Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why Do You Call Him Lord?

This morning I awoke without the usual midweek pressure of needing to get up and get ready for work. Remembering that I had the day off, I was able to relax and sink into my prayers with a more leisurely attitude. I thought, "I should ask the Lord what to do with this rare, unstructured day," or words to that effect.  And so I began, "Lord, how would You have me use this day?"

The first word of my prayer echoed in my head. "Lord....lord".  What an odd word.  In this "land of the free and home of the brave" there are no lords.  We are a nation born of rebellion - spawned by the rejection of outside authority.  We, The People, have the authority.  We are created equal, and so doff our hats to no man. Do we even know what we are saying when we address Christ as "Lord"?  What do I mean?

This is a challenging thought and one which Christ Himself implores me to consider: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?" His implication is clear - if I call Him "Lord" and yet do not obey His words I am a hypocrite, fooling myself that I am actually His disciple. In the parable that follows He paints the picture of a man building his house on a foundation of sand, a house doomed to destruction. The apostle James echoes the words of Christ:
"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing." James 1:22-25
So often, I've read the words of Christ as good suggestions.  I've chosen the ones that suit me and left others aside for possible review at a more convenient time, or worse, I've listened and enjoyed them all then closed my Bible and gone about my day in the usual way - unchanged - thinking to myself that the act of reading the Scripture will bring about my transformation - as if by magic.  But this is not what Jesus taught.  
"Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built." Luke 6:47-48 (emphasis mine)
As the old Sunday school song taught us, "The wise man builds his house upon the rock!"  The wise man understands authority, and, believing the Scriptures which proclaim Christ to be "Lord of lords", pays close attention and does what He tells him to do. Certainly Christ is the "rock of our salvation", the foundation of our faith, but the only way to build a life on that rock is through a faith so alert, that it seeks to obey His every word. This is the foundation of the Christian life.  

No other foundation will support it.
"And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked." 1 John 2: 3-6
It does not matter how loudly we proclaim our faith, how much we know about the Bible, or how high and fine our doctrinal statements are if we are not doing the words of Christ and His apostles.  It matters little how much we know about Jesus and His teachings, or how much time we spend reading the Scriptures if we are not living as they tell us to.  I've heard it said that the devil doesn't mind what we do so long as He can keep us from the Scriptures.  I agree, to a point, but want to take it a step farther: the devil doesn't mind us hearing the word of God nearly so much as he does us obeying it.  

Americanism says that we are the masters of our own destiny. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, stand on our own feet, and accomplish whatever we dream. We, for the most part, so long as we are not caught breaking any laws (laws, by the way, which we play a role in enacting or repealing), answer to no one.  We have rights on which no one has the right to tread. We have employers (hopefully), but no masters. We have advisers, but no commanders. Our lives are rich with options, opportunities, and every freedom necessary to pursue them. Beyond death and taxes, we have few mandates...and we resent even those.  By and large we are free to say and do as we please, answering to no one.

I was born an American.  I was re-born a Christian, a citizen of an entirely different kind of country, with an entirely different form of government.  The words of Christ call on me constantly to decide between Americanism and Christianity - between independence and submission to the authority of Christ. I am not the supreme authority in my life; I have a Lord to whom I am accountable. If this Christian life of mine is not built on obedience to His authority, it is no better than a house of cards.

2011 has, for me, turned into a year spent inspecting my foundation and rebuilding my spiritual house, of learning what it means to have a Lord -someone whose will is my command, whose words are not empty, who I am accountable to for all I think and do. It has been a time of making His priorities mine, and His kingdom my own. I suppose I could call it The Year of Taking Christ Seriously. May God grant that this New Year, and every year to follow be even more worthy of that title.
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it." Mt. 7:24-27

Monday, November 28, 2011

I forgave you a long time ago...

"I forgave you a long time ago..."

I pray that I never forget those words as long as I live. They were a gift spoken by a friend I had hurt, unintentionally, by my words many months before. It had taken me some time to recognize the offense I had caused, some more time to accept that she had a reason to feel offended, some more time to stop building arguments in my defense, and some more time still before love won out and I worked up the courage to seek forgiveness. I dreaded her rejection. I feared this treasured relationship would be lost forever.

But instead of the rejection I feared, she gave me this gift. She not only forgave me, she loved me, and continued on as though the whole episode was barely worth mention, nothing but a little bump on the road to the continued sweet fellowship and mutual encouragement we had always shared. There are many things I may before have considered to be marks of true godliness, but I none can hold a candle to this:

"I forgave you a long time ago..."

The fear of being unforgiven looms large in my life. It is at the root of all the depression and fear I've ever experienced. I've lived much of my life in the sometimes-paralyzing fear that I will offend, and with the ultimate dread that I won't be forgiven when I do. Experience has given me good reason for this fear. I never set out to be offensive. On the contrary, I try my best to be kind. But no matter how hard I try to do right by my friends, I still manage to sin against them and cause them pain. I've proven myself very good at offending, and though at times I've pleaded with tears, I have had forgiveness withheld and relationships lost.

As a result, over the decades I developed ways of coping with this fear - ungodly ways. One of the first instincts of my mind is to get busy building a case against the one who feels offended, and a case in defense of myself. It is easy to make excuses for myself - I'm naturally inclined to be on my side. It is easy to blame my friend for taking offense when none was intended. It is always easy to divert blame, because we are all sinners. Since that ancient day when mankind fell, there has been as much blame to go around as there has been sin. As a fallen woman I've certainly spread my share of both sin and blame, but I've found that none of my blame-shifting can keep me from shuddering when I am reminded of the words of Christ: 
"...if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Mt. 6:14-15
God's rejection is the deepest of all my fears; His forgiveness is my deepest need. My heart's greatest desire and hope for joy is to be loved and accepted by Him. This gets to the heart of why I finally became a Christian, and now that I am I find in myself this impossible yearning to be like Christ, to be loved by Him and to love like He does. But I also find that this soft and still-growing heart He has given me is at loggerheads with the survival instincts of my old, cold, defensive, hardhearted, and unforgiving self.

As I take this struggle to prayer, His Holy Spirit reminds me of the words of Scripture:
"For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive,
And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You." Ps. 86:5
"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." Eph. 4:32

 "I forgave you a long time ago..."

God forgave me in Christ long, long ago....long before I had ever sinned...long before I even considered repenting...long before I was even born.  God's forgiveness is in Christ ready and waiting for me.
" the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." Col. 3:13b
And just how has the Lord forgiven me?  I sinned against Him in countless ways.  He absorbed my many offenses along with all the hurt and insult of them - the ones I've repented of, and all the rest: the ones I don't even remember, or recognize, or realize I've committed - and carried them to the cross where they died with Him.  He did all this to open the door of reconciliation with God, and there He stands waiting, even calling to me to come to Him...

"I forgave you a long time ago..."

So much like Christ, my friend had forgiveness ready and waiting for me when I came looking for it!  In bold living strokes she painted for me a portrait of God's love, more powerful than sin, tenderly welcoming the sinner who comes sorrowfully to Him. My friend gave me love; she gave me forgiveness; she gave me hope, she gave me the Gospel.

