Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Secret Service Misses by That Much

Maybe these Secret Service failures are what we need for a helpful does of bipartisanship in Washington.

Just as the water cooler jokes were beginning to grow stale regarding the intruder on White House grounds September 19, we learned yesterday that the intruder made it not just onto the lawn of the Executive Mansion, or to the entryway, or even an interior hallway - but all the way to the East Room. 

Apparently, nobody had bothered to lock the main door to the White House.

Let that sink in a minute.

Here we have the most important residence in the world, whose front door was literally unlocked.  An alarm box near the front door had been muted at the request of "the usher's office," whatever that is - and it doesn't sound like an officious enough office to be making security decisions.

And then the guard who captures the intruder?  He'd just rotated off of his shift, and was heading out of the mansion on his way home.  He just happened to notice the commotion being caused by the intruder, and tackled him just outside of the East Room.

Or, at least, that's the version currently being offered by the Secret Service.  Accounts of the event have varied since a grainy video of the intruder on the White House lawn went viral last week.  Today, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was grilled by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee - another hearing! - and while her version of the security breach offers no new details, it's clear that a department with the word "secret" in its name is having a hard time with both the "secret" and "service" aspects of their mission.

By the numbers, the Secret  Service could claim it's mostly doing its job.  In the past year, 16 people have tried to climb over the wrought-iron fence ringing the White House grounds, and only last week's intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was able to elude security.  Hey - one out of sixteen isn't a bad record, is it?

Well, no, except when we're talking about the White House.

It goes to show you how gullible even a cynic like me can be.  Here I've been, all these years, for some reason thinking that sharpshooters were stationed on the roof of the White House, that security cameras constantly monitored every square foot of both the house and its lawn, and that the perimeter fencing bristled with motion detection equipment.  I've heard anecdotal stories about how tiny machine guns are hidden under grass-covered trap doors across the lawn, and how cameras planted within trees and the well-manicured shrubbery secretly record the premises.  Someplace, a secret bunker staffed with agents constantly monitoring these gadgets are on hair-trigger alert for anything out of the ordinary.  Think James Bond, Hogan's Heroes, and Mission Impossible, right?

Apparently, however, what any occupant of the White House gets is mostly a remake of Get Smart.  In reality, at least according to our government's non-classified version, the layers of security ordinarily deployed by the Secret Service are disappointingly unsophisticated, and rely almost exclusively on humans doing the right things at the right time.  This is how the Washington Post describes their plan:

"The agency relies on these successive layers as a fail-safe for protecting the president and the White House complex.

"In this incident, a plainclothes surveillance team was on duty that night outside the fence, meant to spot jumpers and give early warning before they made it over.  But that team did not notice Gonzalez.  There was an officer in a guard booth on the North Lawn.  When that officer could not reach Gonzalez, there was supposed to be an attack dog, a specialized SWAT team and a guard at the front door — all at the ready.

"The dog was not released, a decision now under review.  Some people familiar with the incident say the handler probably felt he could not release the dog, because so many officers were in pursuit of Gonzalez and the dog may have attacked them instead."

Of course, the Secret Service has as its defense the fact that neither President Obama nor any member of his family were in the White House, or on its grounds.  The President and his daughters had left ten minutes ago for Camp David, and Michelle Obama and her mother, who reportedly lives with the family and helps supervise her granddaughters, were elsewhere as well.  So the most any intruder could have done was attack a member of the Secret Service, or a member of the mansion's housekeeping staff.

Nevertheless, again, the big point here is that this building we're talking about is the White House.  The place where presidents of the United States live.  The place where presidents of the United States entertain foreign heads of state and other influential dignitaries.  Not only that, but it's full of historically important antiques, and stands as an elegant symbol of peaceable democracy, since its occupants move into and out of it at the whim of America's electorate.

And the Secret Service leaves its front door unlocked?

Not to be outdone, the Secret Service apparently perpetrated yet another horrendous gaffe on the President, earlier in September, when the Commander-in Chief was allowed to ride in an elevator in Atlanta with an unvetted contractor.

Turns out, that unvetted contractor has three prior convictions for assault and battery.  When Secret Service agents ran a background check on the fellow, and discovered his criminal past, he was fired on the spot.  Imagine their additional embarrassment, however, when the just-fired contractor accepted being fired, and offered to turn over the gun he had on his person!  The Secret Service had no idea the guy was carrying a weapon.

And he rode in an elevator an arm's length from the President of the United States.

Of course, there are times during the course of any presidency when the Commander-in-Chief is out and about with the general public, like the Obama family was during their Cape Cod vacation this past summer.  Obviously, the Secret Service cannot vet every single person who might be able to come into firing rage of the President.  But the Secret Service should be able to exercise a considerable level of discretion when it comes to the people they allow to ride with the President in an elevator.

It's this discretion that the Secret Service appears to be increasingly unwilling - or unable- to exercise that is capturing the the collective consternation of elected officials in Washington.  Bipartisan surprise and anger over the way the Secret Service is protecting the President appears to be bubbling up on Capitol Hill, with both Republicans and Democrats calling for answers and fixes.

After all, not only does the Secret Service protect Democrats, but they're also expected to protect Republicans.  And even though plenty of rancor exists across America's political spectrum these days, it's at least heartening to hear members of both parties say that even Barak Obama's life and health, as well as the life and health of his family, should be of primary importance to all of us.  That's the way it should be, and we need to remember that "health" applies not only to the First Family's physical health, but also their mental and emotional health - two things that likely are frequent casualties from the slings and arrows of unwarranted harassment, gossip, rhetoric, and unvarnished hate speech from their detractors.

