Archives For Worship

On July 10, 2014

Translation: Getting Closer

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” -Nelson Mandela

The people stood at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” -Exodus 19

Translation Picture

Did you ever wonder why Paul in 1st Corinthians makes such a big deal about speaking in tongues? The rest of the New Testament mentions tongues about 6 times, in just 2 chapters of 1st Corinthians Paul talks about “tongues” over a dozen times.

Why does Paul, this early Church planter, care so much about what people in the church say and how they say it?

Our Moral Tongue

A couple of weeks ago I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about an unusual thing scientist have recently discovered in researching ethics. That is, how people decide what is right and wrong.

Turns out people don’t just decide what is right and wrong in a vacuum, and so what they decide is based on who they are, how they’ve been taught and in what language they think in. 

The classic example used to introduce people to the world of Ethics is a story that goes like this. Imagine you are a railroad conductor and you see a train coming fast down the tracks that has five people on it. The five people will be killed, but you happen to be standing next to a lever that will divert the track in another direction.

The problem is that there is one person on the other track and by saving the five, you will now have made yourself responsible for the death of one. What do you do?

If you say you’ll pull the lever, the line of questioning goes on, finally it winds up not being a lever, but a fat man who’s hanging over the tracks, and if you just give him a push it will save the five and kill the one.This is called the “Utilitarian Ethics” argument (sacrificing the one for the many) and it’s a great ice-breaker for parties.

Or so I’ve been told, for some reason I don’t get invited to very many parties.

The interesting thing about this question, is that the closer people get to the consequences of their decision the more it changes what their decision is. Turns out that people are more likely to pull the lever than actually push a person, even though both bring out the exact same consequences, because pushing a person makes it less abstract.

But what was interesting about this Times article is that apparently research has recently uncovered that when you pose this question to people who are bi-lingual, their answer changes based on what language you ask them in.

If you ask people from Mexico whether or not they would push the fat man onto the tracks, they say “yes” if you ask them in English, and “No” if you ask them in Spanish.

Speaking in Tongues

I had the privilege of spending the better part of last month traveling around Israel and Jordan, It’s an incredible experience that I highly recommend.* You can’t throw a rock in Israel without hitting a Bible story…also you’re not supposed to throw rocks, they could be a part of a Bible story.

But, for me, one of the best parts of the trip came when we worshipped with a small church in Nazareth. Because they are a church that often have tourists come through, and such a high percentage of the church comes from different backgrounds and has different first languages (Hebrew and Aramaic) they often will try to speak and worship throughout the service in several different languages.The Garden Tomb

During this same trip our group took a trip to the Garden Tomb and we heard a Korean group singing “Rock of Ages” in Korean, and I immediately knew that this was an indication of shoddy mission work. Not to critique the Korean group, but I was taught to think like a missionary, and I knew that someone, somewhere had planted a church that shared the Gospel as an idea, instead of sharing the Gospel the way the Gospel shares itself. 

Worshipping with that church in Nazareth, passages in 1st Corinthians started making so much more sense. Remember, most of the time when the New Testament talks about speaking in Tongues, it’s not referring to a personal prayer language (sometimes it is), it’s referring to the actual language people spoke.

This might be hard for us, chances are if you live in America, you probably are only fluent in one language and rarely are put in situations where you can’t communicate with people around you, but in that world it was incredibly common, and actually language was a good way to reinforce the socio-economic systems of the day. (Poor people didn’t have the access to education that wealthier people did, this is also why Paul, a highly educated world-travelling male is able to say “I speak in tongues more than all of you”).

But what do you do when the Gospel creates a new humanity, and you find yourself in a church with people who you would previously not be caught dead with? Before you called them an enemy or foreigner or beneath you, and now you call them brother.

This is what I think Paul is getting at in 1st Corinthians, he’s trying to deal with this incredibly complex situation where all these different cultures/backgrounds are coming together, he’s trying to speak into the spirit of elitism and condescension and his biggest request is just this:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.

