Sunday, April 29, 2007

Blog Sermon #1: If Ever I Loved Thee, My Jesus

There is a song--I’m not sure if it’s a modern hymn or something from the Bill and Gloria Gaither era--of which the refrain is “If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.” If I’m trying to sing some kind of made-up harmony, I do sing that line. But if I’m actually thinking about the words, I never sing it. Yes, I have a beef with that line.

Before I start lambasting it, let me just point out that I don’t mean offense people who find the line meaningful. I understand that not everyone feels the need to pick apart the logic of every line of every hymn or song. I’m sure it is possible for some people to just take the line as a statement of devotion--a statement that one is moved by reflection on Jesus’ sacrificial death and abundant love for us. But me, I’m just so analytical and nit-picky I can’t get over what the line implies.

“If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now,” says the song. And what am I doing right now? Singing a song. Thinking about Jesus’ love for me and feeling pious, devoted feelings. This is what bothers me--the implication that a feeling of love is love itself--and not just that it is love, but that it is the highest and best form of love, or at least the form that we can most confidently point to and say “yes, that is surely love.” That’s what the sentence structure “if ever I loved thee, ‘tis now” implies.

And that’s certainly not true. It’s good to have fine feelings--but that is certainly not how Jesus talked about love. According to Jesus, love means doing as he commanded us. Love means taking care of the wounded Samaritan. Love means getting down on our knees and serving. There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend.

I wish that I could change the words of the song to be something more like “If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, it was when I donated more than I can afford to give to the local rehab center.” Or “If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, it was in babysitting for a single mother.” Or “If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, it was when I hired a former gang banger to give him a second chance.” If ever I have loved Jesus, it did not happen while I was singing in church and working up in myself lots of fervor and holy feelings. It happened when I actually did something that helped another human being.

It seems like sometimes people put too much emphasis on saying that God is glorified in people singing songs in church. In many contemporary churches, singing spiritual songs and getting worked up into this emotional state is the only meaning of the word “worship.” I suppose part of the reason this bothers me is just that I was raised Presbyterian and a good old fashioned orderly Presbyterian service, is referred to in its entirety as “worship.” Worship includes the reading of scripture. Worship includes passing the peace. Worship includes the offering. And of course it includes communion.

More than that, though, we worship God when we devote ourselves to him. Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice to God is our spiritual worship. And that doesn’t just happen at church--or it shouldn’t be just happening at church, anyway! God is not just glorified when we sing his praises. He is much more glorified in our lives when we give up our own pleasures and comforts for our neighbors. God is glorified in our love for fellow Christians and our compassion for the poor.

At Whitworth College, my alma mater, there is a student led and organized service of song and scripture readings held one night every week. It was a thrilling experience to be part of a throng of impassioned young Christian women and men, singing our hearts out in devotion to God. There was one night when the mood was truly electric. I don’t even remember what song we were singing, but, the musicians cut out so it was voices only, thundering, resounding, filling the room. The sheer volume was impressive, and the air charged with emotion. And of course it was glorious, it was beautiful, and I rejoiced, but … not with my whole heart. Because I knew that many of these young people, as soon as they left Whitworth--even just to go home for the summer--would slide back into old patterns of sin, and unbelief and forget completely the ardor with which they said, and felt they would pursue God’s kingdom.

It’s not that I don’t value heartfelt proclamations of devotion--it’s just that I take them with a grain of salt. And above all it’s that I don’t want people to confuse a feeling of love with actual love. Partly because I don’t want people to think too highly of themselves because of their pious feelings. But also because I want to encourage those who are lacking in such fine feelings--I want to reassure people who have “lost that loving feeling,” so to speak, that it doesn’t mean they are incapable of love.

It is my hope that we can be freed up from focusing on feelings of devotion as the sign that we are right with God, that we will not waste energy trying to produce those feelings in ourselves or worrying about our lack of emotion, and that instead we will be focused on what Jesus told us to do: on loving our neighbor through self-sacrifice, through service, and compassion.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

my sense of humor

Before the real post, here's something I was thinking about the other day: Surely fingerprints can't *all* be unique. It doesn't seem like there are enough possible variations of the design for that to be the case. I mean, considering how many people there are in the world, and how many people there were before that are long dead now, doesn't it seem like some of the fingerprints would be the same?

Now the real post:

The woman I work with on Wednesday mornings is something of a character. She's older (than me, at least, ha), has got some gray hair (which looks just beautiful in a single braid reaching down to her waist)--I believe she said she was born in '67.

