Friday, April 28, 2006

"It's not about you"

[Note: I'm exposing my moorings in the evangelical subculture in this post. It was originally written as a post on a board within that subculture and is here because it grew into full-fledged ramblings. It's time for something new here anyway.]

I've decided that every time I hear the words "It's not about you" spoken in reference to worship styles, I will make a mental note that the speaker has chosen an extreme position. I know that there is often justification for moving to one extreme in order to provide a counterweight to those on the other extreme, but I still need to be aware that what I'm hearing needs some of that other extreme in order to get good balance.

If you take away all other voices, telling the church that church is "not about you" is exposed as ludicrous. The church of Jesus Christ is composed of his disciples. Those disciples meet together in order to worship as a community and to encourage each other in the faith. How can someone come in and tell those people that their meetings are not about them? Can you imagine encountering that statement in the writings of the apostle Paul?

"In him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spririt (Ephesians 2:22)"

"When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. (1 Corinthians 14:26)"

"Oh, and by the way, it's not about you (???)"

The church is the fellowship of the disciples of Jesus Christ. We are the church. It's ALL about us! It's what we do. We gather as a community of believers. We worship together. We pray together. We encourage each other. We enjoy the warmth of fellowship. If we're structuring our meetings in a way that hinders those basic activities in the name of ministry to nonbelievers who may join us, something is wrong.

What prompts people to make statements such as "It's not about you"? A concern for evangelism. They want our meetings to be attractive to nonbelievers. They want our meetings to be evangelistic events rather than simply times of adoration and encouragement.

I have a theory that a church made up of people who enjoy depth in their worship and warmth in their fellowship will be naturally attractive to nonbelievers. The only missing ingredient is an open door to those nonbelievers. I think it's the open door that those who make the "not about you" statement are advocating.

So where does the balance lie? I suppose it would be nice if once we became Christians, we no longer needed nuture and encouragement. After all, we have the Bible and our devotional life to feed upon. Isn't God all we need? I know a song or two supporting that idea. But I don't see it supported by Scripture. Rather, the fellowship of believers is a central theme of the New Testament. We don't become instant givers when we become Christians. We move into a give-and-take relationship with other believers. At first, it's mostly take with little to give. Later, we give more and take less. But even the most mature Christian needs encouragement and nuture from the body of believers. They need the prayers of others. They need to be valued and listened to. I don't believe that there is anyone who can't benefit from a listening ear. We are all takers at various times in various relationships. Part of being a giving church is recognizing that there is no one who doesn't occasionally need to take a break from giving and become a taker for at least a few moments.

The "not about you" people discredit the needs of the believers in calling attention to the needs of the lost outside the doors. What they fail to see is that the best ministry doesn't discriminate between "lost" and "found" but embraces all as loved of God.

If we believe that every human soul longs to worship, then we have to believe that true worship is attractive to all. Thus, the goal of church gatherings should be to facilitate that level of worship. At which point, we discover that worship is about the worshippers and the Object of their worship, not the nonbelievers.

The "not about you" people fear that such an approach will take us back to the 1950s, to outmoded music and a vocabulary that makes the old people comfortable but has no attraction to anyone without a background in that era. I'm not so sure. I see a lot of boredom on the faces of those stuck in the 1950s in worship styles. They wouldn't be happy driving 1950s cars with no air conditioning or cruise control. I don't think they're really happy with 1950s worship either. They just don't want to be dragged into unfamiliar territory and left floundering while all the attention is focused on the "lost".

What would happen if we focused on facilitating true worship for everyone in the church, including "you"? It would take some listening and some giving. Is there a chance that people standing outside looking in might be attracted to a group that values everyone equally?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Motivation for biting

A friend was speaking of a situation today and I noticed she was using the tone of voice she uses when I say something annoying. Except I was not the cause of the tone today. It was a whole group of people who had irritated her. Although I’m part of that group and was indeed among the offenders, it took more than me to trigger the tone of voice. As she laid out her view of the reason for this annoying behavior, I was struck by the box that she drew around our motivations for acting as we are acting. We lack commitment. We don’t want to get involved. Our priorities are not as they should be. She was trying to be kind in sharing her concerns with us, but could find no other way to characterize our lack of responsiveness. Thus, the awkward tone. It stemmed from discovering troublesome deficiencies in people who ought to be doing better and trying to address those deficiencies without offending anyone.

I’m reminded of a class I once took on "organizational behavior." The author of the textbook for the class pointed out that we tend to assess our own failures as being a response to outside forces, i.e. circumstances prevent us from doing what we ought to do. However, we tend to assess the deficiencies of others as stemming from inner forces, i.e. they could easily do the right thing if only they had the necessary motivation. This was a classic example of that mindset.

I’m in the group of noncommital people who are not stepping up to the plate to take a turn at bat. If my friend were to ask me why and genuinely invite me to share my thoughts on the subject, I would cite outside hindrances. I’d like to be more involved, but there are obstacles in my path. She’s not asking the question. In her mind, she already knows the answer. And that answer lies within me. Even if she asked and listened to my answer, she would discount the obstacles as much less significant than I’m making them. The bottom line is, I don’t care like I ought to care. If I did, I would pick up my bat and start swinging.

