Here I Raise Mine Ebenezer

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I will always remember February 27, 2015 for a couple of reasons. First, it snowed that day, ensconcing  downtown in a beautiful blanket of white. It ended a wild winter weather week in North Texas where we endured multiple winter storms, but that did not slow me down. The record will show that I was one of a handful of people in my office that showed up for work every day.

That’s nothing new. In 2014, I took a total of five days off from work and billed nearly 2,100 hours. During the summer, I worked a couple of 60 and 70 hours weeks. At the time, I didn’t really mind. The work was there and the 30+ hours of overtime certainly looks nice on a paycheck. In spite of all this productivity, for the first time in my life, my employer relieved me of my job duties that snowy Friday afternoon.

You never want to get a call from HR on a Friday afternoon and it’s even more ominous when you walk into the conference room and she’s sitting with one of the partners, yet surprisingly there was a sense of relief when I sat down at that table, even as the words “today is your last day,” came out her mouth.

Sure, there was part of me that lamented the loss of income, but the funny thing is that at no point along this journey have I considered myself “unemployed.” On the contrary, I saw this particular event as a means to get me to focus on my primary job. While there have been some tense moments over the past seven weeks, I feel I am a much better father and husband after all this time off.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my wife has had the hardest job in our family for the past two years. Though immensely rewarding, spending every day with our son showed me what it’s like to be a stay-at-home parent. (Here’s a hint: it’s not as easy as it looks)

Over the past seven weeks, we have become experts at experiencing all Dallas has to offer on a budget. (Here’s a hint: there’s a lot) Living in an urban environment can be such a rewarding experience for kids with all the cultural and learning opportunities available and we have taken advantage of it, visiting the zoo, the parks, the museums, and even giving our son his first trolley ride around the city.

There were also the afternoon walks on the Katy Trail and around our neighborhood, soaking in all the beauty Turtle Creek has to offer, understanding that we won’t always be able to live here and trying to appreciate it until we are forced to make that dreaded move north to the wind-swept prairies of the Dallas suburbs.

During this time off, I have had the opportunity to meet with my mentors, and examine my life and discover what really drives me–family–which makes it that much easier to put a plan in place for the future. I know now that there are far more important things to a job than the compensation package. “Work/life balance” is real and, for some of us, it’s the most important aspect of a career.

Immediately following my termination, I had several friends who had been through similar situations reach out to me to offer support. Without fail, each one of them told me that this situation would turn out to be a blessing, and though I doubted them at the time, I have to say they are 100% correct.

Today, I feel closer to my wife and son than I ever have before, not only because of the time I have been able to spend with them, but also because a life event like this forces you as a family to focus on the things that really matter. Losing a job can be stressful, especially when you are the sole bread winner. You have no choice, but to take an inventory of you life individually and collectively, and realize that nothing is more important than that which you create together.

On Saturday, Stephanie and I will celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, and Monday, not only do I return to work, but we will also celebrate our son’s second birthday. I think these two dates frame this event perfectly.

A day after my termination, I was talking with a friend about the hymn “Come Thou Font,” one of my favorites. Most versions contain the line, “here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come.” One of the things I learned in an Old Testament class is that an “Ebenezer” was simply a stone that folks would raise to show their thanks for God’s deliverance through tough times. As I embark on the next stage of my career, I am confident that the past seven weeks have served as a metaphorical stone, “mine Ebenezer,” raised in honor of God’s hand leading me through it all.

Thank God for life’s little hiccups.

What Do You Call It When The Sun Shines While Its Raining?

With our almost two year old adding words to his growing vocabulary each day, I realize just how important it is that I watch what I say. I freely admit it; I have a potty mouth. Kids are sponges, absorbing everything around them. They especially love to mimic and repeat everything they see Mommy and Daddy doing. Obviously, any good father will aim to watch what he says. Normally, this involves avoiding the use expletives or perhaps adopting the “earmuff method,” but recently I have come to realize there probably some more subtle changes I need to make when talking around my son.

On Thursday, a classic spring time weather scenario played out over most of Texas, with the jet stream plunging from the north, colliding with the warm, moist air coming from the Gulf. It’s this type of weather pattern that often leaves to the formation of super cell thunderstorms and tornadoes, but can also lead to other more docile weather phenomenon like sunshine while it rains, which is what happened on Thursday evening.

