Seek First to Understand: Can Public Discourse Be Saved?

We don’t understand each other.

And I’m not sure how hard we’re trying.

This is not a post about athletes or anthems, flags or protests. *Take a deep breath.* This is about how we talk— or more accurately— how we listen to one another.

Years ago, Stephen Covey wrote in his ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, we should ‘seek first to understand, and then to be understood’. So in the effort to aid our understanding of one another, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how controversial and heated topics can become a pathway into empathy, and lead to better public discourse. I want to reflect for a moment on emotions, symbols, and language.

I. Emotions.
We often think emotions are the problem. “Don’t be so emotional,” we say. “Just face the facts and forget your feelings.” We think this is how to “grow up”, as if the coldly logical Dr. Spock were the epitome of maturity.

But emotions are not flaws. They are part of the glory of being made in the image of God. The problem is not that we are “emotional”; the problem is that we do not know how to pay attention to our emotions.

Emotions, as Bob Roberts from Baylor has argued, are a mode of perception. They are a way of seeing the world based on what we care about. Or as my friend Adam Pelsar who teaches at the Air Force Academy says, emotions are the “eyes of our heart”.

When you’re angry, it’s because something that you care about is being obstructed. When you’re afraid, it’s because something you care about is being threatened. When you’re sad, it’s because something you care about has been lost.

Two people could have very different reactions to a rainy day. One could be sad, the other could be relieved. Rather than arguing by trying to convince each other that they should not feel what they feel, they could learn about the other by asking about what their emotion is saying. Perhaps the one who is sad about rain was hoping to go on a hike with their friend. Maybe the one who is relieved lived through a forest fire and was hoping for more moisture. You see, our emotions can be a way into understanding each other if only we’d stop being shocked or offended when someone responds to a situation with a different emotion than the one we’re feeling.

What if when we saw someone get emotional about something, or read an outburst on Facebook, we don’t respond with equal intensity to counter them? What if we learn to ask instead, “Tell me what are you most concerned about here?” “Help me understand why is this so important to you?”

Emotions can be a gateway into intimacy. If we learn to be attentive to our emotions, they can help us learn about ourselves. And better yet: they can help us gain empathy for each other.

II. Symbols.
Consider how symbols work. A symbol is not a code. A code has only one referent; a symbol has many. So what the flag means to one is not what it means to another. What the symbolic act of kneeling means for one is not what it means to another. That’s just how symbols work. And frankly, it’s what gives symbols their power. They are incredibly malleable and portable. They can easily be imported into very different contexts.

But this means that we cannot evaluate another’s symbolic act solely based on what that act symbolizes to us; we have to ask what it symbolized to them. When sociologists debate the meaning of ritualized acts, the focus is often on who determines the meaning. Is the meaning of an act pre-encoded in, or does it depend on the performer? Or, more confusing yet, does the meaning of a ritual depend on the impressions of the viewer? No matter how post-modern our perspective, the general sense is that the performer of a ritual has the most say about what the act means.

So if you want to know what the flag means to people who stand and salute, ask them what meaning they are assigning to their act of standing. And if you want to know what the act of kneeling in the anthem means to those who kneel, ask them. I know people in our congregation who have different perspectives on this. I said in a recent sermon that those who have sacrificed and served and suffered loss like the men and women in our military have will have a deeper understanding of allegiance and of the flag than those who haven’t. I also said in a different sermon that many of us have no way of comprehending the depth of the impact of racism, particularly toward African-Americans, in our country– from the slave trade to segregation, from redline laws and institutionalized bias.  I am learning to listen and to give voice to the people in our congregation who identify with each of these perspectives. Both groups have something profound that they’re trying to communicate. Are we listening?

Speaking of listening…

III. Language.
Stanley Hauerwas, the great theologian/ethicist, said that we can only act in the world that we see, and that we shape the world we see by the words we say. So, if you call a fetus a ‘pregnancy’, you would be more open to ‘terminating’ it. But if you call it a baby in the womb, you would never think of taking a life. Words matter.

