Pensive Thankfulness

Today we celebrated the first year anniversary of our littlepensive church here in Baguio. It has been a challenging year… but I think we are stronger for it. Our older daughter sang a special number— “Thank You Lord For Your Blessings on Me.” She was trying to decide whether to sing that song or ‘Thank You Lord for the Trials that Come my Way.” Because of my limited guitar skills, she chose the former. Both songs are quite appropriate to our church’s struggles as well as her health challenges. She had to stop school for a year because of these challenges. Thankfully she is getting better, but it is difficult to disconnect from the rest of the world for many months. In fact, it was the first time for her to be able to join us in churchin a long time.

Both songs have a pensive (deep reflective) quality to it that defies the common kneejerk expression, “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good.” How does one respond when God goodness is not clearly evidenced? How do we respond thankfully to loss, trials, struggles.

The song that my daughter sang was a favorite song of several women that we worked with years ago. We had a ministry with a number of women who sold plastic bags in the public market here in Baguio. Pretty much all of them would be considered desperately poor by “First World” standards. One lady, in particular, often would ask that this song be sung in our Bible studies. She came to Christ at a very low point in her life when she was raising up several children with little to no support. The change in her spiritual life did not suddenly change many of the struggles including economic. It is true, however, that over the last 14 years her situation has improved considerably, but still nowhere near where most people would consider “blessed.” She, however, liked to sing the song well before her situation improved.

I think thankfulness involves a certain amount of pensiveness and even melancholy. Our thankfulness should be based on a real understanding of our situation— the good, the bad, the ugly, the hopeful.

Thankfulness that is automatic, unthinking, is a “flabby” thankfulness— and perhaps it is not thankful at all. Thankfulness is for what we have, not what we pretend to have. Such thankfulness is at best an empty eggshell… containing nothing and far too fragile to help sustain us.

Thank you Lord, For your Blessings on Me

(The Easter Brothers)

G     A7       D     A7        D ,     A7

        D                            A7
As the world looks upon me, as I struggle along


     Em          A7           G           D

They say I have nothing, but they are so wrong 

                                                 G   
In my heart I'm rejoicing, how I wish they could see

D          A7             D          A7
Thank you Lord, for your blessings on me …....

Chorus           D                      A7
     There's a roof up above me, I've a good place to sleep

              Em         A7          G          D
     There's food on my table, And shoes on my feet

                                              
                                                    G
     You gave me your love Lord, And a fine family

           D               A7          D
Thank you Lord, for your blessings on me …..




Now I know I'm not wealthy, and these clothes, they're not new

I don't have much money, but Lord I have you

And to me that's all that matters, though the world cannot see

Thank you Lord, for your blessings on me ….

Chorus
--------

    G       D              A7         D
Thank you Lord, for your blessings on me

 

 

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Christian Mimicry (Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

Image result for animal mimicry

Earlier I was looking at Passive Mimicry (to avoid being targeted or, positively, to demonstrate or promote belongingness).

But sometimes mimicry has a more Active Role. Rather than to help the person remain hidden, mimicry can be done to be seen.

1. Trying to Make Lightning Strike Twice.  In my previous post, I spoke of a worship leader I knew who “religiously” copied the style and movements of the Hillsong worship leaders, when leading church music. While I would never recommend this, I understand the logic. If the folks at Hillsong made it work and became successes… if I do the exact same thing, I should be successful as well. Right? Many people have complained that music that comes out of the Christian Music industry is so alike. While the similarities may not be overpowering, there is some truth to that. Industry produces what sells… and the presumption is that what sold yesterday is what will sell tomorrow.

We learn through modeling, so we do utilize models or examples of who we want to be. (I will simply not address whether Hillsong is a worthy model. They have been successful, and the fact that I find it generally uninteresting says little about them as a “worship industry.”) But mimicking is taking it further. Suppose someone wrote an Amish Romance Novel, and it made good money. That same author might produce another. If that is successful, it is likely that those books will become part of a series. It is also likely that other writers will suddenly be inspired by the potentials or writing a romance in an Amish community. Simply using an author as a model means you gain insight from them in the writing process. Mimicry, on the other hand, is taking their themes, settings, and style and putting one’s own name on it.

