Recently I posted on Facebook the process I used to get from the full list of films I saw that were released in 2014 down to my seven favorite. Those – in order of release date – were:
2) The Wind Rises
3) The Grand Budapest Hotel
4) Blue Ruin
5) Edge of Tomorrow
6) Gone Girl
After a few days of consideration – including an 8 hour drive that required a lot of patience from my wife enduring my random thoughts about film – I believe I’ve come up with a satisfactory order. Now, as I mentioned on the Facebook post, this list is not perfect, as there are a number of films that I have not seen that I imagine have a very good shot of making the top 5. For instance, I have not seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, but considering that Anderson’s last four films have ended up in my respective top 5 lists, I’m guessing there’s a chance Inherent Vice will as well.
What follows will be my list in reverse order.
This one is the trickiest for me, because it’s been so long since I watched it, so it’s quite possible it will be higher after a repeat viewing. Much like another 2014 film starring Scarlett Johansson as a non-human – Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin – Her explores what it means to be human… specifically, what does it mean to be a human that lives amongst other humans. In Under the Skin, Johansson plays an alien known only as The Female who preys on men. While we watch her seduce and eliminate (assimilate? or maybe the alien version of juicing?) her victims, we also watch as she begins to empathize with the species she is pretending to be. Meanwhile, in Her, Johansson plays Samantha, an Operating System with artificial intelligence designed to meet the specific needs of her owner – an always magnificent Joaquin Phoenix. Much like The Female, Samantha observes the human world and begins to grow and mature as she empathizes and appreciates what she sees. While Under the Skin’s exploration of this subject was intriguing, the reason why Her holds a higher place on my list is due to director Spike Jonze’s ability to create a world that feels lived in and weighty. The yearning behind Samantha’s desire to understand and experience everything is believable because we see – through Samantha’s “eyes” – the details that make life glorious. Without these details, the movie’s premise – man falls in love with his operating system – is just ridiculous. And the fact that this quite simple love story morphs into a rather terrifying, suspenseful, sci-fi fantasy is just icing on the cake.
6) Blue Ruin
This was a low budget film directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Basically the plot boils down to this: What happens when an average guy decides to seek revenge? This film takes all the tropes of the popular revenge fantasy and stands them on their head. This is not satire, though there are plenty of laughs to be had (this is one of the funniest movies I saw this year). Saulnier is a good story teller, not just script-wise, but also with his camera. He deftly uses color, lighting and framing to convey suspense, tension and anxiety. Every performance is spot on – especially lead actor Macon Blair – and every character is vital to the story.
5) Gone Girl
David Fincher is a very cynical director, and so most of films get interpreted as his dark take on whatever institution his film is about. In this case, the institution is marriage and there are numerous reviews and articles analyzing the deception, manipulation, selfishness and pride that underlie every marriage – indeed, every successful marriage. Whatever. I don’t buy it and I don’t like this film for it’s marriage commentary. What I like about Gone Girl is that it’s a true heir to Alfred Hitchcock. I love it when a director manipulates his audience – plays games with them even – in service of the story. That’s a key qualification, by the way, because many directors manipulate their audiences – usually in very cliched and tired ways. What Fincher does, though, is invest us his story – in Nick and Amy Dunne’s story – to the point that we either root for, or root against, a particular character before pulling the camera back and revealing more of the story or pushing the camera in to reveal details that make us rethink what we swore we knew. On top of this, Fincher – despite the dark subject matter – is having fun. It’s evident in his cast. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of Who? He takes actors that have been typecast in a particular role – or that have been typecast according to their tabloid personas – and plays with your expectations. I had a ball watching all the actors in this film. Ultimately, much like Fincher’s other films, this film failed to move me emotionally. The fact, then, that this film makes my top 5 is a testament to it’s value as a skillfully directed, impeccably acted, top notch thriller.