My wife and I happened to be loading our son into the car during this occurrence and I made the remark that “the devil must be beating his wife,” alluding to the old saying popular in much of the South, including my native East Texas. My wife made the point that it was probably time to find a better way of describing this particular situation, and she’s right. Domestic violence is no laughing matter, even if it involves fictional characters on the wrong side of good and evil.

It got me to thinking, are there other things I say that may seem innocent and/or harmless, but that could be a detriment to my son’s development?

An Easter Meditation

If I am being honest, Easter presents the most problems to my faith as a Christian. Today, as with every other Easter, I must accept one of the most absurd tales ever told–some Middle Eastern guy a couple thousand of years ago rose from the grave after being dead for three days. Not only did he rise from the dead, he did so to provide a new covenant between God and man, a proverbial pressing of the restart button or clearing of the cache. It certainly defies all logic and reason and every ounce of matter in my body wants to read this as an extended allegory, a divine conceit meant to engender a personal transformation, as well as social and political change.

But void of a physical resurrection, Christianity is reduced to the plot line to the greatest musical in the history of American theater. Sure, a radical named Jesus walked the Earth, talked a good game, had quite the following, and he may have had “too much Heaven on his mind” and eventually became a victim of his own self-fulfilling prophecy. Viewing the Easter story through this Jesus Christ Superstar-lens, one can witness the spiritual resurrection, and heed the call to find Jesus among the poor, hungry, and downtrodden in our world today.

But if that is the case, then “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” to quote Patti Smith.

Indeed, without a physical resurrection, Christianity loses all its appeal to me. Hedonism makes much more sense without this crucial piece to life’s existential puzzle. In order for Christianity to be a viable option to me, it requires a physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. By faith, not facts, I accept this story to be true. This narrative defies reason, so I must lean on experience. Though often riddled with doubt, I find my faith emboldened by the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit, which allows me to experience God in a way unique to Christianity. Christ died for all humanity, but also so that we might all have personal relationships with God the Father.

Without the cross and resurrection, this relationship would be impossible.

Without this relationship, Christianity is nothing more than a political movement.

For me, scripture doesn’t have to be inerrant, historical, or literal, but this one thing must be true and most days when doubt enters my mind, I can focus my attention on something else, but Easter calls me out, forcing me into that awkward space where my faith is first broken down, before being rebuilt, each time stronger than before.

 

What Happened In Between Good Friday and Easter?

If someone were to ask me what I believe in as a Christian, I would point to the Apostle’s Creed. I think it packages all the necessities into a nice, clean box you can unwrap and quantify.

  1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty
  2. I believe He made Heaven and Earth
  3. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only son, our  Lord
  4. I believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit
  5. I believe Jesus was born unto the Virgin Mary
  6. I believe Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate
  7. I believe Jesus was crucified dead and buried

Now here’s where things get just a little sticky. Throughout most of my life, when we recited the Apostle’s Creed, we skipped right into “the third day he rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven,” but I do remember an extra line being added in at the Episcopal school I attended in middle school. They added, “He descended into Hell.”

Even as a thirteen year old, I found this a bit odd. “Jesus went to Hell after he died,” I thought. I never found anything in scripture to support this point of view and never heard it preached in any church–mainline or evangelical–I ever attended, but I eventually surmised that it was one of those things Methodists dropped when the broke from the Anglican church.

The UMC website ran an interesting piece this morning the history of this line, which got me to thinking about this issue again. Three questions, in particular.

Did Jesus Descend Into Hell? Scripture doesn’t really gives us any clues on what happened between Christ’s burial and resurrection, but 1 Peter 3:19-20 could possibly allude to Christ descending into Hell. Other books associated with the Christian faith, but that didn’t make it into the Bible, do indeed reference Christ descending into Hell.

If Jesus Did Descend Into  Hell, Why? Again, since nothing exists in the Bible that definitively points to Christ descending into Hell, it’s hard to have an authoritative position on why this would occur. One theory states that Christ went to free those held captive by death prior to His atonement. Christians who believe that Jesus is the only way to God have always had a problem explaining what happened to all the people of rich faith who died prior to Jesus. This would provide an explanation for that.

