Tuesday, February 27, 2007
"My church is developing a ministry that will help our members grow in their relationships with Jesus Christ via prayer. One of the objections I have heard to this ministry is that it is New Age. I abhor New Age practices and want to steer clear of its influence. At the same time, I do not believe it is right or fair to categorize every prayer practice that is unfamiliar to us--such as a prayer of examen--as New Age or related in any way. Would you have any insight, as a result of your experience, on what practices should definitely be avoided?"
Here's my reply to the reader:
I agree with you 100 percent that we as a church have this problem of prejudging unfamiliar practices without even examining them. About a year ago, the worship leader at my church encouraged me to read Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. At first, I couldn't bring myself to read the chapter on meditation. As a former New Ager, the entire practice of meditation seemed too closely tied to the New Age--even though I knew meditation was practiced by many of God's worshippers in the Bible. I enjoyed Foster's book so much that I just kept praying about it, that God would give me enough wisdom and discernment to read that chapter without either prejudging it or accepting it wholeheartedly.
When I actually read the chapter, I was amazed to discover I was already doing some of the things Foster discussed, such as slowly reading a Scripture verse and deeply meditating on its words, and looking at nature and meditating on the greatness of God. Before I read Foster's book, I never would have called my practices meditation. They were just actions that came naturally to me as I worshipped God. I came to realize that meditation itself wasn't a bad or evil practice--rather it was the goal of the practice that mattered.
To illustrate, yoga is basically stretching that's been spiritualized by being infused with Hindu worship. Many of the stretches in yoga are very basic ways anyone would stretch. I see young kids doing such stretches naturally without having ever been instructed on how to stretch. The Christian's problem with yoga itself is that stretching--something that's natural and good for us--is given the Hindu goal of becoming one with the universal mind through postures that exalt other gods. But to say that doing yoga is the only way we can stretch is like saying astral projection is the only way we can meditate. I think Christians who throw out stretching (and meditation) are, pardon the cliche, throwing out the baby with the bath water. We should stretch. But we don't have to do yoga in order to stretch.
The same can be said of prayer (and I notice you're considering one of Foster's methods for prayer). If our prayer is focused on God and our relationship with him, who is to criticize the form of that prayer? I once heard someone question whether a certain posture was appropriate for prayer because it looked "like how the Muslims pray." I believe we are made uniquely by God, and it's pretty apparent Christians worship him in different ways. Some are deeply moved to worship through upbeat music and dancing, others by quiet prayer and reflection. It would be quite silly (and unbiblical) for someone to say, "Christians can only worship God quietly, and anyone who thinks otherwise isn't a good Christian." Unfortunately, we often judge other Christians' relationships with God based on our personal experiences.
With that said, I can offer a few ways I proceed with caution when I'm considering a new idea or practice. First, I ask, "Does this focus on God and/or my relationship with him?" and also, "Is there anything in this that I recognize as being unbiblical (or that is supported by the Bible)?" Second, I ask God to give me discernment. Third, I go to a trusted source, ChristianityToday.com, to see if they've written something about it. I've also had conversations with the pastors and staff at my church, as well as other mature Christians, to get their thoughts. And lastly, I pray about it again.
There is at least one practice I wouldn't do myself, but I wouldn't tell other people not to do it, either. (And I know other people do this thing and are greatly blessed by it.) God has let me know that because of my New Age past, this particular practice is something that would be counterproductive to my spiritual growth right now. Maybe at some point, it will become a practice that God would have me do to worship him.
I'm sure God is leading you to bring these prayer practices to your church for a reason. Don't be discouraged if people aren't immediately on board--it can be difficult to get people to try anything new, from a new food to a new clothing style, and especially a new style of worship! My worship pastor did a special service on Lectio Divina, got a seemingly ho-hum reaction, and later told me, "We'll probably never do that again." I had to immediately tell him how meaningful it was to me, and how I'd incorporated parts of the practice into my devotional time. While some people might have thought it was boring to deeply think and reflect on the meaning of a small passage of Scripture, it meant everything to me as a writer and words person. I was so thankful he'd taken a chance so I could learn about it.
I have a lot of conversations on my blog that have added to my thoughts and even changed my thinking, so I'm hoping to get some more feedback for you by posting your question.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are there worship practices that should be avoided? How do we determine what's good or bad? What tools has God given us to protect us from false teaching? Please post your thoughts on the above question--or thoughts about my response, or other thoughts--here on the blog.