4) The Wind Rises
Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite directors. His beautiful and magical animated films have delighted my family for many years. So when I heard that Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises was most likely his last film, I anticipated a few tears when I finally had the chance to watch it. When I learned that it was a dream-like drama telling the story of Jiro Hirokoshi – the creator of the Japanese fighter plane who lost both the love of his life to sickness and the passion of his life (his plane design) to war – I anticipated even more tears. Oddly enough, this film didn’t move me like I thought it would. Perhaps it’s because this story does not observe the world through a child-like lens the way that most of his other films do. As a father, watching films like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away (to name just a few) always get to me because of the way he wonderfully depicts children and their sense of wonder. However, this doesn’t mean that The Wind Rises didn’t contain it’s own unique brand of visual amazement and heart breaking story-telling. I was certainly moved by the film, just not in the way I expected. Much like his other films, the details are what sets this film (as well as his other films) above anything that Disney or Dreamworks is putting out these days, and much like his other films, there are moments of epic destruction and chaos that you feel deep down in your bones and moments of exhilaration that sweep you off your feet. The Wind Rises, though, is attempting to touch another aspect of our soul that his more child-like films didn’t – or, at least, only hinted at. Given the subject matter, I was surprised to find that the anti-war themes were not very prevalent (although they’re there in subtle ways). Also, given the subject matter, I was surprised – and later on impressed – to find that the central characters are Japanese, German and Italian… let that sink in a bit. As an American viewer of Miyazaki, I always find my worldview challenged – especially coming from a director who was born in Japan four years before the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I also find the way that I consume story-telling to be challenged – in a good way. The Wind Rises is the story of pre-WWII Japan from a Japanese perspective – but not the way many Americans would expect that story to be told. More than that, though, The Wind Rises is about the desire to create and the tension between fulfilling that desire versus the potential use of that creation. And perhaps even more than that, it’s about a successful and influential artist reaching the end of his life/career and contemplating his passion and it’s legacy. After one viewing, this film is my #4 of this year… but it very well may come to be my favorite… of any year.
The final three movies have shifted around in my mind for a couple of weeks. Each film is drastically different than the other and each one is my favorite for very different reasons. Ultimately, though, the films that end up occupying my favorite spots always end up being the films that moved me the most. There were not very many films that moved me this year, for whatever reason. As I mentioned above, The Wind Rises moved me, but there are some story/character issues that I need to get past before it moves up my list. Also, at this point I’d like to give some props to Interstellar. The one moment that got me this year – while watching the movie – was the scene when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Brand (Anne Hathaway) return to the ship from the water planet. The sense of loss and loneliness – while Cooper was watching past videos of his children, but especially on the face of Romilly (David Gyasi), as well as later scene involving a character named Mann – was palpable. Christopher Nolan’s films are almost always interesting to me, sometimes entertaining, but hardly ever moving. Had the movie gone through the editing room a few more times and focused more on this particular aspect of sacrifice and time, this film would have been in my top 5.
Anyways, my final three films are ordered according to the way they moved me. I know we can be “moved” in various ways – even though I am suggesting movement in the heart-tugging sense – and the truth is all 3 of these films did move me: One moved me in a terrifying way that only the best horror films do and another moved me in a thrilling way that only the best action films do. Ultimately, though, the films that are usually my favorite are the ones that move me in that heart-tugging way… and my favorite film (for now), did that.
Nightcrawler is not a horror film in the traditional sense, but it is certainly a terrifying film. Ignore the reviews that describe this film as an indictment against capitalism – these are critics who are reading far too much into the film and reaching for interpretations that are only mildly hinted at. Does this film critique capitalism? Sure… a bit, but even the director – Dan Gilroy – has stated that one shouldn’t read this as an indictment against capitalism, because, despite the problems of capitalism that deserve to be critiqued, it is still a better system than the alternatives (I believe I heard this during his interview on The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell, in case anyone wants to verify this). Still, on a separate interview (The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, if I remember correctly), Gilroy stated that he believes his protagonist (antagonist?) is the CEO of a major corporation 10 years after the film ends. Whatever, I say. That’s not how I read this film at all. No, Nightcrawler is the origin story of your favorite comic book bad guy… say, The Joker. It’s the story of a man who learns how to be diabolical. It’s the story of a man who develops his skills, increases his knowledge and hones his craft in order to achieve his desires. The problem with interpreting this film as a CEO origin story is the mistaken assumption that evil men are attracted to positions of power because it serves their interests of controlling, dominating and exploiting others. Perhaps this is true of some, but I suspect that the old adage of “power corrupts” is more appropriate to that story. Instead, this is the story of someone who is already bad. Lou Bloom (an Oscar worthy performance by Jake Gyllenhaal) desires power yet doesn’t quite understand how to achieve it. This film follows his development from small time, desperate crook to capable villain with a “particular set of skills.” Again, imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Now imagine a prequel set about 15 years before that film – pre facial scarring and a predilection for make up. The “joy” of watching this film is in watching the way the masterful Roger Elswit’s camera follows and frames Bloom and turns otherwise ordinary mundane scenery into an eerie landscape. In listening to the way James Newton Howard’s score manipulates you into rooting for a despicable character (despite knowing better), and in watching Gilroy’s story unfold in frightening, yet exhilarating ways. For example, one of the most frightening and disturbing moments of sexual deviance I’ve ever seen occurs in a movie that contains no sex (or nudity). Much like David Fincher’s film Zodiac, Gilroy is able to give us a film dripping with tension without relying on the typical “shocker” tropes. Although Gilroy has written a number of screenplays and has been around Hollywood for a long time, this is still a pretty amazing directorial debut.
