Song of the Week

Another favorite of mine is fellow member of the Regent College community Carolyn Arends. There’s a lot of good songwriters up there in Canada, and she’s one of the best. She’s way under the radar at the moment because she went indie and stopped touring a few years ago to give herself time and space to raise her kids, but she’s still writing and singing and putting out albums (which are available through her website); her recent albums are more uneven than her studio work, but still well worth listening to, and better than a lot of the material out there. After all, to say that an album isn’t as good as Feel Free or This Much I Understand isn’t exactly an insult. Here, for instance, is my favorite lyric off Arends’ second album, Feel Free (a cut which reminds me of the late, much-lamented Rich Mullins):

Do We Dare?The prayers that we pray in foxholes and funerals,
The songs that we sing in delivery rooms,
The questions we ask when nobody’s listening
But the man in the moon . . .
The way our hearts beat–faced with a sunrise,
Like maybe they know something we don’t;
But it’s all in code, and we can’t decode it–
Or maybe we won’t.Do we dare pay attention, dare even mention
The mystery we find ourselves caught in?
And do we dare to remember
All that we have forgotten?
Each breath that we take, we take for granted,
So if there are clues, we remain unaware.
All the days of our lives burn down like matches–
Vanish into thin air.
But there are dreams that we dream when we least expect them,
And memories that come like unbidden tears,
All the things we believed when we were still children–
It’s been so many years . . .ChorusBridge:
We are battered and torn from the day we are born
In a world that has blinded and bound us;
Is it any surprise we don’t open our eyes
To the truth that’s disguised all around usLike the secrets we keep we don’t know we’re keeping
From before there was time, before there were lies;
Can we find you again, this far from the garden?
Do we dare even try?Chorus
Words and music: Carolyn Arends
© 1997 Running Arends Music/New Spring Publishing (a division of Brentwood Music Publishing, Inc.)
From the album
Feel Free, by Carolyn Arends

Washington politics at their oddest

No, I don’t mean D.C., I mean my home state; which tends, politically speaking, to be strange, but not as strange as Oregon to the south or British Columbia to the north. This gambit, though, is the sort of thing you might expect to see come out of Oregon:

New initiative: No children? Then no marriage
‘Absurd’ idea aims to start discussion

I may comment on this later; right now . . . I’m speechless.

Song of the Week

These days, I think my favorite active solo artist (with all due apologies to Sufjan Stevens, who was a couple years behind me at Hope College) is Andrew Peterson; I enjoy his music, and I appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness of his lyrics. His second album, Clear to Venus, is still his best, I think, with several songs that are as good as anything he’s written; here’s my favorite, which opens the album.

No More Faith
1 Corinthians 13:13

This is not another song about the mountains,
Except about how hard they are to move;
Have you ever stood before them
Like a mustard seed who’s waiting for some proof?

I say faith is a burden—
It’s a weight to bear;
It’s brave and bittersweet.
And hope is hard to hold to;
Lord, I believe,
Only help my unbelief

Till there’s no more faith,
No more hope;
I’ll see Your face and Lord, I’ll know
There’s no more faith,
No more hope.
I’ll sing Your praise and let them go,
‘Cause only love,
Only love remains.

Have you ever heard that Jesus is the answer
And thought about the many doubts you hide?
Have you wondered how he loves you
If he really knows how dark you are inside?

I say faith is a burden—
It’s a weight to bear;
It’s brave and bittersweet.
And hope is hard to hold to;
Lord, I believe,
Only help my unbelief


So I will drive these roads in thunder and in rain,
I will sing Your song at the top of my lungs,
And I will praise You, Lord, in glory and in pain
And I will follow You till this race is won.
And I will drive these roads till this motor won’t run
And I will sing Your song from sea to shining sea,
And I will praise You, Lord, till Your kingdom come
And I will follow where you lead


Words and music: Andrew Peterson
© 2001 New Spring Publishing (a division of Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing)
From the album
 Clear to Venus, by Andrew Peterson