Words in our public discourse matter not just because they have the power to wound or to heal— though, please God, help us pay more attention to that too! Words matter because they show us how we are seeing the world. They lead to how we act in the world.

What if we listened— really listened— to each other’s words? What if when someone says that they experience systemic racial injustice, we take the time to imagine the world that they see? What if when someone says they feel disrespected by an athlete who kneels, that their service and sacrifice has been trivialized, we listen to those words? Injustice. Sacrifice. Disrespect. Words matter.

Words can show us one another’s worlds. They can help us enter each other’s stories, feel each other’s pain.

But words can only do this if we listen. And if we allow our listening to provoke a holy curiosity.

Tell me, what is it like to fear being pulled over when you’ve done nothing wrong?

Tell me, what is it like to lose a friend in battle and to witness the flag being folded and presented to their grieving widow at his grave?

Let the power of words help us enter each other’s worlds.


Friends, the world is not yet aflame with strife. May God grant us the grace to use emotions, symbols, and language as a way to listen with more empathy that we might gain more understanding. Who can say, but we just might save public discourse yet.

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What Does It Mean to Be a Prophetic Church?

What does it mean to be prophetic? The word is thrown around a lot, but depending on which circles you run in, it means something quite different. If you’re in the charismatic crowd, being prophetic means speaking the ‘now’ word of God— bringing ‘fresh revelation’, and possibly even doing it in a way that is spontaneous and disruptive to the plan or the schedule. But if you run with justice-oriented Christ-followers, being prophetic is being bold, confrontational, and possibly disruptive not to a plan but to an order, a societal framework. How could the same word have such different connotations? What can we recover from the Biblical roots of the prophetic role?

In the Old Testament, two words are used to describe the prophet. The earlier of the two is the word ro’eh, which roughly means, ‘the one who sees’. Later, the more common word used for a prophet is nabi, which can be loosely translated as, ‘the one who speaks’, particularly, on behalf of another.

A prophet is one who sees a different world, and says a different word.

Specifically, a prophet is able to speak a revealing word because he sees something others don’t, something hidden to others. This is why the woman at the well in John 4 called Jesus a prophet– he revealed the truth about the number of men who had married and abandoned her. And this is why Paul is a prophet– because the mystery of the Gospel has been revealed to him. If we bring all this together, we can outline a sketch of what it means to be a prophetic church.

A Prophetic Church…
1. Sees Jesus as King and His Kingdom arriving here and now.

One of the major themes in the Old Testament is that the Creator-God is the King of His Creation (many of the Psalms praise God in this way). When we read the first few chapters of the Bible through that lens, we begin to understand that human beings were created to reflect the wise and loving rule of God the Creator-King into His creation. This is what having ‘dominion’ means. Yet, the fall was a rebellion that forfeited that privilege.

Until…the True Adam came as the world’s True King. When Jesus announced His Kingdom mission in Luke 4, He quoted Isaiah 61, where the anointing of the Spirit is the empowerment to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoner, and more. In Luke’s ‘Volume 2’— the Book of Acts— the Spirit is poured out on the Church so that this Kingdom mission can continue.

Paul argues through his letters in different ways that the Church participates in the Kingdom by confessing Jesus as ‘Lord’— the true sovereign of the world— and by living under His reign by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is at its prophetic best when it lives in a way the would make no sense unless Jesus is King, and His Kingdom really were arriving here and now. That is why a prophetic church does not divide up evangelism and miracles and justice. We see them as a threefold cord. A prophetic church announces the forgiveness of sins, healing for the sick, and justice for the oppressed in Jesus’ name.

2. Speaks the truth to power.

Our image of the prophet has to be shaped by the Old Testament’s regard for Moses as the greatest prophet in Israel. We don’t usually think of Moses as a prophet, but when we do, we understand that part of the prophetic call is speaking truth to power. In that light, Nathan’s rebuke of David and Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel all begin to make sense. Sometimes the prophet does the truth-telling through the voice of lament, as Jeremiah did.