2) Edge of Tomorrow
There are a couple of ways to approach a review of Edge of Tomorrow. I’m going to approach it by way of my own relationship with action films. Contrary to popular belief, I actually like action. My issue is not with the genre, but rather with the way this genre is often presented. Admittedly, because this genre is the most commercially driven – and therefore often compromised – and because my tastes are such that I prefer character driven stories with strong camera work and intelligent plot points – I often do not like big budget, popcorn action thrillers. There’s been a few recent ones that I have liked: Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Avengers, a couple of X-Men and The Dark Knight not to mention immensely enjoying the Bourne Trilogy and the Sam Raimi Spider-man trilogy. That said, very few ever make it into my favorites (the Spider-man trilogy being the exception). Usually, for my tastes, these films need to somehow transcend the genre – either surprising me with something unique or something thoughtful. This year there were four big budget action films that I liked, with three of them being in the running for this list. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a good superhero movie and was certainly better than many of the previous Marvel films, but ultimately it was just a good superhero flick. On the other hand, another Marvel film – Guardians of the Galaxy – established itself as something better than the typical comic book flick. It almost broke into this list just based on the sheer fun I had watching it, and had I not watched it a second (and third) time since compiling this list, it may have cracked it. However, upon repeat viewings, it ends up lacking that essential quality that makes a good action flick a great one in my book. This brings me to Fury, which probably deserves to be in a separate “war film” category, but had the budget, action and star power that these other films have. I appreciated Fury, despite lacking the epic quality of the best war/action films, because it was obvious that the director, David Ayers, was trying to tell a story within a story. Both Fury and Edge of Tomorrow give us similar clues to tell us that there is deeper story within the basic plot. In both films, we are given words like redemption, baptism, salvation and sacrifice. I don’t think this is accidental in either case. Now, I’ll go ahead and tip my hand that I thought Edge of Tomorrow was a better film in terms of plot and action – so perhaps that’s the main reason why it ranks higher – but I also think that Edge of Tomorrow accomplished it’s “symbolic” story to greater effect. While Fury clearly wants us to think about it’s story as an allegory for something spiritual, I never quite connected with that message. Perhaps on repeat viewings it will become clearer to me and the film may become more meaningful. That said, I immediately connected with the symbolism in Edge of Tomorrow. I believe this has to do with Edge of Tomorrow’s economical story-telling and stronger character development. The story follows Cage (Tom Cruise), a rather cowardly military officer who specializes in motivating others to risk their lives against a powerful alien attack, who is forced to go to the front lines and fight – a sure death sentence. And die he does… only to wake up again before the battle to the insults of Master Sergeant Farell (a fun performance by Bill Paxton, who has an equally small but important role in Nightcrawler as well). Among the insults Farell slings at Cage are the commands to prepare for his day of judgment, to look forward to his redemption and to recognize his baptism – all phrases used as analogies to battle, but which clearly reference something greater. What follows is Cage’s death, followed by his waking up in the exact same place again. And again. And again. Hundreds of times… perhaps thousands. Yes, this sounds a little like Groundhog Day, but with one key difference: despite what Bill Murray did each day – live or die – he always repeated the day again. Here, though, Cage has to die. It’s vital to winning the war that he die. Each day he has to learn from the previous day in order to get farther on the next day. Along the way he finds help from Rita (Emily Blunt), a super soldier who once had the same experience that Cage has, but eventually lost it. Of course, this pattern of death and resurrection for the sake of the world is a reference to the Christian faith and as an allegory this works extremely well. In fact, this is easier to follow than the actual main plot – which took a repeated viewing for me to get, but was actually part of the fun. Aside from the allegory, though, the film does a superb job in terms of an action film. Doug Liman, who directed The Bourne Identity – an excellent action film – as well as a couple of other mediocre action films, does an excellent job of filming the action in the Edge of Tomorrow. The viewer is never lost in the landscape of battle – and a pretty impressive landscape it is. There are no quick edits here. The camera is fluid and intentional – it shows you exactly what Liman wants you to see. Every action scene serves the story. While it’s not gratuitous, it is intense… but yet is peppered with some extremely funny moments. I laughed a lot while watching this film and found Tom Cruise’s self deprecatory comic timing to be a nice revelation. On top of this, the film managed to achieve the perfect balance of romance that was needed for this film – never cheesy or forced, but weighty. While this film has been reviewed well, there have been some criticisms with the romance – particularly with the kiss between the two heroes – but I thought it was perfect and conveyed quite a lot in that one moment that would have been awkward and clumsy if spoken or demonstrated in another fashion. Finally, this movie deserves high praise just for being an original big budget movie that is not based on an existing franchise or property. That’s a rare thing nowadays and I hope the success of Edge of Tomorrow is a sign of things to come out of Hollywood.