Anyway, she jokes around a lot and one day said to me something like "Well, at least I can make you laugh," and I said something like, "Yes, you seem to have a knack for it."

As I thought about it, really, just about anyone that's trying to be funny--and sometimes people who are not trying to be--can make me laugh. I laugh a lot. (Though still not as much as Brandon, I think.) And then I remembered how this came about.

When I was a kid or "preteen" or whatever, I sometimes would say things that were meant to be funny but that no one laughed at or even understood as a joke. Partly this may be because I had (have) a somewhat "different" or "offbeat" sense of humor. Another possiblity is that people may not have heard me, since I tended (tend) to be quiet and mumbling. But in any case, I found it painfully embarrasing when that happened and I sort of vowed to myself that, so far as it was in my power, I would not let that happen to anyone else. I made a point of laughing at anything which was meant as a joke, no matter whether I actually found it funny or not.

And it seems I faked finding things funny for so long, I started to actually find everything funny.

And, uh, that's all, folks.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Note On The Previous Post

Perhaps my last post was an unfair portrayal of my co-workers. They certainly do not deserve the criticism my brother aimed at them. One of them is the kids' new therapist, and before you say "Well, that makes it even worse," I must point out that it was her first day on the job and that I don't think she's done much work with children. Her last job was in Hospice care.

And as for the other two staff persons, they are so dedicated to the job, they worked many hours overtime in addition to their usual hours during the kids' vacation this past week. I'm sure they were more than tired and certainly not "at their best" at the time those events took place.

I should perhaps also point out that the boy I talked about is skilled enough at other games (most notably, basketball and checkers) that adults do not need to "let him win"; he can often win by his own merit.

And perhaps most importantly, the same boy has some megalomanic tendencies, also. He frequently talks about how much stronger, taller, smarter, more knowledgeable, etc. he is than another child in the program, and heaps unutterably cruel verbal abuse upon her. Earlier that morning he called her an "ogre" because she was "eating like a dog" and said that he himself is "perfect." He seems to have an intense need to rule the roost, and assert his dominance over other children and, if possible, the staff.

I can imagine my co-workers supposing that allowing the boy to win would feed into his megalomanic tendencies. I would have to disagree, though. I would guess that his need to assert himself springs from his lack of self esteem, and that we should try to build his self esteem by all legitimate, age-appropriate means possible, so that he won't have to resort to unacceptable means.

So, anyway, I did not mean for you all to get the impression that my co-workers are bad people, or even that they are not good with kids--because most of the time, they are. But working with children who have serious emotional problems makes it hard to know how to respond to them, at times--not to mention how much emotion it stirs up in the staff--which certainly can impair one's ability to respond appropriately to the children.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Last Easter

Today one of the children at work invited, consecutively, four different staff persons to a game of memory. Each of the first three staff persons he played against obviously was much better at the game than he. Then he asked me to play. Now, as a rule, when playing games with children, I play to lose. I think it helps build the child’s self esteem. And besides, winning always leaves a sour taste in my mouth, anyway.

It kind of bothered me that no other staff person had this attitude, especially since this particular boy has recently begun showing signs of low self-esteem (e.g. smacking himself on the head and saying “I’m no good at this,” “I’m so stupid” and “You don’t like me”). He also clearly becomes very upset when he’s losing a game. After three sound defeats, he had trepidations about asking me to play against him. He began by trying to rig the game, by looking at all the tiles as he put them out for gameplay. When I told him this would give him an unfair advantage, he said “But what if you win?” And I reassured him I have a very poor memory. He was delighted to win against me.

Non-competitive games are more fun. And the best games are the kind where players help each other out.

Last Easter, Brandon’s next door neighbors invited all the church people to their house for a little party. It was an interesting mix of people: a couple of lively, precocious little girls from the broken home two doors down; a younger girl who seemed to have some developmental disabilities; her working class single mother; an older man who’s not quite “all there” (and who apparently molested a child many years ago); the host couple (newlyweds/Whitworth grads); me, Brandon, and a few other recent college grads from the ministry house where Brandon lived.

It wasn’t much of a party, but at one point we broke out the Bible Pictionary. In case you’ve never played, it must be pointed out that the Bible Pictionary words are almost all either ridiculously simple and easy, or else so obscure no one would ever guess them, even if the person reading the card could figure out how to depict the word, which many times they have never even heard of.