Thus Jesus is prophetic not only because of His revealing the marriage history of the woman at the well, but also because of His confrontations with power. When Jesus overturned the tables of money-changers in the Temple, and when He defied Pilate— by reshaping his questions, refuting his claims to power, and even by refusing to answer— He was living out the prophetic vocation by speaking the truth to both religious and political powers. (Paul echoes these behaviors in his conversations with various religious and political rulers in the latter half of the Book of Acts.)

The early Christians were not killed because Christianity was a religion Rome did not like. Rome welcomed any and all religions, but they were particularly threatened by Christianity. Why? Because Christianity made a radical, new and exclusive claim: Jesus alone is the Lord of all, worthy of worship; all other gods must be renounced as false. Rome viewed this as a dangerous belief. And every time the Church gathered to worship, there were speaking the truth to power by confessing Jesus as the True Lord– using terms Caesar had applied to himself as political propaganda– and thus declaring the gods of Empire as false.

Every time we show the gods of our age to be false, and expose their claims as a lie, we are speaking the truth to power. We denounce the lie that economic prosperity is the source of joy, that sexual pleasure is the highest end of every relationship, that violence is the path to peace, that a people-group or nation matters more than another. Sometimes our voice is the voice of proclamation and confession; others it is the voice of lament. Both are forms of prophetic truth-telling.

3. Signposts toward the future.

Activism has many appealing qualities. It is better than doing nothing; it unites and mobilizes people toward a common cause. It can raise awareness and even adjust a widely-held cultural paradigm.

And yet, activism is not the same thing as being prophetic. The Church does not care for the poor or feed the hungry or speak for the marginalized for the same reason an activist does. They may be in the same march or use the same hashtag, but the Christian is motivated by something different than the activist. The Christian is not in this— ultimately— to create change or to solve problems. If this were so, then a Christian may weigh the odds of actually changing a situation before speaking up or acting. A Christian is driven to act and speak because she has seen a different future. Remember: a prophet says a different word because he sees a different world.

Every time the Church ‘welcomes the stranger’, forgives an enemy, shows mercy to the offender, or protects the vulnerable, we are a signpost to the future. We don’t do these things to be a good humanitarian or to solve a global crisis. We do it to point toward the day when the Kingdom comes in fullness, on earth as it is in heaven, when every tear will be wiped away, when suffering is no more.

Now more than ever, we need the Holy Spirit to help us live as a witness in the world of a different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom, arriving on earth as it is in heaven. May God give us the grace to live as a prophetic Church.

How the Past Can Rescue the Present

At the start of new year, most of our attention is focused on what lies ahead. It’s really one of the few times we take our eyes of the present moment and begin to imagine the future. My wife and I love praying and planning for the season ahead.

But I also love studying the past. I’m not a history buff, but I enjoy learning about previous eras, particularly of church history. As a pastor, I am often comforted in knowing that the Church has faced challenges and dilemmas like the ones in our day before. We can learn from both the mistakes they made and the wisdom they displayed.

There are two types of snobbery when it comes to a view of time. There is the snobbery of progress— what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’. It is the belief that everything newer is more evolved, more enlightened, more advanced or sophisticated. This is a temptation precisely because there are aspects of it that are true: we know more about how the human brain works, how addictions occur, how spirituality integrates holistically with emotions and actions; and on and on. But not everything current is an improvement. The passing of time is not the same as progress. And, as Lewis pointed out, a culture or society may forget what it once knew.

The second kind of snobbery is the snobbery of nostalgia. This is the view that everything older is better; that the more historic the thing is, the richer it is. The way things used to be is automatically assumed to be better than the way things are. This view fails to account for the problems and flaws of every paradigm, or the challenges in every age, or even the way an allegedly abstract principle is actually deeply shaped by the context of its geography, politics, and more.

So, why does the past matter? Why study it if its not actually better than the present? Why can’t we just concern ourselves with the ‘now’ work of God? Once again, C. S. Lewis offers an insight:

“…we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.”