1) The Grand Budapest Hotel
As I mentioned above, my #1 film was the only one to truly move me in a heart-tugging kind of way. Unlike Interstellar, though, the whole film moved me, as opposed to one or two specific scenes. It also took me a few days after watching the film to eventually move me. This is typical – at least for me – of a Wes Anderson film. As with most Anderson films, I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel with a constant smile on my face, thoroughly enjoying immersing myself in his supposed quirks, tics and unique charms. While always dangling on the edge of distraction, I find the numerous cameos to be entertaining and fulfilling. I always love his dialogues, the use of music, the precise framing of his camera, the vibrant colors, the strange characters and the way he uses direction. However, what typically gets lost in the average review of an Anderson film is the heart that is at the center of his story. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exception.
As you can see in the clip above, Wes Anderson’s “quirk” is in full display: the rat-a-tat dialogue, the precise framing, the uniforms, the colors, etc… But is it quirk for quirk’s sake? Many people think so, but I submit that it is not. Take, for instance, the way he centers his subjects in the frame. This might lead one to suggest that a Wes Anderson movie is basically hundreds of perfect little photographs strung together – story be damned. This would fail to account, though, for the near constant action that is occurring just on the outskirts of the frame – sometimes even advancing onto the frame. Take another look at the clip above. While the camera is focused on M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero (Tony Revolori) and their interaction with each other, the edges of the frame show us that the hotel is buzzing with activity. Another way to put it is there are other stories going on – much like in real life. Anderson wants us to focus on this particular story – the job interview – but sometimes these other stories encroach onto the main story. Anderson either allows the action to move into the edges of the frame, or he goes to the action by directing the camera somewhere else and forcing us to look in the direction he wants us to look. Either way, I believe that Anderson is training his audience to recognize the structure of his story, because it is in this structure that the heart of the story becomes clear. So what is the story?
Mentoring. The focus of the story is about the relationship of M. Gustave – a concierge at an extravagant hotel in a fictional European city – and Zero, his lobby boy. Sure, there are plot points and side stories that involve other characters, but M. Gustave and Zero are the focus of the story. Early in the film we meet an elderly Zero who, when a reporter inquires about Zero’s successful life, tells the story of when M. Gustave hired him as a lobby boy. This was no ordinary boss/employee relationship though. Throughout the film we see that M. Gustave imparts wisdom to Zero, shares his dreams with him, defends him, gives him responsibility, relies on him, seeks his forgiveness, enjoys his company and otherwise teaches him to be a man. M. Gustave is a mentor and this is not the first time either. Early in the film, when it appears that M. Gustave and Zero are in trouble with the police, it turns out that one of the policemen were shown kindness as child by M. Gustave and so returns the favor. As if to emphasize this point about mentoring, the clip above shows a quick montage of other concierges interacting similarly with their lobby boys. But if the mentor/protégé is what the story is about, the heart of the story – or, as Anderson has been training us to see with his camera – the center of the story is Zero. You see, Zero has had two tragedies in his life. First, as a young boy he watched as his whole family was slaughtered by mercenaries. Later, after only two years of marriage, his wife Agatha – whom we meet in the story and who shares in some of the adventures in the film – and their infant son die of a disease. While neither of these tragedies are played lightly, they’re also not the focus of the story. Most films, given a storyline like this, would focus on these tragedies. But not Anderson. He wants us to see the grace that comes from one human being showing kindness toward another. Sure, these tragedies helped to form the man that the elderly Zero is at the beginning and end of the film (there’s that framing device again!), but just as important – and most important for this story – is the influence of a mentor on a lonely orphaned immigrant. So he frames his story between these two tragedies – one in the past, one in the future. One on the left, one on the right. Always just on the fringes, creeping into the story – and sometimes with Anderson directing our attention to them – but never overwhelming it. And in the middle, the story of friendship, kinship, and mentorship.