She held open for me the door of reconciliation. No realization has ever has such a profound effect on me.  God wants us to forgive others as He forgives us. Only when we do, can we truly get at the heart of what it means, really means, to be a Christian.
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." 2 Cor. 5:17-21
God is not counting our trespasses against us! He is holding open the door for reconciliation, and He is calling us to do the same. This is the person God is calling me to be. This is God's will for my life. By His grace I want nothing more than for now and evermore to be ready and eager to forgive, to admit when I've offended and be quick to apologize; to build no more cases and no more defenses; to rehearse no more wrongs and to hold no more grudges; to let nothing in my heart stand in the way of forgiveness; to put no stumbling block in the way of God's grace; to allow no root of bitterness to spring up; to forgive in advance those who cannot or will not forgive me; to be ready for relationship if ever they are; and to always share and never lose the freedom, joy, and peace with God that the gift of forgiveness has given me.

May I always be ready to say from the depth of my heart, "I forgave you a long time ago."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Song of Thanksgiving

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
   and his courts with praise!
   Give thanks to him; bless his name!
  For the LORD is good;
   his steadfast love endures forever,
   and his faithfulness to all generations.
Ps. 100:4-5

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Melancholy, my friend

I don't think I will or should ever like it, but I'm learning to be thankful for my depressions. It is for me as C.S. Lewis so famously put it in The Problem of Pain,  "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
When I look back I see many times during my years as a Christian when a deep depression has led to a renewal of faith in my heart. Jesus Christ is the source of whatever peace and joy I am capable of, so when I drift away from Him these begin to slip away, along with my hope for the future.  I slip into despair.  The pain grows louder. Eventually none of my usual distractions can drown it out, and in desperation I remember Christ and cry to Him for rescue.

Through my sorrow He gently guides me back to His word and His promises, and through them (along with much prayer) renews my faith and restores my hope in His goodness and my future with Him. I'm so thankful to Him that He won't let me wander happily away.  I'm learning and praying to be sensitive to the first wispy dark clouds, to recognize that trouble is brewing, and instead of looking for various ways to take the edge off the pain to run quickly to Him for solace.  He is the only help that is genuine, the only help that gets to the heart of the problem, the only comfort that is strong enough, and the only hope that is eternal.

Before I was afflicted I went astray,
   but now I keep your word.
You are good and do good;
    teach me your statutes.

It is good for me that I was afflicted,
   that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
   than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
Psalm 119: 67-68,71-72

I never thought, or really ever wanted, to echo David's words, "It is good for me that I was afflicted."  But today those were the very words I found pouring out of my heart.  I'm thankful that God uses my afflictions for my good and that, in Christ, even melancholy has purpose.  My new hope and prayer is that I will learn once and for all to keep clinging to Him even when I begin to feel better, to remember I'm still in desperate need even when I feel just fine, to never stop looking to Him as my source of life, joy, peace, hope, purpose, and blessing.

"Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
    whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
   that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
   for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
   for it does not cease to bear fruit."
Jeremiah 17:7-8

Monday, November 14, 2011

Translation Tidbits

This Saturday past I posted a little article about translating hymns, so imagine my surprise at lunchtime today when NPR's Talk of the Nation aired an interview with the author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.  A fascinating discussion! I bet you can guess what just got added to my Christmas wish list.  If you're curious, you can listen to the segment or read a transcript here

Also related to my last post, a friend of mine informed me in the comments that Bach had composed a cantata of Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God/Our God He Is a Castle Strong).  I went straight to find a recording of it.  I thought this one was very lovely:

Finally, I thought you might enjoy hearing Ein Feste Burg sung in German.  I certainly did!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Our God He Is a Castle Strong: on translations of hymns, among other things

"Our God He Is a Castle Strong"

Our God he is a castle strong,
A good mail-coat and weapon;
He sets us free from ev'ry wrong
That wickedness would heap on.
The old knavish foe 
He means earnest now;
force and cunning sly
His horrid policy,
On earth there's nothing like him.*

Perhaps you recognized this first stanza from a very famous hymn.  Or perhaps, like me, you didn't.  I happened upon it one evening as I was searching through our copy of Luther's Works: Liturgy and Hymns checking to see if a certain hymn I like happened to have been written by Martin Luther. It did not, but while I had the book open I noticed that it provided commentary on each of the hymns.  Excited, I decided to look up my Lutheran favorite: A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  It was nowhere to be found.  I knew that was impossible, so I kept looking until the light-bulb came on.... A "mighty fortress".... a "castle strong"...

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate, 
on earth is not his equal.

Comparing all the verses carefully, it gradually became clear that I was indeed looking at the same song.  And so I became very curious as to why a modern (1965) collection of Luther's works and hymns would have selected such an obscure and, well, clunky translation.  So I began to investigate. 
The popular translation, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, I learned, was rendered by the Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and teacher of German literature, Frederick Hedge.   As happens, though, all of the hymns in my volume were translated by a near contemporary of Hedge's, George MacDonald (yes that George MacDonald).  Thankfully, the collection's editor, Ulrich S. Leupold, explained his choice:
"Unfortunately little of the original ruggedness of Luther's poetic style survived in the translations of his hymns that have found their way into modern English and American hymnals.  With the mighty resurgence of English hymnody during the nineteenth century, many poets tried their hand at rendering Luther's verse into English.  But most of them took considerable liberties with the originals.  Frequently they changed irregular verse forms into more accepted meters.  Usually they aimed at a more polished and elegant style than was really justified in view of Luther's angularity.  They tried to make him speak in the mellifluent accents of a Victorian churchman, with the result that both the literal sense and the original style often were lost.
"...In this edition faithfulness to the original wording, style, and meter seemed more important than a completely idiomatic English rendition.  Perhaps the most felicitous attempt to translate Luther's hymns without loss of their original ruggedness was made by the Scottish theologian and writer George MacDonald (1824-1905).  MacDonald's translation, used in this edition, has been completely passed by in common use, presumably because he consciously, and often successfully, tried to express Luther's robust lines in an English idiom of similar character.  Obviously he took for a pattern the older English verse.  He sought to preserve the vivid metaphors, metrical irregularity, and folk-song quality of Luther's hymns.  He imitated Luther's preference for monosyllables by using mostly Anglo-Saxon words. Due to the prevalence of feminine rimes in German poetry and their scarcity in English with its lack of suffixes, many hymn translations from the German suffer from a tedious repetition of rimes on "-ation." such as creation, salvation, foundation, and justification.  These words tend to make the English style more academic and pompous than the German.  MacDonald almost completely avoided them." **
Additionally, referring specifically to Our God He Is a Castle Strong, Leupold adds:
 "He did not write it to express his own feelings, but to interpret and apply the 46th Psalm to the church of his own time and its struggles...."
Suddenly I found I'd gained profound respect for that clunky rendition!  Now I read it fondly, and yet, truth be told, I don't think I would like singing it. Which led me to begin puzzling, "What are the characteristics of good translation?"  After much consideration, I'll say, "It depends on what you mean by "good".  

