Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Worship wars

I am tired of the worship wars, and I am tired of them on both sides. I am tired of positions that are fundamentally idolatrous. On the one side of the debate, we seem to have people who believe that God cannot and will not appear if drums are on the stage. On the other side, we seem to have people who believe that God cannot and will not appear unless there are drums on the stage. If I were God, I would give up on ALL of them (yet one more in the list of reasons that we are all thankful I am not God). We make these arguments as though we have control on the appearing of God. How arrogant and how idolatrous.

From the biblical perspective, worship is what happens when individuals encounter the presence of God. The church when it gathers as a community represents a miracle of incarnation. We are the body of Christ! Just as Christ was 100% divine and 100% human, the church is at the same time a body of believers and the body of Christ. It seems unfortunate that the 100% human side seems to show so often. Divisiveness and personality conflicts supplant ministry and supplant true worship.

The church needs to ask itself what it can do to manifest the divine to the world, so that worship might actually take place. This change in focus would be pretty healthy. Moving the discussion from "What do I need to experience God" to "What can I do for you to experience God" would seem to be the more biblical perspective. It would be particularly nice if the "you" in that sentence referred to the "least of these."

I am sure the crowds were drawn to Jesus because of his Sandy Creek traditional worship. No wait, I am sure people were drawn to Jesus because of his electric guitar. No wait, people were drawn to Jesus because Jesus loved them. He loved the "least of these." There were people who had no hope and no help from anywhere in the world. Jesus said, "You are of value to me."

People will come to a church when they feel loved. People will come when they find a community that loves them. Part of loving them is giving them a way to experience God, and that is done differently for different people in different places.

So, the challenge is to be like Jesus. Maybe we would move beyond "3 points and a poem" and "hymnbooks vs. overheads" to a relevant expression of Christ to the world. If we aren't willing to do this, the only difference between churches of America and the empty cathedrals of Europe will be that the cathedrals are prettier and already paid for.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Tale of Two Birthdays

This time of year, I always reflect on the events that surrounded my hiring at Shorter College. This water into wine miracle is worth sharing. So . . .

It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. It was Monday, April 4, 2005, Rob Nash's birthday. "Meet about the position," he said in his email. Since I had been ABD, I had applied to every open Biblical Studies position in the country. Now . . . miraculously . . . providentially . . . a position had opened at Shorter College, and I was on the short list.

I drove over to Shorter anxiously . . . growing more anxious as I went. After all, the rule is "good news you can phone, but bad news you would want to give in person." I quickly dismissed the thought, "No, I was just being negative."

Think of the advantage I had over the other candidates. I had taught here for two semesters as an adjunct. I had 6 years of adjunct teaching experience at three institutions. I had become friends with the people in the department. The stars have lined up. After a half dozen short lists, if I don't get this position, what position will I get?

To calm my nerves, I decided to turn on some music. I put in my classic rock MP3 CD and hit "random." Seven hundred megabytes of songs to calm my nerves.

The first song began to play . . . CCR began to sing, "I see a bad moon rising . . ." Quickly, I hit the button again . . . that wasn't helping. Second song . . . the Beatles, "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. . ." Okay, not funny anymore. Next. Ben E. King, "When the night has come and the land is dark and the moon is the only light you see." Next. Brook Benton, "Rainy Night in Georgia." Next. James Taylor begins to sing, "When you are down and troubled, and you need a helping hand, and nothing . . . oh, nothing is going right." Looking back, I wish I had continued the exercise to see how long my CD player would mock me. But, needing Imodium now more than when I started the process, I turned off the radio.

I parked and went to Rob's office. We went in, and I sat down.

Rob took a deep breath and said, "Well . . . we have decided to offer the job to the other candidate."

I don't think he ACTUALLY kicked me in the stomach. But, things are kinda blurry after that. I remember responding with, "Well, (long pause) . . . dang."

Rob said, "There is really no way in the world that this doesn't stink. You have become part of the family here. I am really sorry, and I will do all I can to help. I will happily write recommendations if you need them."

"Thanks," I remember saying meekly.

Rob continued trying to soften the blow, "I wish I could say that there was something you could have done better or something you did wrong. . . It really is just that in light of the department's need for denominational diversity right now, the other candidate is the better choice."

"I understand," I replied.

Rob continued, "I wish that we could hire both of you. I am very sorry."

So, I left the campus feeling like I had let my family down. I went home and shared the news with my wife. Like Deborah of the Old Testament, Cindy is a "fiery woman." Now, someone she loved was hurting, and she was ready to storm the Bastille.

"Please. Please don't do anything I am going to have to apologize for later," I said to calm her down. "I just want to go to class tomorrow and try to move on."

"GO TO CLASS TOMORROW!" She said incredulously. "Just cancel class and take the day. I think they would understand."

"If I had gotten this position, I hope I would have accepted it with graciousness. Now that I didn't, I hope I can still be gracious. I am going to meet with my students tomorrow and do my job."

I drove onto campus the next day, and it was absolutely beautiful. It was that perfect time of spring. The whole campus was bursting with blooms and color and birds and squirrels. I had never a more beautiful campus. "Great," I thought, "first my radio, now the campus is mocking me."

I spent the next two months working twice as hard to finish my dissertation, trying to understand where we would go, and hoping this didn't affect my wife's ministry too much.

Then, on May 23, the ruling came down. The GBC is going to control Shorter College. "Wow," I thought, "Quite a surprise for folks." I sent a note of encouragement to Rob, trying to show that there truly was no ill will between us (and trying to convince myself that there truly was no ill will between us).

Two days later, Rob calls me. "Our first candidate has withdrawn from consideration, would you still like to come work with us." I don't remember much after that part of the conversation. I am pretty sure I said, "Yes!" and I think that Rob can still hear out that ear (though I am not sure). The final irony. He called to offer me the position on May 25 . . . my birthday.

I can say now, looking back, that I love the people at Shorter College. I love the students. I love the job. It turns out many people in this world don't love their job and get rather irritated when I keep sharing about mine. I can honestly say that teaching at Shorter College is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done before.