How do we break through impasses such as this?

In another situation, a person is being assessed as being involved in deliberate wrongdoing. I have heard the statement, "He knew what he was doing was wrong," over and over. Not only are those making that statement assigning faulty motivation but a deliberate choice of wrong over right. No quarter is being given. He did wrong and must pay for his deeds. There has even been talk of bringing in the law, or at least threatening to call the media.

Is what they are saying true? Not from the point of view of the accused. I’ve talked to him. He admits that he "screwed up" but truly believes he had the best motivations for what he did and was more right than wrong. I suspect that both the court of law and the media would find his version of what happened more compelling than that of those accusing him of wrongdoing.

I’m in the middle, standing between the mob with their pitchforks and torches and the ogre with his admirable goals but disgusting social habits. How do I persuade the mob to go back to their homes and businesses and give up exposing the onion-like ogre as a monster? This impasse has exposed a rather ugly side of several among the mob. I feel sort of like I did years ago when one child took another’s coloring book and refused to give it back per my instructions and the offended child took matter into his own hands, er, teeth, by biting the offender. I couldn’t decide which crime to address first and how to balance the punishment. It was a watershed moment in developing my skills as a parent. But in this case, I’m not the parent and these aren’t children. Sending them to separate rooms to play apart since they can’t play well together isn’t an option.

In discussing this situation with a team member, I observed that there is some "biting" happening on both sides in response to perceived wrongs. The response I received was that this should not be. Adults should act like adults and not stoop to returning evil for evil. Knowing that the person saying this was a minister, I asked about her beliefs concerning the innate depravity of our species. She seems to think we should suppress our depravity. I don’t disagree with her, but my observation is that our best approaches to suppression tend to develop leaks under pressure.

Are people basically self-centered? The doctrine of the depravity of man would certainly support that position. However, the tempering factor that saves human society is that self is generally best served by at least giving the appearance of being honest and upright and having good social skills. By doing good, we feel good about ourselves, like we’ve earned a right to live on this earth and to be treated decently by others.

My minister friend seems to think that mature people should be good for goodness sake rather than because it yields positive results. My annoyed friend seems to think that we aren’t even motivated enough to be good because of the built-in social benefits of goodness. Meanwhile, it seems to me that we’re all doing the best we can given the circumstances under which we’re living – whether for goodness sake or in response to social pressures is debatable. The crunch comes when the cost-to-benefit ratio of doing the right thing increases. How many will continue to do good when it doesn’t pay well even in intangible benefits?

I don’t know that I have any answers here, but after twelve days, it seemed like it was time to say something and this has been on my mind.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Piano Tuner

I once read an internet exchange in which one of the participants was a stay-at-home mom. I can’t remember how it came up but she mentioned that it wasn’t like she was so lonely she carried on conversations with service people. I guess I’m that lonely. I’ve always enjoyed chatting with people who come to my house to fix my appliances or do construction work. I try to keep in mind that they are charging by the hour whether they’re working or talking but figure a few minutes here and there won’t cost me an arm and a leg. Most of them are interesting people who are part of my rural community, often with mutual interests such as the school or church. It would seem odd to me to not say anything to them while they were in my home.

One of my most frequent visitors in that category is the piano tuner. I don’t have my piano tuned as often as I ought, but I generally call him at least once a year unless my brother from Florida happens to be on one of his cross-country piano-tuning tours. It has probably been 20 years since the first time he tuned my piano and he and my brother are the only ones that have tuned it since that first time. He told me Tuesday that he’s 81 years old. Not surprisingly, mention of “the fields of Flander” will bring tears to his eyes. He occasionally speaks of the war, not frequently, but with a grief that has endured all the years since he served in Europe as a young man.

The piano tuner is an actor. He has played “Daddy Warbucks” and is an obvious choice for that role. He and his wife are frequently in plays at a small theater in our county seat. I’ve never met his wife and never seen him perform. Their next play is in June. I would like to make a point to be there for one of the performances. Maybe this time it will work out to do that.

The piano tuner is Catholic. He’s a family man. I think he told me Tuesday that his wife bore 12 children. Later I think he mentioned that they raised 11 children. He’s told me about his children enough over the years that I ought to know the count but it slips my mind. His children are multi-talented. Six of his girls sing the national anthem in four-part harmony at major sporting events in Indianapolis. Several have been or are professional musicians. He loves his children and is justifiably proud of them.

The piano tuner loves his wife. Every time he comes he tells me again about how petite she is, yet she raised those 11 children and is still going strong today. He knows that I’m a librarian and asked me Tuesday why I wasn’t working. I told him the library didn’t open until 1:00 pm. Then with a smile I pointed out that I actually was working, just not outside the home. That reminded him of the time someone asked his wife, “Oh, you don’t work?” Apparently, they didn’t think that raising 11 children counted as working. He finds her amazing.