Chances are, most of these people could’ve picked up on what was going on. Corinth was a metropolitan city, and they would’ve grown up hearing different languages spoken, but Paul knows what we don’t, it’s not enough to talk about the Gospel, we’ve got to talk like the Gospel. 

When most Christians talk about Orthodox Christian doctrine, we talk about abstract ideas, but if the Gospel is that God entered the world, in a specific time, culture and place, and then told his disciples to go all over the world doing the same, then is it really orthodox Christian theology if it doesn’t look like the culture it’s in?

This is what that Times article is getting at, it’s what drives Paul in 1st Corinthians, each of us have a heart language, a “moral tongue” and the closer we get to that, the closer we reach the heart.

When the little church in Nazareth would sing in English for us visiting tourists, our group would light up, and when we sang the songs in Aramaic they would come alive, and even though we had no idea what we were singing, but we tried to sing along because we learned our worship was helping them worship in their native heart language.

Because the Gospel means God is not abstract, He’s getting closer.

*If you’re interested in going to Israel, I highly recommend Dr. Evrett Huffard’s annual tour. Dr. Huffard grew up in Nazareth as a missionary kid, and was an archeologist there for several years.

Why has Christian language been co-opted by corporate America? Partly because the church doesn’t know what to do with her own stuff. We can’t figure out who to use it in this new world…We’ve lost the ability to teach old dogmas new tricks. -Leonard Sweet

Translation Picture

So for the past few months, I’ve been writing about Translation, and the reason that it’s so important for churches and Christians to translate the Gospel into the context and time that we are actually living in.

But now, I’d like to start turning this series by pointing out that translation has it’s limitations. Specifically, there is a sense in which we can over-translate.

In one of his books, Leonard Sweet talks about one of the first times he went to a Starbucks. He tried to order a regular cup of coffee, and the barista just stared back at him blankly, and then he handed Sweet a booklet called Make it Your Drink”

In giant font, the booklet read “Learning the Lingo” But what struck Leonard Sweet was that this book was not a training book for new employees, it was created for the customers of Starbucks.

Not only does Starbucks expect you to pay $5 for a cup of coffee, their genius is that they demanded customers to learn a lingo. Starbucks employees are trained to help new people comprehend a language we do not yet speak. They don’t say, “I won’t serve you until you learn our language.” But they do want us to learn the language of their community, and (here’s the part churches tend to be bad at) they give resources to help teach us.

Veni Sancte Spiritus

A couple of months ago, we had the Anglican priest and author Ian Morgan Cron come preach at the Highland Church. Ian’s written a couple of great books, but the reason I wanted him to come preach was because of something he’d done at a retreat for preachers I’d recently attended. He had taken a 5th century Christian hymn, and turned it into a contemporary song. I wanted him to do this at Highland.

So he did. He came in and preached about communion, and then he lead us in singing an ancient Christian hymn that he, and some songwriters, had translated into a great contemporary style.

The name of it was “Veni Sancte Spiritus”

I know that actually sounds a bit like I’m still talking about Starbucks, but it’s not about coffee. It’s Latin, and it just means “Come Holy Spirit”

But Ian didn’t fully translate that part, he told us what it meant, and then asked us to sing it.  That may just sound incidental, but let me tell you what not translating it did. In singing those three words, not translated, we were subtly reminded that this story isn’t an American one. It didn’t originate in English, or in the 20th century.

In singing those words we were reminded that this Jesus story is a story with some meat on it’s bones. It’s a story we’ve inherited from men and women, who at great personal costs have lived out the Gospel, and they did it in other language.

In singing that song, in that way, we were reminded that we stand in solidarity with the ages that have gone before us and a Gospel that belongs to the whole world.

The Words of God

Eugene Peterson (author of the Message translation of the Bible) once said, “In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true.”  I think that’s right, I”m not asking for us to speak Christianese, but to use the words of God to tell the story of God.