One of the big problems with mimicry is the next issue.

2.  It is an act of Creative Laziness. I suppose one could put this one under passive or active. Conformity (a passive form of mimicry) can be an act of laziness. However, the more interesting one is the active form.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also the most subtle form of laziness.  Laziness is more easily identifiable in people who do not do much. It is harder to spot in those who do things that simply repeat what others have already done.

This has led, among other things, to Christianizing secular stuff. South Park has humorously spoken of this in Christian music— taking secular songs and replacing words such as “Baby” with them with other words such as “Jesus.”

Mike Warnke joked decades ago about preachers who mimic the styles of other preachers. Some do more than this, with taking sermons online and reading them in church. I have known many pastors who take such sermons, use them as guides but with study and reflection, make the sermons their own. I reckon that is not so bad. But I have heard preachers who read those sermons they got online… sentence for sentence… word for word. Perhaps some can hide it better than others… but generally you start to figure it out.  Simple terms, this is lazy and may be doing a disservice to God. But most definitely, one is doing a disservice to those that person is serving.

3.  Riding the Coattails. While mimicking can be a defensive move to remain hidden, it can be done deliberately in the hopes of future success. Sycophants commonly don’t just compliment or do favors for leaders. They are not just “Yes Men” and defenders of the indefensible (It is becoming harder and harder calling oneself an American Evangelical as the quest for power, or not losing power, has led many to defend that which seems indefensible). They will often also mimic the style, dress, manner of speech and so forth of their leaders. From a distance, this sort of mimicry may be one of the first two listed (lightning striking twice or creative laziness). But when the person is “close to the throne,” however, it is a form of flattery to get special blessings from the one in power.

4.  Ulterior Motive. This is always a tricky one. Why do we do what we do… and why the why?  Josh Keefe on Youtube (Why Christian Movies are BAD | The Problem with Christian Media – Part 2) has some interesting thoughts on this as it applies to Christian Movies. He notes that Christian filmmakers tend to not really be filmmakers (except in the technical sense of “making films”). That is, their calling tends to be as preachers— pushing a message to a specific audience. So what does this mean? Essentially, a person takes on a role of (mimic) a filmmaker. Filmmakers generally seeks to create a work of art for broad audience consumption. But when a preacher mimics that role, the motive is different. This person is  but is really seeking to preach to Christians. (If you don’t think they are commonly written to preach to Christians, watch a few of them and ask yourself, what images are Christians and non-Christians portrayed. Are atheists or agnostics portrayed as good people or bad caricatures?)

Is ulterior motive wrong? Personally, I think it is… if by that you define ulterior motive as “the REAL motive” as opposed to non-real or fake motives. I used to be involved with medical missions in the Philippines and even did my doctoral dissertation on them (and wrote a book based on the dissertation). I found that most Christians who did medical missions said that the REAL reason for doing medical missions is to evangelize.  Free medical care is just the lure– lure with a hook in it. But all too often, the real motive leaks out becoming very visible. In medical missions, it can show itself with inadequate or expired medicines, with utilizing inadequate (numerically or qualitatively) medical personnel, and generally playing hardball with the evangelizing and softball with the medical care. People notice it. The REAL motive thing can show itself in “friendship evangelism” where friendship goes bye-bye when the non-Christian does not respond the way the Christian seeks.

Ulterior Motive is a form of mimicry because it mimics a non-religious (not anti-religious… just non-religious) activity but with clandestine “Christian” purpose. It may be a problem because it is disingenuous… but equally because it is more obvious than people think. When you truly “Love your neighbor as yourself,” it looks a lot different than when you “Act in loving ways to people so that you can market your message.”