In undertaking the translation of a document, whether it be a hymn, a work of literature, or even the Scriptures, any serious translator begins with a set of principles by which he or she operates, and a set of priorities and goals for what he or she is hoping to accomplish. In short - a philosophy.  Whether this philosophy is carefully delineated, or merely intuited, it is there like a conscience, guiding decisions, providing a sense of direction.  It, along with the skill of the translator, determines the nature of the finished product, not only whether it is "good" or "bad" but how those terms are defined.  It will also dictate what, as is almost inevitable, will get lost in translation. 

A Mighty Fortress is Our God, our case in point, is considered an excellant translation according to one philosophy, and yet is found lacking by another.  One standard values its poetic beauty, rich language, and melodic flow.  Another appreciates these qualities and is yet disappointed that some of Luther's original attitude, style, simplicity, and scriptural parallels were sacrificed on the altar of euphoniousness.  The fact that we find A Mighty Fortress is our God and not Our God He Is a Castle Strong in most of today's hymnals testifies to a certain set of values which prevail in modern hymnody.  This is not, I would argue, a necessarily bad thing. Hymns, after all, are meant to be sung.  It would be a greater loss, in my opinion, to produce an awkward translation - one that is difficult to sing or understand - and see it lost to history or fade into obscurity simply because nobody liked to sing it, than to produce a lovely one but without a bit of its original oomph.

I think MacDonald's translation stands beautifully as poetry, and provides a priceless glimpse into the heart and soul of Luther - that rough-hewn tool forged by God to hammer a message of reform into the doors of the medieval church.  In this sense I and the editor of Luther's Works, Vol. 53, wholeheartedly affirm it is a good translation. I am glad it exists and delighted that I own a copy of it.

A good translation, I think most would agree, captures not only words but feeling.  If the original is  gentle, or harsh, or graceful, or boisterous, that should not be lost.  If  it is clumsy but full of heart, then it would be best to preserve that special charm. If it is intended to be educational factual, specific, and precise, then it is best rendered so. Imagery, allegory, and metaphor should be clung to for dear life. 
So then, translation is both a skill and an art, which is guided by a philosophy which may differ from person to person based upon a number of factors, one of which is the nature of the work being translated.  A hymn, we've seen, may be translated in different ways based upon various priorities, and the same is true for just about any other written work.  It is true for literature, which can be rendered sublime or soporific by translation. Perhaps most significantly, it is true of the Holy Bible.  One might think the belief that the scriptures are the inspired Word of God would simplify matters, but in fact it only complicates them, as the hundreds of translations and versions currently available in English will testify.

The background and goals of the translator are also considerations.  Leupold, for instance, compiled his edition with an eye toward students of the works of Luther whose limited abilities in German and/or Latin would prevent them from reading his work in the languages in which they were written.  Since his focus was on Luther, the man and his message, it makes perfect sense that selected the MacDonald translations.  The editors of the Trinity Hymnal, on the other hand, were looking to edify the church at large.  In order to accomplish this, the hymns they chose had to be not only meaningful, but  embraced.  Similarly a translator cannot help but be influenced by his or her own intellectual or spiritual biases, goals, natural tendencies, areas of expertise or enjoyment, etc.  Whether a translator is a musician, a historian, a poet, a theologian,  or a linguist, his translations will undoubtedly be colored by the strokes of his particular art.

So my word of encouragement for today is to take notice of translations.  Remember that for most foreign works there are more than one. Surround yourself with them when you can. Compare them. Appreciate them as art and critique them as well.  When you find a work difficult, there is hope.  Look for another translation!  Learn about the translators of your favorite editions, and your least favorite ones as well. Discern their motivations, passions, and philosophies.  Occasionally this may illuminate some unexpected motivation.  Certainly it will enrich your understanding and appreciation of their work.

* For the piqued curiosity I've included the full text of MacDonald's translation below:

"Our God He Is a Castle Strong"

Our God he is a castle strong,
A good mail-coat and weapon;
He sets us free from ev'ry wrong
That wickedness would heap on.
The old knavish foe 
He means earnest now;
force and cunning sly
His horrid policy,
On earth there's nothing like him.
Tis all in vain, do what we can,
Our strength is soon dejected.
but He fights for us, the right man,
By God himself elected.
Ask'st thou who is this?
Jesus Christ it is,
Lord of Hosts alone,
And God but him is none,
So he must win the battle.

And did the world with devils swarm,
All gaping to devour us,
We fear not the smallest harm,
Success is yet before us.
This world's prince accurst,
Let him rage his worst,
No hurt brings about;
His doom it is gone out,
One word can overturn him.

The word they shall allow to stand,
Nor any thanks have for it; 
He is with us, at our right hand,
With the gifts of his spirit.
If they take our life,
Wealth, name, child and wife - 
Let everything go:
They have no profit so;
The kingdom ours remaineth.

** Leupold explains at greater length:
"To the modern ear Luther's verses sound awkward, if not uncouth. They lack the rich emotional overtones, the mellow flow of words, and the metric regularity that we commonly associate with poetry.  Some of them sound more like prose than poetry....The hymns of the nineteenth century that form the bulk of today's hymnals were written according to the artistic canons of Romanticism.  They use beautifully polished phrases and dance or march rhythms to create a certain mood and to give an ornate expression to personal religious feelings.  But Luther's hymns were meant not to create a mood, but to convey a message. They were a confession of faith, not of personal feelings.  That is why, in the manner of folk songs, they present their subject vividly and dramatically, but without the benefit of ornate language and other poetic refinements.  They were written not to be read but to be sung by a whole congregation....
"The language and vocabulary are therefore simple and direct.  Like the ancient Hebrew poets he knew so well, Luther used few adjectives and formed brief pungent lines consisting almost exclusively of verbs and nouns. Most of the words are monosyllables.  The thought is condensed and concentrated. Frequently every line forms a sentence of its own....A crowd sings a verse at a time, and so each verse must make sense as a unit.
"Again, our modern hymns are iambic, trochaic, or dactylic, i.e., they observe a regular succession of metrical feet.  The rhythmic structure, i.e., the succession of accented and unaccented syllables, is the same from stanza to stanza and often from verse to verse....But this tramping or tripping of metrical feet was foreign to Luther and was not in fact made a law of poetry until one hundred years later....Luther counted syllables, but the accents vary from line to line....Instead of fitting sentences into the rigid mold of metrical feet, Luther was able to stress certain words irrespective of the tyranny of 'light' and 'heavy' accents....Also in the matter of rime, Luther's hymns are much freer than those of later centuries.  Often there is more of an assonance than a proper rime. On the other hand, there are many alliterations."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

On Singing Hymns

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God."  Col. 3:16

"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart..." Eph. 5:18,19
Have you ever noticed the parallel between these separate passages from two of Paul's letters? Years ago a pastor called it to my attention when I asked what being filled with the Holy Spirit meant, or what it looked or felt like. He showed me the connection between the statements, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly..." and " filled with the Spirit..."  Aha! Paul equates being filled with the Spirit with letting "the word of Christ dwell in you richly". This is helpful!

