Monday, June 29, 2009

Good & Expectations

Dad says Denver is a tenth of an inch away from tying the rainfall record for June. In the 16 years I have lived in Colorado, this is the most rain I can remember. A few weeks ago, there were many days in a row with reports of tornadoes. Last Friday I looked out the window and all of a sudden there was rain. No sooner did I say so than the tornado sirens went off, sounding warning that a possible tornado had been noted on the radar. My three sisters and I ran out the front door, looked quickly, then turned back around to grab cameras and come back, hoping the bit of swirling cloud above us would produce the elusive funnel cloud that haunts my dreams but has never made an appearance in my real life. No luck. After blowing rain hard into my jeans, the storm fizzled. Thus ended a string of days fulfilling the pattern of sunny mornings and stormy afternoons.

For on Saturday, there were no clouds in the sky. I spent most of the day baking for a Pigfest the next evening, but when I looked out the kitchen window, the green of the “grass” seemed to be glowing, and a more-than-a-color blue from the sky dipped into my very presence. During sunset I was out, rejoicing in the light on the clouds and the projecting pink of flowers in bushes along the road. “Everything looks so bright today,” I commented. Mom said it was the first day in a while that the sun had shown in the afternoon. How strange that I would notice the difference.

Yet I love the rain, and didn’t miss the brightness. Just the life-color struck me when the sun highlighted them.

Sometimes I go for good, even if it isn’t my favorite. I’m trying to hearken daily to the voice of gratitude.

Am I ever disappointed when a party doesn’t go like I imagine? Not usually. My way isn’t the only good way. I like to watch in awe as people dazzle me with difference, defying expectation. Let alone God. Don’t I like to watch God’s work surprise me, spinning me like a dancer in His trusted arms?

When life isn’t as I expected, but is still good, the call is to rejoice in that. On those days when the light seems to be birthed in each flower and cloud and blade of grass, how grand the festival! Golden days when friends surround me, laughing and talking and playing and praying – praise my Father in Heaven, how blessed I am!

For the LORD God is a sun and shield;

the LORD will give grace and glory;

no good thing will He withhold

from those who walk uprightly.

– Psalm 84:11

To God be all glory.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

This story of a friendship between two young Jewish men in mid-twentieth century New York tells history from the heart of one who was there. Through layers of progression the novel delves from the senses we ignore to the delight of noticing what we see and hear to the mental realm, the subconscious realm, and on into the sphere of emotion, where compassion sits. There is sound and there is silence, sight and blindness, confusion and understanding. And following all of these around is the emotional reaction and the questions of why.

Reuven, the main character, is the son of a Talmud professor and columnist, a conservative practicing Jew, who is pioneering the field of higher criticism into Jewish studies. This high school student, who spends half his day studying Talmud (commentaries on the Jewish Scripture), another few hours with regular schoolwork, and the rest playing baseball, meets Danny, a boy his age from the neighborhood over who is also a practicing Jew, whose father is a Tzaddik rabbi in the Hassidic sect. One of the non-fiction highlights of the book is the glimpse at the origin and history of that denomination with its distinctive customs, dress, and attitude.

Philosophically speaking, my favorite part was the contrast between the two fathers as they respond to the Holocaust and to the Zionist push for a Jewish homeland. The columnist says the death of millions of his people will be meaningless if the survivors don’t learn, change, and act. He is tired of waiting for the Messiah, and so says that Jews must take matters into their own hands, to build a Jewish homeland now! But the Hassidic rabbi believes that the sacrifice of millions of Jews, faithfully waiting for their Messiah, will be in vain if the remnant gives up now and tries to do things without God.

I see more biblical backing in the position of the Hassid. Israel was continually rebuked for growing impatient and doing things their own way (Abraham and Saul come to mind). But this relies on promises, on clearly revealed truth from a proven God. Which brings me to the question of dogma. The Hassidic congregation believes whatever their rabbi tells them, as if he were god to them. They believe in fate, that because Danny is the son of the rabbi, he will take his place. But they also put a huge emphasis on personal responsibility. In any case, their beliefs are dogmatic, unquestioned submission to tradition and the rule of the rabbi. The son has been trained to accept things rather uncritically, with a stubborn loyalty. So when he begins to read Freud, there is no filter of context or criticism like his friend would have. Reuven’s higher criticism relies heavily on logic, but it can breed doubt as skepticism rules the interpretation of every book, idea, or even every person. It almost elbows out faith, and elevates the individual.

