Worship Music: Where’s the line between evocative and manipulative?

First, this video is a brilliant piece of satire (you may want to watch it before reading my comments below). Check it out:

So I watched this video and found it to be hilarious – and once I stopped laughing, I found it unsettling. Awesome satire, it does an excellent job of critiquing the emotionally-manipulative/shallow aspect of feelings-based worship music. And here’s what it brings up for me: while the music I lead is a little different in style, I fully intend for it to be emotionally evocative, that it will hopefully cultivate an atmosphere of intimate encounter with God and community.

So here’s all the stuff I’m chewing on…

When does emotional music (or, for that matter, prayer/litanies/sermons) cross the line to emotional manipulation?

Is there a point at which our cultivation of the atmosphere of worship (sound, space, ritual) becomes coercive and/or exclusive of those who encounter God in other ways?

How do worship leaders know that we are approaching these decisions ethically?

I welcome your thoughts, wise friends.

The trembling of the white establishment

Here’s a line from a song we sang yesterday: “When tyrants tremble sick with fear and hear their death-knell ringing…” 

I think that’s what we’re really seeing in all these cries for secession in the aftermath of the 2012 election. Tyrants trembling, sick, fearful, acutely aware of their own pending (political) demise. Bill O’Reilly put it best: “The white establishment is now the minority.” To them, no longer being able to lord power over everyone else amounts to their own oppression. The fact that the face of power in the US is (still) brown, maybe because, by God, a majority of people WANT it that way, just reinforces that – and is utterly terrifying to them.

Obamacare and raising taxes on the rich ain’t the issue. The real issue is those faint death-knells ringing in the background, growing steadily louder as time marches on, signifying that the myth of white, middle-class normalcy is ending, and America is evolving into something other than a monolithic, assimilationist blob of red, white, and blue ca. 1950. We just may have to find a way to live together across difference, rather than (a) forcing sameness upon all, (b) excommunicating those who don’t agree, or (c) withdrawing, like unpatriotic cowards. 

In my humble opinion. 🙂:)  On a related note, read on for the sermon I preached yesterday…

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Power Over, Power Under

This past week, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading everything I can  pertaining to the unresolved murder of Trayvon Martin.  I also delivered a sermon for our 10am service about the temptation to dominate. These are very interrelated, I think.

Power Over, Power Under
By the Rev. Thomas M. Ryberg

Text:  Luke 4:1-2, 5-8, 13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

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Learning to Exhale: Breathing as an Act of Surrender

(Cross-posted at The Inward and Outward Journey.)

Confession: When it comes to Sabbath practices, I am so bad at this!

This was most recently evidenced by the fact that, for the umpteenth time, I stayed up too late last night.

It wasn’t the first time this year, or even this week. It was just the latest iteration of what for me has become an undesirable and frequent pattern: I get stressed out by day, then stay up late worrying by night. This, of course, becomes a vicious cycle: I’m stressed, so I stay up late, so I get less sleep, so I’m tired the next day, so I’m less efficient, so I feel more overwhelmed, which stresses me out, so I stay up late…

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now that the coffee has kicked in and I’ve had a little time to reflect, here’s part of what I think is going on for me: refusal to exhale.

Our scripture this week is very timely:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:1-3)

On page 5 of Wayne Muller’s amazing A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, Wayne notes that in the original Hebrew, the word for this rest can be read as “And God exhaled.” And Wayne goes on to pose the question: When do we exhale?

When I’m stressed out, when I feel like I’m holding a lot of stuff, I feel physically tight. The muscles in my neck and shoulders become tense. I feel emotionally tight as well. My mind races from one thing to another, as if I’d drop all the things if I spent too much time thinking about any one of them. And I feel spiritually tight – it’s hard work trying to maintain all this control, you know? Who has time for spiritual renewal when I’ve got so many things to worry about?? I hardly have time to breathe!

…And that’s what I mean by refusal to exhale: physically, emotionally, and spiritually refusing to breathe…

or open

or widen

or relinquish

or release.

I gain something out of refusing to exhale: the illusion that I ultimately have control over all these things I’m worrying about. But the utterly terrifying – and liberating – truth is, I actually don’t have control over the things that give me the most stress. And so for me, stress management isn’t about somehow seizing more control, but rather the opposite: letting go of my desire to control those things. In spiritual language, this is the discipline of surrender.

A curious thing happens when we breathe deeply: our bodies relax. Our heart rates slow down. Our thoughts become clearer. We become more attentive to the things around us. We gain the ability to sustain our focus on one thing at a time. Viewed in this light, breathing itself is an embodied act of surrender: Inhale: allow the oxygen into my body, and hold it there… Exhale: …then surrender it back out.

In the coming days, as we explore the practices of physical, emotional, and spiritual Sabbath together, let’s please be sure to take time to breathe… and relax… and let go of that which we cannot control. Let’s try to do this not only in our designated “Sabbath times,” but when the stress is at its highest points. I’ll keep you posted about how that works out on my end…

Breathe with me?

On Lazarus: While We Wait

We started a three week sermon series on the story of Lazarus today.  I preached the first part today.  It went well.  First, the scripture:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin,said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away,and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 11:1-27, NRSV)

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On the future of Christianity (and values, Rob Bell, and God)

I recently spoke at a rally for Michigan workers here in Battle Creek.  I said some political stuff (in a values and hypocrisy kind of way, not so much party-line kind of way.  You can see the video here).   One of those who attended the rally found me later on Facebook and thanked me for being a Christian leader who was willing to “address the issues that most skirt around.”  It got me thinking, and I responded that it saddens me that progressive people of faith have not been effective at articulating a faith-based vision of social justice and love; and that in this vacuum, much more extreme voices have dominated the public discourse. Consequently, “Christian” has practically become synonymous with “asshole” in recent years, and I am very eager to chip away at the walls my co-believers have erected, wherever and however I can.

But it is also true that for what it’s worth, things are actually changing rapidly among Christians. On the one hand, progressives are getting bolder and better at naming their values,  but there is also an emerging debate raging among evangelicals themselves these days as seen in the recent storm of controversy over Rob Bell‘s new book, Love Wins. On the surface, all the uproar is about whether and how to interpret the doctrine of hell, but in the wise words of my CPE director, “the issue is not the issue.” In this case, the underlying issue is ultimately about whether or not the Christian church can finally embrace a God who is capable of acting in ways that are beyond our imagination:  can we keep God in a box or not?  Because it is our precisely our declaration that we’ve got God figured out and you don’t, that allows Christians to adopt a posture of violence and exclusion toward the rest of the world.  But on the other hand, if we are finally ready, after 2,000 years and counting, to concede that people are in relationship with God in ways that are not ours, and that we need not necessarily embrace, understand, condone, nor condemn, just imagine how different  the world could be?  What if the majority of children grew up in a society (and faith tradition) that is both profoundly faithful yet acknowledges the reality of different beliefs and understandings?  What if the response to difference was not to try and establish that which is ‘true’ or ‘correct,’ but rather to get curious about it, and to get curious about the beliefs we ourselves hold true?

Anyway, I’m glad to be part of a changing world, in relationship with a God who is ever breathing new life into our dusty lungs.

It gets better: Christianity is (slowly) getting better too

God is not a homophobe.