Does It Really Matter? That depends. I think it does matter a great deal to those wanting to emulate the primitive church, especially  some from the paleo-Orthodox wing of the evangelical church. The earliest written versions of the Apostle’s Creed contain the Latin phrase “descendit ad inferna,”  which according to this article translates to “he [Jesus] went down to the lower regions.” The article also points out that some progressives may find a a bit of subversive message hidden within this phrase. For me personally, what happens tomorrow is far more important than what happened today, but it is fun to ponder.

Thank God I am of the liturgical tradition.

Am I Still Living In the Dark Ages?

A few weeks ago, I had a late night text session with an old friend, J.T.

I don’t keep in touch with many people I grew up with and I am ashamed to admit that the few that I do remain in contact with, I do so in the modern sense, via social media postings and occasional text messages. J.T. and I go way back to middle school, when he moved in next door to me. Since we were in the same grade, we became friends and, eventually, I invited him to church with me. Over the next five years, we both grew tremendously in our faith and both explored calls to the ministry. We had even planned on going to the same college together, but life happened and we ended up going our separate ways. All that to say, when we talk, our conversations inevitably turn spiritual and this particular night was no different.

Keep in  mind, I only returned to “the Church” a little over a year ago, after spending virtually the entire 21st Century without setting foot inside a house of worship or mingling with anyone of faith. During that time, J.T. went through his own spiritual journey, but managed to maintain some contact with the Christian church. A lot has changed in the Christian church since I last regularly attended services in the late 90’s, so I feel a bit like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer when it comes to all things “church,” and I often consult with J.T. when I just can’t wrap my head around a change in the church.

This particular night, I made the observation that the contemporary and acoustic services at the church I attend never use any 20th Century songs in worship. We sing plenty of contemporary songs and contemporary renditions of ancient hymns like “Be Thou My Vision” and “Come Thou Font,” but it’s like the 20th Century never happened. When I brought this to his attention, he made a comment to the effect that those were the “dark ages.”

I get it!

American 20th Century evangelicals set Christianity back about three centuries, but that shouldn’t take away from the music they created, right?

Fast forward to this past Sunday, I’m in the car headed to church with my wife and son and I stumble upon a piece from The Atlantic, concerning  Sufjan Stevens (relax, my wife is driving), which ostensibly serves as a critique of contemporary Christian music (oh, the horror).

The Atlantic! Arguably the most important American periodical still in circulation. Now they’re in the business of critiquing CCM?

If nothing else, it gave me some perspective on why so many of the songs of faith I love are not included in weekly worship services.

I get it, songs like “Farther Along,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Victory in Jesus,” “Awesome God,” and even “Worlds Apart” probably seem a bit vapid and/or superfluous to the Millennial congregant, but even in the days of my greatest doubt, I somehow found comfort, beauty, and peace in many of these 20th Century songs of faith.

Are a lot of these songs I love really just “didactic crap?”

Possibly, but I’m sure there were folks in the 18th Century church that felt the same way about “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” so  I don’t really care. When I hear Elvis sing “He Touched Me,” I feel something real and powerful and that shouldn’t be discounted.

Good Friday

It sounds counter-intuitive, but I sometimes think that those of us who grew up in the church have a more difficult time understanding the significance of Good Friday. As a child, I was taught Good Friday was the day “they” (always the ambiguous “they“) crucified Jesus. I often wondered why we as Christians would consider the day they sacrificed our religion’s namesake as “good,” but I learned that this was necessary for Him to conquer death, so that we all might have everlasting life. Now that’s a lot of evangelical church speak, especially for someone raised in and who continues to worship in a mainline denomination, but thanks to my Reformed friends, I learned this was called the substitutionary atonement theory, a theory I continue to believe in to this day, but there’s more (at least for the good Wesleyan)…

I recently began reading Timothy Tennent’s The Call to Holiness: Pursuing the Heart of God for the Love of the World. Last night, I read a very timely passage regarding the significance of the crucifixion.