About three years ago my wife and I made two big changes in the education of our children that, unbeknownst to me at the time, were remarkably linked. First, we enrolled our children in Classical Conversations. We had been homeschooling the previous few years and had decided from the beginning that we would use the classical model, but up until we joined Classical Conversations, we had basically used a hodge-podge of curriculum and resources. The second was in regards to our family worship. Up until this point I had simply read through random books of the Bible – a gospel here, a Paul’s letter there, maybe a short OT book thrown in every once in a while – but as my oldest child was now 6, I wanted to start incorporating simple questions for her to answer that were related to the night’s readings. At the same time, in my own theological/biblical training, I was becoming increasingly aware of certain patterns in the Bible and realized that the key to understanding much of the scriptures was to first become familiar with the first five books of the Bible. This seemed a little daunting at first, especially once we got out of Genesis and into the more obscure stuff, but my goal from the outset was to simply familiarize my children with certain re-occurring words, numbers, or phrases. So, for example, if the number 40 appeared in our reading (as it often does in the Bible), I wanted my kids to take note.
About a year into our new schedule is when the connection dawned on me. While we had familiarized ourselves with the basics of classical education enough to know that’s what we wanted for our children, it wasn’t until we joined Classical Conversations and got deeply involved in their wonderful program that everything started making sense. As I came to understand the practical reasons for the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), I also became more aware of the similarities in what we were doing for family worship. In order to explain this, though, perhaps it would be best to briefly explain the Trivium first.
As I mentioned, there are three stages of the Trivium: Grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The idea behind the Trivium is that each stage is particularly suited to the way a child learns (or receives) information at each stage of their physical/mental development. So, for instance, little children are really adept at memorizing lots of information. The grammar stage, then, is essentially one big information dump. The teacher/parent fills their little heads with tons of facts: states and capitals, historical events, biological processes, poetry, skip counting (2,4,6,8, etc. or 5,10,15,20, etc.) – information from every subject, including Latin. The point is not that the children need to understand this information, but simply to memorize it. That’s it. Once they have all of this information inside of them and are able to recite/recall it quickly, then they are ready to move to the logic stage, where they begin to connect all of this information together in a well rounded way and make sense of it. So, for instance, the states and capitals are connected with geography and historical events. It’s much easier to see the full picture when all the components are easily accessible… if all the body parts are memorized, then it’s much easier to understand how the body works. Finally, in the rhetoric stage, the student is able to take all the information they’ve learned and instruct/persuade others. Here’s a simplistic way to think about it: First you become familiar with all the individual parts of a car, then you put it together and learn how it works, and finally you get to drive it.
This is, essentially, how the Bible works. It’s hard to understand this because the modern tendency is to start in the New Testament and then move through the rest of the Bible. Think about it – if you grew up in church, what were you taught as a child? John 3:16, The Romans Road, the gospel stories. In terms of the Old Testament, we got all of the major stories (Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale, etc. ). Sometimes, because the connection is so obvious, we are taught how a particular OT story shows us Christ or foreshadows His work on the cross, but often these stories are simply used as morality tales that teach us how to act in a situation. So, for example, the story of Noah is often taught as “how we are to obey God, even when the task is great, and the world is mocking us.” There’s certainly an element of truth to that, but there is so much more that we miss out on because we haven’t been saturated in the foundations of scripture. To put it another way, reading the Bible with the NT as your foundation is like skipping the grammar stage in classical education and jumping right into the logic stage (and in some cases, the rhetoric stage). Here’s another way to put it: those of us that have chosen a classical education for our children have done so because we are dissatisfied with the other educational approaches that are used in public and many private institutions… yet, we are perfectly satisfied for our children to receive this type of theological education.