Critique

Of the reasons for Christian mimicry I listed over the last two posts, I think #2 and #4 concern me the most. Creative Laziness really should be seen as a sin… or at least a vice. Pushing the SHARE button on FB for some clickbait-y, feel good, “inspirational”… something or other is— well it’s lazy. Does that mean one should never do it? Not necessarily. Maybe a vice is a better description. Shopping for stuff you don’t need is a vice– wasteful a bit, but only truly a problem as it expands into a self-destructive behavior. Buying one lottery ticket a week is not the same as burning through one’s family savings to get the “BIG WIN” in online gambling. Creative laziness is so common in Christian circles that almost any originality is either praised as AMAZING, or shot down as something BAD (often more different than actually bad).

Ulterior Motive is also deeply problematic not only because non-Christians commonly see right through it… but also because many Christians think that is the way we are supposed to be.

Christian Mimicry (Part 1)

Mimicry: the ability an organism develops to imitate one or more traits from another organism (with which it’s unrelated) so that it can obtain some benefit.  (https://allyouneedisbiology.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/animal-mimicry/)

Let me give an example:  We haveImage result for animal mimicry been a part of several churches in the Philippines. Most Philippine churches assign music ministry to the youth in the church— a massive mistake often. I remember at one church, they had a young lady who led music with a group of youth playing guitar and drums and keyboard. This group really liked Hillsong. Hillsong doesn’t do much for me, but music has never been part of my worship language anyway. The worship leader mimicked Hillsong videos— right down to the style of singing, and the gestures and jumps. She was mimicking the look, style, and movements of the lead singer of those Hillsong videos.

But why mimic? What benefit is there in doing it? In the Animal World, mimicry done for reasons of predation as well as for defense. But why do Christians do mimicry? Some reasons don’t line up directly with those for the Animal World. Mimicking the looks of a poisonous animal in hopes of not being eaten by predators, does not correspond fully with human culture— but there are parallelisms.

Passive Benefits for Mimicry

1.  Avoid being targeted. This is where mimicry and camouflage overlap a bit. Let me give a story that typifies this:

Years ago I was working at a place that has “Christian Conferences.” One time I was acting as a server for a TD Jakes conference. When he got up to speak, he started out okay I suppose. However, about 15 or 20 minutes in he started leaving behind the main message and began complimenting the women in the front and center of the tent who were jumping up and down and acting all excited when Jakes spoke. He also began to deride those in the far corners who were just sitting there ‘doing nothing.’ I find that sort of pandering pretty despicable. It was clear manipulation. It made me wonder whether his claim that God had told him to minister to women was, cynically, actually an excuse to target a group that he felt he could manipulate more easily. The curious thing was that when I went to the corners of the tent I found out he was absolutely correct. Both back corners had around 20 or 30 women who were just sitting there. Some were even knitting. It made me wonder if they were actually asked or paid to do that. After all, people don’t like to be targeted by an abusive person. Most people want to fit into a crowd and be complimented for it.

Not everyone will do this of course. Years ago there was a tendency of some worship leaders to say things like, “Clap if you love Jesus!!” That would invariably make me put my hands in my pockets. Now it seems more common to say something like, “Let’s all give a clap offering to the Lord.” I will sometimes go along with that. The second is an invitation to join in an activity while the first tries shaming to control behavior. People will often mimic others in a group to avoid being targeted/shamed.

2.  To demonstrate belongingness. Churches and denominations develop a certain DNA, a certain culture. One of the purposes of culture is to help define who are US and who are THEM. The pressure for belongingness can be strong. Churches can be like Junior High Lunch Hall. There are different tables and some who fit into the culture of that table are welcomed, and while others are encouraged to look elsewhere. Some want to be with the cool kids, or the jocks, or some other esteemed group, and they will mimic the table’s group behavior in hopes of being found to belong. Even non-conformist tables still pressure people to conform to their brand of non-conformity. Churches can be like that as well. I am reminded of a song by Grady Tolands. If you haven’t heard of him it is because he was a missionary to South America, who wrote songs mostly for fun.  The chorus to one of his songs says,

“‘Cuz we love to be loved and we hate to be hated,

We like to be liked—- at least tolerated.

And everyone that I know feels that way too.

