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As I parked my car for our early morning pre-service band rehearsal and pulled my guitar out of the trunk, I realized that I had already been worshiping. No, Chris Tomlin had not been on my car stereo, nor was I listening to sermon podcasts. I hadn’t meant to worship (that sounds lame), but I had my eyes and ears open, and it just happened. Here’s how.

As I began driving to our church building, the sun was just preparing to rise. Everything was partially lit with the blue light that precedes sunrise. I drove West, and my rearview mirror displayed a gradually lightening sky with varying shades of deep blue as the sun reflected off of the Eastern clouds. Looking ahead, the moon was sitting low and shining brightly in the even deeper blue sky, shining through some wispy blue clouds. It was the kind of predawn that almost makes early mornings sound like a good idea.

All this I saw with my eyes, but my ears were busy too. I was listening to “Miasma Sky” by Baths (see the video below), a song I am only just becoming acquainted with, and it was killing me. The instrumentation and arrangement are so beautiful, so reflective. It’s nothing like a worship song, but the few and simple lyrics are about being swallowed up (in a foreboding way) by the grandeur of nature. This, too, was incredibly moving.

As I drove, I felt myself drawn into worship.

Then my former semi-fundy self questioned the validity of this experience. There have been times in my not-so-distant-past when I would have considered it fluffy, mystic, or “emergent” (my past self not understanding any of those terms) to be led to worship by a sunset and a “secular” song. So in the final moments of my drive I asked myself, “Is there a biblical basis for what I’m experiencing right now?” And I answered myself, “Yes, I think so.” (Apparently I have a very active and formal inner dialogue.)

Both aspects of my experience (being led to worship by non-religious sights and sounds) are easily explained both biblically and theologically. Psalm 19 insists that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Romans 1 says that God, from the moment of creation, has been revealing himself through the things he has made.

So I saw beauty, and I saw God. He’s the God of beauty. He’s the God in beauty. Ann Voskamp says it insightfully: “See beauty and we know it in the marrow, even if we have no words for it: Someone is behind it, in it.” His lights and colors were streaming through the universe on my short drive, and I beheld his manifold grace.

Likewise, I heard beauty, and I heard God. His name wasn’t spoken, but the sounds that he designed and made possible were being pushed into the air from my speakers. Those sounds travelled in waves through the cab of my car, obediently following the laws of physics that God instituted. They struck my eardrums, which resonated accorded to God’s design. And my brain, following God’s impossibly complex instructions, interpreted those fleshy vibrations as beauty.

It goes even beyond that, actually. Those sounds found their way onto my iPod because God ingrained human beings with the ability and inclination to experiment and create. He carefully chose the musical gifts he would give to the musicians in the band Baths. He formed a musical universe that through the creativity of his human beings would eventually yield guitars and drums and a host of beauty creating instruments. And the eventual result was “Miasma Sky” flowing through my speakers in the early dawn, filling my ears as the color filled my eyes, and drawing my heart to the beauty of the Creator.

So I say to my former semi-fundy self: “Yes, I was right to worship.” As the old hymn says:

“This is my Father’s world
He shines in all that’s fair
In the rustling grass I hear him pass
He speaks to me everywhere.”

Here’s to impromptu worship sessions. May we find them often and everywhere.

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When Katy Perry’s song “Roar” released in October 2013, I almost wrote a blog post about it. As much as I like the song (and my young daughters are constantly requesting it), I was going to point out what I saw as naïveté in the lyrics.

Perry sings about how life used to be, how she used to be insignificant, a zero. But now she’s dominating life. Why? Because she has the eye of the tiger. She’s a champion, and we’re gonna hear her roar.

What struck me as naïve is that simply calling yourself a champion does not make you a champion. I thought of the people who love that song. People who are feeling broken, oppressed, overwhelmed. These people would be singing “Roar” at the top of their lungs, thinking that declaring themselves champions and threatening to roar (and what would that actually mean in anyone’s real life situation?) would help them conquer their circumstances.