The good thing is that God is gracious and will bless those who are obedient to His Word, even if the method is not the best. Most of us did just fine with a public school education, because that was all our parents knew. There really wasn’t a big homeschool movement when we were growing up – not to mention classical education. Still, for many of us, even though we look back at our time in public school and see many things we’d avoid or do differently with our children, God used our education to bring us to where we are now. That’s not to say that we should be satisfied to give our children what we had, and obviously, in the Classical Conversations community, we do not fall into that trap. The goal, of course, is to learn from our past – taking the good and discarding the bad – and mature to the next level, giving our children better opportunities and experiences than we had (as is possible). We research and experiment, glean wisdom from other, more experienced and knowledgable people, and weigh the options. None of us came to Classical Conversations lightly, but we are all (based on what I’m reading on the CC Message boards and Facebook pages) experiencing the fruit of our decisions. Well, the same process is true for how we understand the Bible. God has used the way we were taught growing up (or even up till now), and we have all matured in the faith (to varying degrees) at least enough to understand how important it is to give our children a well rounded Christian education… but we shouldn’t be satisfied with doing things the way our parents (or sunday school teachers, or pastors, etc…) did them. We should build upon those experiences – taking the good and discarding the bad – and give our children (and really, ourselves as well) a better opportunity at understanding God’s Word.
About a year ago, as I was teaching through Acts for the children’s Sunday school class at our church, I bore witness to some of the fruit this type of teaching produces. The chapter for that week was Acts 27. When I got to verse 27 (and, specifically, verses 27 – 38), my daughter pointed out that the fourteenth day was when Passover occurred. This had never occurred to me, so I made a mental note to investigate this further when I had a chance. Sure enough, the fourteenth day (which is mentioned twice in the passage) as well as other key words and phrases, sheds light on what is occurring in the passage. If we come to the passage with our theology having been based primarily in the NT (and without having a solid grounding in the OT), then this passage wouldn’t make sense to us – it would seem incidental. In fact, when I consulted a number of commentaries (including a trip to LifeWay to investigate the more popular commentaries), I found that none of the writers made the connection and if they did reference the fourteenth day, it was simply to highlight how hungry or tired the men on the boat were. Of course, we had already spent a couple of years reading through the Pentateuch and my daughter was familiar with Leviticus 23. Remember, the point of reading through these books was not for them to understand all the details, but to familiarize them. So I emphasized the times that the feasts occurred, what season they were observed in, and what part of the day it was (midnight, twilight, dawn, etc…). Because I have been studying and saturating myself in the OT along with my children, I have noticed that my understanding of the scriptures has greatly increased. Still, this example shows me how important the “classical model” is for our children. I’m sure all of the parents in Classical Conversations have grown in their knowledge as they’ve taught their children through the curriculum. And I’m sure they can also attest to the fact that their children pick this stuff up much faster and easier in most cases. As an adult who was taught theology “the old way,” and even academically trained to translate the scriptures and think through them, I find it difficult to understand how Paul, on a boat with a bunch of Gentiles, taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it and eating it at midnight on the fourteenth day is pertinent to our theology of the Lord’s Supper… but somehow it is. What I’m excited about, though, is that my children, as they grow in their knowledge of the Word and reach the logic stage of their biblical training, will already have all the grammar of the Bible in their heads and will be able to draw from all of scripture… which will allow them to be powerful and thoughtful apologists for the Kingdom when they reach the rhetoric stage.
If you would like to know the basics of the classical model of education, check out this article: http://www.welltrainedmind.com/classical-education/
However, if you would like to delve deeper into understanding the classical model and would like to find out more about Classical Conversations, please visit this site: http://www.classicalconversations.com/
I recently read an article in Christianity Today by Ed Stetzer that was published back in May of this year. You can read this article here. In the article, Stetzer lays out 3 areas that he believes the church needs to rethink in terms of how it reaches the culture. Before I interact with each area individually, let me state that the reason this article stood out to me is because it nicely sums up what I believe are some of the biggest problems that prevents the evangelical church from maturing and properly influencing the culture – not the reasons that Stetzer offers, but the way that he addresses the mission of the church. The more I read the popular evangelical leaders of our day and the way they refer to the church and her mission, the more I’m convinced that they’re one of the biggest hindrances to missions. Not because they are the only one’s who are getting it wrong, but because these are the leaders that the majority of the evangelical church are taking their cues from. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t question the sincerity or intentions of these men and women, but I do think it’s time for the church to take the next step in her reformation, and it’s going to mean rethinking the way we’ve defined the church and her mission – a task that Stetzer (and many others) are honestly trying to accomplish, but have either misidentified or misdiagnosed the real problems.