More recently my current pastor followed the parallels a bit further. In the Ephesians passage Paul begins by explicitly commanding the church to abandon drunkenness and to instead be filled with the Spirit. (His use of the imperative tells me that this "being filled" is something we can determine to do, that being filled with the Spirit is an intensely practical matter and not merely a passive experience.) He goes on immediately to tell us how to do it: through speaking and singing. To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be full of the word of Christ, which comes to us through teaching and admonishment, which come through both the spoken word and music. 

There are a couple of the clear implications here. The first is that the indwelling of the Spirit of God is not merely an individual matter; it is a corporate one. The second is that the music we are to sing with and to one another is to be full of God's Word and wisdom. It's purpose is to teach and admonish us - to fill us with sound doctrine. God intends for music to play a key role in both the education and corporate life of His people. Music, it seems, is essential to the building up of God's church.

This is why the greatest and most timeless hymns are full of teaching. Much like sermons, hymns are often meditations based directly upon a particular passage of Scripture, and sometimes upon the applications of key teachings of Scriptures to our lives. This makes a hymn a unique gift to the church. It is sermon put to music, but in a way it is better than a sermon. How many sermons, after all, do you know by heart?  How many can you fall asleep singing and wake up humming? Songs have a way of burrowing permanently into our souls. What better way to embed the Word of Christ into our hearts?

For this reason, I believe the church should be fighting to maintain and build upon her ancient tradition of hymnody. The hymns that have stood the test of history tend to be those that fill exactly this purpose. They teach us; they admonish us; they fill our hearts and minds with wisdom from God and with thanksgiving to Him. With them we worship Him with our lips. With them we strengthen His body, the church, educating her, warning her, encouraging her. All of this glorifies Him. God is not only glorified by sounds coming from our lips. He is glorified in the strength and beauty of His church as His Spirit indwells her.

These past several decades, the church in America seems to have lost much of her interest in hymnody.  Following the musical tastes and popular music of the day she has focused nearly exclusively on what I would characterize as "spiritual songs". While such music also plays a vital role in the church, it should never do so to the exclusion of psalms and hymns. I have two big hopes: one is that the musicians of this and upcoming generations of the church will embrace the church's greatest historical hymns, perhaps creating new and innovative arrangements for some of them; the other is that new hymns will be written - hymns that will continue to build a foundation of faith, that will fill the church with wisdom and the word of Christ so that she may filled with the Holy Spirit of God.

"Oh sing to the LORD a new song,
   for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
   have worked salvation for him." Ps. 98:1

I'm not a musician, but overwhelmed in contemplating the great doctrine known as the hypostatic union, even I was once moved to attempt words for a hymn.  Perhaps one of you, one more talented than I, will consider doing the same.

So let me leave you with a beautiful modern rendition of one of my favorite hymns.  It is over two hundred years old and rich with scriptural truth - a meditation on the faithfulness of God to uphold His people through the most difficult times.  It is everything a Christian hymn should be, full of reminders of the character of God and the strength He is and gives to all who hope in Him. 

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On Singing Hymns, among other things

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Col. 3:16
My recent discussion of the singing of Psalms in church prompted an unexpected and lively internet discussion with some friends from all over the globe as to the distinctions between the three types of singing mentioned in Paul's words to the Colossian and Ephesian churches. The initial concern seemed to be that I was implying that only the Psalms should be sung in churches, a notion which had honestly never occurred to me.  I began this little mini-series with the intention of addressing the categories as I understood them, and as I believe they are most commonly understood. It hadn't really occurred to me that my view of them was so insular.  How typically American of me.  Having been made aware of just how much room there is for misunderstanding, I decided to examine the matter a little further before I commenced my gushing over the value of hymnody.

My sampling of sources mainly agreed that "psalms" here refers to the Old Testament Psalms. There are a few, however, who believe that these three "are all different descriptions of the Psalms, and that the Word of God in these passages requires the singing of Psalms and only the Psalms in worship.  These passages, then, teach what is sometimes called “exclusive Psalmody” — Psalms only in worship."

According to Vine's Dictionary, "Hymn" refers to "A song of praise addressed to God" and 'spiritual songs' refers to "songs of which the burden is the things revealed by the Spirit" .

John MacArthur states in his Study Bible notes*  that 'psalms' refers to "Old Testament psalms put to music, primarily, but the term was used also of vocal music in general....hymns. Perhaps songs of praise distinguished from the Psalms which exalted God, in that they focused on the Lord Jesus Christ. spiritual songs. Probably songs of personal testimony expressing truths of the grace of salvation in Christ."

The venerable Matthew Henry, in his Commentary on Eph. 5:19, doesn't bother with distinctions at all but focuses instead on the proper place of music among believers: "Drunkards are wont to sing obscene and profane songs.  The joy of Christians should express itself in songs of praise to their God. In these they should speak to themselves in their assemblies.  Though Christianity is an enemy to profane mirth, yet it encourages joy and gladness.  God's people have reason to rejoice, and to sing for joy."

My own pastor emphasizes that the Psalms were the musical heritage of the Jews. "Hymns", on the other hand, was the word the pagan Gentiles preferred for the music of their worship (and is presumably how the Greek for this word would have been understood by the church at Colossae). The sub-point being that the corporate worship of the church was to include the musical traditions of both Jew and Gentile believer. (The "hymns" of course would no longer be directed to pagan deities but to God, similarly to how Luther and others are said to have put their own Christian lyrics to the popular tunes of their times.) This inclusiveness of styles, would aid in including and unifying the two diverse groups of believers into one, and in building up all, since all had something unique to offer the body.

So, I learned, there is a certain amount of disagreement as to how the three categories should be defined, and a certain amount of overlap.  It seems clear that our common distinctions between hymns and spiritual songs don't exactly correlate with the Biblical distinctions. Many of what we call hymns, for example, since not addressing God directly, might fall under the category of spiritual song. Be that as it may, each kind is useful, and each kind encouraged for use in the church. What seems most clear to me, however, is that Paul's intent in writing to the Colossians was not to categorize, or to limit the type of songs being sung in the church setting so much as to encourage believers to sing with thankful hearts, to God and to each other, and to use all the kinds of God-glorifying music available to them or that comes to them, music so rich with biblical meaning that it will serve as a means of conveying Christ's word to those who sing and those who hear.

And on that note I feel comfortable in returning, for the sake of the rest of my little series, to the somewhat loose and overlapping but commonly understood distinctions with which I began: Psalms = the Old Testament Psalms, hymns = songs commonly found in hymnbooks, and spiritual songs = all the rest, including gospel music, contemporary Christian music, worship choruses, etc.

image via

* from commentary on Ephesians 5:19, a parallel passage to Col. 3:16

Saturday, October 22, 2011

On Singing Psalms

Did you know the Psalms are actually songs? Of course you did. Anyone who's spent any time at all in Sunday School knows that. But have you ever really stopped to think about what that means?  I've had that piece of information stored in my cranium for decades, but never really gave it much thought. I still tend to think of the Psalms as the poems that I was assigned to memorize when I was a kid, or as the words they taught us to chant in the Lutheran church of my childhood. Though they are lovely, when I read them I almost never think of them as music, and, since I'm not a very musical person, I've honestly never really thought it mattered one way or the other.