Musings on the missional church

The latest issue, Winter 2007, of Leadership magazine showed up last week bearing a big close-up of a green cinder-block wall with a hole sledgehammered through it into the outside world–lots of open space with a city skyline in the distance; superimposed on the picture was the headline, “Going Missional: Break free of the box and touch your world.” In one way, this was confirmation of a wry remark I ran across recently about all the trendy adjectives floating around the church these days, including “emerging/emergent” and “missional”; yes indeed, Leadership is on it, and “missional” is a hip thing to be. In another way, though, this was very encouraging, because it’s an excellent issue with some truly valuable articles. Tim Conder’s piece, “Missional Buzz,” and the article by Wade Hodges and Greg Taylor, “We Can’t Do Megachurch Anymore,” are the only ones up on the Web so far, leaving several excellent pieces still only available in print; I’d encourage you to keep an eye out for them (or just go buy the magazine).

The reason this is so encouraging is precisely because “missional” is a hip thing to be, fashionable but ill-understood. The fact of the matter is, as Alan Roxburgh observed in the September/October 2004 issue of Theology Matters, while “almost everywhere one goes today the word missional or the phrase missional church is used to describe everything from evangelism to reorganization plans for denominations, to how we make coffee in church basements and denominational meeting rooms . . . [this language] is still not understood by the vast majority of people in either leadership or the pew. This is a stunning accomplishment: from obscurity to banality in eight short years and people still don’t know what it means.”

Dr. Roxburgh should know, since he was one of the people, along with Darrell Guder, Craig Van Gelder, and George Hunsberger, who collectively wrote the book Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, which kicked off the whole discussion back in 1998. The book was the product of a network of missiologists and theologians called the Gospel and Our Culture Network, or GOCN, who sought to build on the seminal work of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. Their aim was to address “issues of Gospel faithfulness in North American culture,” and it was in this process that the term “missional church” was born, to define the way the church needs to operate if it is indeed to be faithful to the gospel message in the context of Western (not merely North American) culture.

The problem, as Dr. Roxburgh notes in his article, is that until recently, this work has largely “remained a relatively theoretic and abstract academic conversation about the church. Its books and ideas have been shaped more by internal conversations within the missiological academy than attentiveness to the needs of the churches.” Missional Church, for instance, is easily among the small number of truly essential Christian books of the last decade–but it’s also very dense, not easily absorbed or understood, and primarily theoretical in its orientation, short on practical application. It’s to this problem that the September/October 2004 issue of Theology Matters is addressed, as it features Dr. Roxburgh’s article–a concise explanation of what it means for the church to be missional–followed by two pieces arising out of the efforts of College Hill Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati to remake itself into a truly missional congregation. The unfortunate thing is that Theology Matters, while an excellent publication, is little known outside the PC(USA)–or within it, for that matter. That’s why it’s so encouraging to see Leadership step up to address the same problem, and particularly to see it do the job so well. As College Hill’s associate pastor, the Rev. Stephen Eyre, put it, “The missional process is the shift from the church as an institution in a Christian culture, to a community in mission in a non-Christian culture”–and that’s a shift the American church badly needs to make.

Note: Theology Matters is a publication of Presbyterians for Faith, Family and Ministry; its website is I mentioned, a few posts back, the Covenant Network and their newsletter; PFFM is another affinity group within the PC(USA), in this case working the orthodox side of the aisle, and Theology Matters is another of those publications which is sent to every pastor in the denomination (and probably only appreciated by those who agree with it). In this case, it’s a publication which I consider one of the real benefits of ministering in the PC(USA). I would note that a free subscription is available to anyone who’s interested; just go here to sign up.

Inaugural Song of the Week

I decided to take a page from others around the blogosphere and start doing a Song of the Week. I figure it will keep me active, and there are a lot of great songs out there. I’m kicking it off this week with a lyric off the great Charlie Peacock’s next-most-recent album, Kingdom Come (his most recent, Love Press Ex-Curio, is instrumental jazz)–it’s an uneven album, imho, but with a few great moments, of which this is perhaps the best.