1. Too many churches love past culture more than their current context.
Essentially what Stetzer is speaking to here is that many churches need to change with the culture in order to reach those around them. I do not necessarily disagree with this in principle – what I disagree with is how he categorizes the church and her mission. Here’s the problem: While no doubt there are many churches that appear to be stuck in the 50’s in terms of their approach to worship or missions (or whatever it is he’s talking about), he seems to think that what goes on at the church building is related to missions. It’s not. This is where he is confusing the mission of the church with missions. When the church gathers together for corporate worship, her duty (mission) is to worship God. It doesn’t matter whether it resembles something from the 50’s or something from the future (actually it does, but I’m only speaking in terms of the world’s perception of our worship for the purposes of this post – style is a whole separate post in and of itself). Missions happens when the people of God leave worship and go out into the world. The funny thing is, most people do not address their culture from a 50’s mindset. In other words, even if their worship service resembles something from the 1950’s, the software developer (or teacher, or nurse, or farmer, or CEO, etc…) does not approach his co-workers (or the coffee barista, or their kid’s little league coaches, or their next door neighbor, etc…) with this same mindset. They interact with them in a modern context.
This is precisely what’s happening in Acts 17:16-34. Paul is interacting with the culture as an individual. Of course, he was a missionary, so his approach is a bit different than if he was a software developer, and even more importantly, the context for what Paul is doing in the time between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and before the destruction of Jerusalem (the creation of the church) is quite different from the church’s mission post A.D. 70, but we can still draw important principles from the passage that help us in our mission today. Regardless, though, it is obvious that what Paul is not doing is telling the local church that she needs to get with the times (unless, of course, you count that Paul is in the local synagogues preaching to the Jews and Gentile God-fearers, telling them to repent and follow Jesus), and here’s why: the church back in Paul’s day gathered together for the exact same reasons that she is supposed to gather together today – to worship God through corporate confession, singing, prayer, preaching and communion). Stetzer’s article seeks to convict churches about whether they love their past culture more than their current context. The problem is, churches need to first be convicted about not observing weekly communion or not singing the Psalms (both are commanded in the New Testament) before they worry about their music style. Why? Because these components of worship are what strengthen and equip the body to go out into the world to do missions. It’s backwards to think that we need to draw people into the church in order to reach them, and pouring all of our time, energy, money and resources into making church hip, “relevant,” or inviting is a waste – especially if you’re not doing the basics… the stuff that effects change.
But wait, you say. Doesn’t Matthew 28 (The Great Commission) teach us that missions is the mission of the church? Well, in one sense, I am having fun with the phrasing and have no problem saying that missions is part of the mission of the church – as long as it’s understood in it’s proper context. The thing is, most people – when quoting The Great Commission – jump immediately to verse 18 and bypass verses 16 and 17. It’s here that we find the context of Jesus’ commission: a worship service. It’s no coincidence that they gathered on a mountain top (worship always happened on a high place) and worshipped Jesus. This is what gave them the strength to be able to fulfill their commission. The commission came at the end – not in the middle or the beginning. The commission was not to bring the world to the mountain top in order to make disciples. The commission was to go into the world and make disciples – who would then come to the mountain top to worship their Lord as well.
2. Too many churches love their comfort more than their mission & 3. Too many churches love their traditions more than their children.
My response to the second statement actually incorporates Stetzer’s third and final observation, so I will go ahead and address both statements at the same time.
While I agree with the sentiment of Stetzer’s statement, what I want to point out is that he fails to recognize that this is an inherent problem within the current leadership of the broader evangelical, conservative, reformed community. What I’m talking about is the comfort of theological ideologies. One of the trends that I noticed long ago is the regurgitation of the same old views over and over again. There’s a staleness in the reformed evangelical community, and rather than seeking to move beyond it, we find our leaders patting each other on the back every time they write a book or an article saying the exact same thing the last guy wrote. This is not to say that there are not biblical truths that bear repeating – many times even. The problem comes when anyone offers a new thought or a different way of looking at a subject that doesn’t fit with the reformed tradition. For instance, in recent years N.T. Wright has been writing a lot of good stuff on justification, but because some of his conclusions do not necessarily coincide with the traditional reformed view (or, more appropriately, the traditional reformed view as it’s currently understood), many of our leaders have been calling “heresy” as loud and fast as they possibly can. The amusing part is that Wright’s exegesis, for the most part, is far superior to those who disagree with him. Admittedly, it’s hard to concede that your theological heroes or your beloved tradition might not be 100% correct across board, but it becomes even harder when the comfort of your doctrine is affirmed by all your in-house friends who refuse to honestly engage the issue and stand there with their eyes closed and their fingers plugging their ears while yelling “lalalalalalala… I can’t hear you!!”
