Monday Morning Insight: 230 Years of Religious Freedom

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

On this date in 1786, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” into law. Thomas Jefferson had drafted the statute in 1777, and it was first introduced in the assembly in 1779. Jefferson considered the statute so important that he asked for it to be included as one of three accomplishments listed on his tombstone, along with the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia.

I love the way it begins:

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free

Indeed, and God wants us to use our minds well! There’s a reason the prophet Isaiah says, “Come, let us reason together.”

Religious Freedom
Detail on a monument to Thomas Jefferson in Louisville, Kentucky. (Image: “Religious Freedom,” by Don Sniegowski, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

The statute declares that punishments or burdens enacted to try to influence people’s thinking

tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do

“Hypocrisy and meanness.” Lord knows that often we cannot help but be hypocritical, but I pray God will forgive us if we persist in it and if our religious practice is either unkind or shabby.

As someone who believes that science and faith agree more than they disagree, I find this clause amusing:

… our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry

And given the unfortunate antagonism we face from time to time, no matter which side of whatever divide we find ourselves upon, this part is encouraging:

And finally, … Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, … she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict

Unless we disarm Truth by restricting “her natural weapons, free argument and debate.” Let’s try not to do that, shall we?

And, finally, the act declared that

… all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and … the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

Religious freedom: It’s a marvelous thing. I hope you have opportunity to practice yours this week.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Monday Morning Insight: New Year, New Things

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

It’s the first Monday of 2017 — and for many folks it’s still a holiday, so that’s not a bad way to start the year!

The first quote I’ll present in this series this year is a promise from the 21st chapter of the Revelation of Saint John:

He that sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Sunrise!

(“Sunrise!” by Larry, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

 

Other translations render the verb tense a bit differently, but I like this one because it’s a statement of intention and purpose: not “I would like to” or “I am in the process of” but “this is what I do,” specifically, “I make all things new.” And not some things, not most things, but all things.

If we believe the one saying that is the one through whom all things were made in the first place — as the Gospel of John presents in its first chapter — then it is no great stretch to believe that he can remake the old into the new and even that he intends to do so. We might even go so far as to think that he delights in doing so.

And that’s a nice thought with which to start this New Year.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

What is the Secret to Being Content?

I was thinking last week, as we celebrated Thanksgiving, that contentedness seems in short supply these days.

I admit, it’s hard to be content when the marketing geniuses on Madison Avenue produce alluring advertisements that promise us immediate happiness, robust health and so forth if we only buy their products. And it’s hard to be content when for decades the Rolling Stones have powerfully expressed a feeling so easy to parrot: “I can’t get no … satisfaction.” But even the poorest among us here in the US, compared to many (if not most) people in many other countries, actually have quite a lot for which we can be thankful and with which we might … just might … be content.

One approach to contentment was suggested by St. Paul to the church in Philippi:

Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

And in Richard III Shakespeare poetically expressed how discontentment can be alleviated by the arrival and ascendance to prominence of a cherished friend or loved one: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.” It’s not that the winter of Richard’s discontent is now occurring, but that it’s now been turned to glorious summer — though Richard clearly does not know the secret to true contentedness, as his discontent returns and his ambition asserts itself.

“Be Content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” LAO TZU .. (Explore )

(Image: “Be content with what you have…,” by Nick Kenrick, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

I saw a “meme” on Facebook a few weeks ago that said, “… be content with what you’ve done and be proud of who you are.” It’s available with a variety of background images, and sometimes attributed to mainstream writer Steve Almond, but that idea seems backward to me.

To me, it’s better to be content with who we are and proud of what we’ve done.

The other formulation puffs us up, gives us inflated egos or overlarge senses of self-importance even if we have done very little. It seems healthier to approach life with as clear an image of ourselves and our capabilities as we can develop, and to put in the effort to produce things we can be proud of, whether things we do for hire or sale, or things we undertake out of love or enjoyment — not perfect things, not necessarily “great” things or “better” things than what others have done, but things we can look upon with satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

But beyond that, and part of why I’ve been thinking about all this for the past few days, it seems best to be thankful for who we are and what we can do — to look back at what we’ve done and be proud of it, yes, but to continue to live with gratitude in the present and look forward with anticipation to the future.

I don’t know if that’s the secret to being content, but I’m giving it a try.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Thankful for All the Nouns

Good Thanksgiving morning to you and yours!