In the end, The Chosen shows how relationship transcends these conflicts. The rabbi’s moving care for his people and his son takes a huge personal toll on him. Two boys survive high school and college through their improbable friendship. Despite their differences they show mutual respect and interest. They learn to be grateful for what they have, and to learn from others. As the professor father predicted, they experienced how hard it can be to invest in the lives of others.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Morality in Music

I once heard a refutation of the idea that music isn’t important; only lyrics are. A pianist sat on his bench and told us to close our eyes, picturing Cinderella in her ball gown. He played a gentle waltz while he kept describing her meeting the prince, taking his hand, and beginning to dance. But while he talked, the music changed into the eerie, dark whine of a scary movie soundtrack. Then all of a sudden, the music went choppy and light, high little notes running like ballerina steps across my imagination, erasing all attempts to keep Cinderella there in my mind’s eye. Like a dream where rationality leaves you to the whim of memory’s slideshow on random, shaped into a story, the music carried me beyond any intention of feeling or thought.

When discussing the pro’s and con’s of speaking in tongues, Paul offered this interesting illustration: “And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” Sounds matter. We interpret sounds. For the music to have any purpose, it has to do something to us.

And music does affect us. There is soothing music, rousing music, happy music, sad music, romantic music, even angry music. The music and its effects are amoral. There is nothing good or evil about a certain tune. However, there are several ways to affect the morality of a song. Most obvious is adding lyrics with a moral content. If a tune is associated with a certain immoral practice or belief, its impact on people familiar with it cannot be edifying. Also, if the volume or other special effects cause physical pain (headaches, heart palpitations, or difficulty breathing), that music is immoral. Finally, when a style of music is brought into an inappropriate circumstance, it can be wrong. Take Cinderella. To play the full moon music while she is dancing is not helpful. Or the situation could be worse. Times exist for everything under heaven, including anger, but when one has no right to be angry, listening to angry music encourages a mood of violence rather than forgiveness or peace.

To believe that music is powerless, that a song is ok as long as its lyrics are not wicked, is dangerous. I have known unsuspecting young people who begin to listen to a style of music that is heavy and dark, depressed and angry. They do not expect to be affected by the music, but gradually they settle into a mood that mirrors their music, until the music is the creator and true expression of their identity. I invite you to imagine what happens when a teenager becomes constantly depressed and angry. Relationships are ruined. Schoolwork fails. They are tempted into further association with the dark and the violent.

Why the obsession with loud music? I don’t necessarily mean the music so loud and disorderly that the cacophony directs the listener to insanity. I’m talking about simple volume. God calls us to be sober, to do everything heartily. Passive entertainment, I contend, is not godly. I believe we should interact with our music, not have it attack us. If ears are in pain, why not turn it down? And whether there is pain at individual notes, if the over all tension of the music gives headaches, why endure such torment? When the bass is so strong that it seems to have gotten way beyond modesty and penetrated your skin, pounding against your organs, why pursue that style of music? Is it that we have become numb, our relational experience leaving us unable to feel without stimulation – even painful stimulation?

Music can be employed to direct moods. David played his harp for Saul and cured his fits of temper. A romantic dinner is that much more romantic if the violins play sweetly in the background. Carnivals play fast, fun music to heighten the sense of wonder. Who doesn’t appreciate a good movie soundtrack?