That changed this past Sunday. Our pastor began his sermon, the latest in a series on the church,  with a discussion of Psalm 118. He explained that it was originally written as a festival song, most likely for the Festival of Booths, and that it was sung responsively. The crowd gathered at the Temple to worship. The song-leader sang his part, and, from memory, the people sang their response. One of the points he was leading up to was that when verses from this and other Psalms are referred to in the New Testament, the Jewish audience would have immediately recognized the allusion and make the connection to the Psalm it was quoted from along with its context. 

So, for instance, when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey and the crowd burst into cheers, it was one of the response portions of Psalm 118 from which they drew their words of praise:

"Save us, we pray, O LORD!
O LORD, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
We bless you from the house of the LORD."
Ps. 118: 25-26

And again, when Jesus and the Apostles Peter and Paul made reference to "the cornerstone", they were alluding to another responsive portion of Psalm 118:

"The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the LORD's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes."
Ps. 118:22-23

The pastor's point was that the use of the word "cornerstone" or statements such as "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" were a kind of shorthand that any Jews in the audience would immediately recognize. When they heard these words their thoughts went directly to the psalm they were drawn from. In other words, these were songs and the people knew the lyrics.

Unlike us, these folks didn't have radios playing everywhere in the background. They had the Psalms. This was their music. The Psalms were the soundtrack of their lives and their history, the songs of their faith, the songs of their nation, the reminders of their greatest triumphs and their deepest sorrows. The Psalms were the vehicle that carried the promises of God and the record of His faithfulness from one generation to the next. It is likely that Psalm 118 was to them something like what "God Bless America" is to us - an anthem of God and country and hope. They knew the words; they knew the music; and their hearts swelled with emotion with every word. When someone began a line, they could finish it. When it was quoted, they knew exactly what was being alluding to and what was being implied. 

What a rich treasury the Psalms were to Israel! How blessed they were to have words inspired by God committed to memory in such a way, to have such a common musical and scriptural heritage to draw from. How precious it must have been to hear a word from the lips of Christ or his apostles and know immediately the ancient words of prophecy to which it referred. What a tragedy it is that I do not know these songs, that they aren't imbedded in my heart, filling my mind, and ready to spring from my lips! What a waste it is that the modern church has not taken hold of such a glorious tradition. A few people in recent years have set a few of the psalms to music again in lovely and memorable ways, but only so very few. How sad it is that our English translations lend themselves so poorly to song, and that we American Christians are so little committed to finding ways to sing them. I hope and pray this will change.
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Col. 3:16

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Idea of You

or the Idea of You
by Laurie Mathers
Just a minute,
I'm reading about You

Wait a second,
I'm talking about You

Hold on,
I'm writing about You

Be right there,
I'm debating about You

Maybe tomorrow
I'll have time for you

You're so important to me.
Oh how I love You!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Confession for Today

A Confession for Today
by Laurie Mathers

Today I want to confess
I'm terrified,
Not of anything specific.  Mainly it's just general,
But really it's not so general.  Mainly it's just people.

Today I want to confess
I'm terrified of people.
Not any people in particular.  Just people in general.
But really it's not so general.  Mainly it's just me.

Today I want to confess
I'm terrified of Me.
Not for anything specific.  Just me in general.
But really it's not so general.  Mainly it's my judgments.

Today I want to confess
I'm terrified of my judgments.
Not any specific judgments.  Just my judgments in general.
But really it's not so general.  Mainly it's the judgments I make of others.

Today I want to confess
I'm terrified of the judgments I've made of others.
Not any specific judgments of others. Just my judgments of others in general.
But really it's not so general. Mainly it's that I  judge others when I am guilty too.

Today I want to confess
I'm terrified of being guilty.
Not any specific guilt. Just guilty in general.
But really it's not so general. Mainly it's my guilt in judging you.

Today I want to confess
I'm terrified as I write this.
Not any specific terror. Just terror in general.
But really it's not so general. Mainly it's my terror that you'll judge me as I have you.

Today I want to confess
I've sinned against you.

Today I beg your forgiveness.

"Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven" Luke 6:37

Thursday, September 1, 2011

You Want Us to Be Like North Korea?

I enjoy social media. Facebook has helped me connect, re-connect, and stay in touch with people, old friends and new, from all over the world.  It has been a boon for me in many, many ways.

Social media also has its downsides. It can be a time and creativity waster. Some say it contributes to the disintegration of "real" relationships: more Facebook equals less "face time". I've seen it work both ways. I've seen it build relationships, and I've seen it tear them apart. But, then, these things have been happening throughout the ages. Facebook is just another medium for human hearts.  Whatever lurks there also lurks in Facebook, for better or for worse.

For better, there are friendships - kind, respectful words of support, encouragement, love and hope. For worse, there is election season.

Though I am interested in politics, I avoid political discussions, both in person and on social media. I have my reasons, most of them obvious. So now I feel the need to warn you that I am about to tread right up to the edge of a political cliff. I ask you to stay with me. I assure you I have no intention of stepping over the edge.

As another election season approaches, the number of political "memes" going viral is ramping up. I see them coming from my friends on the Left and the Right. I mostly ignore them, but there is one making the rounds that has managed to get under my skin:
 "Interesting... If you cross the North Korean border illegally, you get 12 yrs. hard labor. If you cross the Afghanistan border illegally, you get shot. Two Americans just got eight years for crossing the Iranian border. If you cross the U. S. border illegally you get a job, a drivers license, food stamps, a place to live, health care, housing; child benefits, education, a tax free business for 7 yrs...No wonder we are a country in debt."
First, I'm not going to defend or dispute the validity of the claims being made here. I can only hope that anyone who reads it would research each of its assertions before even considering re-posting it. Second, I understand the intended point is that illegal immigration to America is the reason for our national debt. I will not state whether I agree or disagree with that notion in whole or in part. What I will say is that plenty of people I am acquainted with, have given their "Like" to what this paragraph says.

What concerns me about this meme isn't so much that people think our immigration system is broken or that it represents a financial burden. Few Americans, Left or Right would disagree. What troubles me, first, is the lack of careful thinking that leads people to resort to and/or fall for the dreadful logic and argumentation used to make this point and second, that professing Christians are going along with it.

This is America, a representative democracy founded upon a belief in basic human equality, rights, and freedoms. Everyone, so far as I can tell, who is re-posting this meme loves this country, and yet is inexplicably willing to set up North Korea (a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship),  Afghanistan (a war-torn Islamic republic), and Iran (a theocratic Islamic republic), as positive examples of how we should be dealing with illegal immigrants. Who on earth aspires to be like these countries with their authoritarian regimes, their draconian policies, and their notorious abuses of human rights? These are places whose own citizens flee to America from, if they can manage to get away. These are not places people seek to emigrate to.

Further, the logic of the argument only works if the economies of these nations are something for America to aspire to. Since they don't have immigration problems, they must really be thriving, right? But these are not countries known for their prosperity. On the contrary. So, if there is a direct relationship between a nation's treatment of illegal immigrants and its financial well-being, which is what this meme is attempting to claim, then if we are hoping to be prosperous, we should do the exact opposite of what North Korea*, Afghanistan, and Iran are doing. Which is exactly what we are doing.