Every day I try to find things to be thankful for, but I’m glad our nation sets aside a special day for expressing thankfulness. In the spirit of the day, I sat down this morning to make a list of things for which I’m thankful, and realized that I could work for hours if not days trying to remember every individual person, place, or thing for which I could rightly say, “Thank you.”

I would never run out of nouns, and so I’d never run out of thanks.

I hope you can say the same.

Thanking God, 2016

(Image: “Thanking God, 2016,” by Martin LaBar, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

Whoever you are, wherever you are, I’m thankful for you — and I hope you have a fantastic day!

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Monday Morning Insight: Proclaiming National Thanksgiving

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

On this date in 1789, President George Washington — based on a resolution passed in the Congress — proclaimed that Thursday, 26 November 1789, would be set aside for the people of the nation to unite in devotion to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” The proclamation began with a statement that seems quite bold today, especially for a public official:

… it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.

Congress had recommended “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” Washington’s proclamation enjoined the people to offer “sincere and humble thanks” to God for several things, including:

  • “His providence in the course and conclusion of” the Revolutionary War,
  • “the great degree of tranquillity [sic], union, and plenty” they enjoyed,
  • “their civil and religious liberty,” and
  • “all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”

Gratitude changes the way we look at the world

(Image: “Gratitude changes the way we look at the world,” by BK, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

President Washington also encouraged the people to beseech “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations” to forgive “our national and other trangressions [sic],” and, in particular,

to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.

It seems a shame that we have let our government get so out of control, and that we seem unable to place people in positions of trust who are wise and just, who respect the Constitution, and who are able to “discreetly and faithfully” execute the nation’s laws. Perhaps if we used Thanksgiving for giving thanks, and for reflecting on our freedom and what it takes to maintain it, we might have less trouble in that regard.

___
P.S. The full proclamation is available here.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Monday Morning Insight: God and Mathematics

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

Today is British physicist Paul Dirac’s birthday (8 August 1902 – 20 October 1984). Dirac shared the 1933 Nobel Prize with Erwin Schrodinger, and is known as one of the founders of quantum physics.

Dirac was a rather famous atheist — his colleague Wolfgang Pauli was said to have remarked, “Our friend Dirac, too, has a religion, and its guiding principle is ‘God does not exist and Dirac is His prophet'” — but later in life he wrote a quite eloquent statement about God and the mathematical relations that describe our universe. In a piece in the May 1963 issue of Scientific American entitled “The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature,” he wrote (emphasis added):

It seems to be one of the fundamental features of nature that fundamental physical laws are described in terms of a mathematical theory of great beauty and power, needing quite a high standard of mathematics for one to understand it. You may wonder: Why is nature constructed along these lines? One can only answer that our present knowledge seems to show that nature is so constructed. We simply have to accept it. One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe. Our feeble attempts at mathematics enable us to understand a bit of the universe, and as we proceed to develop higher and higher mathematics we can hope to understand the universe better.

Later still, Dirac was quoted as having said simply, “God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world.”

Are we to conclude that Dirac, who in 1927 said, “If we are honest — and scientists have to be — we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination,” found God in later life? Did something in the nature of quantum mechanics point him toward the divine?

The Beauty of Mathematics

The language of mathematics … it’s more than a little Greek. (Image: “The Beauty of Mathematics” by Peter Rosbjerg, from Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

It would seem not. Instead of coming to believe in the existence of God, Dirac accepted the possibility of God’s existence, and even the necessity of God in certain circumstances:

I would like … to set up this connexion between the existence of a god and the physical laws: if physical laws are such that to start off life involves an excessively small chance, so that it will not be reasonable to suppose that life would have started just by blind chance, then there must be a god, and such a god would probably be showing his influence in the quantum jumps which are taking place later on. On the other hand, if life can start very easily and does not need any divine influence, then I will say that there is no god.

That’s an interesting idea, though I wonder (a bit playfully, perhaps) if the physical laws of our universe are such that to produce a Paul Dirac (or a you, or a me) involves “an excessively small chance.” There have been, after all, only one of each of us in all the universe.

Even as powerful a mind as Dirac’s could not solve all the equations of the universe, and I certainly can’t. So I am content to let God be God and handle the beautiful and mysterious mathematics of creation.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Should We Tear Down the Stage?

This is something of a sequel to — or maybe a tangent from — my post about Choir Lofts and Orchestra Pits.

Does your church have a stage?

