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.

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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Are you satisfied?

My good friend, the Rev. Dominique Atchison, wrote an excellent post today on how Dr. King’s words and deeds have been “white-washed” in the progressive church lately. That is to say, his specifically racial critiques have been largely set aside in favor of more general social justice critiques, such as his anti-war stance and his work on behalf of the impoverished. Rev. Dominique sees, and I do as well, a way in which the apparent desire to make Dr. King’s words continue to speak here and now, ostensibly by elevating his non-racial positions, makes the assumption that his racial positions are largely outdated and no longer relevant for our consideration today.

As if by taking the “WHITE’S ONLY” signs off the pool house and the White House, we have truly ushered in a new era of racial unity and justice.

Sorry – that’s just not how it works. In her article, Rev. Dominique references some “other” words from King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, ones you certainly won’t hear political conservatives appeal to in their efforts to twist Dr. King into an opponent of affirmative action. Check it:

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

And here, to my seeing, lies part of the problem: SOME of the things on this list are, in fact, over with. These days, we (mostly) don’t have segregated motels and hotels. And signs that proclaim “For Whites Only” – (at least overtly) – have been taken down. So it can be tempting to declare, as President Bush did, talking about Iraq in 2003, “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!” – as if it weren’t 2012 and we didn’t still have racial justice issues (or, for that matter, Iraq issues).

We’ve made some progress on the overt stuff, sure. And that should definitely be lifted up and celebrated. But what about the rest of King’s list?

  • Is police brutality against black and brown people over?
  • Are high percentages of black and brown people still living in ghettos, small and large?
  • Are people of color well-represented in public leadership roles?
  • And more basically – can any of us honestly say that we live in a time when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”?

I don’t think we’re done yet. As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King today or any day, let’s please be honest about the fullness of his dream – that it was explicitly racial, because he lived in – and we still live in – a state of explicitly racial inequality. Let us give thanks for the great prophets of yesterday, as well as those today (you know who you are!), but let us critically examine their prophetic visions on an ongoing basis, lest we fall into self-deception about progress that actually has not yet been attained. As for the question, “When will [I] be satisfied”, today I will honor Dr. King by joining in his dissatisfaction, until justice, like water, finally rolls on down.

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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Permutations of Philippians 4:13

I can do all things through [Christ,] who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13, NIV)

  1. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  2. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  3. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  4. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  5. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  6. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  7. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.
  8. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.

Today I’m feeling compelled by #4 in particular: all the things I need to do, I can do through Christ, the living, embodied, incarnate presence of God.  And boy am I seldom actually looking for God in the midst of my workload.

Which one’s speaking to you today?

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.

Bungy-jumping, blizzards, and control

Andria and I haven’t quite made it back from New Zealand.  We’ve been stranded in southern California due to a massive, midwestern blizzard.  We’re staying with some very lovely people, friends of friends in the area.  I’ve gotta say, if you’re going to get stuck somewhere due to bad weather, getting stuck in southern California is probably the best option.  We just read a report of Chicagoans who were actually stuck last night in their cars, on Lake Shore Drive.  The wind must have been horrific.  For the upteenth time I am again humbled by the raw and awesome and unrestrained power of this world.  It is only matched by the raw and awesome and unrestrained power of God.

Nearly two weeks ago, I went bungy jumping in Queenstown. The physical shock to my body of being suddenly very unable to control my circumstances was very transformative and empowering. I had thought it would be a way to practice facing my fear and pushing through it, then surviving, but it turned out to be more about recognizing that I ultimately have no real way to prevent that which is inevitable, be that death, be that the coming reign of God. And for people of privilege, and I have much, there is scarcely anything more undoing than being confronted with the reality that our illusions about “power,” “control,” and “safety” is but shifting sand as time marches on.

Bungy jumping is just one way – albeit bourgeois, completely safe, and manufactured – to experience total powerlessness. This storm in Chicago and elsewhere, causing people to experience helplessness in their cars for twelve hours at a time, is obviously much more dire. But the central confrontation with helplessness is the same. The recognition of not being able to control our circumstances may come a lot more suddenly and easily when you’re plummeting off a bridge or freezing in your car, but it is true even at times of much more calm. One way or another, we are inching ever-forward in our lives, aging one day at time, as if on a very slow moving conveyor belt. We have exactly zero capacity to control this process. Yet, how much of the crap in our lives is devoted to the illusion that this steady march is in fact under our control, even reversible?

Whether we must march on, day by day, is not under our control. But how we do so, is. We will do well to surrender to the inevitable and embrace that which is indeed within our locus of control within every moment of every day: our choices.