Wouldn’t It Be Strange?I’ve got a question for your consideration;
I’ll make you privy to my contemplation.
Let me say in my defense, I know it goes against all common sense . . .
It’s not our nature, nothing we’ve been taught,
Flies in the face of every line we’ve bought.
It’s hard to see it, harder to explain;
I know it cuts against the grain:

Wouldn’t it be strange if riches made you poor,
If everything you earned left you wanting more;
Wouldn’t it be strange to question what it’s for?
Wouldn’t it be strange?

I know we’ve got some interests to protect,
A set of dots we’re committed to connect.
It makes us nervous in light of how it’s been
To play a little game of pretend:

Wouldn’t it be strange if power made you weak,
Victory came to those who turned the other cheek;
Wouldn’t it be strange to welcome your defeat?
Wouldn’t it be strange?

Wouldn’t it be strange to find out in the end
The first will be the last and all the losers win?
Wouldn’t it be strange if Jesus came again?
Wouldn’t it be strange?

Words and music: Charlie Peacock and Douglas Kaine McKelvey
©1999 Sparrow Song/Andi Beat Goes On Music/Songs Only Dogs Can Hear
From the album
Kingdom Come, by Charlie Peacock

The butterfly effect and the providence of God

You’ve probably heard of the butterfly effect—the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia can cause a hurricane in the Caribbean—which is an illustration of one of the key elements in chaos theory, that of sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The idea is that a small change, such as a butterfly’s wingbeat, can produce large results. This sort of sensitivity to initial conditions is one of the things which makes a chaotic system chaotic. (Chaos is not in fact disordered or random, merely highly complex and unpredictable.)

Now, I don’t know much about chaos theory, not being the mathematical type—I leave that to my brother-in-law the chemical engineer. Theology is more my line; and in that line, what I do know is that God works his will through chaotic systems as well as through obvious order, using small events at one point to bring about significant results at another point.

I was reminded of this, in a small way, over the course of the last several days. Last week, as I was sitting in my office planning the Sunday service, I wanted to doublecheck the lyrics to Charlie Peacock’s song “The Harvest Is the End of the World” (from which I had pulled the title for that week’s sermon). I didn’t feel like going home to grab the album (strangelanguage), so I figured I’d look it up on the Internet. I found it, in the archives of two blogs I’d never heard of before, one called Mysterium Tremendum (scroll down to November 12, 2003), and its parent blog (for lack of a better word), The Thinklings. You’ll notice the latter blog heading the links list over on the left; it’s a great blog, and was a completely unexpected and equally welcome discovery.

In the course of exploring The Thinklings, I noticed a post headed “Pachelbel Is Haunting Me,” with the YouTube video of an incredibly funny rant on Pachelbel’s Canon in D, courtesy of a comedian/musician named Rob Paravonian. (If you check the January 2007 archives, it was posted on January 5.) I finally got around to watching it today, laughed hysterically, and played it for my wife, who did the same. She also suggested sending the link to a friend of ours. Said friend called us maybe 20 minutes later, declaring that it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen, that she’d had a terrible day which was now “a zillion times better.” She’s been having a rough couple of weeks, of which today was worse than average, and needed a boost; clearly, this was God’s provision for her to lift her spirits. And it all began last week when I didn’t feel like walking back to the house to grab a tape.

OK, so maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal—but it was to my friend, and it was to me; and it’s an illustration of how God weaves everything together to bring about the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes, even in the little things. To Him be the glory.

Umm, what was that about grace?

I just got the latest Covenant Network newsletter yesterday, which included the note that they will no longer be sending their publication to every pastor in the PC(USA), but only to those who pay for it. (For those not familiar with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and its internecine strife, the Covenant Network is one of the affinity groups working for the ordination of self-affirmed practicing homosexuals.) I can’t say as I’ll miss it all that much; maybe I should, for a number of reasons, but I won’t. The smug “we’re on the right side of history” tone annoys me no end, especially when married to the low-quality theology and exegesis I so often find in their work.