Friday, February 23, 2007
My friend Brooke wrote the following piece after watching last night's evening news, where the top two "news" items were about Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears. His piece made me laugh, and it made me think about our values as a society, and what I personally prioritize and value. I've added some links within Brooke's piece for those who'd like a deeper education into the real news.
The "News" Media
by J. Brooke Fenwick
(February 22, 2007)
Two friends discuss "The News" over coffee.
Jessie: I heard that two more Americans soldiers were killed in Iraq yesterday.
Alex: Yeah, that’s too bad. So who do you think is Anna Nicole’s baby’s daddy? I think it’s gotta be the blond guy from California. I don’t trust that other guy.
Jessie: I don’t know, but can you believe we are getting close to 3,200 soldiers dead in Iraq so far?
Alex: That’s terrible! What’s going on with Britney Spears? Is she outta her mind or what? She keeps getting tattoos, and then she shaved her head, and then she is in rehab and then out of rehab, and then back in. What’s up with that? I think she …
Jessie: It’s just a mess …
Alex: Yeah, she’s pretty messed up.
Jessie: No it’s a mess over there in Iraq and now Bush wants to send more troops.
Alex: Yeah, well duh! That’s what they get for 9-11.
Jessie: 9-11? What does Iraq have to do with 9-11?
Alex: Weren’t a bunch of those guys who flew the planes from Iraq? There’s just a bunch of terrorists over there.
Jessie: No, none of them were from Iraq. Most of them were from Saudi Arabia. Hey, did you hear Barack Obama was in L.A. the other day? I heard some of his speech. I think he really has a chance to win. What do you think?
Alex: No way.
Jessie: Why? Because he’s black?
Alex: Well, maybe. But isn’t he a Muslim? I got this email that said he’s a Muslim. You know with the war on terror, I don’t think a Muslim outta be president. I don’t think Americans will elect a Muslim.
Jessie: He’s not a Muslim. He’s a Christian.
Alex: Are you sure? The email said his dad was a Muslim. And besides, how could a Christian have a name like Barack Obama? Isn’t his middle name like Saddam, or Osama, or something like that?
Jessie: It’s Hussein.
Alex: Yeah, see? I knew it was one of those Islamic terrorist people.
Jessie: What does his middle name have to do with anything?
Alex: Speaking of Muslims, didn’t Mike Tyson become a Muslim? I heard he was in rehab, too. He’s in the same rehab as Lindsay Lohan. But it's one of those swanky, soft rehabs. They let Tyson out to go to the gym, and I heard they let Lindsay out to go shopping. What kind of rehab is that?
Jessie: You know what's really scary to me?
Jessie: That we seem to be slowly losing our constitutional rights here in America.
Alex: Yeah, I hate it when people think they have a right to tell me what to do!
Jessie: Did you know that Congress passed a law and Bush signed it that kind of does away with habeas corpus?
Alex: Who be what us?
Jessie: Never mind. What do you think about the Bush administration using the war on terror as an excuse to say that it is okay to use torture to get information that might protect our national security?
Alex: Hey, if it will keep another 9-11 from happening, I say go for it! Do you watch 24? I never miss it. Jack Bauer tortures people all the time when he has to save the country. I know he’s, like, not really supposed to do that, but it works.
Jessie: That’s just a TV program. In real life, torture doesn’t work.
Alex: It has to work. Nobody wants to get tortured.
Jessie: Exactly. You don’t want to get tortured, do you? Maybe that's why we should be just a little concerned about our constitutional rights.
Alex: This conversation is getting kind of morbid. Let’s talk about something else. Did you hear Eva Longoria and Tony Parker are getting married this summer in France?
Jessie: Um, okay ... The upcoming election is going to be really important. Who do you like so far?
Alex: No one. I hate politics. Politicians are a bunch of liars.
Jessie: How would you know?
Alex: What do you mean?
Jessie: Never mind. What do you think about the police?
Alex: Yeah, I saw them on the Grammy’s! They are going on tour. They hate each other, but they are just getting back together to make some money. Sting probably doesn’t need any money, but maybe he feels sorry for the other guys. They might as well cash in!
Jessie: I meant the Los Angeles Police Department.
Alex: Oh, the cops? What about them?
Jessie: There is a problem with the police in Ramona Gardens. That is a housing project on the Eastside. A lot of the residents there think the cops are too heavy-handed and that they stereotype all of them as gang members and drug dealers. There seems to be a long history of that kind of thing here in L.A.