I almost wrote that blog post. But then I came across a handful of videos on Youtube that changed my mind. These were videos of cancer patients singing “Roar” with frail voices and absolute sincerity. Videos of down-syndrome teenagers singing “Roar” while footage rolled of them trying out and making the cheerleading squad. Real tearjerkers. (Scroll to the bottom of the post for a couple of examples—grab your kleenex.)

On the one hand, these people have debilitating and/or life-threatening diseases. Is declaring themselves champions and threatening to roar going to relinquish the strangle-hold of cancer or reverse the pervasive effects of a genetic disorder?

But on the other hand. On the other hand, these are champions. These are fighters. Whatever the eye of the tiger is, they’ve got it. These are boys and girls whose souls have withstood the crushing blows of cancer, even if their bodies are crumbling. These are teenagers with a zeal for life who refuse to sit in the background, even though society has not offered them any alternatives. They have spent their precious little lives roaring louder than lions, even if their vocal chords can’t produce more than whispers.

This stopped my original blog post in its tracks. It’s true that declaring oneself a champion is not going to reverse the oppressive and debilitating forces in a person’s life. But music has a power to express what lies beneath the surface of our thought lives. It names that which we feel but haven’t had the inclination, ability, or opportunity to explore.

So a weakened woman in an abusive relationship might listen to “Roar” and be reminded that she is more than her manipulative spouse declares her to be. A dying patient might hear this song and exult in the declaration that he will not go down without a fight, and that even if the illness steals his body, his soul will not be defeated.

What can a song do? Indeed. What can a song do other than inspire the resilient spirit of those who have a hidden reserve of strength in their bones? What can a song do other than rally those who have forgotten that in this world are things worth fighting for? What can a song do other than remind us of what we’ve always known but never expressed?

Music is powerful stuff. So I’m glad I procrastinated on my lame blog post. I’m glad that Katy Perry roared, and thereby inspired many others to do the same.

Christ-Myth Angels

Joey Dodson —  December 23, 2013

I watched the “Nativity” movie with my family the other night. Afterwards I concluded: “Aside from some minor inaccuracies, the film wasn’t bad.” To which my clever daughter quipped:  “Well, the Book’s a lot better.”

Similarly, I’d have to say that when I look around at most of the modern renditions of Christmas: the Book’s indeed a whole lot better. One conspicuous example is Christmas angels. During this holiday season, it seems there is an angel around every corner. We recognize them by their wings. But in the Bible, angels don’t really have wings. I guess they could have wings if we equated them with the likes of the cherubim in Ezekiel or the seraphim in Isaiah. Cherubim, however, have four faces and their bodies are covered with eyes. And seraphim have—not two wings—but six. I admit it would be fun to replace the Christmas angels in our manger scenes with creatures such as these. Can you imagine the fright it would cause if we redecorated the angel costumes in our pageants as these figures? (Add some Revelation 12 to the mix and we got the makings of a Peter Jackson movie.) But alas, I doubt that the angels who proclaim “In Excelsis Deo” to the Shepherds in Luke represent the same heavenly creatures in Isaiah who cry “Holy, Holy, Holy…”  (Unless they are shape-shifters! How cool would that be?)

Now that I have ruined nativity scenes for some of you, allow me to tackle one more possible angelic misconception: the guardian angel. John Calvin argues that to say whether or not each believer has a single guardian angel assigned to her goes beyond what Scripture says. Or better: it does not go far enough.

Sure when Jesus says that the angels of children always behold the face of the Father, the Lord insinuates that there are certain angels to whom the kids’ safety has been entrusted. But perhaps it is a stretch to infer from this that each believer has her very own angel. Rather than being protected merely by one single angel, the Bible suggests that all of the angels watch for our safety. Why do we want a single special guardian, when we have an entire heavenly host watching out for us? According to Calvin, when we limit God’s care to a single angel, we do “great injury to ourselves and to all the members of the Church.” We do so by denying the value in God’s promises of auxiliary troops, who encircle and defend us so that we are emboldened to fight with all our might. Calvin goes on to apply this point to believers. Since the Lord has provided us with protection (not of one angel, but of myriads of them), “let us not be terrified at the multitude of our enemies, as if they could prevail.” Rather, let us adopt the sentiment of Elisha: “There are more for us than against us!”