Now, some might read that and think I fault them primarily because of their advocacy of homosexuality, but that’s really not the case. There are much deeper issues here, a point signaled by the slogan printed across the front of every CovNet publication: Toward a Church as Generous and Just as God’s Grace. Anyone see a problem with that? For my part, I see two. The first is minor: while we want the church to look as much like God as possible, it is simply beyond human capacity for the church to be as generous as God’s grace. Aim high, sure, but the fact that they so blithely take aim at an impossibility suggests to me that they don’t realize it’s impossible. That in turn suggests that their doctrine of God isn’t high enough by a long shot.

The greater problem is that word “just.” Who in the world ever said, or thought, that God’s grace is just? The very idea is ludicrous. Justice is all about what we earn; God’s grace is all about what he gives us that we have not earned and could never even begin to hope to earn. Confusing the two, as CovNet evidently does, is a major theological error, a fundamental misunderstanding of who God is and who we are (and pretty much everything in between). Attempts to set aside the Scriptural witness on homosexuality are symptoms; this kind of thinking is the true disease. Christianity isn’t about our rights, or what we deserve; it’s about the fact that all we deserve is Hell, and God gives us his kingdom anyway. Maranatha–come, Lord Jesus!

Barack Obama and the case for faith in the public square

I most often vote Republican for a number of reasons. One is that as a whole, the positions taken by the Republican Party line up better with my own beliefs. Another, however, is the frequency with which the Democrats nominate people I find it hard to respect. Thankfully, that isn’t the case in our congressional district, the 2nd of Colorado; unfortunately, it’s all too often the case at the presidential level. I don’t expect the national Dems to nominate someone I could be happy voting for, but I wish they would at least nominate someone I could respect. They’re out there, politicians like Virginia’s Mark Warner or New Mexico’s Bill Richardson—or, perhaps most intriguingly (though not for 2008), Illinois’ Barack Obama, who showed why in his recent keynote address to the Building a Covenant for a New America conference.

As Slate’s Amy Sullivan writes, “Obama’s speech, delivered to an audience of the frustrated religious left, . . . was, for the first time in modern memory, an affirmative statement from a Democrat about ‘how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy,’ as Obama put it. . . . [H]e doesn’t defend progressives’ claim to religion; he asserts the responsibilities that fall to them as religious people. Americans are looking, Obama said, for a ‘deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country.’ He started that conversation. A few others are joining in. It’s time for everyone else to catch up.”

I appreciate this speech (and Obama for giving it) because I consider the increasing secularization of the Democratic Party—and its concomitant effects on the Republican Party—unfortunate for the health of our nation. The increasing identification of our political parties with a sacred vs. religious split marginalizes the Christian Left (and while I may not agree with them on many points, that’s unfortunate for the democratic process), while turning the demands of folks like the Chicago Tribune‘s Eric Zorn for a thoroughly secularized public square into a fundamental plank of American liberalism. Which, in my point of view, it shouldn’t be, because that privileges one religious outlook over all others. That’s religious discrimination, which we all know is a Bad Thing.

Of course, Zorn and others would deny that. When he writes, “Speaking as a secularist—I don’t like that word, really, but it’ll do for now—and presuming to speak for them, what we ask of believers—all we ask—is that they not enter the public square using ‘because God says so’ as a reason to advance or attack any policy position,” he doesn’t believe he’s “asking believers to abandon their values or beliefs as a prerequisite to engaging in political debate”; indeed, he writes that “the idea that this demand is hostile to religion is a common and popular strawman . . . it’s also completely wrong. ” Clearly, he understands his own secular presumptions as religiously neutral, rather than as a set of presumptions which compete with religious ones.