Alex: What news are you watching?
Jessie: I DON’T watch "the news." But I can tell that you do.
Alex: Whatever. Let’s go shopping!
1) Among your friends and co-workers, what news topics do people usually discuss?
2) Why do you think some people are more interested in celebrity gossip than political, economic, and social issues?
3) Why do you think people shy away from talking about serious issues like war, government actions, and social injustice?
Holly's two cents: There are lots of reasons we don't discuss big issues. Some issues require us to know a lot of background information, and we can feel it takes too much time and effort to educate ourselves. Or maybe we think we're not smart enough--we don't understand an issue well enough to feel comfortable discussing it. Sometimes, it just seems pointless: If we can't change the situation, why talk about it? And some of us are afraid of conflict, thinking perhaps we'll jeopardize our friendships if we take an opposing stance.
Jesus' words and actions give us a tremendous example about addressing such issues. He did not shy away from making statements about the wrongs he saw in his society, from legalism (his statements on making a public show of tithing, prayer and fasting; healing a man on the Sabbath) to sacrilege (he removes merchants from the temple).
If you don't understand an issue, that's the perfect time to discuss it so someone can explain it better. Even if you do understand it, conversation opens you up to ideas you might not have considered. And differences of opinion don't break a relationship if you come to the table with mutual respect. Though Brooke and I have different political affiliations, and plenty of differing opinions, we've peacefully discussed many issues. I have great respect for Brooke's opinions, and our conversations remind me that my opinions aren't the only good and right ones.
Today I was reminded how powerful one voice can be. I received an email about an article I wrote two years ago. It was a profile on an Oklahoma woman, Laurette Willis, who was speaking out about the practice of yoga. I was looking for alternatives to yoga at the time, and it seemed Laurette was the only Christian discussing this idea. Today, ideas about how Christians approach the practice of yoga have been discussed on radio, TV, and the Internet, as well as in newspapers and magazines. Laurette's even been quoted by major media including Time magazine! Because Laurette spoke up, there are now Christian alternatives to yoga.
We all have a voice. I believe God moves us to share our thoughts with one another for a reason: As individuals, our portion of the big picture is tiny if we don't work together to expand the view.
Thanks, Brooke, for causing some good thinking today!
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
(INSERT COLLECTIVE GASP HERE.)
Guess I've got some explaining to do. Prosperity theology is the idea God is waiting to bless us with health and wealth in this life, and he wants us to ask for it. It's espoused by well-known preachers including Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and T.D. Jakes. And it's bashed by other well-known preachers and Christian activists including Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Rick Warren. Warren told Time, "This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? Baloney. It's creating a false idol. ... I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty."
If I analysed prosperity theology by its popular definition, I'd be thoroughly disgusted with it. Many folks outside of prosperity theology define it thus: God will give you whatever you ask for ("name it and claim it" is one biting way it's described). It's the idea that God is a cosmic vending machine: Insert prayer, out pops your desired treat. Sadly, there are folks out there who do preach this message, like Peter Popoff, a televangelist who claims using his Miracle Spring Water will cause God to give you exactly what you want. But Popoff doesn't represent prosperity theology as a whole. When I've listened to folks like Osteen and Meyers speak, the message they seem to be conveying is: "Work hard and involve God in your job and finances. God can bless you if you trust him."
No disrespect intended to Rick Warren; I've read The Purpose Driven Life and was intrigued by many of his points. I also know some folks who aren't Christians that read Warren's book and also found it to be an interesting guide for life. This brings me to think, How do my ideas and beliefs color how I read his book? And similarly, how do these same ideas and beliefs color how I view prosperity theology?
I've discovered that despite its many shortcomings, I'm not ready to throw out prosperity theology altogether--especially since I like the trend of offering modern-day life applications from the Bible. Here are some positive aspects I see in prosperity theology:
For starters, prosperity theology gets people talking to God. Prosperity parishioners are told to ask God for direction on employment, finances, spending, stewardship, etc.--really big issues we all deal with. Honestly, I don't often prayerfully balance my checkbook. It certainly wouldn't hurt any of us to make God the ruler of our bank accounts.