Yes, we love to be loved, and we hate to be hated,

We like to be liked— at least tolerated.

And that affects the things we say and do.”

In the next post, I will look at more agressive, or at least less passive forms of Christian mimicry.

The Joy in Not Singing

A few months ago, although I only read it today, was an article in churchleaders.com entitled, “Why We Need to Sing in Worship Even When We Do Not Know or Like the Song” by Chuck Lawless. You can click on the title to see the link. It is pretty brief and lists

  1. It’s right to sing God’s praises.
  2. Not singing sends the wrong signal.
  3. Some songs you don’t like are quite biblical.
  4. We can learn a song best by singing it.
  5. We model worship for others as we sing.
  6. Singing with the rest of the congregation promotes and reflects unity.
  7. Singing encourages the ones leading the singing.

I will ignore part of the article that looks at those who don’t sing a song because they don’t know the words. For me that is just kind of lazy. One may as well take the time to learn a new song once in awhile. Because of that, I will ignore reason #4, since my bigger concern is those who don’t sing because they do not like the songs.

Image result for bean singing in church

I find myself sympathizing with those who do not sing because they don’t like the songs, even though I USUALLY DO sing. That is because I found great freedom in recognizing that I had a choice to sing or not.  Years ago, my family were members of a church in Virginia that had a great music program led by a very competent worship leader. But he had one specific quirk that I really struggled with. So many services he would have us sing, over and over and over, the chorus portion of “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in This Place” — a song with NO discernible merit. We would keep singing it and I would get annoyed. Over the weeks, my annoyance moved to humor. It was funny in away… like a person who can’t stop saying “Ummm” while talking (I have that problem). Then I moved to being analytical. I started going through each line. Every line was either untrue, obviously true, or trite (or a combination). Eventually, I moved from irrituation to humor to analysis and finally to anger. Why should I be held hostage by the worship leader and forced to sing a crappy song?

But then one day I had an epiphany. I don’t have to sing. I can stand there, close my eyes, meditate perhaps, and just tune out the song. My attitude improved almost immediately. Since then my experience in worship services has improved immensely because I found that unity does not necessitate uniformity. And it goes beyond simply singing. When the worship leader says things like “Clap if you love Jesus” I don’t have to see it as cyncial manipulation, but as a simple suggestion. I can also NOT CLAP to show I love Jesus!!

Looking at the reasons listed above (ignoring #4 as I said before) the one I have the biggest problem with is #3: “Some songs you don’t like are quite Biblical.” I am totally at a loss what to make of that. Eating is EXTREMELY Biblical, but I can’t see that it is wrong to skip a meal or go on a diet. A song that is strong in theology has a greater obligation to connect mind and heart than some pithy anthem. I can hardly see how being Biblical (or I would prefer theological) lowers the standards one places on a song.

Probably the reason that bothers me next most is #6.  “Singing with the rest of the congregation promotes and reflects unity.”  It points to two issues that I have. One is the suggestion (that is so common in church) that unity implies uniformity. The unity argument has been used to argue against blended (style) worship, to argue for homogeous group churches, to require all members use the same Bible translation, to maintain certain dress codes or hair stylings, and more. More generally, it supports the idea that the majority (or the clerical minority) establishes the culture and the rest need to go along to “demonstrate unity.” The second problem is the general tone that BEHAVIOR IS WHAT COUNTS NOT WHAT GOES ON IN THE HEART OR MIND.

In fact, it seems like a lot of the arguments have that as the unspoken assumptions. One could rewrite most of them to make the unspoken spoken.

  1. It’s right to sing God’s praises our way.
  2. Not singing our songs our way sends the wrong signal.
  3. ________________________
  4. ________________________
  5. We model going through the motions of worship for others when we sing as we are told.
  6. Singing with the rest of the congregation promotes and reflects uniformity of behavior that can be imagined to be worship.
  7. Singing encourages the ones leading the singing not to change a thing.