Some churches have built impressive stages, with elaborate lighting and backdrops and such. Some churches can’t help but have a stage, because they rent space in a theater or a school auditorium or amphitheater or whatever. Our old church had a choir loft in front of the sanctuary — our pastor was always careful to call it a “platform,” because as singers and musicians we weren’t supposed to be performers on a stage — and we rearranged it to put the musicians together, but if you read my last post on this subject you’d be right in guessing that I think now that was probably a mistake.

Anyway, yesterday while worshiping at a small church I wondered how the worship leader, singers and musicians would react if someone from the congregation just walked up on stage while they were playing. Would they panic? Would they stop playing, or keep going?

Worship Set

(Image: “Worship Set,” by David Amsler, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

When I was a worship leader, I think I would have been stupefied. I expect I would have gotten flustered and missed more than a couple of beats, whether I was playing guitar myself or just conducting the rest of the musicians; certainly my attention would have been drawn to the person rather than to what I was doing. I hope that eventually I would have settled back into the singing, and I hope I would have come across as more surprised than irritated (though probably not; I have an unfortunate tendency to radiate my annoyance).

But the more I consider the question, the more I think that the best reaction would be to welcome that new person and keep on worshiping together.

The point of a worship service is not for the congregation to enjoy worship, but for them to experience it — to participate in it. It’s the difference between being a part of and being apart from the worship experience.

I feel more and more strongly that placing musicians and singers in front — and especially separating them from the congregation by having them on a stage (no matter what we call it) — skews the congregation’s experience in favor of observing rather than contributing. From my observations over the last couple of years, often the worship team performs while the congregation watches.

What do you think? If you’re a worship leader, a singer, or a musician in a church, and normally you’re separated from the congregation, would you welcome any worshiper onto the stage, any time? Is your worship team exclusive, and have you made worship the exclusive province of a few people?

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Day of Despair

On this darkest day of the Christian calendar, I think about the disciples’ misery, their fear, and the hopelessness they must have felt.

They had no idea what the next day would bring, and how much better and brighter it would be.

I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us when we mourn, when we are afraid, and when we lose hope.

Opening of roadside tomb_0654

(Image: “Opening of roadside tomb,” by James Emery, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The Gift Church: Choir Loft, or Orchestra Pit?

This is the fourth entry in an on-again, off-again series. Links to the first three are at the end.

It’s Holy Week, which seems a good time to re-visit the idea I floated last year of “The Gift Church” — a Christian church that would practice radical generosity on a regular basis by spending more on the needy than it did on itself. This week, as we commemorate the central event around which the entire Christian faith revolves, the question is: how might worship be different at The Gift Church?

Over the past couple of years, as my wife and I have attended different churches here and there, I’ve observed an all-too-common sight in contemporary churches: worship musicians who seem to be performing for the benefit of the people in the seats rather than leading those people into a worship encounter with the living God. (I observed this so often when we first moved south that in 2009 I wrote a short essay about it that you can download, entitled “Ignore the Tour Guides, If You Can.”)

Easter Saturday at Destiny
Church service, or concert? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. (Image: “Easter Saturday at Destiny,” by Andy Rennie, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Then two weeks ago I began to think that the design of most of our contemporary Protestant churches makes it too easy for worship leaders — musicians and singers — to become performers, and thereby too easy for congregations to become passive recipients instead of active worship participants. My first thought as I walked out of the service that morning was that instead of choir lofts, our churches might do better to have orchestra pits.

Consider how the choir loft in many Protestant churches differs from the choir in, say, many cathedrals. In cathedrals, the choir area is often built such that the singers face the central aisle with their backs to the outer wall, leaving the area open so the congregation can see all the way to the apse, which often faces the rising sun and presents a beautiful if not inspiring display of stained glass. In contrast, a choir loft, platform, or stage, often backed by nondescript decor, has dominated the front of many of the churches we’ve visited, placing the choir or worship leaders under bright lights and face-to-face with the congregants.

But worship is not meant to bring congregants face-to-face with stage-lit people: it’s meant to bring them face-to-face with God.

(Yes, I know that some churches seat the choir in the back, in a balcony. From what I’ve observed, that’s relatively rare. Permit me to continue with the contrasting idea.)

Consider, in contrast, the orchestra pit. In many performance venues, only those who sit in balconies can see much of the orchestra in the pit, because a pit orchestra is not meant to be the center of attention. That orchestra is in place to augment, supplement, and set the mood for the action on the stage; likewise, worship musicians are there to augment, supplement, and set the mood for worship. They are not there to be worshiped, nor to attract attention to themselves, but to make it possible for the congregation to worship.