Further, prosperity parishioners are asking God to bless them. One of my concerns about today's church is that many Christians are hesitant to ask God for anything. We pray God will "work according to his will and plans for us." It's true we should ask God to show us his will and pray according to the Holy Spirit's prompting. But sometimes, I know the "God's will" prayer is a cop out for me. I often get scared when prayer turns to things that can be weighed and measured. Like my health or finances. My fear is actually a lack of trust. Sure, I trust God will give me peace, but do I trust he'll put food on my table? I believe he'll comfort me, but do I believe he can heal me? Asking God for stuff goes beyond getting our needs and desires met. We learn to trust him and depend on him when we ask, and we also learn lessons from praying. (Check out my blog entries "Sometimes, God's Gift is an Empty Box" and "Was It Really a Miracle?" for some lessons I'm learning through prayer.)
Additionally, prosperity theology just might balance out those churches that preach a heavily anti-riches gospel. I've heard Christians quote the verse, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25), as proof God doesn't want us to have too much. And I've heard churches repeatedly tell young people that missions work is the greatest calling they can receive. Yet certainly we're not all called to be missionaries. Surely God must want some Christian child to become a wealthy business person who's able to fund all those missions projects?
To those who are offended by the idea of asking God for financial blessing, I would ask, "Do you think God prefers for Christians to be poor?" In the Bible, wealth and fame are sometimes portrayed as God's blessings, and sometimes as distractions that cause people to sin. There's plenty of Scripture that discusses riches in negative terms (Mark 10:25; James 5:1-3), and plenty that suggests God wants to bless us (Ecclesiastes 5:18-19; Luke 6:38). Maybe this means God doesn't have one single directive for all of us, either to strive for riches or to become monetarily poor. Maybe this means God's got a financial plan for each of us, and has given us Scripture about wealth and poverty so we can avoid certain pitfalls associated with greed and laziness. Surely there are Christians who are well-off and generous, and plenty of hard-working, low-income Christians, too. Is one better than the other?
In a Time poll, 61 percent of surveyed Christians said they agreed with the statement, "God wants people to be financially prosperous." "Prosperous" likely meant something different to each person surveyed. For some, being prosperous is having a roof over their head and food in their belly. For others, it's getting a few goodies they want and being content with what they already have. And for some, it means being able to acquire everything they desire.
I believe God wants me to have what he's given me, to ask when I need stuff, to be grateful for what I'm given, and to pray for wisdom about every aspect of my life. And I'm positive he wants me to worship him by working hard at the tasks he's given me (Colossians 3:23).
Because we're all human, it seems we're all at risk for making misguided spiritual decisions, like that lady on Judge Alex who kept the $7,000. Equally, human preachers can make misguided remarks. Yet God has given all of us brains and Bibles, and that includes prosperity preachers. As a church, we're quick to dismiss things as false teaching when they don't jibe with our traditions. So I'm writing this blog entry not to defend prosperity theology, but to question why we're so quick to vilify it. While I may not agree with the entirety of prosperity theology, maybe God can use parts of it to teach me something valuable. Oh, wait--he already has.
1) Do you think it's spiritually better for people to be wealthy, poor, or neither? Which Scriptures back up your opinion?
2) Do you pray about your finances? Why or why not?
3) Is it difficult for you to ask God for things? Which requests are most difficult for you to make?
4) Is it easier or harder for you to ask God to bless other people? How do your prayers for others differ from prayers for yourself?
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
We all know that worship is supposed to begin with God, but in actual practice, OUR worship can tend to be more about us. Just look at the average contemporary worship song. Many of them are so focused on MY feelings toward God. In fact many of our songs can easily either be sung to God OR to someone we are in love with. There is a place for that, but worship begins with God and the fact that HE is worthy of our worship no matter the state of our feelings toward God that day.
In practice, the best way to do this is to firmly anchor our worship services in God’s story. One of the best definitions that I have found regarding what we are to do when we gather for worship is by Robert Webber. He says, "Biblical worship is first and foremost the remembering, the recalling, the proclaiming, the enacting of God's mission in Jesus Christ to redeem, rescue, and restore creatures and creation. We gather to hear that story, enact that story, sing that story, and go forth to embody the story."
So in a sense, corporate worship is a drama that works best when all who are gathered actively participate. Week after week, we rehearse the same story of the true and living God. His word (which tells the story), and the best worship traditions of the Church, guide us in how to enact the story in our worship. And as we do it over and over again, it begins to shape our experience as Christians. We begin to understand God’s mission in this world. More importantly, we begin to understand our place in that mission and as a result we are brought into the actual story as we live it out in the world.