The piano tuner likes to talk. He told me of the time he was at the national piano tuners conference and a young lady was speaking and said that when she went to a house to “talk to” a piano, she explained to the homeowners, that she could not talk and tune their piano at the same time and requested that they not bother her. He nudged the man next to him and noted that his response to that statement would be to ask her to leave. The reason he’s still tuning pianos at 81 is because of the people.

The piano tuner likes me. I try to choose tasks while he’s tuning that keep me within easy earshot of the livingroom. He takes occasional breaks and will make enough noise to draw me back for another short chat. Or he will call my name and ask me for something small such as a table knife or a cough drop. Tuesday he called me back to the room several times simply so he could tell me something that had crossed his mind. I didn’t mind. The tuning takes around an hour and a half including the chit-chat. I can generally get a few things done during that time and it only happens once a year or so.

I like the piano tuner. He’s an interesting person, different from my usual partners in conversation. Plus he likes me. As I wrote out a check to pay him Tuesday he said, “If I’ve never told you before, I’ll tell you now: You’re one of my favorite customers.” He’s told me that before. It still makes me feel good. I’m aware that I don’t always wear well with people. It’s nice to know that at least one person still enjoys talking to me after 20 years. His rates for making me feel good about myself are lower than a therapist and come with a piano tuning and interesting conversation. It’s not a bad exchange at all.

I hope that if I make it to 81, I can find ways to still be a blessing to those around me. Like the piano tuner.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Thoughts while sitting in the dark

A “severe thunderstorm” has passed by and severed our connection with the power grid. I was putting the final touches on an e-mail on the desktop computer when the lights went out and all my carefully constructed words were reduced to a pile of 1's and 0's back in the old bit bucket. Sigh. Will I ever be able to construct them into anything close to the masterpiece I lost? Ok, it was just a simple response to a friend asking about strategies for purchasing airfare on the internet. Maybe I can remember my main points. Still, it’s sad to lose words that have been strung together with care. I’ve had much greater disasters involving computers and writing projects, but even small ones bring some measure of loss.

So here I am on my laptop with 2:21 hours of battery power, which ought to get me into the territory of “reasonable” bedtime. I have an old-fashioned oil lamp lit to soften the contrast between the laptop screen on its lowest brightness setting and the darkness of a house with no power on a rainy night.

The possibilities for evening activities without power are surprisingly limited. What did people do in the days before oil was found to be useful? More, what did we do during evening power outages before the laptop purchase? I suppose I should be playing games with someone. I can’t remember the last time game-playing was at the top of my list of preferred activities. My husband and I discovered early in our relationship that we would remain friends much longer if we never played games with each other. It's not something I particularly miss.

Power outages are interesting revelations of how strong habits can be. No matter how many light switches I flip without any light being produced, I continue to reach out and flip them periodically as I move from room to room. At some level I always expect the next one to work and am disappointed anew when it doesn't.

On the other hand, I’m always surprised that the piano works. The stereo doesn’t. The television doesn’t. The computers don’t. Nor the refrigerator, microwave, or answering machine. The phone on the wall works, but not the cordless phones. The flashlights work but only until their batteries are dead. The portable radio telling us of local storm damage also has limited battery life. My lamp will run out of oil eventually if I leave it on. We have running water but only until the pressure tank is empty. But the piano simply works – no batteries, no electricity, no time limit. It’s a purely mechanical appliance. I don’t know why, but this amazes me. I might even play it if it if my husband weren’t choosing sleep as his way to while away the hours of darkness and the piano weren’t so badly in need of tuning. It finally has reached the point where I called the piano tuner last week. He will be here Tuesday morning. The power will surely be back on long before then, but it doesn’t matter. He starts with an old-fashioned tuning fork and does the whole thing by ear. No external power source needed.

So even in the dark I could be making thunderous music right here in our livingroom without draining power from anything but my own fingers and arms. I wonder what else we could do mechanically if electricity weren’t so convenient? We may never know unless the world forces us to quit using up the earth’s resources and melting the polar ice-cap with our insatiable appetite for electric power.

The Children’s Museum at Indianapolis used to have a stationary bike that generated electricity. It took sustained, high-energy pedaling to turn on a lightbulb and I never managed to get the small television turned on. Just think what it would do to alleviate America’s obesity problem if every television were powered by pedaling. Families could get additional pedals and share the load for extended times of viewing or for a bigger screen.

Our kitchens could be peddle-powered, too. We could put a hot dog in the microwave and pedal like mad until the end burst open. I wonder if we would break even calorie-wise on that deal.

Meanwhile, it has been almost two hours since the lights went out. I can save this but I can’t post. I hear snoring from the sleep-it-off half of the household. It might be time to make sure all the light switches are in the “off” position, blow out the lamp, and call it a night.

Wait ... there’s a hardly-used modem in this laptop. The phone line is live. Yes, I think I can post if I can find my way through the darkness to an appropriate phone jack. THEN I’ll call it a night.

Enjoy your electricity, dear readers. Hopefully, the power outage is over as you read this. There have been a couple of hopeful flickers and I’m confident that our faithful linemen will prevail.