In one of his several recent books, N.T Wright talks about it this way:

The enormously popular worship songs, some of which use phrases from the Psalms here and there but most of which do not, have largely displaces, for thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshipers, the steady rhythm and deep soul searching of the Psalms themselves. This I believe, is a great impoverishment. By all means write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy. There are many ways of singing and praying the Psalms; there are styles to suit all tastes. That, indeed, is part of their enduring charm.

I think that’s right on two levels, one the Church must continually write new songs, but she must also continually reach for the same story.

Some people will read this and immediately begin to grumble that their church doesn’t sing the songs they like, but that’s not my point at all. In fact, singing songs you don’t like, in styles you don’t like,  may be a great way of growing as a Christian, you may come to see your worship as primarily singing songs that really blesses other people.

But the worship songs themselves must always be for, about, and to God.

Greek Orthodox Funeral Censer

Greek Orthodox Funeral Censer

This past week I went to two very different funerals. They were both deeply Christian, but from very different traditions. One was the first Greek Orthodox funeral I’ve ever attended, it was filled with incense and liturgy that’s been used for thousands of years, the other was in a Church of Christ in the metroplex. The form was incredibly different. The words were not.

In fact, at one point both funerals sang these words: “Christ is risen from the dead, he’s trampled over death by death.”

These are words from an ancient Christian hymn and one sang it with drums and the other chanted it while swinging incense, but they both sang the same words.

Here’s the thing I don’t think we realize when we are talking about worship. Everyone of us is going to sing someone else’s words…I would love it, if the words were God’s words.

Because if Scripture is right, when God speaks He creates worlds.

I think they still do.

So let’s take a lesson from Starbucks. Don’t translate everything.

O for a thousand tongues to sing. My dear Redeemer’s praise! The glories of my God and King, The triumphs of His grace. -Charles Wesley

Leadership with education

A couple of Sundays ago at Highland Church, we showed this video of one of our missionaries in Thailand. They spent the first year of their time there just researching they symbols and practices that people used to talk about God and the Sacred in Pheyao. And then they did this very interesting thing.

They wrote down hundreds of different words on 3×5 cards, gave them to the Thai people they were interviewing, and asked them to put them in categories. The words were about things like love/service/honor/sacrifice. They wanted to see what ideas the words they were using where linked to.

Because there’s no such thing as a 1-1 equivalency for language, something is lost when we translate, but something can also be gained.

Bowing Before Kings

There is something powerful about watching Thai people bow down before Jesus. But only if you know the Thai culture. When Eden and I first got to Thailand, in our hotel, there was a warning for all foreign visitors not to speak poorly of the royal family. The King of Thailand is dearly loved, and respected, and that’s a good thing.

But what our missionaries in Thailand discovered when they were studying the language is that the King of Thailand was more than respected, the same words and gestures they would use to talk about God they would use to talk about him…sometime even more so.

They asked a new convert to Christianity what she would do if the King walked into the room. A visible change of expression came over her and she said excitedly, “I would fall flat on my face and bow before him.”

So that’s when they knew how to worship Jesus in Thailand.

And that’s when I knew that they had tapped into something many Western Christians hadn’t realized just yet.

Because they at least knew how to link certain emotions and words to other ones. The Thai people knew that all the reverence they had for their king, the anxiety they had when he got ill, or the anger they felt when he was disrespected, was actually something that belonged in the category of worship.

And I’m not trying to be hard on the Thai culture, I’m trying to point out something that I thought was profound for American culture. 

If you were to suddenly lose the ability to speak english, and you had to gauge people’s meaning and intent based on tone and body language and what kind of events would draw crowds together…what would you assume was our sacred spaces? What would you assume we worshipped?

If you had to discern just by seeing what people got angry at, or what made them extremely happy, what would you assume we worship?

And do our churches worship like that?