With this, I cannot agree; where Zorn writes, “Whatever beliefs or philosophies shape your values or guide your personal conduct are of no nevermind to us,” I have to say that he’s wrong. As any mathematician or philosopher could tell you, it’s not just your conclusions which matter—your reasoning, which provides the foundation for those conclusions, matters just as much, and it really is significant if you get to the right place for the wrong reasons. It’s significant because it means you’re right as much by accident as anything, and that getting one point right is no indicator that you’ll get anything else right. As such, the “beliefs or philosophies [that] shape your values or guide your personal conduct” do matter—they matter a great deal—and for people like Zorn to insist that people like me pretend otherwise is precisely to “ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square,” as Sen. Obama put it.

So what’s the alternative? Sen. Obama is completely correct when he says, “Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” The problem, though, as any preacher knows, is application: what do we do with that? That’s the tricky part, and I think the senator himself wobbles in saying, “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” I understand his concern here, “their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason” (and on a side note, shouldn’t that be “our proposals”?), and I agree with that; but who gets to define what values are “universal”?

The fact of the matter is, requiring religious folk to make arguments only on grounds of “universal . . . values” will be translated right back into saying “that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates.” As a recent Christianity Today editorial noted, “What Obama fails to see is how often specifically Christian or religious reasoning has been at the core of social movements,” and how often his test would invalidate precisely those reformers whom he praises. There needs to be room for people of all stripes to make arguments for their positions on the basis of their own values, rather than restricting them to arguing on the basis of values pre-approved by others. It should no more be necessary for Christians, Muslims, and Jews to pretend to be secularists than for secularists to pretend to be Christians, Muslims, or Jews. We should all be free to make our arguments on the basis of who we really are and what we truly believe.

Of course, if we do so without trying to establish common ground with those who stand in different places—if, for instance, Christians make political arguments without trying to connect them to values held by at least some secularists—then we wind up only preaching to the choir, building very narrow movements, and that’s not a good thing. From a pragmatic point of view, then, while I don’t think it’s wrong to “enter the public square using ‘because God says so’ as a reason to advance or attack any policy position,” if that’s our only reason, we ought not expect to get very far. Christianity Today addresses this point in its editorial, arguing that “what Lincoln, King, and others did . . . was use a variety of reasons—some religious, some pragmatic—to motivate social change. Thus, listeners with or without a religious bent could find some reason to buy into the cause.”

To be sure, there are those on the conservative end of American Christianity who would object to such an approach; but their objection, I believe, rests on their failure to take seriously Augustine’s insight that all truth is God’s truth. When we as Christians approach political issues from that perspective—and when we understand that God is not capricious, that he hasreasons for everything he tells us to do and not to do—then we come to understand that “pragmatic” arguments which appeal to values we share with those who don’t share our faith aren’t merely pragmatic, but are in fact theological. We are never called to say, “Thus says the Lord,” without explaining why “thus says the Lord”—what the reasons are, as best we understand them, for the commands God has given us—and this is no less true in the political realm than anywhere else. It isn’t our place to “defend the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it, but it’s certainly our responsibility to explain them as best we can. To do so is both good theology and good politics; to fail to do so is arrogance, and nothing makes for worse politics—or theology—than arrogance. May God be glorified in our lives.

Taking off the plastic

After a long time away from this–due to illness, technical problems, and a whole host of other circumstances–it feels like walking into a house that hasn’t been lived in for a year and a half: the air has gone flat, there’s dust everywhere, and all the furniture is covered with clear plastic. Time to take off the plastic, sweep and vacuum the floors, dust the mantle, and get back to work.

Electoral musings, theological edition

This is the last post on the recent election, barring something really bizarre; but I wanted to end on a theological note, because the church needs to respond to this election based not on political affiliations but on the truths and principles of our faith. This is the first step to recovering a theology of politics, which I believe is essential for us now as it has always been. To that end, I want to point you to a colleague of mine in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts; if you haven’t discovered his blog, rectify that, and dig deep—it’s good, strong food for the mind and soul. His posts on this subject, titled “Presidential Election Results: A Christian Response,” are a very good place to begin this discussion.