One common use of music is in “worship,” the part of a traditional church service in which praises, testimonials, or encouragements are offered in the form of songs. Worship is in vogue right now, the subject of dozens of books, conferences, and contemporary Christian music CD’s. Churches are trying hard to create worship experiences. Bands practice during the week and present their “worship” concerts complete with strobe lights, smoke, bass guitars, drums, and exciting videos with the words scrolling across for the audience to sing along. Some churches light candles. All this to get people in the mood to worship. A more energetic band will get the audience to jump up and down and to clap its praise. The contemplative environment with little altars for worshiping through pottery-making or painting or eating crackers and drinking juice, lit by soft scented candles is more likely to evoke tears. Either way the people walk away with an experience, feeling that they have been through something important that touched their heart.

Is that what worship should look like? Is that even worship? What is the purpose of worship, and what styles of music and other arts are aligned with those objectives? What about worship together? Isn’t the point to be with each other, rather than isolated by volume and darkness? When creating an “environment conducive to worship,” should churches manipulate people into energies and emotions not already inspired by meeting, knowing, and walking with Almighty God? If we as people are not willing to lift up our voices in thanksgiving and praise, lament and victory to our God – without being drowned out by the drums and the pervading bass – are we not merely flattering God?

How dangerous is it to do worship our way, in a way we enjoy and in which we are gifted? What if those ways detract from the purposes on which worship is built? Is the focus on God or on the band or on the audience? I have heard worship described as therapy. Should we participate for healing and comfort, for strengthening? What sorts? We know that offering worship their own way caused the death of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron the priest. Did God give any sort of specific instruction, example, or definition which we might be profaning through our creative expressions? Should we sing in church? Are those melodies to be directed as praises, or as encouragement to those around us?

I am concerned at how many gifted musicians use the gathering of Christians to springboard into a musical career. If the band is supposed to be leading worship – an endeavor doubtful in its biblical foundations already – what are they doing with microphones and amps that power over the congregation’s voices? Why sell CD’s and t-shirts boasting the band’s name? Is this about people bringing the sacrifice of praise, or about people having a good time and enjoying a concert? Can bad or inappropriate music prevent an atmosphere conducive to worship?

The Psalms direct the whole earth to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. How can we reject anyone’s joyful offering? Is everything we “enjoy” joyful? Perhaps the screaming and growling sometimes passed off as singing is fun for those doing it. So might be roller coaster rides or even the thrill of stealing candy at the grocery store register, but those things are not considered to be worship.

Music is powerful. God is mighty. Worship is meaningful. God is worthy.

To God be all glory.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Happiness of Captain Kirk

I was watching the very old Star Trek last night, just because it was on. Always the shows frustrate me, and I'm not even talking about plaster acting and cardboard sets. The worldview even the heroes in the series live by is so sad.

In this episode, Captain Kirk somehow got stranded on a planet being threatened by an asteroid, except that was a few months out, and he got amnesia and thought he was what the people called him, a god. Or at least he played along. He didn't even tell the woman he met (there are always women wherever Kirk goes) that he had doubts about being a god. The two fell in love, I suppose is what they would call it, and actually got married (this is quite rare in Star Trek, but obviously dooms the mere guest star character to death). There was never another woman in his life, swore the amnesiac Captain. And the audience rolls their eyes. Are you kidding?

In a pre-wedding fight to win his bride, the hero of the Enterprise is cut and bleeds. His opponent recites a TV myth, that gods don't bleed. Whose idea was that, anyway, and what was their agenda? Because the true God did bleed. He planned to be slain from the foundation of the world. And almost immediately after the sin that caused the bloodshed of God, the Creator prophesied that the Serpent would bruise the heel of the Seed of the Woman. All along man ought to have known that God would bleed.

Moving on, during the months of marriage on the alien planet, Kirk keeps saying in a dreamy voice, "I'm so happy." And almost all of these confessions are followed by kisses of his bride. Really? Happiness consists of kisses and shallow romance? For there didn't seem to be anything else to their relationship. Love and marriage were much cheapened by the episode, in which the writers and director could find no other way to express affection than the physical and erotic. Happiness, too, was cheapened, but it proved short-lived, having no foundation. I'm sure that as originally aired, the very next episode showed a confident-as-ever Captain Kirk, zooming about the universe looking for more beautiful girls with whom to be temporarily happy in an imaginary life lasting minutes, days, or months. He always seems to have amnesia.

To God be all glory.