So, I'm left wondering, what exactly it is that those who post this meme find admirable about these countries?  Since I know it can't be their dynamic economies, I'm left with only one thing: their harsh treatment of their fellowman. As a Christian, and as a citizen of a nation founded by immigrants and rooted in the belief in human equality, I find this distressing. Whatever my views on immigration policy, this is hardly the attitude I wish to have or convey to others.

I choose to believe that the people I know who've re-posted this meme do not really want to see immigrating families, illegal or not, gunned down, brutalized, or imprisoned. I prefer to think they are feeling stressed, frustrated, wishing for simple answers to a complex problem, and have just not thought through the ramifications and veiled violence of this particular argument.

If you are hoping to fix immigration in America, this kind argument does nothing but harm both your cause and your credibility. Slow down when you find your emotions being manipulated into knee-jerk reactions by flawed rhetoric.Try to identify which of your gut desires are being pandered to. Examine the things you read and re-post carefully and critically; check your facts; see to it that your arguments make sense and that they are saying what you really think they are saying. In doing so, you may find that you have to re-think a thing or two. I know I have.

*While we are on the subject of the economy of North Korea, I would like to provide a couple of really informative links.  The first is an episode of the Planet Money podcast that was so fascinating that I  listened to it twice, called "North Korea's Illegal Economy".  The second is a blog called North Korean Economy Watch.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Drawing Lines

I came home from work the other day to a strange happening. The TV was on.

My daughter, home for the summer from her teaching job in the Republic of Georgia, was watching it.  Adding to the strangeness of the TV being on in the middle of the afternoon, was the fact that it was tuned not to PBS, or a movie on DVD, but to a network television program.  It took a minute of me standing dumbly for this to sink in. And then there was this: Tyra Banks who, as I recall, used to be a Victoria's Secret model, now has a talk show - like Oprah, except not.  It has that sort of  "Listen up girlfriend" tone, but without the mellowing that age and experience can bring.  It only took about 20 minutes of second-hand exposure to get the strong impression that original talk show topics have become as rare as original Cosmo and Parents' Magazine topics.

Anyway, Tyra looks as  gorgeous as ever and keeps a good chat going.

That day's topic was something like: "Extreme Fake-Beauty Practices (not including plastic surgery)".  What I gleaned from it as I went about the house tidying up and only half-watching was that lots of people do lots of things related to their looks that their friends and/or family members think go too far.  One guest appeared on stage to report that her sister had too many "weaves" and wigs - over 50 - and that she's let bills go unpaid at times so that she could spend the money on more hair.  She'd even lost a job as some kind of driver because she spent all her time fussing with her hair in the mirror instead of looking at the road.

Another gal had a sister (or friend; I don't remember) who had fake nails that were really long.  But what really got her goat was that this sister/friend also had fake toenails, also super long, which she thought looked "ghetto". They curved over the tips of her sandals.

Then there was a gal who stuffed her bra like crazy, and another whose mother wanted to confront her teenage daughter, on national television mind you, about how she wore too much make up.

If you've gotten this far, you're probably beginning to wonder what on earth I'm getting to.  I know I am.  I could go on about how TV has a lot of vapid programming, but I'm pretty sure no one reading this needs me to point that out.  And, yes, I thought the topic for the show was a reach, but that wasn't really what bit me. Nor was it the creepy-long toenails, or the obsessive hair collector, or the dark, voyeuristic feel I got from the whole thing.  What got to me was that the sister of the wig-lady showed up wearing a weave with fake bangs, and the mother of the make-up girl looked preternaturally young, and was heavily groomed and made up herself.

And there was Tyra. When Hair Collector made her appearance and reported on her wigs and all the extremes they have led her to in life, Tyra says words to the effect of, " I don't even have that many!"  When Make-Up Daughter, who, by the way, is a very talented make-up artist, admits that it takes an hour and a half to two hours to do her make-up for the day, Tyra announces, "I don't even take that long to get ready for a runway show!"  When, after her intervention (and apparently an off-camera bust-line makeover), Bra-Stuff gal is brought out wearing a normal, un-stuffed bra, Tyra goes on to point out how nicely the new flattering uplifting bra,  v-neck shirt, and MAKE-UP enhancing the illusion of cleavage, looks even better than a stuffed bra.  The implication being: my breast enhancement method is superior to and less silly than yours.

If it were satire it couldn't have been written better.  The unintended ironies were glaring and the absurdities apparently unnoticed.

But, I'm not here to mock Tyra. I have no right, because I do the same thing.  I don't do it on television, or even out loud - usually.  But I do it in my head.  Tyra's program merely led me to reflect on how decidedly blind I and my fellow humans can be to our own inconsistencies, and to the movable feast we make of our morality.  The only difference between Tyra and the people being confronted for their extreme behaviors was a matter of degree.  Tyra's line for others is drawn somewhere very near where Tyra draws it for herself.  Behavior which crosses that line is  behavior gone too far.  The guests had their lines. The audience had theirs.  I have mine. And the voice of my conscience whispers:
"Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things." (Rom. 2:1)
A pastor friend recently related a story about a Christian university that requires incoming students to swear in writing in no less than four places that they will not consume any alcoholic beverage in any form for the duration of their enrollment. This same document made no mention in any place about the use of tobacco.  (At this point it would help to mention that this educational institution is located south of the Mason-Dixon Line - tobacco country.)  Nor was there any mention of gluttony, which in Scripture tends to be paired with the sin of drunkenness. This school's policy, my friend remarked, is less a representation of Biblical values than it is a "cultural relic".  It reflects the mores of a certain place and time - the moral line drawn in the sand by a particular society.  The Scripture, on the one hand, does not forbid the use of alcohol for Christians. It draws the line at drunkenness, and gluttony. This school judges those who consume any alcoholic beverages at all as unfit for admittance, drawing a line where there should have been none.  On the other hand it permits gluttony, erasing a line.

Here in the State of California (wine and granola country) it is far less acceptable to use tobacco than it is to drink beer or wine, and gluttony (as evidenced by obesity) is heavily frowned upon.  That societal standard is echoed to some extent in the church. I know from experience that Christian colleges here are as likely to forbid smoking as drinking and that smokers and over-weight people are likely to be frowned upon in a way that a person who admits to moderate drinking is not. 