So, because it’s kind of a lame game, we played it with everyone on a single team, moving one piece along the board. We considered it a challenge to “win” against the makers of the game, all working together to see how many of the obscure words we could guess, seeing it through to the finish line. It was fun. It was really fun. It was just one of those wacky, creative moments, where people forget about social interaction as such, laughing and focused on a silly, but stimulating goal. Uh … yeah. I guess I’m trying to wax eloquent or something, and failing. I don’t know how to describe that kind of moment. It seems like there was a lot of that kind of thing with the original Wilshire Pres. youth group. I wonder how much of that was just because of Deng’s energy … I suppose the world will never know …

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

it's a tough job, but ...

I kind of got in trouble with the kids' therapist at work a couple weeks ago. The kids are not supposed to have CDs containing foul language. I confiscated a CD that had the words "nigger" and "bullshit" because it seemed clear it had not been edited properly. I think "bullshit" probably was mistakenly overlooked, but it seems the therapist (who burned the CD for one of the kids) thought it was okay to leave the word "nigger" in one of the songs.

I understand that within the hip-hop culture, "n-----" is not necessarily considered a derogatory term. But by the same token, other profanities, like "f---" and "sh--" are also used in casual conversation and are not considered "rude." While I know it doesn't *sound* right, a large part of what we're trying to do is to teach these children middle-class values.

Of course, middle-class culture comes with its own vices as well as virtues, but it seems that our vices, by and large, do not cause nearly as much damage to the social structure. From a spiritual point of view, it is true, a stereotypical Soccer Mom may be just as much a sinner in God's eyes as a heroine junkie father who beats his 6 year old son and treats him like a slave--in fact, the Soccer Mom may be even more damned because she would never accept the fact that she's a sinner--but at least the Soccer Mom's kid is probably not going to end up in jail for beating his own children to a bloody pulp.

I'm in a pretty pessimistic mood right now because the whole incident with me confiscating the CD has blown way out of proportion in the mind of the severely traumatized and violent 9 year old to whom it belonged. The worst thing about it is that he no longer directs his aggression against staff (like me) but rather, toward a fragile, abused 9 year old girl who knows just how to play the part of victim, oh-so-perfectly. Ugh. What a depressing job. The only way not become totally embittered and filled with sorrow all the time is to deaden one's heart and pretend that it doesn't matter.

Monday, April 2, 2007

reflections on something said by Mark Driscoll

Mark Driscoll, for those of you who don't know, is the pastor of the evangelical mega-church Mars Hill in Seattle. He's a talented speaker but gets himself in a lot of trouble for saying offensive/controversial things (which, to his credit, he often apologizes for afterward).

Brandon's friend Joshua sent us a CD of a sermon by Rev. Driscoll. On the whole, it was a very good sermon. But at one point Driscoll condemned a particular congregation for inviting a rabbi to come and teach an Old Testament Bible study. Driscoll thought it was ridiculous to have someone who doesn't know Christ teach about a set of books that are about Christ.

I guess I can kind of see where he's coming from, but ...
A. It sure sounded disrespectful toward the rabbi. I mean, really! A rabbi has not only been studying the OT, in great depth, for many years, he's also been living it, repeating every day the heart of the Law, the Shema, and binding it to his body. The OT Law dictates what he wears, what he eats, what he does on the Sabbath--how flippant and absurd it seems to say that Christians have a clearer understanding of the Old Testament.

B. I do agree that (as it states in the PC(USA)'s guidelines for interepreting scripture) that all of the scriptures, including the OT should be interpreted in light of Christ and in the context of the whole Bible. But that has less to do with determining the intent of the author than it has to do with applying it to our own theological understanding. It mostly helps us to avoid a wrong interpretation that would be contrary to what we know of God from the New Testament.

But realistically, I think Christians can benefit immensely from getting a "Jewish" perspective on the OT. I think that because of our knowledge of Christ, we often read things into the OT texts and miss important themes or misunderstand the intention of the authors.

The other day I was reading the passage in Isaiah (often read around Christmas time) about the coming Messiah, who will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." And I was thinking: it's misleading to say that his title will be "Mighty God"--which implies the divinity of the Messiah. Probably the title would be better translated "Mighty is God." Not a word for word translation, no, but I would guess closer to the intended meaning.

Anyway ... such are my rambling thoughts. Too bad I'm too lazy to clean them up.