever disagreed with you…

So the church hurt you? I’m sure you have never hurt anyone else…

So the church lied to you? I’m sure you have never lied to anyone…

The sin of the Church is the sin of its people. Our greed, corruption, manipulation, and selfishness is the sin. The Church is not some unknown group of people. It is you. It is me. And we have all made countless mistakes.

This reminds me of the story in John of the woman caught in the act of adultery. As she is brought to receive judgment, Christ makes the simple, yet profound statement, of “let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone” (John 8.1-11). I feel like for many of us, we have tied up the Church and are throwing the biggest rocks we can find at it. We are relentless in our pursuit of destroying it for the pain it caused us. And yet Christ is saying, “let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.” But we can’t hear Him over the sound of stones smashing through the Bride of Christ.

Many of us inside of the Church seem to think that there is some extravagant evil force that is trying to destroy it. This may have some validity but I think it gives far too much credit to that which Christ said, “the gates of hell will not be able to overcome it.” I think we are doing a pretty outstanding job on our own of destroying the church. I’m guilty of this. Sometimes in the pursuit of trying to create something that resembles the Bride of Christ, I find myself trying to destroy the Bride of Christ to create something that resembles Caleb Trimble. I need to learn that balance.

When we throw stones at the Church, we really just hurt ourselves. We cannot go through life being so unyielding. We just need to learn how to forgive. How do you learn to forgive? Remind yourself of what it was like to be on the other end and needing forgiveness. Remember the relief you felt when someone said those three incredible words, “I forgive you.” Remind yourself that you are a part of the thing that you are destroying.

I think we can learn something from Philomena. She was deeply hurt by the Church and yet she kept her faith in God and in the Church. She chose to forgive rather than walk through life being bitter toward it. Perhaps it is because she realized that she would really just be mad at herself. How beautiful would it be if we were quicker to forgive than we were to cast stones from our tower of righteousness? Or see how we have wronged people instead of seeing how the Church has wronged us?

The sin of the Church is me. The sin of the Church is you. But praise God for His grace to each of us. May we exhibit that same grace to the Bride of Christ.

Getting Rid of Your Baggage

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ImageOn my desk are cards. Perhaps I should rephrase that: on my desk are comment cards. I’ve thought about throwing them away. Some of them are really kind…but others are vicious. Part of me wants to hold on to them so bad. They keep me humble. But most of the time they just bring up anger and bitterness.

We all have “comment cards” of some form.

Perhaps it is a note from an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend.

Or maybe it is a picture of a friend who betrayed you.

Maybe it is a church bulletin from a church that ran you out.

A book that reminds you of bad days from high school.

A shirt from a parent who hurt you.

We all have those “comment cards” and we are all scared to part with them. I have no idea why this is. Are we gluttons for punishment? Do we really like to be reminded over and over again of past pain? We must. That would be the only logical explanation for why we keep these things. And when we keep them, it is like we are pouring salt on an open wound.

You’ve seen the cycle – you might have even been through the cycle yourself. You see these items and immediately are angered. As time progresses you turn bitter. As time progresses further, you become callous. Callousness is what scares me the most. Because when we become callous…

we stop loving

we stop yearning for more

we stop trying to achieve our dreams

we stop maintaining relationships

we stop.

Callousness is the final nail in our coffin. It causes us to remove the joy from everything in life. So before you hit that level, have you identified your “comment cards?” Get rid of them. Get rid of them so that you can live. Don’t try to convince yourself that you’re keeping them to keep you humble or to remind you of him/her or in hopes of regaining their friendship. Stop coming up with excuses and start living your life without the baggage of past pain.

In a Pit of Unanswered Prayers

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Writing a blog on prayer is tricky. Before I begin, I want it to be clear that I am a firm believer in prayer. I also want you (as a reader) to know that I raise questions solely for the purpose of opening up discussion about things we have always assumed to be true.

When one looks at prayer, it is quite ridiculous. You are speaking to someone you cannot see. You are requesting something from someone you cannot touch. It is like you are having a conversation with an imaginary friend and everyone around you thinks you have gone crazy. So when you are trying to defend prayer, remember those things.

We praise God when he answers prayers and we curse him when he does not. Non-Christians assume answered prayers are just due to the normal cause and effect of the world and unanswered prayers are further evidence that God does not hear prayers.

If we take the Bible at face value, we should be able to pray and heal people. We should be able to pray and cause miracles. We should be able to pray and accomplish anything to which we set our minds. But there is one small problem: most of the time we see nothing but unanswered prayers and a few answered prayers.

I’ve had people tell me that. I’ve had people tell me that I can accomplish anything with prayer. I’ve gone to conferences where they preach “Prayer is powerful.” I’ve been there. But I’ve also been trapped in a pit of unanswered prayers. I’ve been trapped in that place where I can’t figure out why God answers some prayers and not others. And not only has it made me feel like less of a Christian, it has also made me feel like less of a person.

It is hard to carry on a facade of faithfulness in a pit of unanswered prayers. People ask how we are doing and we say, “Fine. I just gotta keep praying.” In reality, we want to say, “I’m tired of God not answering my prayers.”

Some are quick to argue that God does answer all the prayers, just not the way we would expect it. That is a fine explanation to give to a mother who prayed unceasingly when her child was rushed to the hospital after what turned out to be a fatal car accident. What do you say to that mother? God needed him? The mother needed him. It was God’s will? God’s will is destroying that mother’s faith. What do we say to the unanswered prayers? Perhaps it is better to say nothing. Because when God doesn’t answer prayers, we don’t know what to say, either.

I am disturbed by how comfortable we have become with the cliche answers we give to the question of, “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?”

In God’s time…

His will, not ours…

Maybe He did answer it, just not in the way you thought He would…

Just keep praying harder…

How do these help? These offer no comfort, no satisfaction, and no encouragement.

We have read countless books on prayer. There are even books on prayers to pray so that God answers your prayers. I find this a little absurd. “No wonder my prayers haven’t been answered! I’ve been forgetting to say, ‘In Jesus’ name!'” I wish it were that easy. I wish there was a formula that would always lead to answered prayers. Unfortunately, I have not found that yet.

What I want to say to you is this: You are not less of a believer if you doubt why God hasn’t answered your prayers. You are not less of a believer if you are angry at God for not answering your prayers. You are not less of a believer if you find yourself in a pit of unanswered prayers.

However, knock down the facade of faithfulness when you are really wanting to curse God for the answered prayers. Seek out your community to pray for you and with you. Will God answer then? I do not know. I wish I did.

When you are in your pit of unanswered prayers, just keep forging through it. There is not much else we can do. It is far better to trust in the maker and sustainer of all things than in ourselves. So continue. If you’re like me, you don’t have much faith that your prayers will be answered. However, keep praying. Keep hoping. Maybe you’ll get out of that pit of unanswered prayers.