But let's get back to that front door thing at the White House.  One little item we learned from Director Pierson today involved her department's inability until after September 19 to remotely control that lock.  Up until Gonzalez' intrusion, the bolt had to be turned to lock by hand.  Just like you do for your front door.  Pierson says that's no longer the case at the White House, as if that news is any solace.

On the one hand, don't you feel like welcoming the Secret Service to the Twentieth  Century?  "Hey, did you know they have remote-control electronic lock thingeys now?"

On the other hand, doesn't it make you suspect that maybe they're still using the Cone of Silence at the White House?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Believe It: House GOP Warms to lllogic

Ironically, this first part of our story makes sense.

Visit the website for your Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, run by the U.S. House of Representatives, and you get a fairly accurate picture of how things work in Washington.

Okay, yeah:  the first picture you'll probably notice on this website is a portrait of the committee's chairman, Lamar Smith; a Texan wearing either a mis-colored toupee or two-tone hair.

The second thing you'll realize, after spending some time surfing it, is that for a website supposedly celebrating a committee overseeing the amazing fields of science, space, and technology, we can't find any archived record of committee hearings.  No video; not even a text document with a rote transcription of committee hearings.

How are we supposed to know what's going on in these hearings, with such a dearth of record keeping?

I wanted to find a verbatim account of a committee hearing that took place on September 17, 2014, when their topic was climate change.  The committee, headed by Republican Smith, had a blatantly partisan title for that hearing:  "The Administration’s Climate Plan: Failure by Design."  And, yes, they provide links to PDFs for the biased Chairman Smith, as well as the committee's officious-looking, pre-produced summary document for the hearing.  Supposedly there's also an archived "webcast" of the hearing, but when I click on its link, the download file I get is a mere 187 bytes, and while I'm not a computer guru, I'm pretty sure no video or sound file of a 2-hour hearing is byte-sized.

Now, remember:  This is the website for the science and technology politicos in the House of Representatives.  Gives you a lot of confidence, doesn't it?  Kinda reminds me of goofy Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, late senator from across the Capitol Building, and his "tubes" analogy for the Internet.

Good thing we have the Daily Show and Jon Stewart, who managed to get some video from this particular hearing, and found that even though Senator Stevens is no more, Washington's Republicans still give the mainstream media plenty to work with when it comes to skewering how policy is conducted in what's supposed to be the greatest nation on the planet.

The topic, remember, was climate change.  A politically-sensitive subject, to be sure, because there are a lot of theories in it, and not a lot of scientific laws.  Many Republicans, whose major contributors are in the fossil fuel business, want to see facts adding up to direct cause-and-effect relationships before they ever begin to say global warming climatologists may have a point after all.

So the committee's Republicans in this hearing, putting on a stoic face for their constituents in the energy industry, tried stonewalling against a scientist from a government panel who'd been brought before them to be grilled over scary global warming prognostications.

Steve Stockman, a Republican from Texas, tried floating the red herring of "global wobbling," which, although sounding like bad science, is an actual scientific theory related to global warming.  Unfortunately for Stockman, however, global wobbling is modeled on a minimum of 22,000-year intervals, whereas global warming science is based on 100-year increments.


For his part, Larry Bucshon, a Republican from Indiana, didn't even try to sound scientific.  "I don't believe it," he bluntly stated, referring to both global warming, and studies by climatologists claiming to prove global warming is taking place.

And why doesn't Representative Bucshon believe what scientists are saying about global warming?  Because climate science is their profession, and Bucshon believes they're simply producing studies to keep themselves employed as climatologists.

Of course, Bucshon hopes nobody notices that, as a politician, he's pulling the same alleged stunt, acting in the greedy interests of his campaign funders so he can remain a Federal employee on Capitol Hill.  Regardless of how logical a scientific theory may or may not be.

Bucshon said he bases his information about the fallacy of climate change not from scholarly science periodicals, but from anecdotal chatter and gossip on the subject.  Wow, that sure gives me a lot of confidence in the methodologies of our elected officials!  It's like Bucshon gets his version of reality not from a vetted website article, but from the anonymous reader feedback comments that follow it.

For what it's worth, I'm not convinced that global warming is a reality, or that it's the type of reality global warming's most vocal alarmists are trying to excite the general public into believing it is.  Yet I'm embarrassed by Stockman and Bucshon.

No wonder there's no link to this hearing's video on the committee's website!

And then Republicans wonder why they can't sell their other messages to the American electorate.

Gay marriage, for example?  Many Republicans believe gay marriage is immoral.  Yet traditional marriage advocates get easily frustrated when nearly half of all Americans say they don't believe gay marriage should be forbidden.

"I don't believe it."  Simple as that, right?

Why do Republicans get upset when people believe gay marriage is okay?  One of the reasons likely has to do with Republican politicians like Bucshon pulling their own beliefs out of thin air - or their campaign contributors' wallets.

Now, granted, any politician is Constitutionally guaranteed the right to not believe something, and to not act on something which they oppose.  But with climate change, we're talking about an emerging science that may not be proven, but is at least plausible.  After all, scientists tell us we had an Ice Age, and our planet has warmed up considerably since then, right?  What's to say that warming isn't kicking into gear again?  And being facilitated this time by all of the chemicals we've pumped into the atmosphere?