The cross is an astonishing expression of God’s grace and mercy as well as God’s holiness and justice, all expressed simultaneously in their full perfection. God’s holiness and justice require that sins be paid for in full. Sin cannot be ignored or swept under the rug. Satisfaction must be made, God’s righteous judgment was poured on Jesus Christ, who bore the sins of the world. Yet, that very act of judgment was also the greatest expression of God’s love for us. It was God’s grace and mercy that sent His only Son as a substitution for us. He paid the debt we owed. The Scriptures teach that Jesus bore our sins on the cross. We often think of the cross only through the lens of being cleansed from sin, but the cross is not only satisfaction of our guilt, fear, and shame. It is the transference of His holiness to us. In other words, through the cross we not only lose our sins, but we gain His righteousness.

So much Wesleyan goodness contained in this little paragraph!

But why is this important?

I think Tennent offers a really compelling argument that Jesus represents a second “Adam.” Obviously, this is not anything new. Paul wrote about this idea in 1 Corinthians 15:45, but Tennent really drives it homes.

The result of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is that we now have two Adams. We have two heads of two different races: the first Adam, who is the head of a race under condemnation: and a second Adam, who is the head of a new, redeemed humanity.

Good Friday is “good” not only because it promises us life after death, but also because it provides us the path  to entire sanctification, allowing us to truly experience the radical love and power of God in the here and now.

 

Let’s Tap the Brakes on the Ebola Fears

Perhaps, I am a bit naïve, but I simply do not understand the fear and paranoia surrounding the Ebola virus. Follow me for a second.

6.8 million people live in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Currently, two of them are infected with the Ebola virus. Both of those patients had direct contact with bodily fluids of a patient infected with the Ebola virus. Forty-eight other people had casual contact with Patient Zero, Thomas Eric Duncan. They have been under observation for seventeen days now and none of them have contracted the virus.

Meanwhile, a report out today from the Dallas Morning News reveals that medical staff at Presbyterian Hospital did not wear hazmat suits for two days while treating Duncan. A blog post from National Nurses United provides an even more damning account of his treatment.

Add it all up and Ebola is the virus from your science book and not the one from the Hollywood blockbusters—deadly, but communicable under very limited conditions. Even as scary as it may be that you may have shared a flight with someone infected with Ebola, your chances are very slim of catching it under that scenario.  In short, if you are not caring for someone infected with the virus, there’s a 99.9% (or greater) chance you will not get Ebola.

Presbyterian Hospital does some things very well. Our son was born at that very same hospital and both he and my wife received excellent care; however, it is obvious Presby. was not prepared to handle an Ebola patient. From all the facts that we have, it appears mistakes were made on their end, putting their employees at great risk. Thankfully, the CDC has stepped in and transferred Amber Vinson to a facility more prepared to handle someone with this particular virus.

I suspect we will see more cases of people who administered care to Duncan developing the virus over the next few days, but until someone contracts the virus in a way that contradicts current medical science (i.e. someone who contracts the virus without being directly exposed to an infected person’s bodily fluids), I refuse to buy into the paranoia or give into the fear.

Too Much Religion?

I first read the story of the Rev. Charles Moore last week. For those of you not familiar with his story, Moore drove to his hometown of Grand Saline in East Texas, doused himself with gasoline, and set himself on fire. In letters left by Moore, he indicated the act was meant to bring attention to what he perceived as unjust practices by the United Methodist Church and members of his hometown, specifically as it relates to members of the African-American and LGBT communities. It’s a story I have struggled with ever since.

Like Rev. Moore, I grew up behind the Pine Curtain. I too lament the region’s history of bigotry and intolerance. I am appalled to think of the building where I attended elementary school was once the old “black” high school in our community, located on “the Hill,” the segregated African-American community in the center of my hometown. More importantly, I recognize racism and bigotry still exists in these communities. Why else would a town of 5,000 residents need two First Baptist Churches?

Like Moore, I  believe the Methodist church has marginalized members of the LGBT community. I remain a strong proponent of marriage equality and admire those within our church working for full inclusion of homosexual clergy members, but I also firmly believe that Christ called us to be selfless servants and feel that Moore’s act of self-immolation was completely selfish. More importantly, I think it further illustrates the dangers associated with being too religious.

Usually we associate being “too religious” with extremely conservative theology. The Branch Davidians and the congregants of Westboro Baptist Church instantly come to mind, but the term could easily be used to describe a number of Reformed and Pentecostal sects of Christianity. Indeed, it seems as though anybody who spent anytime in an evangelical church in the 90’s blogs about the ways churches that are “too religious” harmed them. I don’t doubt their stories, but they are so ubiquitous that we often overlook some of the dangerous practices of progressive Christians who tend to be “too religious.”