Franklhy, I am not that radical. I dislike an awful lot of songs that are popular in the church today, but I usually sing. Commonly I sing to show unity with the congregation rather than for the sake of worship since singing really isn’t my form of worship. But there are a few songs that sabotage my church (read “worship” if that helps you) experience. (That song that has the chorus “Yes Lord Yes Lord Yes Yes Lord” is one that immediately comes to mind). In such situations, I feel that embracing my diversity within a unity that does not require uniformity isn’t so bad.

Frankly, we live in a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-tradition Christian world. The church really should find ways to honor this rather than simply pushing people to “do exactly what the song leader tells you to do.”

And if the worship leader starts to question the wisdom of mimicking his favorite Hillsong videos (right down to every move and intonation of the lead singer), or rapidly supplanting old songs with new because— well— they are new, or generally turning the “worship” experience into a performance-based “spectator experience”…. hey that is not such a bad thing either, now is it?  I know the counter to this is that if the congregants have problems with the songs, they should talk to the church leadership about it privately. Fair enough. But just as in church some people vote with their hands, some with their wallets, and some with their feet (regardless of leade’s preferences in this area), one should not be surprised if some vote with their singing voices, not just with their speaking voices.

 

 

A (Maybe) Advent Poem

A Child Sleeps

A child sleeps as armies clash.

A piece of dirt covered with blood

This killing for a piece of mud.

Still the child sleeps.

 

A child prays, but not for cash

Shared love and lives make the spirit lift.

The giver’s always greater than the gift

So the child prays.

 

A child dreams as people dash

To jobs and things to fill the day

Their best dreams forgotten anyway

Yet the child dreams.

 

A child sings, doesn’t hear the crash

The crush the crowds, the seething mess

Desperately seeking more and getting less

As the child sings.

 

A child sleeps through the festive bash

These dull the pain and fears anyhow,

The burdens will one day come but for now

The child sleeps

Some (Kind of Ironic) Great Things About Christmas

I would like to expand on a post I did 6 Decembers ago, “Christmas. It’s Okay, Really.”   There are some, possibly ironic, reasons that Christmas is good as it is.

  1.  It is at the right time of year. I know it is popular to say that the birth of Christ, as a historical event, probably happened sometime in the early Spring, but Easter is already located there. The exact date is not important since the defining feature of any annual festival (using the solar calendar) is that it happens at the same time each year, not the specific date (consistency over accuracy). Supposedly, the date for Christmas was chosen based on the belief of some that Jesus’ conception lined up with his death, so if you add 9 months to Easter you get the Christmas season. Assuming this is true then the date of Christmas was not selected to line up with Saturnalia, the ancient Roman pagan holiday. This actually would make sense since Christmas, well, doesn’t actually line up with Saturnalia. If it intentionally replaces a pagan holiday, why get the day wrong? With Christmas coming in the dead of winter (for much of the Northern Hemisphere at least) it brings a time of joy to the coldest and often dreariest time of the year.  For those living in the tropics, don’t be fooled by Currier & Ives prints. The time where Christmas is placed can be pretty unpleasant with cold, damp, and dreary snow. I was raised in Western New York State. I know of which I speak.
  2. It is actually two holidays. Part of the reason that Christians get so stressed out at Christmas (one of many reasons, really) is the need to emphasize the “real meaning of Christmas.” The real meaning of Christmas is the birth of Jesus of Nazareth who came, sent by God, as redeemer, as teacher, as healer, and as example for mankind. That is pretty heady stuff. But there is another Christmas as well. That Christmas has a fat guy in red jammies who appears to abuse elfin folk and woodland creatures to give gifts to people around the world. Secular Christmas (sometimes referred to as “the Holiday Season”) is a celebration that happens on the same date as Christmas, but is something different. While many Christiams see it as competition (and in some ways it is), it can also be seen as a chance for Christians and non-Christians to celebrate together… one with more religious and one with more secular, but still coming together as families and neighbors. There is something right and good about that.
  3. It has a lot of non-Christian elements pulled in. This bothers some people. Some like to see the Christmas tree as a paganistic symbol stuck in the corner of one’s house. But the pagan roots were cut off well before your own tree was cut from its roots to be brought home and decorated. To  me there is a better way of looking at it. Christmas is a historical
    Image result for parol festival
    Giant Lantern (Parol) Festival in Pampanga, Philippines