"I don't believe it."  Okay, so House Republicans like Bucshon say they don't believe global warming science.  Upon what other credible, scientific evidence do they then refute global warming science?  Simply not reading what scientists claim to be evidence for global warming isn't a logical refutation of the alleged science, is it?

"I don't believe it."

Meanwhile, if that's all one side thinks the other side need to hear, should it suddenly sound idiotic when said by the opposition?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Joy, Cynicism as Pilgrim to the Lovely

How lovely is Thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts
For my soul, it longeth, yea fainteth for the courts of the Lord
My soul and body crieth out, yea for the living God!
Blest are they which dwell within Thy house
They praise Thy name evermore!
How lovely is Thy dwelling place.
- Adapted by Johannes Brahms

For anybody who spends a lot of time on my blog, you would well wonder what in the world gives me joy.  I seem to complain a lot, don't I?

Once, the publisher of a book I raked over the coals in my review of it for Crosswalk.com, complained to my editor that I'm certainly having a hard time justifying the "recovering" part of being a "recovering cynic."  Just yesterday, I became particularly morose after discovering that all of the articles I'd read on evangelical websites that morning I strongly disagreed with, for various reasons.

"Where is the joy in my life?!" I felt like yelling to God.

Maybe one of the reasons I'm such a cynic, and suffer from clinical depression to boot, is because I encounter so little in this ordinary life about which I should be joyful.  I have a hard time seeing the good that happens, and tend to slip into a sort of entitlement mode when good stuff does happen.  "Well, it's about time I had something to be cheerful about," I've sometimes thought.  I used to laugh a lot, but I rarely do anymore.  Is my caretaking of my father, who suffers from senile dementia, finally taking it's toll?

Nineteenth Century classical composer Johannes Brahms did not want what's become his famous German Requiem to be particularly Christian, even though it relies on scripture for much of its lyrics.  Yet the fourth movement from this piece has become a beloved anthem for choirs in Christian churches where congregations appreciate classical music.

In the early 1990's, I was living and working in New York City, and worshipping at my beloved Calvary Baptist Church in midtown Manhattan.  Calvary's sanctuary choir helped to train me in appreciating classical music that honors God, and even though Brahms didn't intend for his German Requiem to be such a piece of music, I quickly became a fan of Calvary's recording of "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place," or Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, which comprises the entirety of the Requiem's fourth movement.

That's the text, above, derived from the first four verses of Psalm 84, with each line repeated various times.  I've tried to find an ideal interpretation of this music online, but unfortunately, the links below are merely adequate for my purposes here.  However, if you're wholly unfamiliar with this work, you'll be able to hear the tune and see how wonderful the movement can be - when performed like a choir like Calvary's could sing it!

Actually, I have to confess that the recording I had of Calvary's choir had a piano accompaniment, but with the piano, the elegance and buoyancy of the piece can sometimes be conveyed more successfully than with orchestral accompaniment.

At any rate, that summer of whichever year it was, I took a week's vacation to my parents' summer home in coastal Maine.  It actually sounds quite pretentious to say that my parents had a summer home, but all it was, in reality, was the old one-and-a-half story cottage-type house in which my Mom had grown up.  But after Dad retired, they went there every summer, so it was a summer home.  And if you're going to have a summer home, no matter how plain or grand it is, what better place to have one than coastal Maine?

If you've never been to any of the towns and villages that line the far northeastern shores of the United States, you're missing some spectacular scenery.  There's a reason why some of the richest people on the planet own property along Maine's seacoast, and it's purely natural:  the rocky cliffs, the dense forests of pine, the sparkling blue ocean, and the many bays, inlets, little islands, reaches, coves, and stony sand bars that have etched the intricate waterline between where our continent's dry land ends, and where the bold Atlantic begins.

There are almost no broad beaches, or long stretches of any continuous land formation, along Maine's craggy shoreline.  And that's what gives it its character.  Combine that with the rare yet wonderful sunny weather coastal Maine can produce during its summers, and you'll understand why I say that "a perfect summer day in Maine is a perfect day indeed."

That particular summer, when I went to Maine with the cassette tape recording of Calvary's choir, I also got to enjoy driving my parents' car around coastal Maine, and with songs like "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place" blasting as loudly as I wanted from the stereo system, I was truly joyful.

This is an example of me having joy, folks!  You heard it here first.

Of course, audiophiles will scorn the lowly cassette tape, but hey - this was at the dawn of CD's, and I can't remember if my parents' Mercury Sable even had a CD player in it.  But driving down the steep slopes on coastal Maine's crusty, narrow roads, and darting across its rickety bridges between outcroppings of pine trees and monstrous granite boulders, I marveled at how lovely is the dwelling place our Lord of Hosts has created for us here on Earth.

Then, too, maybe my cynicism, however unsuccessfully I'm recovering from it, represents my fainting for the courts of the Lord.

Sometimes, although I know that contentment is a virtue, I wonder if we get too content with the wrong things here in our lives.

Not that cynicism is a virtue, of course.  But even though this world can have some wonderful beauty in it, like along coastal Maine, I know it's not my home.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
- Psalm 84:5

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ambition Can Color the Big and Small

She's probably the most famous evangelical woman from the 20th Century that you've never heard of.