The most obvious example is Jim Jones, but I think Moore’s actions can be described as those of a progressive Christian consumed by religion as well. While some describe his actions as those of a martyr, I disagree, and see instead the actions of political radical more concerned with making a statement, ultimately drawing attention to himself, rather than a humble servant prepared to follow the message of Christ.

Christ calls every Christian to a life of radical discipleship that causes us to walk a tightrope between  the secular and the sacred. Religion is one of many rudimentary tools invented by man to try and better understand the sacred. No doubt that we need religion in order to fully discern God’s call in our lives, but it’s when begin to lean on religion more than Christ’s own message that we begin to encroach on dangerous territory.

Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today

making-sense-of-the-bible

Recently, our church wrapped up a four part sermon series on the Book of Jonah.  When promotional material for the series began circulating in early May, I wondered how one could possibly stretch the story out over the course of four weeks, but Paul Rasmussen and Matt Tuggle revealed a story far more substantive than I ever knew existed.

Even those with little or no exposure to the Christian church know the story. Many of us learned it as children. Jonah hops a boat to escape God. God sends a storm that tosses Jonah into the sea, where a whale swallows him. Eventually, Jonah submits to God, who causes the whale to spit Jonah out. The children’s version ends there and serves as a reminder to always remain obedient to God, but the adult version continues.

After being rescued from the fish, Jonah goes into Nineveh and follows God instructions to warn the Ninevites that God would soon destroy their city. The Ninevites change their ways, repent, and God has a change of heart, deciding to spare the city, its people, and animals, which confounds Jonah. The story ends with Jonah setting up camp outside the city, God sending a giant plant to protect him from the elements, sending a worm to destroy it, and the ensuing conversation between Jonah and God.

It’s a rather surreal story from start to finish, one of many in the Bible that cause the rational mind to pause and question the book’s validity and relevance in contemporary society, but when read in context, the story of Jonah offers timeless lessons on what to do when the “place God wants us to be the most is the place we want to be the least.”

Sadly, many of us never move past the childhood versions of the great stories of the Bible and, as a result, our faith remains in a state of arrested development. Adam Hamilton’s latest book, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today seeks to help us avoid that trap and to read the Bible with a more critical eye. Indeed, in the epilogue, Hamilton reminds his reader that, “to reiterate the base premise of this book: You are not dishonoring God by asking questions of scripture that seems inconsistent with modern scientific knowledge or geography or history.

Hamilton divides his book into two sections: “The Nature of Scripture” and “Making Sense of the Bible’s Challenging Passages.” The first section begins with a historical look of both the Old and New Testament: when the books were written, by whom, for whom, and the process of canonization. It serves as a great starting point for anyone wanting to know how the Bible was compiled.

Chapters 3 through 7 serve as survey of the Old Testament, making the ancient books accessible to 21st Century lay people. Hamilton exposes a theme found throughout the Old Testament, a pattern we continue to see repeated today.

When things are going well, they [Israelites] tend to forget about God. They focus on gaining wealth or on their own pleasure. They worship the idols their own hands have made. They no longer demonstrate love and justice. They stop helping the poor. God withholds his protection, and Israel’s enemies begin to attack. Israel cries out to God for help. God delivers them (through Judges, then Kings), and all is well again, until they forget God once more, focus on wealth and pleasure, and practice injustice and idolatry, so God withholds his hand again.

Of course this isn’t just the story of the Israelites, but of all mankind.

The Old Testament section concludes with a look at “Prophecy, the Old Testament, and the Early Church.” Hamilton points out that “as the early Christians read the Old Testament, they did so in the light of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, and they saw Jesus on nearly every page.” He points out that history shows many of the prophecies evangelicals commonly associate with Jesus were actually fulfilled centuries earlier. He encourages the reader to view the Old Testament through the following lens.

The words of the Old Testament may have had a fulfillment in the past, but they took on new meaning in the light of Jesus’s life and ministry, his death and resurrection. Jesus offered a completion, or climactic redefinition, of what these ancient words meant because Jesus is the climax of God’s saving work in the world.

This serves as perfect transition to the New Testament. Hamilton reminds us that God’s story comes full circle in the New Testament when “Revelation ends where Genesis began—in a garden. The paradise that was lost by Adam and Eve in Genesis is restored by Christ in Revelation,” but before diving head on into Revelation, Hamilton begins the study of the New Testament with a look at the letters, with a heavy emphasis on Paul’s letters to the early Christian church, which are widely accepted as the oldest writings in the New Testament.

Hamilton reminds his reader that when reading the letters you are actually reading “someone else’s mail,” meaning they must be read in their proper context. “The Epistles are amazingly timeless,” Hamilton writes. “Most of what they teach we can fairly easily apply to our own lives, but there is room to ask questions about how to apply to our lives instructions found in mail addressed to people two thousand years ago.”

Paul serves as controversial figure to some. Indeed, in his letters, Paul shared many opinions on the role of women, slavery, and sexual morality that many good hearted Christians find not only antiquated, but also incompatible with the loving message of Jesus Christ. Hamilton helps those of us who feel this way place Paul’s writing in context, by helping us understand Paul’s intended audience and life experiences.

With the reader reconciled with Paul, Hamilton moves on to a quick study of the Gospels, beginning with an examination of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). He points out the numerous similarities between the synoptics and investigates their possible shared sources, while developing the theme of the coming “kingdom of God.”

In examining John, Hamilton explains, “if I’m looking for answers to questions of when, what, and how, I look to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. If I’m interested in answer to questions of who and why, I turn to John.”

Up until this point, Hamilton manages to offer a critical examination of the Bible few would find controversial; however, from Chapter 14 on Hamilton requires the reader to ask some tough questions that inevitably will leave some feeling a bit uncomfortable, beginning with “is the Bible inspired.”

As he points out, the phrase appears only once in scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Hamilton explains that “verbal, plenary inspiration” is neither taught in the Bible, nor was it taught in the early church, but rather grew out of a defensive response to the Enlightenment, or as Hamilton explains it, “verbal, plenary inspiration was a way of building a fence around the Bible and making it impossible to question it or any doctrine built upon it.”

 Again, you don’t need to be a regular churchgoer to know this same rigid, narrow-mindedness exists in the church today, robbing scriptures of their richness and turning our back on the great Christian tradition.

As Hamilton explains, “none of the historic creeds of the church, those from the first five hundred years of the Christian faith, mention an infallible or inerrant Bible or the idea of verbal, plenary inspiration, and none begin with an affirmation of faith in the scriptures. But for many, this has become the first and foundational creed of Christendom.”

Hamilton’s critique of the idea of “verbal, plenary inspiration” shouldn’t be read as a complete dismissal of the idea that scripture is “inspired.” For him (and me), “divine inspiration” does not mean inerrancy. Many in the Anglican/Wesleyan tradition feel scripture contain “all things necessary for salvation,” without mistaking it for a history or science book.

He lays out the Methodist view of scripture—scriptures role in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—which, as Hamilton describes, “involves reading and interpreting scripture with the help of the tradition of the faith, the experience of the Spirit, and the use of our human reason.”

This raises another divisive question. Is the Bible the word of God?

It depends on how you look at it, according to Hamilton.

In reading each of the forty-one passages that speak of the “word of God,” few seem to refer to something written down in a scroll or book. Most, often, the phrase refers to a message about God that is heard—either spoken or preached. In the Gospels, Jesus preaches “the word of God,” but that is never an expository sermon on a text of the Old Testament. When the apostles refer to the word of God, they are almost always referring to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ not something written in the scriptures.

Hamilton points out that only once in scripture—“God’s self-disclosure” found in John 1:14 (“The Word became flesh and lived among us…”), can we say the “Word of God is inerrant and infallible.”

While some might find Hamilton’s nuance heretical, I find it very helpful, especially his analogy that “the Bible is the biography of God. It is not an autobiography, but an authorized biography.”

This leads to a study of some of the more troubling passages in the Bible, looking first at the Creation stories found in Genesis, which Hamilton reminds us “is not ancient history. This is your story. It is my story.” This naturally leads to a study of Adam & Eve, Noah and the flood, and some of the more problematic passages of the Old Testament.