If the worship team — whether an acoustic combo, a power band, or a full orchestra — were below congregants’ line-of-sight, rather than between the congregation and the cross or between the people and the altar, would it help the people worship better? Maybe not: maybe people want the spectacle; maybe they want to be entertained.

But it would remind the musicians that they are not there to be the center of attention. They are there to serve the Lord and the congregation — it is a worship service, after all — and not just a chance to show off their musical chops.

(Yes, there is a place for special presentations, whether solos or duets or quartets or choirs; whether instrumental or vocal, accompanied or acapella; whether songs or readings or full-on dramas; and in those cases putting the presenters on a stage works so everyone can see them. But those are not intended to draw the congregation into worship.)

There just might be an even better arrangement than either choir lofts or orchestra pits.

I’ve never seen this tried anywhere, but what if church was conducted “in the round,” so to speak, with the worship musicians gathered in the center of the worship space and the congregation ranged around them. Instead of being on risers or on stage, singers could be spaced out among the congregation to help the people sing (which seems infinitely preferable to those worship teams in which soloists sing almost all of the songs, such that the congregation seems unsure if they should be singing or not). In this arrangement, the musicians and singers in the worship team would be worshipers along with the congregation, inviting the rest of the attendees to sing along because they are close to the music, almost part of it themselves.

Maybe that wouldn’t work — maybe the sound would be too uncontrolled, too inconsistent. Maybe it would work. But maybe what really matters is paying attention to the fact that it’s a worship service, not a concert.

Which brings me back to the question posed above: how might worship be different at The Gift Church?

In putting down my thoughts on how The Gift Church might operate, I wrote this:

Worship. The Church shall present worship opportunities that emphasize reverence for God’s holiness, majesty, and power, and gratitude for God’s presence, protection, and salvation. Worship services shall respect but not be bound by Christian traditions and, when practical, shall incorporate elements of prayer (Philippians 4:6), music (Colossians 3:16), teaching and exhortation (1 Timothy 4:13), and fellowship (Hebrews 10:23-5). Worship leaders shall, to the best of their abilities, focus attention on God rather than on themselves or the congregation. The worship environment shall, to the extent possible, be designed, built, and/or arranged to minimize distractions and to concentrate attention on the object of worship, i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ, more than on worship leaders. The Elders and others responsible for planning and presenting worship shall develop a rotating calendar of worship services, suited to the needs of the congregation and the community, to celebrate all major Christian holy days and such additional festivals and holy days as they may see fit.

Most of that I wrote last year, because I wanted to emphasize that The Gift Church would not be a church built to entertain itself — and certainly not to indulge itself. Worship would be an important element of The Gift Church, but the church would not exist just to provide a space for worship. The church would exist to serve: purposed to spread the Gospel not by just talking about it — “God bless you, go in peace,” as Keith Green sang, “while all Heaven just weeps” — but by living the Gospel, denying itself and taking up the cross and channeling its contributions to the needy.

As I’ve noted in earlier installments, maybe a church with that purpose wouldn’t survive for very long. But it might make a difference while it lasted.

Anyway, I just added the line about the worship environment last week, when I started thinking about choir lofts and orchestra pits.

What about you? When do you feel the most engaged in worship? Would a different worship environment, or worship approach, help you feel closer to God? Do you want to be invited to participate in worship, to take an active part in the praise to the extent you feel comfortable? Or do you want to be sung to, talked to … entertained?

And if you are a worship leader, what are you doing to keep the attention off yourself and on the Lord?

Or am I the only one who cares about these things?

___
Previously in this series:
The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES
The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle
The Gift Church: How It Might Work

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

On Epiphany, a Prayer for an Epiphany

God of all that is, and was, and will be,
God of what is plain and what is mystery,
God of worlds beyond the wonders we see,
Hear this humble prayer

Help me find a purpose that is worthwhile
And ample peace, to live devoid of guile,
With power enough to go the extra mile —
Hear this humble prayer

What dreams should I abandon, and which pursue?
What thoughts examine to verify they’re true?
What truths to learn, and unlearn ones I knew?
Hear this humble prayer

God of all I will be, was, and am,
Hear this prayer and help me understand

Pray
(Image: “Pray,” by Esteban Chiner, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather