Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Desire, Will & Grace

Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with the long-running NBC sitcom.

Continuing my journaling about my experiences at the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship last week, another highlight was attending a workshop by the inimitable Dallas Willard, titled "Understanding the Battle Between 'Flesh' and the 'Spirit.'" Surely I will not do Dr. Willard justice, but here goes.

The battle between "Flesh" and "Spirit," as described by Paul in Galatians 5:17-26, is understood by Dr. Willard to be essentially about the battle between desire and will. Desire being that drive that obsesses over its object... Dr. Willard gave the example of a child obsessing after a certain toy to the point that if the child is told "no" you get the whole kicking and screaming routine. "Desire is how the flesh works," obsessing unrestrainedly, even to one's detriment or danger. "Will," on the other hand, "is our God-given power to consider what is better or what is best..." Willard said. Rather than obsessing on the object, like desire, the will is able to consider the thoughts and desires of others... "the will is open to love."

The trick (for me, at least) is training yourself to not give in to obsessive desire, and instead cultivate a Spirit-led will. The reason this is a "trick", or problem, for me is that I know Dr. Willard's answer is going to be something that I've never been able to get the hang of very well... and that's spiritual disciplines.

Spiritual disciplines, according to Willard, are "practice"--like piano lessons--something we can do over and over to develop habits that otherwise don't come naturally to us.

The problem for me is that I've always had a hard time reconciling disciplines (and more importantly my tendency to be too hard on myself when I fail at keeping up with them) with God's grace. That's what impresses me most about Dallas Willard--his ability to hold together an emphasis on spiritual disciplines with a robust understanding of and dependence upon God's grace.

I think often an erroneous, though unintended, effect of an strong theological emphasis on grace (as in the Reformed tradition) is inactivity... the thought that if everything worthwhile is a gift of God's sovereign grace, then there's no reason for me to put in any effort. Willard counters this by saying, "Grace is not opposed to action, it is opposed to earning" (quote of the year, in my opinion).

Disciplines are things that are within our power to do that enable us, by God's grace, to become what we could never become through direct effort (my paraphrase of Willard). The good, the spiritual outcome of the disciplines is not the result of our effort, but the result of the work of God's Spirit in our lives. But the disciplines are still good things for us to be doing.

"Disciplines are wisdom, not righteousness," Willard said. They are wise and good things to be doing, they open our lives to the work of the Holy Spirit. But spiritual disciplines do not by themselves produce righteousness. God alone, in Christ, has provided us with righteousness.

That's what I have to always keep foremost in my mind. I can't earn it. God's grace is sufficient. I can and should take action, making specific choices of will to practice certain disciplines in order to cultivate an openness to changes the Spirit would do in me.

But when it comes down to it, the results are in God's hands. And that gives me enormous amount of peace about this journey of faith. I know I will stumble along the way, and I will fail again and again. But my righteousness is not up to me, thank God, but rests in the grace of God through Jesus Christ... and "Jesus' blood never failed me yet."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Jesus... be the center..."

Thanks to the pleasant surprise that there was free wi-fi available in Calvin College's Prince Conference Center, I'm able to do a little catchup today... since I missed posting yesterday...

Here's the fun part of this... I'm writing as I listen to Michael Card play an old upright piano in the corner of the room, singing a song from his recent lament album, "Come Lift Up Your Sorrows." A beautiful song. I'll have to write about it later.

In the meantime, I want to just begin processing through a couple questions that were raised at a workshop I attending Friday by the worship historian Lester Ruth - The Most Used Contemporary Worship Songs: Their View of God and our Love of God.

Lester Ruth studied the CCLI lists of the top 25 songs (most used, as reported by churches with CCLI licenses), two lists per year for a 15 year period, 1989 - 2004. The list of all songs that appeared on those 30 lists totaled only 72 songs.

Ruth studied the content of these songs, asking of them certain questions about their theological content, particularly regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. (i.e. studying who the songs speak about or address--God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit--and what titles were most used for God or the person of the Trinity being addressed)

One of the many interesting observations he made was that the largest single chunk of those 72 "most used" songs addressed or spoke about Jesus in particular, and not "God" in a general sense, and without mention of God "The Father" or the "Spirit" in a Trinitarian sense. 35 songs were about or to Jesus, whereas only 4 referred to God "the Father" and 6 to the Holy Spirit.

What was most intrigueing to me was not to see this as an indictment of the lack of broader content in these songs, or in the work of these composers. Many of these composers have written a broader range of songs... but these were the ones churches chose to sing more.

Lester Ruth suggested that these songs he studied can be a window into a particular sense of piety or spirituality that exists in American (mostly Protestant) churches.

One of the things I saw in this particular trend of Jesus-only songs (among a lot of other possible influences) were that perhaps these songs were used by the broadest spectrum of Christian churches because Christ is our primary commonality. Jesus is the unifying factor.

I agree with Ruth that when we who plan worship make choices about songs & prayers... words that we are putting in the mouths of our congregations to express their worship to God... we should be making wise and balanced choices that reflect a deep grounding in scripture and a the richness of formative Christian theology.

But I take it as a good thing that the one thing our churches are singing about the most is Jesus. We need to make efforts to make sure that this is the "real Jesus" we are singing about, not a watered-down or "gospel lite" Jesus. Not just a "Jesus is my boyfriend" Jesus. The real Jesus who really came, God incarnate, to love and heal and release and redeem... who really lived and died and rose again... who really is the embodiment of God with us.

As Michael Card said yesterday, "God is with us... Emmanuel either means everything or it means nothing."

May we always keep that Jesus, who has come and is already present in our midst, at the center of our lives, our churches, and our worship as the people of God.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sucker for a good metaphor

OK, day one at the Calvin Symposium.

I attended Greg Scheer and Paul Ryan's seminar entitled "The Art of Worship Team Leadership" (based mostly on Greg's book The Art of Worship).

As a worship leader, and someone who has led similar workshops in the past, I'm always interested in attending others' workshops to compare ideas and learn new techniques... new tools for my toolbelt so to speak.

Speaking of toolbelts... the thing I love gleaning from workshops like these more than anything else are new metaphors (like "tools for my toolbelt")... new perspectives on how a worship team works together and how best to get across an unified understanding of that dynamic to your team.

The two new (to me) metaphors that Greg and Ryan used that I liked a lot were those of worship leaders as "gardeners" and as "hosts."

As gardeners, those leading a congregation in worship--particularly musicians responsible for leading congregational singing--have a lot of details to attend to, much preparation or "tilling the soil." But in the end, all you can do is sit back and let the Holy Spirit work. We don't make the congregation's authentic, heartfelt worship "grow" by our effort... all we do is lay the groundwork and prepare our part. The true worship of God by God's people is ultimately the work of God's own Spirit, not the result of human leadership, no matter how skillfully done.

The second metaphor of hospitality hit home for me as well (forgive me, I couldn't resist). They struck upon this idea in a couple of different ways. The first is similar to the gardening idea, but instead of a garden the picture is that of a dinner party. The hostess or host of a dinner party has many details to attend to (the worship-leading musician has many musical and technical details to attend to), but in the end it's not about the details, it's about enjoying yourself at the party. The hostess wants to be able to enjoy her guests once they arrive! Musicians in a worship service should remember that once rehearsal ends and the service begins the most important thing is the worship of our living God, not the details.

The other aspect of hospitality that was discussed which really was meaningful for me was hospitality within the worship team itself. I have often described the dynamic of interaction between musicians on a worship team as that of a good jazz combo, each listening carefully to one another and playing off of each other. Part of that which always bears reminding with musicians, particularly inexperienced ones, is that good musicians have learned to not play on top of each other, drowning one another out, and that no one has to play all the time.

Having "inter-team hospitality", as Paul put it today, means that each team member has a servant-attitude toward one another, deferring to one another rather than selfishly taking up all the sound space themselves. I love how this perspective shifts the difficult issues related to arrangement of a team and team-member personalities from a focus on the director who has to ask team members to pull back to a focus on each member listening for how they can make room for their fellow teammates. This is a wonderful way to model biblical, Christian sister & brotherhood within worship leadership ministries.

There were many other great ideas and tips I picked up today, as well as some points of contrast that I'm still processing through... but alas, it is late and I have a long two days ahead of me.

Check back in tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Like a butterfly from its cocoon...

This blog is about to emerge from dormant sleep into a new life... hopefully one that includes frequent posts from its neglectant creator!

Inspired by an opportunity I have this weekend to attend the Calvin Symposium on Worship in Grand Rapids, MI... I am taking over this old blog of mine that was used for a class I took in Seminary... my intent is to blog my way through my experience of the Symposium, processing and discussing insights from various workshops, etc., and along the way hopefully developing a habit of posting to this thing.

We'll see how it goes. "So much depends..." now on the high-speed internet at the Comfort Inn (not quite what W. C. Williams had in mind, but oh well).

Until I decide what to do with all the old "Global Media & Culture" stuff... I'll leave it up. I may end up archiving it, or I may end up deleting it.

Pray I make it through the snow tonight.