I especially found the section on suffering to be enlightening. So many Christians reduce suffering to talking points, saying things such as “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Worse yet, some conservative Christians teach that suffering is God’s punishment. I find both lines of reasoning to be juvenile, but find comfort in Hamilton’s thoughts.

The idea of God’s sovereignty does not mean everything happens according to the will of God, but that human evil, natural disasters, illness, and even death will not have the final word. God will ultimately force good from evil, and his love and goodness will finally prevail. This truth is seen in the rebuilding that takes place in our lives and in our world after tragedy strikes, and in the hope of the resurrection when we God face-to-face. God’s sovereignty does not mean God causes these things, but instead that none of them will ultimately have the final word. God will bring good from evil, and not even death can separate us from his love.

Some might be uncomfortable with Hamilton’s deconstruction of scripture. I admit that I am hesitant to accept Hamilton’s version of Christian inclusivism presented at the end of the book, but I take great comfort in his presentation of a model of reading scripture that does not require one to check their brain at the door.

So how are we to read scripture? I think Hamilton summarizes it nicely when he writes:

To me, someone who holds a high view of scripture approaches the Bible with a deep appreciation for its history and the way God has spoken and continues to speak through it. They recognize both the Bible’s humanity and its divine inspiration, and they study it carefully in order to be shaped and guided by it. Someone with a high view of scripture actually reads the Bible, listens for God to speak through it, seeks to be shaped by its words, and seeks to follow its commands. One can long to do these things and not believe in inerrancy, and one can believe in inerrancy and not do these things.

When Does Contemporary Worship Become “Too Contemporary?”

 Remember Columbia House and BMG music clubs?

For those of you not old enough to remember, these music clubs, and others like them, often ran ads in Sunday newspapers advertising multiple CDs (usually, 6 or 8 I believe) for an incredibly low price. Some included a spot to affix a penny to send back to the club. Others simply would bill you later. Six to eight weeks later, your CDs would arrive in the mail, as well as an invoice for enrollment in their club. Absent a reply, you would continue to receive at least one CD a month.

I have no idea how much money I cost my parents, but I joined these clubs multiple times and relied on them to make arrangements to cancel my enrollment, but I always got to keep the CDs. As a result, my music collection really grew. By the time I was a senior in high school, I probably had close to 200 albums on CD, which was a sizeable collection for a high school student in the 1990’s.

One day, a good friend stopped by to talk music with me. At the urging of his youth pastor, he recently had destroyed all off his secular music and encouraged me to do the same, so for the next 30-45 minutes we went through my music collection, breaking each of my CDs that didn’t promote a Christian image. For the next few months, I abstained from listening to any secular music at all, but eventually, I saw the folly of my friend’s theology, understanding that listening to secular music was not an unpardonable sin.

I share this story, because I don’t want to come off sounding like my friend. But I must ask, what’s the deal with secular music in 21st Century contemporary worship services?

From about 1997 through 2013, I went through my own dark phase of church. As I have spoken about freely on this blog, I bounced between agnostic and apathetic when it came to religion and saw church as a bit superfluous, but fatherhood changed everything, including my perception of the church.

Now that I am back as a regular church attendee, I am slowly adjusting to 21st Century contemporary worship services. When I last attended church on a regular basis in the late 90’s, contemporary services were still deeply closeted in the Methodist church. My local church had a 45 minute contemporary service on Sunday evenings, but most congregants would have completely freaked if they had known drums had made an appearance in our sanctuary.

I’m glad to see contemporary services are more accepted now in the Methodist church, but I have to ask, have we become a little too contemporary?

Yesterday’s service at my church included Queen’s “Under Pressure” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” The pastor’s sermon was entitled, “Under Pressure,” so I get its inclusion in the worship service, but I am still having problems processing the inclusion of a Katy Perry song in Sunday morning worship. As far as I can tell, there is nothing spiritual about its lyrics.

Again, I have nothing against secular music, nor Katy Perry. My iTunes library contains 9,000 songs, 95% of which are secular, and if I am being completely honest, even a few Katy Perry songs, but when I attend Sunday morning service, I want the music to be part of my worship experience. Unless we’re singing something like the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple,” I just don’t see how secular music can actually bring us closer to God.

Am I just being an old man or do I have a legitimate gripe here?