Henrietta C. Mears was a partially-blind woman from Minnesota who became head of the Sunday School department at prestigious First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, California.  This was back in the 1930's, of course, when Sunday morning Christian education programs were still called "Sunday School."  This was also a time during which women were not encouraged to pursue employment outside of the home, let alone hold positions of authority and leadership in Christian ministry like Mears' eventually did.

Indeed, Mears was no ordinary woman of the 1930's.  She became one of the most prodigious authors of Christian education curriculum our evangelical community has ever seen.  She conducted classes for students from elementary school through college, and she was given free reign by the pastors at Hollywood Presbyterian to develop whatever material she needed.

At first, she worked just for the people of her church, but as the material she created became more and more popular, she was soon in charge of a sprawling educational empire, including a publishing house, and even a retreat center in the Hollywood hills.  Among her students were Bill and Vonette Bright, founders of Campus Crusade for Christ.  Several Hollywood producers who came to Christ during Mears' classes would go on to work with the multi-media department at Billy Graham's organization.  Even Graham himself was personally encouraged by Mears during his early ministry, and at her funeral in 1963, he described her as the most influential woman in his life, after his mother and his wife.

Speaking of influence, it has been said that Mears' influence on the Kingdom of God can be counted in the billions of souls, if you extrapolate the many people who have been reached by Campus Crusade and Billy Graham.

As exceptionally ambitious people are wont to be, Mears was known to speak her mind.  One of her more famous quotes was "there is no magic in small plans.  When I consider my ministry, I think of the world.  Anything less than that would not be worthy of Christ nor of His will for my life."

Does that sound a bit pompous to you?  Perhaps a bit self-aggrandizing?  Well, apparently, Mears never suffered from low self-esteem.  As a precocious 5-year-old, she purportedly scoffed at conventional kindergarten, saying she wanted to be educated, not entertained.  In sunny California, she drove a car she'd had custom-painted green and canary yellow.  She  deliberately wore ostentatious hats, rings on every finger, and gaudy clothing, justifying her peculiar taste and habits by saying she wanted to appear extraordinary for God.

A lot of gregarious, Type-A people like to think big, and Type-A Christians like to say God wants them to think big.  But in terms of Mears' quote about "small plans," what exactly is "small" to God?  And what is big?  To us success-oriented Americans, it seems obvious that small plans are inconsequential, whereas big plans can change the world.  To a certain extent, it wasn't remarkable for a confident teacher like Mears to be convinced that her work could have broader influence beyond her classroom.  But for a woman, particularly at that time, to declare that Christ's will for her life wasn't small was considerably provocative.

And it remains provocative today, regardless of one's gender, because it's the basis of a lot of teaching in our evangelical ghetto.  We've gotta be doing big things for God.  We've gotta be thinking big, to win the world for Christ.  Be bold, courageous, always climbing, building, winning, conquering, achieving... sometimes, it's hard to tell if you're listening to a Christian sermon, or a motivational speaker, or a political speech, or a business development specialist.

Meanwhile, what does God teach us about ambition?  For one thing, we know that He gifts His people differently, like we see in the Parable of the Talents.  We know that God has a different view of what's big and what's small, from learning of His favor for the Widow's Mite.  We know that God is not a respecter of persons.  We know that vain rivalry is unGodly, and that whoever exalts himself will be humbled.

So, what does God have for you to do?  For me to do?  Do those things seem to pale in comparison to what God has other people doing?  Or are we not even doing those things that God has already presented to us?  Are we afraid, or doubtful, or simply lazy?  Does God's work conflict with the goals we've already set for ourselves?  Will it require a lot of hard work that won't score us the grand house or the comfortable retirement we think we need?

Personally, I don't take sweeping assertions of ambition like Mears' with a lot of seriousness.  Type-A evangelicals with charismatic personalities say that kind of stuff all the time, but even heathen unbelievers can be incredibly successful in their altruistic pursuits.  In Mears' case, it could have been she particularly felt she had to speak like that to make herself heard by men who couldn't understand why she didn't want to get married and raise her own kids.  Nevertheless, whatever the context of her quote, it's obvious that God gave her the skills, opportunities, energy, and personality to carry out what she believed He wanted her to do.

But that was His work for her.  Not somebody else.

Meanwhile, the question for the rest of us is the same as it was for Mears, even if she didn't necessarily frame it this way.  That question isn't whether God has given us something "big" or "small" to do for Him.  The question is this:  Whatever God has for you to do, are you doing it? 

No matter where you or I happen to be at this specific point in our faith journey today, right now, as you're reading this; are you doing what God has for you to do? 

Can any of us say we don't know what that thing might be?  Usually, when we don't have some world-changing task before us, we tend to assume that we don't know what work God has for us.  But might that simply be our pride at work, as we're dissatisfied with the level of importance we've associated with whatever we're supposed to be doing?

Okay, so maybe you don't drive a green-and-yellow Ford, or wear big hats with feathers in them.  Maybe you're not running your own publishing house, and watching scores of young people in a ministry you run trust in Christ as their Savior.

What's another major component of the Christian life that often gets overlooked when we talk about ambition?


Not laziness, or procrastination, or ignorance, or fear, or immaturity, or irresponsibility.  But contentment.

Maybe God wants you to work for His Kingdom by being content with what He's given you.  At least, what He's given you to do right now.  Today. 

Right after you finish reading this.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fading Notes for Church Choirs

Wanna hear more?

More music stuff, that is.  Last Friday, I blasted evangelical Christians who like rap music and think Lecrae, a popular Christian rapper who's currently topping the Billboard charts, is appropriately "prophetic" in his salacious lyrics.

Today, I'm responding to an article by Religion News Service claiming to answer the question of why church choirs are dying.  Written by Cathy Lynn Grossman, this article references the current popularity of contemporary music, stage bands, and the corresponding lack of enthusiasm in many congregations for more traditional methods of incorporating singing in corporate worship.

I still don't like writing about music anymore, as I confessed on Friday, but this is an excellent opportunity for me to balance both the Lecrae fluff and the choir fizzle back-to-back.  You see, just because Lecrae is popular doesn't mean his style of music is a good way to express God's Gospel.  But neither is the traditional church choir so sacrosanct as to be considered the opposite side of the righteousness spectrum from Christian rap.

And I say that as an eight-year-member of a large choir at a prosperous Presbyterian church in the Bible Belt.

Frankly, it's no surprise that choir music has fallen out of favor within much of our evangelical ghetto.  Lecrae's ascension amongst our ranks, although his isn't exactly worship service material, is itself proof of what's hot today, even if, in many black congregations, the choir remains a Sunday morning staple.  On the white side of the most segregated day in America, choirs have languished ever since the seeker-sensitive movement decided all manifestations of traditionalism - of which choirs reek - was killing church attendance.

Music has changed significantly in the past several decades, both in its quality, and how we interact with it.  Many people in North America are today uneducated when it comes to genuine musical aptitude.  Sure, Americans still listen to pop music, and they think they know what they like, but they're not informed regarding those things that create the qualities of sounds and lyrics that stand the test of time.  Most Americans don't know how to read music, don't care that they don't know how to read music, and don't know there's a difference between knowing the mathematics of music, and simply playing and hearing tunes that they think sound good.

Then there's the financial angle.  Money, after all, and how much something costs, are convenient scapegoats when we don't like something, or want to change something.  In her article, Grossman quotes pastors trying to sound pious and practical about why they don't want a choir.  They understand that legitimate choirs require leaders and accompanists who know music, can read it, and interpret it, and guide other people with it.  And such people usually deserve to be paid, since they've gone to school to learn about music.

Nevertheless, a lot of congregations these days don't think paying musicians is a wise way to spend God's money, since congregants themselves don't understand the type of music people go to school to learn about.  It's easier to say that a church's financial resources are better spent on things that appeal to the broadest cross-section of the congregation - or the target demographic a church wants to be its congregation  - than selling that target demographic on why a particular style of music - in this case, choral singing - is worthy of their financial investment.

You have to understand that contemporary church is all about the consumer these days.  And if consumers don't want it, they don't get it.  And contemporary consumers are definitely not demanding choir music.

Of course, it's not just the preacher or congregation as an audience which is at fault here.  Where do you think any church choir comes from?

Sure, some churches pay their choirs, but let's assume that most churches don't prize such an elitist performance metric (even if they pay through the nose for the latest audio-visual technology).  In a conventional church choir, singers come as unpaid volunteers from within the congregation, and you know what they say:  you get what you pay for.

Hey - I admit:  Your typical church choir has never been the best place to hear world-class singing, has it?   I'm like you in this regard:  I've had to sit through some pretty awful choir music, and that's part of the risk - if you want to call it that - of church choirs.  So, modern church leaders have discovered that it's a lot easier to control the music quality with "praise teams," a select few people who can carry a tune better than most.  Of course, most of the music people sing in church these days isn't very complicated, either - in terms of its musical composition, lyrics, or theology.  But the main point here is that a large group of volunteers can sing bad music even worse than a praise team can, so why bother?

Besides, bad music has become so ubiquitous in our society, a lot of people have become dulled to the reality of what genuinely good music is, and what it should sound like.  Pastors like to justify their arguments against choirs - and for stylish praise teams - by saying their congregation's expectations in the music they hear are so much higher these days, thanks to all of the professionally-produced music available via radio, television, the movies, and even live concerts.  Ironically, even bad music can be made to sound technically flawless, and it's hard to get a bunch of volunteer singers to compete well against such a standard.

With all of this reality, then, why should anybody be surprised that church choirs are losing their popularity?

I have to confess:  I don't particularly enjoy choir music, and I don't particularly enjoy singing in the choir at my church.  But I do it because I believe I should be involved in some way in the church's visible ministry, and I don't do nursery duty.  I can just barely read music, and can carry a tune if somebody else knows what it is.  Plus, the church I attend has the right motive for having a choir, and that motive is for the choir to help lead the congregation in worship of Almighty God.  That's what choirs did in the Bible, from the Levitical priests, to the angels who announced Christ's birth to the shepherds, to the choirs in Heaven as recounted in the book of Revelation.

Sure, a congregation can worship God without a choir, and there are two big reasons why a church shouldn't have a choir.  The choir should not be for show, nor should it be considered an elite club of super-saints.  It could also be argued that if a church doesn't have enough qualified congregants to sing in a choir - either because the church is very small, or its members have a deficiency in reading or vocalizing music - then it would be counterproductive to try and form one.  Then there's the fact that many smaller congregations can't afford to pay for a professional choir director.  At any rate, a church choir isn't an end unto itself, and it's not required for Biblical worship.

Considering all of this, however, it is troubling to note a trend that appears to be spreading across our evangelical ghetto.  I've heard about a number of churches hiring music leaders who can't read a note of music, but justifying such decisions by claiming that their new worship leader's music simply sounds good.  Now, that may be a culturally-acceptable reason, particularly considering how casual we Americans like to be about stuff these days, and that most of the music sung in church these days is of negligible quality and requires little effort, but are any of these excuses Biblical rationales for hiring a pop-culture lead musician?  In 1 Chronicles 15:22, we see the hiring of the first worship music director when David appoints Chenaniah to the post.  And why did David specifically appoint Chenaniah?  Because he was skilled in music.

Skilled.  An uncommon word these days, to be sure.  And of course, back then, there was no Juilliard or Eastman or Royal Conservatory, but... if we're talking about the worship of God, do we consider it appropriate to let unskilled preachers get up into our pulpits?

Okay, forget that analogy...!  But hopefully you see the incongruity.

From the tone of Grossman's article, it seems as though churches that have done away with choirs have done so because of the negative impression choirs convey when it comes to attracting new people to church, as well as keeping the folks who already attend.  The preference for church choirs has diminished considerably over the past couple of decades, and the thinking obviously is that if it's not trendy anymore, it shouldn't be done.

But is that a good reason not to have choirs?  Sure, not having the money to hire an educated musician to lead a choir is a good reason not to have one.  So is not having enough qualified singers.  Maybe your church building was built without a choir loft - what my church calls a "chancel."  I'm not sure it's worth the money to remodel your church building just to accommodate a choir for which you haven't yet had the space.  Like I said, I'm not pro-choir just for the sake of tradition, or even for the sake of traditional music.  But let's go back to the purpose of a choir.

I've told you that the church I attend has the proper purpose for its choir:  to serve as an element of leadership for the congregational worship of God.  And that's the only reason.  It's a wealthy church, and a very white one, but I've already told our music pastors that if we ever begin to justify having a choir because choirs are expected in traditional, wealthy, white churches, then I'm no longer part of it.  And so far, there's no sign of anything amiss in our worship department's mission statement.

In terms of attracting and retaining congregants, however, if a choir is done correctly, should it be an impediment in terms of marketing a church?

As a Reformed evangelical, I believe in predestination, and that it's the Holy Spirit Who draws people to Himself.  Not the style of music, or even the hipness of the preaching.  But most churches these days - from the ones that have hung on for decades, to the new church plants - run on a basic formula that incorporates elements of marketing and investing that depend on lowest common denominators for maximum numeric impact.

Meanwhile, what does the Bible teach us about salvation?  Is the Way broad, or narrow?  Is the Gospel popular, or unpopular?  Is God holy, or average?  Indeed, how a church views God will dictate what its corporate worship looks like.  And maybe even whether it has a choir.

It's not that any church needs a choir to worship God well.  Shucks, some liberal, mainline, traditional churches with choirs aren't really worshipping God at all.

But it's why churches don't have a choir that could be the problem.

Friday, September 19, 2014

We Mix Melodies with Felonies?

* sigh. *

I don't wanna write about music.  I don't like writing about music any more because people either think I'm an elitist snob or a fundy hater.  And when I write about my displeasure over rap and hip-hop, people also figure I'm a bigot.

So, to set the record straight, I have a radio setting in my car tuned to a local R&B station, and I listen to it just a little less often than I listen to our local classical station.  I don't own any CDs anymore, but when I did, I had some Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole in the mix.  Black people who can actually sing are as appreciated by me as white people who can actually sing.  And to prove that I'm a Brooklyn boy, I can't say that I'm not beyond a little disco now and then, although I still don't dance.

No, I'm not one of those sophisticated multi-cultural, all-music-is-good-music people, but whenever the subject of rap and hip-hop comes up, I really feel like I'm missing some key link to pop culture.  I mean, really?  Rap and hip-hop?  Poetry set to electronic thumps?  That's music?

Confusing things for me even further is that a lot of evangelicals say yes; rap and hip-hop are not only music, but they're valid genres for Christian musicians to pursue.  Right now, even Reformed evangelicals are digging mighty hard to justify their elation at a Christian rapper reaching the top of the Billboard charts.  And getting a spot on the newly-hip late night pulpit of Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show.

"There’s an angry weariness in these verses," writes Mike Cosper for the Gospel Coalition regarding Lecrae's lyrics in his just-released album, Anomaly.  "A sense of being fed up with pressure to conform to other people’s expectations of him."

Does that sound like the Gospel to you?

Cosper, along with cultural ethicist Anthony Bradley, call Lecrae's music "prophetic," as if it's utterly remarkable that a young black man these days can understand Reformed theology and convert it into poetry that can be sold to the masses.

But does this sound like the Gospel to you?

From the same city as the B-I-G
Wanna serve these bars, gotta see ID
Now I'm on their radar, where B-Dot be?
Was a slave for the cars, then we got free
Used to only wanna pull up in a black sport
Just a white man excelling in a black sport
Now I'm really doin' pull ups
Got a honeymoon for the summer tryna get a six-pack for it
Say I won't catch 'Crae slippin' in the studio at like 3 AM
Autograph that forehead with a Sharpie pen and then Instagram
Might swag out a fanny pack
I might bring Velour back
Nobody wanna change the game, man y'all just want more trap
Okay, say I won't rap over bagpipes
Say I won't talk about that price
To know Christ and live life like every night my last night
'Bout to switch up the program
I rock name-brand, I rock no brand
My whole life GoPro cam, got rap like I had no fans, nope
They say, I know I say, "veto"
Danny the vido, en el pachino, those are my people
Also I'm rockin' the speedo
This that casino, you bet your revenue
Thinking you'll stop me, no never not letting you
You must be high on that medical thinking I won't
But I know better, know that I bet I do (kill 'em, ooh)

- Verse 1 of "Say I Won't" by Lecrae, on his album, Anomaly

Okay, so maybe Lecrae's fans look upon middle-aged white men like me - men who find rap and hip-hop to be merely urban bling - as stodgy and unsophisticated.  And it's true:  I have no idea what B-I-G and B-Dot are.  But if you have to be in some special group of people to understand the lingo in rap, how does that make it any more appropriate as God-glorifying music than the type of music rap's fans say doesn't relate to them?  Talk about discrimination:  Exclusivity and elitism doesn't just apply to rich white folk!

You slow me down 'cause you know me now with my phony smile
And I'm acting like it's all copacetic
It's so pathetic, so juvenile
Know what you do
You keep me cool in the summer
When they be dressin' less and I be wantin' to show off and stunt
There ain't nothin' to want, you give me all that I need
All I need is you to keep that fire burnin' for me
All I need is you

- Part of Verse 2 of "All I Need Is You" by Lecrae, on his album, Anomaly

Why is it bigoted of me to ask why such simplistic lyrics and self-aggrandizement seem so necessary as Gospel aids?  White elites may presume that blacks from the ghettos don't possess the grammar and vocabulary skills to understand much more than a mish-mash of swaggering rhymes, but do the ends justify the means?  Besides, at what point does encouraging such simplicity actually help perpetuate the limited theology of its target audience?

I’m just a broken instrument in the hands of the Greatest
So if the notes are off it’s ‘cause I ain’t nothin’ to play with
And you can fault me, but ain’t we all off key
Majorin' in the minors like there ain’t no errors behind us
Somehow we still mix these melodies with my felonies
I ain’t buyin' nothin' they sellin' me what you tellin' me
Broken pieces actin' like we ain’t cracked
But we all messed up and cain’t no one escape that

- Part of Verse 1 of "Broken" by Lecrae, on his album, Anomaly

Nevertheless, I'm compelled not to criticize people like Lecrae and his fans, but to ask out loud why rap and hip-hop have such a peculiar hold on them.  Is it because they've been taught to believe that any and all cultures have validity?  If that's the case, then let's compare that notion with the Bible, which has been written for all peoples across all times in every part of the world, regardless of their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, politics, or age.  Or culture.

So why should culture shape the Gospel?  Doing so would simply be another form of ethnocentrism, right?

This is what we're talking about when we say God's Gospel is timeless and eternal.  It is sufficient, complete, and whole on its own.  On the other hand, cultures evolve, and rarely with the objective of glorifying God more.  Indeed, since when has any culture been a reliable arbiter of things that glorify God?

So again, I find myself asking:  What's the big deal about rap and Lecrae?  And if evangelicals are simply trying to use rap music to become more multiculturally attractive to blacks, why haven't we jumped on, say, the reggae bandwagon?

Is it because reggae isn't as marketable as rap?

Ya mon!?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Spanking Some Sense Into Spanking

Mom's spanking stick, an antique wooden spoon (shown with a $20 bill so you can approximate its size)

Okay; so now, Adrian Peterson is evil because he's an unabashed supporter of corporal punishment.

Peterson is the Minnesota Vikings football star who's been indicted by a grand jury in Texas for endangering one of his sons by spanking him.  At least, that's how many in the mainstream media are spinning this case.  Any case of corporal punishment makes its practitioner an evil abuser of children, according to progressives.

But isn't there more to Peterson's charges than mere corporal punishment?  Let's not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

In his defense, Peterson claims that corporal punishment administered to him when he was a child helped fashion him into the disciplined, productive football player he is today.  And many parents across the United States who also spank their kids find themselves in the undesirable position of conceding that Peterson has a point.

However, it appears he was over-zealous in his own administration of corporal punishment on his son.  According to news reports, Peterson used a "switch" to severely swat his four-year-old son, with a switch being nothing more than a thin reed or tree branch.  Yikes!  Those things not only hurt, they can inflict serious physical injury, as the media has uncovered in the Peterson case.  Photos of his son's legs show numerous welts that purportedly were caused by Peterson's actions with his switch.

Child development experts have come out of the woodwork to admonish the general population that corporal punishment is crude, barbaric, and totally uncivilized.  There are safer, more nurturing ways of correcting undesirable behavior in children, say these experts.  Parents who spank simply can't control their emotions, or are uneducated, or are violent criminals, they say.

It hasn't helped Peterson's case that several prominent black personalities have come out in his support, claiming that particularly for the black community, vigorous corporal punishment has a valued role to play.  They explain that the rigors and challenges of raising black children - especially black boys - in North American society demand discipline that is not only physical, but emphatically so.

But does corporal punishment have to leave physical scars?  Can corporal punishment be effective without providing its detractors with indictable evidence for a grand jury to view?