    event with mostly Semitic roots (with perhaps a few Parthian, Egyptian and Roman elements). But most of us are not Semitic (or Parthian, Egyptian, or Roman). It is nice that we can bring in our own cultural additions to them as well. The Christmas tree from Germany, or the Ceppo from Italy are nice additions. In our house when we were young we would have Swedish foods for our Christmas Eve smorgasbord with relatives as a reminder of our ancestral heritage. Here in the Philippines we have parols— stylized lanterns meant to remind one of the Star of Bethlehem. In Japan they eat Kentucky Fried Chicken, because—- well, who needs a reason? There is something joyous about a celebration that allows for gifts of one’s own culture, as well as other cultures, to be added to the early foreign gifts of gold, frankinscense and myrrh to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

  4. It is wildly over-the-top. Yes, I know that Christmas can be too much. Here in the Philippines, aspects of Christmas celebration start in September. Yes, there is too much consumerism. Yes, it can be tiring. And yet, there is something wonderful in the wild abandon. Here in the Philippines, Miso de gallo has already started where Catholic Christians get up in the middle of the night to go to church for many days. My wife talks fondly about these 3am services that she attended as a child. Here in Baguio, Christmas village and light displays have opened up, some with machines that pump bubbly foam into the air to simulate snow. In Pampanga, they have the parol festival with huge starlike lanterns that are so big that they and their electrical generators must be transported on trucks, that compete for glory. In the US, people go crazy with more and more lights rivalling the Griswolds in the movie Christmas Vacation. Now, all of this seems bad. In some ways perhaps it is. I personally  like things simpler. But in many countries where Christianity is a minority religion, Christmas is the easiest time for Christians to invite their neighbors to church, and the most likely time they will get a positive response. It is, in part, the wild revelries associated with Christmas that peeks their curiosity, much like Diwali in Hinduism or the Water Festival in some Buddhist countries.
  5. It keeps changing. Each year, crappy new Christmas songs come out and drab and weird new Christmas specials on TV or movies in the theaters. New toys (for adults and kids) rev-up consumer
    Related image
    Living Nativity Scene

    frenzies. Yet, the weird new stuff seems to create a contrarian response. It seems to remind us of that which is timeless. People will sing songs that were written long before there were copyrights. We think wistfully of days past, and pull out traditions from the attic, dust them off and allow them to pull us into something that feels more timeless. In fact, the Christmas story has an aspect to it that is so far out of line with the ephemeral and frenetic quality  of Christmas celebration, that somehow we find ourselves drawn centripetally to its  message of “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace to men on whom God’s favor rests.”

Anyway, whether you celebrate Advent, Christian Christmas and/or Secular Christmas, I pray you will have a season of peace, hope,joy, and love as you join with family and friends, and maybe church family. May you have a safe (international) New Years eve, and a quiet, but joyous Epiphany.

Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon

(Merry Christmas and Prosperous New Year)

 

 

A Holy and Wholly Translatable Bible

I have written a bit on whether the Bible is translatable. This is important to me being involved in missions where I teach people whose heart languages are quite diverse. Few have English as their heart language, and none have 6th century BC Hebrew, 3rd century BC Aramaic, or 1st century AD Koine Greek. We live in a multilingual, multicultural world. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? To me Revelation 7:9 (along with the Babel narrative, Pentecost event, and Jerusalem Council) point to God viewing diversity of culture and language as a good thing, NOT simply a problem to overcome. But if that is so, how then should we view the Bible?

With that in mind, There are four posts to consider:

Is the Bible Translatable? Part 1  (Considers the Options)

Is the Bible Translatable? Part 2  (Ramifications of saying YES)

Is the Bible Translatable? Part 3  (Reasons for saying YES)

What Makes the Holy Bible Holy?