Worship that begins with "me and my needs" tends to warp God into my story. Unfortunately, I am afraid that is what is encouraged in a lot contemporary American worship. Worship that is rooted in God and His redemptive work through Jesus Christ, ultimately brings me into His story.
There are two questions that immediately come to mind when I think about worship:
1) Why do I worship?
2) How do I worship?
In my life, I've been more focused on question two right now. That's because I grew up with the idea worship was just singing songs in church. I don't know where I got that idea, but it was there. And I don't much like singing. I've been pondering the concepts I wrote about in my last blog post for several years now, and they're still pretty mind-blowing to me.
Truthfully, when I became a Christian, I didn't feel like being obedient. I didn't want to go to church, I didn't want to sing worship music, and I didn't want to read my Bible. I had my reasons for resistance. I felt church folk were judgmental. I was unmoved by worship music. And I didn't trust the Bible was validly God's word. I wondered whether it had been corrupted over the years by lost or tossed sections and bad translations.
I would have been happy praying at home, churchless, musicless and Bibleless. But I knew God wanted me in a church. So I visited a few churches out of respecting, loving, fearful obedience to him. I knew I wouldn't find one that made me happy, since I didn't want to go at all. Still, I made a decision I'd stick with the next church I visited in obedience to God. I faithfully attended for years, and despite my best efforts, I didn't make one friend at that church. I tried to serve, but it seemed the church leaders were only interested in sticking me where they needed me, not in areas of my best talents. I felt continuously shut down and shut out. I longed for a better church experience. Yet every Sunday, I felt blessed. Sometimes it came through a verse or an idea from the sermon. Mostly, it came from the half-hour drive to and from church, when I always felt God was near me.
Similar events transpired in regard to singing and reading my Bible. When I began reading the Bible, I literally forced myself to read a certain amount every day. I did it as an act of worship. Am I saying worship should be forced or mechanical? Absolutely not. Let me explain with a real-life illustration. There are plenty of days when I don't feel like cooking dinner for my husband. I'd rather plop down on the couch with a box of cereal and let him fend for himself. But every night, he gets a home-cooked meal, simply because I love him (even when I don't feel the warm and fuzzy emotion of love) and because I know he deserves it. He works hard and he's a good husband and a good man.
There's a difference, I think, between an action itself (such as reading the Bible or singing) and the act of obeying God. I like this verse that's often quoted in relation to worship: "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father and I too will love him and show myself to him" (John 14:21, NIV, emphasis mine). Since I know God has commanded me to be a good wife, that means cooking dinner for my husband is an act of worship--wow! I also love the Hebrew word "mitzvah" (yes, you're getting some Judaism 101 at H-n-T this week). As I understand, mitzvah means both "commandment" and "connection." Thus, obedience is the expression of our connection to God.
We can be worshipping God every second by adopting an attitude of worship into our daily activities. That attitude may or may not deepen my affection for the activities themselves. But I can make my attitude right by focusing on that question, "Why do I worship?" and similarly, "Why do I obey God?"
I can't honestly say I'm at the point where I daily proclaim, "Woo hoo! I have the privilege of reading my Bible and worshipping God!" Most days it's a joy. But on those days when it feels like a chore, I'm going to do it anyway. Not out of legalism or thinking God will be extra nice to me. Rather, I'll do it because I love God. And though I'm pretty tired, I'll be making dinner as usual tonight, since I love my husband, too.
2) What questions do you have about worship? Are some easier to answer than others?
3) What are some ways it's easy for you to worship? What are some things you know God wants from you that have been really difficult for you to do/release/acknowledge?
4) When I think of the word "obedience," I often associate it with "chore," "struggle," or even something I'm strong-armed into doing. I often forget that "obedience" implies there's a choice. Consider this: You have a choice in whether to worship God and follow his laws. Does the idea of having a choice make it easier or more difficult to obey? Why?
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
It seems a lot of churches are moving beyond the purely auditory experience of music and listening to the sermon. Many are now using videos, props, skits, and interactive illustrations. I've heard some folks say churches are becoming too entertainment oriented, too focused on the presentation rather than on God. Now, I've been at some rock-concertesque worship events, complete with smoke machines and laser lights, so I understand that concern. I couldn't even begin to worship with all the flashes in my eyes and booming in my ears. But for the most part, I think it's cool when the church provides diverse examples of worship. After experiencing interactive sermons at my church, I've been inspired to worship in ways I never would have tried. To be honest, I would have felt silly in the past doing some stuff I do now.