Just as a person “who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village,” so the person who “has lived in many times” is “in some degree immune from the…nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

We study the past so that we do not become prisoners of the moment.

We study the past so that we can call into question the assumptions of our age.

We study the past so that we can gain an immunity from the myths of our day.

And so I press on…backwards to go forwards, free of the myopia of the moment. My current quest for chronological context includes reading this gem from Larry Hurtado (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh) on the unique qualities of early Christianity in the midst of both Jewish and pagan contexts.

Here’s one of the passages the struck me recently:

‘It is interesting that these pagan writers [in the first few centuries of Christianity] typically refer to Christians as dissonant and out of step, and as in tension with the larger culture of the time in some matters…Tacitus [the Roman writer around 112 AD who wrote on Nero’s accusations of Christians] claims that under Nero’s orders “an immense multitude” of Christians were arrested, who were convicted of “hatred of the human race,” and then were subjected to various forms of death.’

Huh. So, no matter how loving and kind Christians try to be, we still may be accused of being out of touch with the times (on the ‘wrong side of history’) and hateful? Well, now, that may challenge our paradigms.

But the rap on Christians in the first few centuries wasn’t all bad. Galen, a physician in the 2nd century, expressed ‘admiration for Christians, particularly for their courage in the face of death [not that the admiration for their courage was not a reason to rescind the death penalty!], their self-restraint in matters of sex, food, and drink, and their “keen pursuit of justice”.’ So, no need to tone down our admonishment of Christians today to embrace both a comprehensive view of justice and a temperate view of morality.

And yet, it may not be enough to keep people from viewing us– as Celsus the late second century pagan writer viewed early Christians– as ‘intellectually inferior people’.

There is so much more in Hurtado’s book that encourages and challenges me. And I think that’s the point: we need to study the past to see our own age more clearly.

We cannot compare the present to the future because we do not see the future clearly enough to know the implications of our theories and hypotheses. And we cannot live in the past as if the world remains unchanged. We must make two moves– the move to acquaint ourselves with the Church in previous eras, and then the move to see our own context with fresh eyes, and discern the Spirit’s work in us, here and now.

What We Sing About When We Sing About God

Ever wonder what we sing about?

Lester Ruth, Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School, decided to find out. Ruth examined the CCLI Top 25 lists for North America since those lists first appeared in 1989. He discovered that in the almost 25 years since, 100 songs had appeared in those lists.

He then indexed the nouns and verbs in those songs for a comparative study he was doing between contemproary worship songs and evangelical hymns. You can read his paper (with this appendix) HERE.

I offer four observations, listed here with no comment:

NOUNS: We address God generically– with no name– TWICE (8% of the songs) as often as we reference the Trinity (4% of the songs).

VERBS: We sing about human action roughly 1.5 times more (562 times) than we sing about divine action (380 times).

Our favorite verb for God? Save.

Our favorite verb for us? Praise.

But lest we get nostaligic about the “old hymns”, Ruth’s research was a comparative study of contemporary worship songs with Evangelical hymns, and the hymns (about 200 years old or so) don’t fare too much better. See his slides comparing verbs HERE and comparing nouns HERE.

 

Proclaiming our Faith in Worship: How the Creed Tethers Us to Our Story

One of the main reasons we gather as the people of God is to remind ourselves of who God is, what He has done to make us His people, and what it means to live as the people of God here and now. One of the key ways we do this is by proclaiming things that the Church has proclaimed throughout the centuries. When we rehearse these truths about God together, we remembed that we aren’t the first ones to travel thie Way, and that we aren’t the only ones who are following Christ now. In making these proclamations part of our worship, we keep ourselves tethered to the Story of God and His people.

Watch this 2-minute first:

Excerpt #1 from Chapter 3 of “Discover the Mystery of Faith”:

        The object of our faith is a Person, not a proposition. We do not place our lives in an idea or a doctrine or a system or a set of values. We place ourselves in the personal God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Proclaiming the creed, then, is an act of worship, not a recitation of doctrine. Faith, after all, is not simple agreement or the acknowledgment of certain propositions or hypotheses. Faith is the placing of your whole life within God, the only One who is faithful enough to hold your life, redeem it, and save it.

