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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I Just Don’t Understand Anymore…

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“Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Why did my child die?”

“If you commit suicide, do you go to hell?”

“Why is there only one way to God?”

“Why doesn’t God speak?”

If you’ve been in the church long enough, you’ve probably heard most of these questions. Or, if you’re like me, you’ve probably asked some of these questions. The church is a pro at coming up with answers for them:

There is suffering because of the fallen nature of man.

Bad things happen to good people because God is testing them.

Your child died because it was her/his time. God has a lesson in all of this.

Suicide is outside of God’s will.

There is only one way to God because Jesus said so.

God doesn’t speak because we aren’t listening.

Great answers. Right? Anytime I am asked one of these questions, I freeze up. Part of me wants to give the typical cliché answer. But a huge part of me doesn’t. A huge part of me wants to simply say, “I don’t understand.” Most of today’s evangelical pastors have been taught to empathize with people. While empathizing, I fear that we seek a quick fix for ourselves. Giving an empty answer, such as the ones above, leaves us, as evangelical pastors, feeling comforted. We get severely discomforted if we begin to believe that we truly don’t understand.

In “Pub Theology,” author Bryan Berghoef writes, “As Christians, it seems we have an innate need to control the flow of information to ensure desired outcomes.” 2 things about this quote. 1) Buy this book. Click here. You won’t regret it. 2) How true is this? How many times have you come up with an answer so that you can have the desired outcomes?

We seek to comfort so that someone will not leave God.

We shift what could be assumed as God being unjust to God working out His plan.

We say that we aren’t listening so that people will believe that God is still speaking today.

Within the world of Christianity, we take comfort in bad answers and tremble at the terrifying possible truth. I believe that if we sit back and think about our cliché answers, we would be extremely dissatisfied. We would begin to see how our answers were not really comforting, nor were they really answers. Instead, they were empty phrases, muttered by the empathizer to help him/her feel better.

If we begin to admit that we don’t understand, people will leave the faith. Because faith is about having all the right answers. Faith is about knowing the right words to say at any given moment. Faith is about remaining confident. Faith is about hiding your doubts. Right?

I believe that we are scared. Humanity seeks answers but none of the answers are satisfying. In our effort to come up with answers, I believe we have given God attributes that don’t describe Him. We try to describe the intangible with tangible terms. In doing so, we have done an injustice not only to God, but to the world.

So the next time someone comes up with a hard question, instead of giving the cliché answer, maybe it would be better to say, “I just don’t understand anymore. Perhaps I never will. But it is better having someone who doesn’t understand with you than to be by yourself.” I think that is what faith is: being together and not understanding.

I Deny the Resurrection

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A few days back, I finished Peter Rollins’s new book “Insurrection.” The book is subtitled: To believe is human. To doubt, divine. It is a fitting subtitle.

Rollins finishes the book with a piece entitled: I Deny the Resurrection. I’ve heard him do it before at the Poets, Prophets, and Preachers Conference in 2009. But it reminded me of one thing: I, too, deny the Resurrection.

It was a hard realization to come to, at first. I’ve spent most of my life as a Christian and I realize that I deny the Resurrection. Watch the video. Perhaps you do, as well.

As I listened to him speak, I realized what I was guilty of. I think many of us are fearful of admitting such a thing. But it’s true.

For the longest time, I believed, as a Christian, that life was about getting by so you could get to Heaven. Now don’t get me wrong, it was nice to do things for others…periodically. But most of the time, it was about hanging out together and encouraging one another. That’s what I believed the church was all about. If that’s true, then the church denies the Resurrection.

The book opened my eyes. Far too often, we deny the Resurrection. I have become so inward focused at times that I disgust myself.

I don’t try to help the oppressed.

I don’t look after the widows and orphans.

I don’t feed the hungry.

I don’t clothe the naked.

I don’t do a lot of things that I should. And when I don’t, I deny everything that Christ did. Because if I truly believed it, I would do those things. When we do not act for the oppressed, we become the oppressors.

The unfortunate thing, is that it is easy for us to deny the Resurrection. We get caught up in “doing things” that we never actually “do things.” I see this in many churches. We get caught up in ice-cream socials, potlucks, game nights, movie nights, youth group hangout times, camps, Sunday morning worship, etc., that we never actually act out the Resurrection. We schedule event after event within the church but rarely do we take up the social justice issues outside the church. If we truly believe in the Resurrection, we would be more active.

