Small Theology

Mark Beuving —  May 7, 2015 — Leave a comment

The Beuving Family (Web) _0095I can remember looking forward to the day when I would have kids with whom I could have theological conversations. Not that this was the reason I wanted kids, I just thought it would be exciting to teach my heirs some amazing theology.

My daughters are now three and five years old. I have not begun reading them theology textbooks at bedtime, nor have they heard me speak the words “justification,” “pneumatology,” or “hypostatic union.” But we have certainly had plenty of theological conversations.

These conversations always arise unexpectedly. I don’t plan theology lessons for my girls; the theology invites itself into our regular conversations. Often, a character or plot development in a movie or TV show will lob me a doctrinal softball, and I’ll take a swing. (I’ll ask my girls questions like “Will Hiccup ever see his daddy again, even though he died?” or “Why do you think Rainbow Dash is so sad?” or “Who else do we know who died and came back to life again?”) Sometimes these turn into great conversations, sometimes they don’t. We never go very deep, but sometimes we have meaningful (if not complex) conversations about important theological truths.

We have talked about God’s constant provision and the importance of valuing God’s gifts when my daughters have complained about the dinner menu. We’ve talked about having compassion for the poor when both of my girls threw fits about the kind of sheets mommy put on their beds. We’ve had several chances to talk about human depravity and the importance of forgiveness when kids at church or at preschool have been mean.

My favorite theological conversations lately have come when we sing to our girls at bedtime. I’ve been singing part of Mumford and Sons’ “After the Storm”—the girls love it. I’ll sing, “There will come a time, you’ll see / with no more tears / and love will not break your heart / but dismiss your fears.” Then I’ll stop and ask them, “Did you know that someday we won’t cry or be sad anymore? Do you know when that will be?” It’s a perfect chance to talk about the return of Christ and the reality of heaven.

I also cycle through the verses to “This Is My Father’s World.” Every night I’ll sing a couple of verses, and every now and then we’ll talk about what the song means. Just last night my five year old asked me what it means that God “shines in all that’s fair.” So we talked about God’s omnipresence, his power in creation, and the goodness of God’s world. We did this without using any big terms, which was a great exercise for me.

As I looked ahead to the time I would talk theology with my kids, I also pictured them much older than preschool age. But I’ve been surprised at how often I get to talk theology with my girls. I shouldn’t be surprised—I know that theology is practical. I know that everything in this world relates to God. But somehow, I didn’t expect theology to be so readily applicable to so many of the things my daughters experience so early in life. For me, it has been a great reminder that everything is theological, and that God cares about—and is active in—every detail of our lives, no matter how small our lives may be.

I want to share a brief and simple thought that helps me worship. Many centuries ago, Augustine wrote (as a prayer to God):

No part of your creation ever ceases to resound in praise of you. Man turns his lips to you in prayer and his spirit praises you. Animals too and lifeless things as well praise you through the lips of all who give them thought. For our souls lean for support upon the things which you have created, so that we may be lifted up to you from our weakness and use them to help us on our way to you who made them all so wonderfully. And in you we are remade and find true strength. (Confessions, Book V, Chapter 1)

I have written a lot about busyness lately (here, here, or less recently, here) because my current life situation is revealing the urgency of the topic. In the midst of a busy schedule, how do I find time for important things, like worship?

Augustine reminds us that creation is always praising. We may be too self or schedule focused to consciously praise God, but creation is worshiping God all around us at every moment. We do need to take the time to worship God, but I find it helpful when Augustine says that animals and lifeless things praise God through the lips of those who think about them.

In other words, look at the world around you, and voice creation’s praise. Put into words the God-exalting realities you see all around you.

You can worship God by singing in a church building, but you can also worship God by marveling at a bird in flight, or pondering the human respiratory system, or paying attention to a cloud formation. Praise is all around us, we only have to speak it. To acknowledge it. To confess it to the God whose praise it has been voicelessly screaming.

Augustine says that these things lift us up to God. He is the source and the true end or purpose of all things, after all. They point to him. Do you want God in your daily schedule? Simply look at anything. Give something some thought. Think about anything at all until you can trace it to God.

God is all around you. Everything is constantly praising him. We just need to be reminded to join in. To say on behalf of the silent creation that which it longs to say to God.

And when we do this and our thoughts are lifted to God, Augustine says that we will be remade and strengthened in him.