        There is no worship without faith, and there is no faith without worship. It is faith that leads us to worship and worship that enlarges our faith. Why should our greatest, most central and unifying profession of faith, the Nicene Creed, not be part of our congregational worship?

        …Early Christians spoke these words of worship and belief in the face of ridicule and scorn, confessed and clung to these words even when they knew that they could lead to their death. The creed, after all, didn’t form out of thin air at the Council of Nicaea. The words and phrases show up early in the Church’s life, early enough for Paul to say that he himself was only passing on what had been given to him.

        The question we must ask is this: “What sort of faith will we hand down to our children?”

        If the rope is no longer tethered to the house, how will we find our way home as we wander about in the snow? And how will we lead our children there? What will keep their faith? Unless we remain tied to our Story, our faith is sure to flounder. Worse yet, it may die with us.

Excert #2 from Chapter 3 of “Discover the Mystery of Faith”:

        Proclamations like the Nicene Creed remind us that we are not the first and we are not the only. It is also important to remember that the Creed is not the only proclamation that does this for us. There is also “The Lord’s Prayer” and many of the aforementioned creedal formulas or statements in Paul’s New Testament letters. There are the old Hebrew prayers and the Psalms, as we explored last chapter. There are also the early Christian songs—songs based on Mary’s song (the Magnificat), Zecharias’ song (the Benedictus), and Simeon’s song (the Nunc Dimittis).

        All of these are old, well-worn words, prayed by mothers and fathers and sons and daughters in times of trial and on occasions of joy. These words form paths, a trail to walk on. When we say them, sing them, or pray them with worship and faith in our hearts we can remember how many others have prayed these words before us. We can think of the great church fathers, the Bishops and theologians, the peasants and farmers, the missionaries and martyrs. We can imagine all the saints around the world who gather each week on the Lord’s Day and say these very same words and sing them and pray them with one voice.

        All of a sudden, we are no longer alone. We are caught up in the great company of saints, praying alongside David and Jeremiah and Paul. We realize that we are not the first to face despair or hunger or fear. We are not the only ones desperate for mercy and redemption. Our joy of being found by God’s grace is multiplied in the praise of all the saints, in heaven and on earth.

        We are not walking up this mountain alone.

        The beauty of this truth came to me not in a Gothic cathedral or a remote monastery, but in a dusty cement building in the middle of an African village. I was on a trip to Swaziland—a country with the highest rate of HIV infection in the world—when we visited a community of orphaned and vulnerable children that our church supports through a partnership with Children’s Hope Chest. We greeted the local pastor who visited these children several times a week. We met the women who cooked them meals with the money that came in from our sponsorship.

        And then came the children. Singing. Dancing. Playing. Thrilled with stickers and face paint and games and songs and stories and lessons, they made the afternoon pass like a heavenly moment. When one of the local ministers stood to conclude our time, she told the children that it was time to pray together.

        I closed my eyes, waiting for a short, sincere prayer. Instead, in stumbling unison, their voices rose.

        Our Father, who art in heaven,

        Hallowed be Thy name.

        Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

        My eyes opened, blurring with tears. I caught the eyes of the others on our team. We gently shook our heads, all of us thinking the same thing: We pray this prayer…almost every Sunday!

        Give us this day our daily bread.

        Oh…what this simple, biblical phrase meant for these children. I could never say these words the same way again.

        Forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

        Like the parents who abandoned them? Like the family members who chose a life that led to disease and ultimately to their demise, leaving these children to fend for themselves?

        For Thine is the Kingdom,

        the power and the glory,
        forever and ever,
Amen.

        Amen. There is a rope to ties us to our Story; it is the same rope that binds us to each other. It reminds us that even in the most fearsome storm, when faith is all we have to guide us for our sight has gone, we will not falter.

        Others have come this Way before.

        Others walk it even now.

        The Creed, the prayers, the Psalms, and the Scriptures…all of these bind us to the Story, tether us to the narrative of God’s redemption.