And so, this line-drawing is something organizations and societies do as well as individuals. In my experience it is as common among Christians as it is among those of other faiths, and the irreligious.  I think it would be fair to say that it is human nature.  I see it as an action of that thing we call conscience, that internal judge which compares our, words, and deeds, and even our thoughts, with the law written on our hearts, and which seeks either to excuse or condemn us.  Our hearts tell us some things are right and some wrong.  When we are at our best we draw our lines as our conscience dictates and respect those lines.  When society operates well, it draws its lines reasonably and people honor them.  But sometimes we find that something so desirable stands on the other side of that line that we feel we must cross it. And when we do we must deal with that voice of conscience. We will shout down, or sweet-talk, or whatever it takes to get it's permission. We reason with it, explaining why it really isn't so bad. We negotiate with it, promising it'll be just this once. We tell ourselves we deserve that thing, remembering how hard we've  worked and how good we've been. We look at what others are doing, explaining that it's normal and safe, or else point out how much worse others are, how far they've gone compared to what we're contemplating. Then we draw our new line.  We feel better. We still have a line; it's a new one; it's out a bit farther than the old one, but not as far out as it could be. And this is where having others to compare ourselves to comes in so handy.  As long as there are others "worse" than us, we can still feel okay about ourselves. Judging others serves us. It bumps us up a notch in our own esteem. We are okay. We're not like them. They've gone way past the line.  Maybe we can even reach out and help them and feel even better about ourselves (maybe even on national television).

I believe that this drawing and re-drawing of lines to suit our own preferred moralities at any given place and time is what Christ is referring to when He says, "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." (Mt. 7:1-2) and when Paul says, " have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things." (Rom.2:1) Every time we draw a line, for whoever, and for whatever reason (pride, fear, superiority, control, guilt), in the shifting sands of our hearts we become subject  to it.  And each time circumstances - good or bad - or temptations lead us to step over a line we've drawn our conscience is damaged. We can try to erase the old line and forget, but one new line drawn leads to another until the scars of them toughen leaving our hearts hard and bitter, our minds too dull to notice, and our recollection foggy as to how we got this way. And we become the joke Jesus told about a man with a log stuck in his eye offering to pull a speck out of his friend's eye,

So what are we to do?  How can we prevent the amorphous hypocrisy of the moveable feast if we don't draw some lines, and how are we to know we've drawn the right lines in the right places?   Anarchy, whether in a society or in an individual heart, is a great horror.  We all know, deep down, that without some boundaries we'll run amock. So we instinctively put up our barriers, some trivial and some with the power of life an death. We draw our lines here and there, to keep our world, even in the tiniest ways from sinking further into the intolerable, into ever-longer toenails, into more and more make-up, into more and more alcohol consumption, into a tackier, uglier, meaner, more vulgar, violent, and uncertain world. We reach into our own hearts and look around us for help, for indicators as to where to draw the lines. There are a world of messages, all mixed.  In one place we are told to "follow your heart", and in another that if you follow your heart you'll land yourself in a hospital or in jail, and in another that you'll answer to God's judgment.

Which brings me around to the Bible. As a Christian, I've been told all my life that the Bible is the place to go to learn from God how and where to draw your lines, and that if everyone would just learn God's laws and obey them we would have peace and blessing.  In fact, it feels like lately I've been hearing more of this kind of talk than ever.  "If only we could get America to enact and enforce God's laws He would bless us and we could get out of the mess we're in."  (By "God's Law" folks usually have in mind some modified use of the Mosaic Law.) As a Christian, letting God draw the lines sounds at first like a good idea, but when I think it through I run into a huge problem. God's law is far more exacting and detailed than the law written on the average heart.  Even the Apostle Paul admits that he would never have known coveting was a sin if the Mosaic Law had not told him.  And then there are the Jews to consider.  They were a nation which had God's Law, and consider what the Apostle Paul has to say about that:
"...Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.  Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. Their is no fear of God before their eyes.'
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that ever mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3: 9-20 emphasis mine) 
If no single human being can be found just in the eyes of God through the keeping of the law, then no nation can either.  God's law was not given to keep people from facing God's judgment.  On the contrary, the law, whether it be the Mosaic Law or the one written in our hearts serves to reveal our sin, and to hold us all accountable.

Sin is the great equalizer. We are each wretched in our own way.  This is why there is no true hope or comfort to be found in judging others or measuring ourselves against them. But this need not be the bleak and hopeless observation it sounds like. Rather, it is the first baby-step toward true freedom and hope. We don't need to look to each other any more, either to judge or to compare. We don't need to labor any more to observe God's law in hopes of saving ourselves. Once we've reached this understanding, God's law has done it's work: it has pointed us to Christ.
"But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it - the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith." Rom. 3:21-25
We are all in the same boat. We are all sinners. None of us live our lives purely to the glory of God, in whose image we are created.  Few of us really even try. I am not better because I don't have wigs, or don't stuff my bra, or don't grow long toenails. I'm really not. Those people whose behavior I find extreme are not worse sinners than I am (especially not when I'm sitting in judgment over them).  I suspect that if Christ walked onto the set of Tyra's show, toenails would be the least of His concerns, and everyone else's. Christ doesn't look at outward appearances. Faced with the God who can look straight into our hearts and see all the lines we've crossed there, toenails fade in significance. Gazing into the face of  Christ I, too, can look past toenails, make-up, bras, plastic surgeries, crass behaviors, alternative life-styles, and more to see hearts just like mine, hearts that don't need new lines drawn but do need a Savior just like mine.

"Blessed are those whose lawless
deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom
the Lord will not count his sin." 
(Rom. 4:7-8)

Thank God Christ came to save sinners, because we are all sinners!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Born this Way - a little monster

Lady Gaga is an extreme talent, a driving personality, a dynamo of culture, and a force of nature.  She is not only a singer but a performance artist, a theatrical diva. Those who dismiss her as a knock-off of Madonna not only over-rate Madonna but miss the point. While Madonna, at Gaga's age, was the "Material Girl", Gaga, at 25 is out to change the world.  Paul and I are both fascinated by her.

Photo courtesy Softpedia
Her latest hit, Born This Way appears both designed and destined to be an anthem for the disenfranchised, the discarded, the downtrodden of our society.  Beginning with words from a mother to her trepid little girl, it aches with passionate love and compassion.  It fights to strengthen the heart of the child and fill it full with her own hope for her future. Gaga, almost nun-like in her devotion to career and mission, having no marriage, and no children of her own, reaches out with an aching maternal heart to embrace a world of marginalized souls. These people, who've sensed from their earliest years for whatever reason - be it race, appearance, sexual feelings, disability, or personality quirks - that they are odd ducks and misfits, are her children, her "little monsters" as she calls them, and she means to give them all the love, hope, acceptance, and encouragement they so desperately need. She is their fierce and devoted mother, and this is her song to them.

My mama told me when I was young
We are all born superstars
She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on
In the glass of her boudoir

"There's nothin' wrong with lovin' who you are"
She said, "'Cause He made you perfect, babe"
"So hold your head up, girl and you you'll go far,
Listen to me when I say"

I'm beautiful in my way
'Cause God makes no mistakes
I'm on the right track baby
I was born this way

Don't hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you're set
I'm on the right track baby
I was born this way

Ooo there ain't no other way
Baby I was born this way...

To misfits like Paul and I, this song strums a deep chord. We understand what she is trying to do, and we feel the love behind it. She doesn't want anyone to know the pain of the outcast. Neither do we. Neither do I.

I've been a homely and misfit little girl. I am a mother. And so the pain of both resonates with me. Through those rents in my heart I can touch, even if only slightly, the pain of all the outcasts of this world, and of those who truly love them. I feel immediate comfort and relief in being acknowledged and valued by the Lady. I welcome her words with a hungry far as I can believe them.