Strange TrailsI get excited about music, but I have waited for few albums with as much anticipation as I waited for Lord Huron’s second full-length release. When I wrote Resonate, I included a section on Lord Huron’s first album, Lonesome Dreams. At the time, I had listened to that album over 100 times (according to my iTunes play count), and I wrote about the depth and complexity of the album. The album flows gracefully from one song to the next, themes recur and develop, the last song even mirrors the first both lyrically and instrumentally. I included Lonesome Dreams in the book because I see it as a powerful example of music’s potential to draw us in, to make us think, to stir our imaginations, to make us wonder and think and feel—even if we are not receiving propositional statements that tell us what to think and feel. I have now listened to Lonesome Dreams over 200 times, and my thoughts are the same.

So when Lord Huron’s follow up album, Strange Trails, released, I was excited, though a bit apprehensive that Lord Huron wouldn’t be able to create another album at that caliber. Thankfully, they delivered. Strange Trails sounds like a cousin to Lonesome Dreams: some definite similarities in style and themes, but not simply more-of-the-same.

One of the most surprising features of Strange Trails is the process that Lord Huron’s Ben Schneider used in creating the album. Strange Trails has an underlying cast of characters. Essentially, Schneider envisioned a greaser gang, and each song comes from the perspective of one of the characters in Schneider’s fictitious world. The album doesn’t offer a strict plotline, as in an opera, but one does sense an underlying story and movement throughout the album. In an 8-minute radio interview with NPR, Schneider describes several of the characters—including their names, physical appearance, and some back story—and explains how these characters contribute to the album.

Lord Huron

This is similar to Schneider’s method in crafting his first album, for which he created a fictional fiction writer (sort that out), who fictitiously wrote the Lonesome Dreams series of adventure novels, each of which shares a title with a song on Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams album. (“Naturally,” Schneider, who is a talented graphic artist as well, created a website for his fictitious fiction writer, George Ranger Johnson, where each novel in his series is featured.) Schneider also created a series of “episodes” as music videos for the songs on Lonesome Dreams. (He is doing something similar for the Strange Trails album.)

Admittedly, this is a quirky approach to songwriting. The listener certainly doesn’t need to know about the characters and their back stories to enjoy the album, but I will say that his approach gives his albums a depth that is often missing in music. The lyrics aren’t bald statements or shallow rhymes, they are as complex and intriguing as the characters “speaking” them. Musically, the album is multi-layered and varied. The songs flow well together (intentionally so), yet there is a range of emotion that highlights the variety of perspectives through which the album “speaks.”

The combined effect is enjoyable and inspiring music with unusual depth. I haven’t figured the album out yet; it continues to draw me in. There are lines that immediately speak to me (“I had all and then most of you / some and now none of you…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do / haunted by the ghost of you”), but lines like these are more suggestive than clearly defined, and they set my imagination to work. In my opinion, this is how an artist taps into the power of music. So much of music’s power is its ability to suggest, to stir, to move. Music is deeply mysterious, so songs that leave no space for mystery or subtlety or reflection betray their art form; they are more sermons lying atop instrumentation than actual songs.

Lord Huron 2

So what can Christian artists learn from Lord Huron? I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should adopt Ben Schneider’s approach to creating art. But I do think every Christian artist, regardless of their particular medium, would do well to learn from the depth of Schneider’s work. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins recently criticized Christian musicians for simply imitating U2 for the last few decades. Corgan is obviously exaggerating, and he seems to be unaware of some recent trends in “Christian music,” but he is surely right to call Christians to greater originality in their art.

Many Christian artists are extraordinarily creative, and the world has benefited from the creativity of Christians throughout history. But we need to continually be inspired by the beautiful, reflective, mysteriously complex art of people like Ben Schneider. Christians, after all, believe that ultimate reality is the Creator—infinitely complex, deeply mysterious, worthy of never ending reflection and contemplation. And we believe that this Creator formed a world that is itself complex, mysterious, and full of meaning, along with a mini-creator capable of exploring the mystery and meaning that resides in all things. So in my opinion, Christians would do well to listen to the music of Lord Huron and be edified and inspired—not to imitate Schneider’s style or approach, but to create with the same pursuit of depth and meaning.

 

In the midst of busy seasons of life, the weight of everything I’ve committed to and everything that has been placed in my lap often becomes overwhelming. I run out of hours in the day, I’ve done without sleep a few (or a thousand) times too many, and my emotional stability deteriorates. I begin making mistakes in the projects I’ve taken on, and I sometimes have to wrap up projects before I feel they’re truly done.

In these times, I feel like I’m letting everyone down. I’m not living up to my full potential in my work, I’m not giving anyone the attention and care they deserve, and my “time with God” is lacking. I feel like I’m not being faithful in anything.