The common refrain among corporal punishment's advocates goes something like, "I was spanked as a kid, and I turned out OK."  Which, of course, is a relative statement, because none of us really knows how much better - or worse - we'd have turned out if we hadn't been spanked.  My brother and I were spanked as kids, and I've got chronic clinical depression today, although my brother doesn't.  Did my brother simply process his spanking experiences differently than I did?  He got married and now has five kids, and while he and my sister-in-law occasionally deployed corporal punishment, they were able to find other methods of discipline that worked more often.  And so far, my dear nephews and niece have turned out just fine.

When she spanked my brother and me, Mom used an antique wooden spoon she'd found in our old farmhouse in upstate New York (photo above), and she exercised it so much, it split right down the middle!  You can see how she taped it back together so she could continue deploying it on our posteriors.

But in her defense, don't let the broken spoon fool you into thinking that she swatted the hide off of us.  We have no idea how old that spoon is, since the vintage farm and its contents my parents bought after moving upstate from Brooklyn were already way past their prime.  We also don't know what liquids it spent its life as a spoon being dipped into.  It could have become brittle from decades of stirring creamy butter, or scalding-hot maple syrup, or salty pickles.  So it probably wasn't all that sturdy an implement for spanking when Mom started to use it for that.

When she spanked us, I only remember her hitting us three or four times at the most, and it wasn't really ever physically painful.  Usually, those spanks came after one of her long-winded speeches about why we were about to get spanked, and her build-up to the actual spanking part of the punishment was often as bad as the spanking itself!

On some occasions, when what my brother or I had done was particularly heinous, she'd give us her speech, but tell us to "wait until your father comes home!"  So we'd have the rest of the day to dread Dad's spankings, which were usually done with his hand, and not necessarily as accurately as Mom's wooden spoon.  And we'd get a double-dose of the speeches, since Dad would listen to Mom's side of the story - and only her side of the story! - and then give us his own verbal reprimand.  I literally remember asking at one point if we could just get the spanking without the speeches!  I don't recall if I got spanked for that bit of impertinence or not.

Some parents immediately whack their kids the instant they do something wrong, but my parents rarely did that.  Personally, I think kids who get whupped right after committing their infraction get off easy - it's those speeches that really take their toll.  Besides, the whole point of punishment should be helping to convince the perpetrator that their undesired behavior really does not contribute to their quality of life, and dragging punishment out helps reinforce that.  That's one reason why traffic cops take so incredibly long to write up speeding tickets.  They're trying to emphasize that if you were going the speed limit, you wouldn't be sitting by the side of the road right now, losing all the time you were trying to save in the first place.

A wonderful elderly woman I used to know - a single, career-oriented lady before being one was fashionable - used to drive her nieces from here in north central Texas to the Gulf of Mexico for vacations, back in the 1960's.  And to hear one of her nieces tell it, her aunt had a lead foot, even though she usually wore heels.  One hot, sticky afternoon near the Gulf, as her aunt had been flooring it through what was then a barren backwater highway, she got one of her usual speeding tickets.  And the cop was taking forever writing it up.  Finally, her niece recounted at her funeral, her aunt stuck her head out of her driver's side window, and hollered at the cop:  "If you don't hurry up with that ticket, I'm going to have to speed even faster to make up for lost time!"

Sometimes, speeding tickets don't deter the behavior they're supposed to.  And sometimes, spanking doesn't, either.  Part of the responsibility parents have is determining the best ways their children respond to discipline.  Which, of course, is predicated upon the assumption that parents see behavior in their children they need to discipline out of them.  Regrettably, some parents spend all day threatening their kids with discipline that never comes.  Other parents don't discipline at all, figuring that any negative conditioning will irrevocably destroy their darling offspring's development.  Then there are the parents who spend their offspring's childhood trying to be their best friends, only to discover that discipline and love have more to do with respect and wisdom than goofing off together ever does.

Funny how parents can't be arrested for not disciplining their kids, but they can be arrested when other people think they're disciplining them too much.

In Peterson's case, tragically, the physical damage to his son's legs indicates that the spanking was excessive.  Nobody could have taken a photo of my brother or me after we'd been spanked and found any visible evidence of the event.  For one thing, our padded bottoms are more resilient parts of our anatomy than our legs, which is where Peterson struck his son.  And for another thing, my parents never struck out out of sheer rage, nor did they use an implement that would almost certainly leave a mark.  Tree branches, on the other hand, will inevitably leave a mark if somebody lashes you with one.  And if you're inflicting damage onto somebody's physical person, the activity can soon become less about punishment, and more about torture.

Punishment, after all, should be designed to correct an unwanted pattern of behavior.  Torture is above and beyond whatever behavior triggers it, and is therefore unlikely to actually correct anything, due to its inequity.

Any parent, including prominent NFL players, should be able to discipline their children with corporal punishment when it's actual punishment, and not abuse, or torture -  because abusing corporal punishment would be torture, right?  From the evidence seen by Peterson's grand jury, it appears as though he abused corporal punishment, and I agree that our justice system should follow that through, give him his day in court, and make sure that both he and his children are benefiting from the practice of spanking.  After all, spanking, as a proper disciplinary measure, can be helpful both for parents and the children they're trying to groom into responsible adults.

During their speeches before they spanked us, both Mom and Dad would usually tell my brother and me something like "this hurts me more than it hurts you."  But back then, we never believed them!

I guess a good rule of thumb would be that if spanking actually does hurt your child more than it hurts you, then you know you've gone too far.