Kings Bowing Down

There’s an interesting passage in Isaiah that has captured my imagination recently. It’s Isaiah’s picture of the New Heavens and the New Earth. In Isaiah’s vision, the kings of the earth come marching in to the new Jerusalem, each bringing some of the cultural artifacts that their nation was famous for, and then they lay them down at the feet of the LORD.

In fact, the way Isaiah ends is with what he calls the “Glory of the Nations” coming in on horses and chariots and wagons and mules and camels (all distinct cultural forms of war and travel) and God makes people from all over the earth His priests.

They lay the best parts of their world, their culture, down at his feet, and it becomes a part of the Kingdom of God.

So back to Thailand, I went there last summer to speak to missionaries all over Asia, and at one point I talked about this. How God’s redeeming purposes weren’t just for individual souls but also for all of His creation, and some of the things that people have created. 

Then I asked the missionaries to just shout out what kinds of things they saw in the respective countries they represented that was in tune with God’s good world. They shouted out everything from food to ways of honoring the elderly to certain kinds of music.

I think they were exactly right.

That’s one of the great parts about being a missionary. It’s not just that missionaries go to share the Gospel, it’s that missionaries also get to see just how big the Gospel is. Jesus is already there, working through and in people, we just get to point Him out. And with eyes that are Gospel trained we get to see the world ablaze with the glory of God.

This is why translation is so important, and our approach to it must be generous. After all, no one culture can fully capture the Kingdom of God, no one worship style, no one language, and each time the story of God gets translated, it just gets bigger and better.

God’s priests are everywhere, some of them are still waiting to be called, and some of us need to go, and others of us need them to minister to us.

We need new priests to teach us how to worship and what to bow down for.

This is why Revelation ends with people from every tribe and every tongue singing to God.

Because this song is so good and God is so big, we need a thousand tongues to sing it.

On October 24, 2013

Zoe 2013: Here With Us

If you grew up in Churches of Christ, chances are you haven’t heard much about Advent before. But for over a thousand years Christians have observed a season called “Advent.” Now I grew up in a church that was suspect of all things Catholic (I wasn’t allowed to be friends with girls named Mary). But this is not just a Catholic idea, Christians from all the traditions have celebrated Advent, and even if it is new to you, I think that Advent might have a word to bless you.

For the upcoming Zoe conference this weekend, Jeff Childers and I sat down to talk about what Advent means and why it matters. If you are interested in digging deeper into this for your churches go to the Zoe website. Jeff made four separate videos talking about why Advent matters,  or, if you can come, to the Zoe Conference this weekend to learn even more.

Here are some highlights from hearing Jeff Childers talk about Advent:

  • Advent is just the Latin word for “Coming” It’s the idea that Jesus came into the world, and that he will one day soon come into the world again.
  • In order to understand Advent, it helps to understand the ancient Christian Calendar. Christians have had for thousands of years certain ways of thinking about time and space, and Advent is one of the ways that we can understand the way that the whole world revolves around Jesus.
  • Advent is about the longing that is in every human heart, a desire, an ache that we all share for things to be different…to be better.

At the heart of Advent is the recognition that something is missing.

And this is the difference between what Americans call Christmas and the Advent season. Every year for Christmas we wait and anticipate for Christmas morning and family gatherings and gifts. And every December 26th we tend to feel a little let down, because we realize what we should have known all along.

Something is missing that can’t be wrapped up with a bow. And Advent says that something isn’t a thing. It’s a Someone.

Jesus is coming to the world.

He does every year.

“Far too much Traditional Church has been too much tradition, and not enough Church.” -N.T. Wright

images

I was almost an art thief. Or at least I felt like one. It was at the end of our semester abroad, we got to go to the Louvre where we saw thousands of priceless works of art.

Including the Mona Lisa.