My guess is that you can relate, even if you wouldn’t state it quite so dramatically.

The best advice I’ve received for these times in life came from our (Eternity’s) president, Joshua Walker. I’ll recount my version of his advice in the following paragraphs.

Only you and God know everything that’s on your plate. When you’re in a busy season like this, you will legitimately be letting people down. They’ve asked you to complete certain projects and you’re not getting them done on the timeline or with the quality that’s expected of you. But the people you’re letting down don’t know everything you’re dealing with at the moment.

For example, my students may be submitting papers that don’t reflect their full potential. I may be disappointed with my students, and their grade will reflect this. But only God knows the full extent of what each person is handling.

Here’s something we know but struggle to believe: It doesn’t matter what other people think of you.

My students don’t need to please me. They need to please God. And if being faithful to God in the totality of their life means that they won’t have time to complete an assignment, my displeasure does not necessarily reflect God’s displeasure. My students are letting me down, but they may not be letting God down. (This line of thinking can be applied to every area of life: Letting down your boss, spouse, friends, kids, or students may not always mean letting God down.)

In the Christian worldview, success is not defined by productivity, profitability, or positive feedback. From a worldly perspective, Jonah was phenomenally successful. He went to Nineveh kicking and screaming, and pouted through the end of the story. But he preached a simple message and a wicked civilization turned to God in an epic revival. From a worldly perspective, Jeremiah was a terrible failure. Though he preached faithfully and did everything God asked of him, his life’s work failed to produce a single convert.

In modern terms, you want to be successful like Jonah, not insignificant like Jeremiah. But we know that biblically speaking, Jonah is the cautionary tale and Jeremiah is the success story.

Biblical success is all about faithfulness to God. Jeremiah was a huge success because he remained faithful to God, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Tired 1

Success in God’s eyes may look like failure in the world’s eyes. You may be letting everyone down. Your life may be an obvious failure by virtually every definition of that term. You may even feel like a failure yourself.

But there is only one person you need to please: God. And he is already pleased with you. If you are doing your best with your time and resources at the moment, it doesn’t matter what praise or promotions or grades you get. If you are wearing yourself out as you seek to glorify God by doing your best in the midst of an impossible situation, then you are succeeding. You may not be getting “the job” done, but God knows everything that’s on your plate. It doesn’t matter if everyone you know and love thinks you’re lazy, or incompetent, or scatterbrained. God knows. And he couldn’t possibly love you more.

God knows you better than you do. He knows what you’re capable of, even though you constantly mis-assess your abilities. He knows how much (or how little) you can get done, even when your own timelines are unrealistic. And he is pleased with you.

God wants you to be faithful, not superhuman. So if faithfulness is your goal, and if you’re pursing faithfulness with every resource God has given you, then you are a huge success—even if you’re failing.

Now, it could be that your stress and your overwhelming schedule are symptoms of your idolatrous pursuit of something other than God. Don’t waste your exhaustion; search your heart to see what needs to change. You may well be taking on more than you should in an effort to reach some unbiblical standard of success. You may be letting people down because you are prideful or lazy.

But as you examine your heart, carefully redirect your pursuits back to God. Make every effort to be faithful to him in the commitments you’ve made in your family life, in your church, in your job, in your schoolwork. And if you are striving to be faithful to him, know that he is pleased, know that he knows that you can only do what you can do, and know that that’s enough.

The Day Between

Joshua Walker —  April 4, 2015 — Leave a comment

Celtic CrossOn this day 1,982 years ago the men and women who had devoted their lives to following Jesus for the previous three years locked themselves in a room and brooded in despair and fear. Their Lord, the one they thought was the Messiah, was dead. Some of them had even been the ones to wrap His body and bury Him.

What transformed this group of fearful, despairing men and women into the group that would turn the world upside down? It was their witness of the risen Lord and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit 50 days later at Pentecost.

The full scope of what Jesus had accomplished at the cross was brought to light through those events: He had made a way for all men to be reconciled to God; He had initiated New Creation in the resurrection; and He had initiated the New Covenant which includes the incredible gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit!

Here we are, almost two thousand years later, and I want to ask you: Do you live in the Day Between, in fear and despair, or do you live in faith in the risen Lord and the power of His Holy Spirit given to us? Although today is the day that we remember the Day Between, we never have to live there again. He rose and is risen today! We can live in that reality each and every day: we don’t have to wait for tomorrow!

My prayer is that you would be encouraged in the reality that we serve a risen Lord! May we live in faith and power and not despair and fear. What is our King asking you to do today that requires faith and the power of His Spirit? Obey His calling with His power as you walk in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

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