As I was typing in haste one day, I made an embarrassing typo. Instead of Angel of the Lord, I typed, ‘Angle’ of the Lord. In the delirium that comes at the end of a semester for professors, I began to mock myself. Was he a “right” angle or an “acute” one? Although some Christ-myth mistakes make us laugh, there are some that are very dangerous. One that stems back to the early church and remains a clear and present danger is for us to be more fascinated with the angels of the Lord than we are with His presence. With or without his angels, whom shall we fear when the Lord of Hosts is on our side? We are confident that nothing-nothing-nothing can separate us from the love of God through his Son. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are great and all, but at the end of the day and in the thick of the fray, it is through Christ that we are more than conquerors.

As most of you probably know, Phil Robertson of the uber popular reality TV program “Duck Dynasty” made some news-stirring comments yesterday about phil robertsonhomosexuality. To quote the most cited comment, Robertson said:

“It seems to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

He goes on to talk about the effects of homosexuality:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

Robertson’s flippant comments have produced a vitriolic response from people of all moral leanings. Conservative Christians are ticked that a Robertson has been condemned for being honest, while the LGBT community and its sympathizers are outraged at the crudeness of his rhetoric.

Now, many people would consider me a conservative Christian. I believe the Bible is true. I believe Jesus Christ is Lord over all things. And I believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. If this makes me conservative, then I’m conservative.

However, while many conservatives probably line up with Phil Robertson and his remarks—perhaps wondering what the problem is and bemoaning our secular culture for hanging a man for being honest—I want to say that I was offended and discouraged at Phil’s remarks. (Probably more so by his comments about African Americans during the Jim Crow era, but that’s for another blog.)

First of all, I’m disappointed that homosexuality was reduced to sex. I know a lot of gay people who think in terms of companionship, intimacy, and friendship when they reflect on their attraction to the same gender. So, Robertson’s comments about a vagina vs. an anus is naïve, offensive, and misses the point of the whole debate over homosexuality; yes, even to me—a straight Christian who is a conservative Christian.

Second, Roberston doesn’t show any desire to empathize with people who are attracted to the same sex. I want to ask Roberston: “What about the 15 year old Awana champ, who through no desire of his own is attracted to guys? Or what about those women, who were raped respectively by their fathers and therefore are committed to finding companionship in lesbian relationships that have little to do with sex?” Homosexuality is much more complicated than what the A & E star has made it out to be. Now, like Roberston, I’m straight. I will always be straight. And even though I can only identify with those who struggle with heterosexual sins, I desire to empathize with those whose who are attracted to the same gender. Contrary to Robertson’s off-handed comments, there are many people who have unwanted same sex attraction, and Robertson’s comments will do nothing to minister to these people.

Third, I’m disappointed that many millions of Americans will take Robertson’s views as typical of conservative Christians. They’re not. I’m a conservative Christian. And I’m not homophobic. I’m not anti-gay. I’m not even creeped out when I see two dudes holding hands, or two girls kissing. I’m just not. Now, I still believe, with Robertson, that homoeroticism is contrary to God’s will, and I’ve written 20 previous blogs exploring this question. However, this does not mean that I hate gay people (quite the opposite), or that I think gay and lesbians are sick and twisted—I don’t. I have no animosity, hatred, disgust, or disdain toward people attracted to other beautiful humans of the same gender. So I therefore would never make comments about a vagina vs. an anus as Roberston did, even though I believe, with Roberston, that acting on homoerotic desires is prohibited in the Bible. In short, even though Roberston and I share similar beliefs, I’m terribly disappointed at his comments about homosexuality.