But the Mona Lisa, was a bit disappointing. Maybe it’s because of all the hype from Dan Brown, and the fact that Da Vinci was not actually admitting to the world that he was a descendent of Jesus through this famous work of art. Or maybe it’s because the actual painting is pretty small. But I think the reason that I didn’t enjoy it was because of the guard.

Unlike so many other incredible works of art at the Louvre, there was a guard specially assigned to this one piece. Just watching you as you watched it. And I noticed that as he was especially watching me, I was acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t want to give him the impression of being a suspicious character. But that’s when he had me.

Because once you start thinking about trying to act like you are not thinking about stealing a famous work of art, you in fact start acting very shady. So much so, that I think they assigned a special guard to me for the rest of my time there.

Context Is King

This past Sunday at the Highland Church, I co-preached with Doug Foster. Doug is a Church historian who teaches at the ACU Graduate School of Theology. He’s passionate about Church history and the tradition that we have been handed down, and he’s a great story teller. (Which all historians really should be).

And we talked about how, in our particular tradition, the way we sing and worship has become codified over the past few generations. Many Churches of Christ have sang A Capella for the past few hundreds years. It’s a wonderful tradition…

But Dr. Foster and I were talking about when this became more than just a tradition.

If you want to hear the whole sermon, you can find it on ITunes or here, but the basic gist was that this became more than just a good tradition, pretty soon after the Civil War.

Because now Churches of Christ in the North had some money to spend, and some of these churches bought buildings and organs, while some of the Churches of Christ in the South were dying from hunger. And they saw their brothers and sisters dying and their northern brothers and sister buying. And they said that’s not right.

And then suddenly, what had previously been a preference or tradition became what some would call, “A Salvation Issue.”

And over time, we forgot about the context of why this became such a passionate problem for some people, and we just knew our grandparents taught us it was wrong.

In my context, I’ve learned that while this form of worship may have mattered a lot to my grandma, chances are it didn’t matter as much (or at least in the say way) to her grandmother.

And that’s the value of tradition! It doesn’t codify the way things used to be done. In fact it can help to challenge it!

Living Tradition

For the past few months, I’ve taken up gardening. That’s probably too generous of a word for it. Basically I tried to make the primary color of my front yard to not be brown. But as Leslie and I have planted shrubs and flowers, I’ve noticed how much trimming and cultivating we have to do. We have to keep something’s in and other things out. Gardening

Gardening is in some ways like Guarding.

Except for one fundamental difference.

One is about something that is alive, and the other is about something that is dead.

One of the problems with tradition is not knowing how to live with it.

So for example, in my tribe, we’ve said that we want to worship A Capella because the early Christians (some times) did. That’s an okay reason, but it’s dead by itself. It’s copying and pasting a form, without having the heartbeat behind it.

We ask the question How…but the real question to ask is Why?

As in Why did the Early Christians sing like that?

And the answer is of course, far more fascinating and engaging, it’s because they were trying to be different than the Jewish and Roman religious around them. They were trying to be a distinct group of people in the world that they currently lived in.

And now all of a sudden, you have a tradition with some teeth in it. Not just the form that they used, but the principle behind it. Which was to be a good missionary for the culture that they were in.

In other words, maybe the best way to not break tradition, is to sometimes break tradition.

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On August 9, 2010

The Purpose of Worship

So right after Leslie and I had gotten married, we lived in Searcy for one final semester before moving to Texas. We had  broken free of the shackles of curfew, and we went crazy. Of course by crazy, I mean that we went to Wal-Mart after midnight. And that’s where this story picks up.

Because it was at Wal-Mart, in the notebook aisle, that a guy, that we had never met before, came up to us and said this:

“I think God is an insecure Hypocrite.” Continue Reading…

On November 5, 2009

A Gentle Subversion

I took this picture on our trip to Ephesus a few years ago. Since then it has made the regular rotation for my desktop image, I’ve even talked about on this blog before. I’ve found myself somewhat haunted by it. And here’s why.

Continue Reading…