I believe, as my Bible tells me, that every human life is created in the image of God. Experience, too, leads me to agree that every human life comes with its own singular beauty, its imprints of the divine. In my own case, those imprints can be seen in my creativity, intelligence, love of truth, capacity for compassion, and, possibly most notably in my conscience, which informs me, whether I want it to or not, of when I'm doing wrong - when I am cruel, unkind, or unloving, when I've cheapened the image of God in  another, or in myself. (See Romans 2:14-16.)

It is true that God makes no mistakes. I believe that with all my heart. I was created in the likeness of God, but I am not God. I do make mistakes, and some of the terrible things I've done were no mistakes at all. And I know I'm not alone in this.  Life, in the many cruelties I've witnessed, been subjected to, and committed myself, has convinced me of the truth of these words, "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

By all accounts, I was angry from my earliest days.  My mother blames the hospital, which would not feed me when I was hungry, but only on their schedule, even if I had thrown up every meal, which is reportedly what I did. Whether that is the cause or not I cannot say for sure.  All I know is that my earliest childhood memories are shrouded in rage. Every ounce of love I felt was cancelled out by an ounce of anger or hatred. One of my earliest memories is of finding a kitten and trying to pick it up, to hold and pet it. It hissed and squirmed and scratched. Enraged, I tried to strangle it. I'd nearly killed it before I suddenly realized what I was doing. Horrified, I stopped. From that day forward I knew something. I was a little monster.  I could kill.  I was terrified. I buried my secret deep and did my best to build walls around it. I could never let it out, never embrace it, never dare feed or nurture it.

I was born this way....or you might argue that I wasn't:  it wasn't nature; it was nurture. But, I ask, what is the difference if the end result is the same?  I cannot undo it or change it, and I certainly cannot celebrate it.

In the official music video for Born this Way, a stunning work of art that is too dark in its themes and too disturbing and graphic in its violent birth imagery for me to feature here.  Lady Gaga begins by telling a tale, a myth really, a sort of theodicy.  She tells of the Mother Monster giving birth in a "government-owned alien territory in space". It's an infinite birth, to a "race within the race of humanity". This race "bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom." But on the same day as this wonderful birth came another, terrible birth: the birth of evil. The force of these two births split the mother in two and "rotating in agony between two ultimate forces the Pendulum of Choice began its dance. It seems easy, you imagine, to gravitate instantly and unwaveringly towards good. But she wondered, 'How can I protect something so perfect without evil?"  In this creation account, evil is necessary as a defender of good.

Perhaps, were Gaga's myth true, she would have to argue that the misfit that is Me is not a part of this special race of humanity.  Because in my life, the evil monster has never had the slightest interest in protecting the likeness of God in me. In fact, it has done all in its power to destroy or deface it.  The monster in me is a narcissist and lives to make excuses for itself. It does not respect my conscience; it tells me to ignore it. It tells me to make excuses for my behaviors, that I don't need to change. It encourages me to shift the blame for my actions to others. It tells me all my desires are good, and leads me to view my fellow humans as means to my own pleasures and gain, or to resent them as obstacles to my happiness, or to just ignore them as irrelevant to my needs. This is the character of my monster. This is the character I was born with. The only time it protects or celebrates what is good and noble, is when it is to its advantage, so it can puff up with pride and self-righteous superiority.

In reality, it is only the good in me, the law of God written on my heart, which gave me my earliest glimpses of myself as I really am. It is the good in me which all of my life has led me in my feeble efforts to silence my monster.  But the truth is, my monster does not wish to be silenced, so in the many years of my life it has altered its form. It's mellowed with age. It's grown wiser. It's found ways of self-expression which are more societally acceptable. My monster hears the words of  Born this Way and whispers, "Yes, let me out! Celebrate me! I'm nicer now. I'm wiser. I won't hurt you or anybody else anymore. I've reformed."  Self-deception is what enabled me to look myself in the mirror each morning for forty dark years. My monster is a liar.

I agree with Lady Gaga that God makes no mistakes, and that He made me. But I will never blame Him for the evil in me, or try to re-label my evil as good. Changing the words will not change my heart. And a new heart is what I really need.  I cannot accept any message of hope that does not first acknowledge that there is something really wrong with me. You cannot tell the little girl strangling a kitten that there is nothing wrong with her. She KNOWS something is wrong, and she is terrified.  Accepting the condition will not change it.  Self-acceptance and morality-shifting may at times provide temporary relief, but they will ultimately fail to provide lasting peace or happiness.

Embracing the monster does not make it any less a monster. Neither does trying to make it behave. I know this from a lifetime of trying.  My mother tried to subdue it. Society tried to subdue it. Religious legalism tried to subdue it.  I tried to subdue it.  All these efforts met with some success.  I've never been as bad as I could have been. But the monster lived on, getting away with whatever it thought would not rain too much trouble down on its head. I didn't need the monster tamed, I needed it dead.

One of the things I've learned from contemplating Born this Way, is that Lady Gaga's aspirations are little different than those of the religious fundamentalism she appears to be reacting against.  Both seek theonomy: "the state of an individual or society that regards its own nature and norms as being in accord with the divine nature."  Both believe peace belongs to the person or society that achieves it.  Both think morality is the key to being in accord with the divine nature.  Lady Gaga believes that morality is defined by the individual, who is already perfect by virtue of creation. And so the key to peace and happiness is found in accepting oneself and one's morality, and everyone else's as well, because that is the divine nature. The religious fundamentalist believes that the key to individual and societal peace is obedience to a single standard of morality (which standard, ironically, will differ depending upon the particular religion and interpretation of it).  Unfortunately, both are wrong. The monster is too deadly to embrace, and cannot be tamed. Morality is not the key to personal or societal peace. This is why Lady Gaga's kind and well intentioned words provide only limited comfort. (It's hard to resist someone who defends you so fiercely and accepts you so unconditionally as Gaga does, and therein lies the root of the devotion of her fans.) My condition is dire and has been from Day One. I'm not the person God made me to be. I've always known it. The law of God written on my heart testifies to it.  I've done so much wrong in my life. Yes, there were often extenuating circumstances, and I was not the only guilty party.  Ultimately, though, I have no one to blame but myself for my own decisions, my own actions, and my own attitudes.  There is no hope for me in any message that does not acknowledge that plain truth, or in any message that tells me everything will be better if I will only resolve to do right from now on. And this is at the heart of why I am a Christian.

In Christ, justice and mercy kiss each other because Christ is both "just and the justifier of the one who has faith" in Him. (See Rom. 3:26) The perfect God, whose standards of perfect love I've violated my whole life, loves me. (He loves you, too.) Christ, who knows my sins better than I do, and knows that I can not and will not change of my own accord, died the death that was meant for me and took the monster, and my guilt to the grave with Him. He rose from death by the power of God, and now by the same power gives new life to me and to everyone who puts their confidence in Him.  He came to save sinners and I am so glad - because I am a sinner!

The video below is Lady Gaga's live performance of Born this Way at the Grammys.  I would give it an R rating. Viewer discretion is advised.