Fourth—get over it. Phil Robertson is one human being who expressed views shared by many millions of humans—billions, actually—around the world. The buzz created by his comments is fueled by an idolatrous American culture that considers authoritative the comments and opinions of movie stars over experts in the field. And this is sad. The fact that Robertson’s comments—the opinion of one human being—has created such a stir is proof, if proof were needed, that America places on a pedestal the opinions of ordinary people who found their way in front of a camera.

So, to my LGBT friends: “Please don’t consider Phil Robertson’s comments as representative of all conservative Christians. They’re not. Take it with a grain of salt and try to befriend a local Christian. You may be surprised.”

And to my conservative Christian friends: “Try befriending someone who is gay or lesbian and you’ll discover a reservoir of creational, image-bearing ingenuity and creativity that can be delighted in. And you will see that the gay vs. straight question is much more than a debate about a vagina vs. a man’s anus.”

Immanuel in the Shopping Mall

Mark Beuving —  December 18, 2013
Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) Kicking Santa Claus in the movie Christmas Vacation.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) kicking Santa Claus in the movie Christmas Vacation.

Amidst the hectic nature of the Christmas season, squeezed within the crowds of our shopping malls, and frantically moving from one get-together to the next, we need to remember one essential Christmas truth: Immanuel.

I’m not talking about loosening up your Christmas schedule. I’m not asking you to forego your annual visit to Santa, to boycott those non-Christian Christmas movies, or to sing only churchly Christmas carols. I don’t mean to imply that we simply remember that Jesus is the reason for the season or to suggest that we take some time to focus on him this Christmas. Not at all.

No, what we need to remember this Christmas season is Immanuel. The life-changing truth of Christmas is the advent of Immanuel. God-with-us, which is literally what Immanuel means, is the reality that transforms every aspect of life. The Old Testament is all about God’s presence. The Garden of Eden was all about God-with-us. The post-sin promises in Genesis 3 were about the restoration of God-with-us. The tabernacle and temple were about God-with-us. The exile was the tragic realization that God-is-no-longer-with-us. And the positive side of the message of the prophets was the hope of God-with-us.

And then Jesus was born, and God was with us. In the most profound sense imaginable. He was a human being, walking amongst human beings, teaching us from our midst, guiding and healing us as he stood next to us. And even when Immanuel rose from the grave and returned to the Father, God-with-us was still a present reality. In fact, when Immanuel ascended, he left us with Immanuel on steroids (so to speak).

Jesus was God-with-us in that God walked in our midst. As amazing as that is, Jesus sent an even more intense version of God-with-us to take his place: the Holy Spirit. Now God-with-us means that he lives not beside us, but within us. He is with us on the inside, transforming, convicting, and guiding us. Immanuel has never meant more.

Now back to the point. As we elbow our way through the Christmas crowds, God-is-with-us. As we stand in line for a photo with Santa, God-is-with-us. As we gather with our families, give and receive gifts, sing Christmas carols, and give and receive the worst (or best, depending on your perspective) white elephant gifts, God-is-with-us.

It’s not about abandoning one for the sake of the other. It’s not about taking time away from the shopping mall to think about Jesus. When you walked into that shopping mall, God was with you. And he’s with you still now. And now. And now. He is everywhere in your Christmas schedule. You do it all—shopping, Santa, and singing—by God’s side, or better, with God inside. Immanuel.

So it doesn’t matter if you go to see Santa or watch a movie in which he stars. God is with you. View Santa through eyes of faith and you have nothing to fear. It doesn’t matter if you over-gift your kids or feel a rush of delight as you drink a peppermint mocha at Starbucks. God is with you. If you do these activities as a transformed and transforming bearer of the very Spirit of God, then these “distractions” cannot possibly pull you away from the Christ of Christmas, because he’s already there. On the inside. Immanuel.

So as you navigate this Christmas season, just remember one all-important truth: Immanuel.

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