We can read the Bible as much as we want. We can memorize it in its entirety. We can sing song after song worshipping God. We can pray without ceasing. We can partake communion every Sunday. We can give God our 10%. We can volunteer to clean the church. We can help make cookies for the youth trip. All of these things are great. But unless we begin doing things outside the church, unless we begin caring for those who can’t care for themselves, unless we realize that Christ is greater than what happens inside the 4 walls, we deny the Resurrection.

So what about you? Do you deny the Resurrection as well? Sometimes I do as well. Although, I’m working on it more and more.

Less Faith is More Faith

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“I wish I had more faith.” I have said that to myself so many times in the past year. But haven’t we all said that numerous times? I think many of us are afraid to admit that we want more faith. It is something we pray in the dark, but something we would never admit in the light.

But if someone were to ask me what I wanted from God, I would simply say, “more faith.” I don’t want a job, money, security, more friends, more knowledge, more power, health, safety, or anything else that I should ask for. Instead, I just want more faith.

I wish I had more faith in finances. As I was talking with friends who were doing a church plant, I told them that I wished I had the faith that they had to go out and raise their finances. They just packed up their lives, moved across the country, and trusted that God would provide. In reality, this is an idiotic concept. People who do this usually end up on the street. And in this economy? They must be asking for poverty. But sure enough, God has provided for them. Sure, it has been difficult, but He has provided.

I wish I had more faith in my prayers. When talking to one of my friends about prayer, she said that she prays for the impossible and God always provides. In reality, this is an idiotic concept as well. You are speaking to an invisible being? How is this different than a child and his/her imaginary friend? But sure enough, she has faith that her prayers will be answered. It would be nice to believe that prayers would be answered. But it is difficult to believe in answered prayers when all you can recall is unanswered prayers.

I wish I had more faith in my career choice. I speak with many friends/mentors who know that they are doing what they should be doing. They have received affirmation from other friends. They know because of how the doors were opened to where they are now. They know because of the impact they are making. But what about those who don’t have jobs right now? Are some people called and others aren’t? Is God looking out for some but not for others? Did some people pass God’s test but others didn’t?

I wish I had more faith in the Church. It is difficult to believe in the power of the Church when all you see is the failures of the Church. The bad always hides the good. How can I have faith in the Church when I constantly see people who refuse to go to church because of what the church has done to them? And how can I have faith in the Church when the Church’s response to those people is, “Get over it. We all make mistakes and we all have been hurt at one point or another.” How can I have faith in an organization like that?

I wish I had more faith in God. It is hard to believe in something that you cannot see. It is hard to believe in God when you haven’t seen Him work in a while. You begin to forget about all He has done and focus on all He has not done. A while back, I journaled this:

“God, I know I have seen Your works before. God, I know that you are still working today. But if you could help me out a bit and remind me of what it is like to see you work, I would appreciate that. Because right now, you seem like a vivid dream. I can’t remember if you really did what I think you did.”

That was a dark place. That entry still strikes a chord with me.

I wish this blog post was about how God showed me everything and now I fully believe in Him and will never doubt Him again. But it isn’t. I still wish I had more faith in God. If I had more faith in God, then I would have more faith in the Church, my career choice, my prayers, and my finances. Life would be a whole lot easier if I had more faith. But unfortunately, my faith is the size of a mustard seed…at best.

We have tried to tell people to have more faith in God. If you doubt anything, you just need more faith. In the dark moments of your life, you just need more faith. That is our prescription for everything. Have more faith in God. If I had a dollar every time I heard that, I would not have to have more faith in my finances. Christ tells us in Matthew 17 that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.

The reason we pray for more faith is because a mustard seed is too small. Or at least that is what we think. We are uncomfortable vocalizing our doubts and fears because a mustard seed appears small. We will pray for more faith in the dark but refuse to talk about it in the light. Instead, we put on a mask that we trust in God for everything. In reality, we may be hanging by a thread. We can’t let people know that, though. Otherwise, they will think of us as “less” of a believer.

It is hard to have faith. That is undeniable. Wishing you had more faith does not make you less of a Christian. In fact, it makes you more dependent upon Christ. You recognize your humanity. You recognize your fears. You recognize your inability to trust in something that God could do through you. So maybe less is more. Maybe those who say they have a lot of faith really have a lot of false faith. Maybe they have convinced themselves that they have a lot of faith but in reality, they are plagued with dark and restless nights that they refuse to bring into the light.

Perhaps less faith is more faith. Perhaps it is better to have the mustard seed.