        May we all find our way home.

——————–

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What Makes A Worship Song Uniquely Christian?

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A few posts ago, I started the conversation about what our worship songs communicate about God and why that matters. Then, earlier this week, I was asked to write down some thoughts on songwriting for a booklet that will be distributed at a certain conference coming up in Australia. While I can’t be certain what bits of what I sent will make it and what won’t (it was rather lengthy!), here is an excerpt that I thought might be a nice follow-up to my earlier post of what is at stake in our worship lyrics.]

What do our songs and prayers say about God? If we were to construct our church’s theology solely based on the lyrics we sang, what kind of “God” would that be? And more to the point, could our lyrics be applied to a generic deity or is there anything uniquely Christian about the God they depict?

It is not enough to simply say “God” in our songs. Which “God”? The one Oprah describes, the one Deepak Chopra worships? People in America are filling in the blanks in their own minds of the “God” we’re talking about and the picture of God is often disfigured as a result. I can’t speak for what the view of “God” is in other countries and cultures, but one would think that in countries where many distinct religions abound—like in Malaysia, the country I grew up in—it only becomes more important that we are saying and singing things that are uniquely Christian.

So, what makes a song uniquely Christian?

1.    Christo-centric
This is a fancy way of saying our songs should focus on Jesus the Messiah. We need to sing about His pre-eminence, how He co-created the world with the Father, how He left His throne in heaven and became a man, how He suffered death and was buried, how he rose again conquering sin and defeating the evil that has infected the cosmos, how He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, how He will return in glory to judge the world and set it right and make all things new. (There. I have summarized what the creeds have said about Jesus!)

And in saying all these things we should name Him. We can do better than a generic “You.” His name is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the rightful King of the World.

2.    Trinitarian
The Trinity is not a concept to be understood; they are Persons to be worshipped. But we are not helping that cause by not naming Them in our worship. And we make things worse when we get muddle “Who is doing what.” The early apostles went to great lengths to help us assign the right roles and functions to the right Persons of the Trinity (The Father as Creator, the Son as Savior, the Spirit as Life-Giver, etc). We would do well to pay attention to that in our writing.

This mysterious belief in God as three Persons is uniquely Christian. We are not praying to, singing to, or following an amorphous, monolithic Hero-God. We are drawn up into the Divine dance, the communion of the Tri-Personal God. If we’re looking for help in understanding the distinct roles, we can, once again, turn to the Nicene Creed—the only statement of Christian faith accepted by every stream of the Body of Christ, both Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant (and rejected by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other cults and religions that would like to be called “Christian”).

As I wrestle with this, I am not yet convinced that every song needs to be overtly Trinitarian by acknowledging all three Persons. A song could be aimed at one Person of the Trinity. (Think of a song about Yahweh as Creator-God, the Almighty Father, or about Jesus the Redeemer and King, or about the Holy Spirit as the Comforter or God’s “empowering presence” with us.) But even in doing this we are acknowledging the God we worship as three-in-one.

If you were to comb through the catalog of my songs (you might first need a powerful search engine to find them!), you would discover that many of my songs simply address “God” or “You”.  Many of them are not Christo-centric or Trinitarian, and some, worse yet, are not even uniquely Christian. Much of that I regret. This journey for me is only a year or so old. But I want to write songs that are uniquely Christian and that help people live our truly Christian lives as a result. Would you join me on the journey and embrace the challenge?

N. T. Wright: “God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil”

What does our culture think of evil? Why do we pretend it doesn't exist until it hits us in the face? And what has God done about it? Is He distant and watching, waiting? Or is He working from within His creation? Does the cross address more than our personal sin? In this brilliant guest lecture from N. T. Wright, given on a visit to Seattle Pacific University, he addresses what he calls the "new problem of evil" and what Jesus has done– and what He will do– about it.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=10785299&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=&fullscreen=1

NT Wright: "God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil from Glenn Packiam on Vimeo.

Click HERE for the link of the near-exact transcript of the talk.