If my criticism seems harsh, it’s because I’ve experienced this first hand a number of times in recent years, most recently when an online discussion started about the necessity of God’s wrath being poured out on Jesus on the cross. I proposed that maybe there was biblical warrant to think about this doctrine in a different way (after all, there are some orthodox denominations who reject this doctrine). I presented scripture passages to support my suggestion and then qualified my position by saying that I realized this was not a popular view, that I was not sure about it myself, and I would happily drop my little theological excursion if presented with some scriptural evidence that I might have missed. Alas, aside from one cry of “heretic!” I was completely ignored. The point to be made here is not whether I was right or wrong, but that any digression outside of the reformed comfort zone is met with harsh resistance. Stetzer make’s the point in his article that the church needs to be always reforming. The problem is that he narrowly defines this act of reformation as “humbly looking at itself and assessing its ability to reach people with the good news of Jesus.” I’m happy to include this within the larger scope of the term, but the historic foundation for “reformation” – at least in terms of the church – refers to fixing and maturing the church’s theology and worship. While it’s good to have strong boundaries around our doctrine, if the reformed church refuses to admit that she has a long way to go in her theological development, she will die. Of course, the biblical model for growth is death and resurrection, so perhaps what we need, and what is happening in the reformed community, is a death and resurrection toward a more mature church.
“Par for the course.”
This was my comment regarding an article that was floating around Facebook recently describing the verbal attacks by pro-choicers against legislators who were working to pass a pro-life bill in Texas last week. Specifically, they received “death threats, harassing emails and phone calls and calls for their daughters to be raped.” You can read the full story here. Many Christians, of course, responded with indignation, which then led to further responses by the pro-choice crowd. Even my own restrained comment received a rather harsh reply, basically saying that at least they weren’t bombing clinics. As I perused the various articles related to this news and the subsequent comments, I noticed that this was a common retort by the pro-choice crowd. In one sense, they have a point – that a murder is much worse than a death threat – and this point is hard to argue when your anger is directed at the death/rape threats rather than at the act of abortion itself. Still, though, despite this point, the pro-choice crowd really doesn’t have a leg to stand on with this response, and “par for the course” sums this up quite nicely.
First, it’s important to separate the responses from the act of abortion itself. My first inclination was to respond to the “at least we’re not bombing clinics” crowd with a stat on the number of abortions compared to the number of deaths via anti-abortion extremists (in case you’re wondering, there have been 8 recorded deaths in the United States… there were probably that many abortions alone this morning). I quickly changed my mind, though, because the issue is not abortion vs. responses, and it does a huge disservice to the pro-life movement to simply couch this in terms of escalated violence – primarily because we are on the same side when it comes to bombing/shooting deaths. They’re heinous acts of violence that really have nothing to do with the pro-life stance. This is vital, because it’s the response that reveals the heart and intentions of each side.
Most pro-choicers take issue with the fact that they are labeled as “baby-killers” and “pro-death.” I know (and love) many pro-choicers and recognize that at the heart of their beliefs is not a desire to see children die, but rather, is a misconstrued idea of what it means to have control over one’s own body. The disconnect between what they believe and what actually occurs is often seen in their responses. Exhibit A is the article above. While I doubt that most who issued the death and rape threats would actually follow through on such actions, it does reveal how their thought process works. Death is seen as an option when removing unwanted/undesirable roadblocks to their worldview. In this case, there are men and women (legislators) who oppose their views on abortion. This angers the pro-choicers so much that death becomes a viable option for removing the opposing worldview. Without justifying the deaths caused by anti-abortion extremists, let me point out the difference between the two. In the case of the anti-abortionist, death is seen as a necessary evil in the midst of war. They see themselves as mercenaries carrying out a mission to wipeout the bad guy. The impetus for killing is that it prevents more killing. This is still wrong, but is vastly different than the worldview of the pro-choicer, where death is simply a means to an end (when you think about this in terms of a conservative vs. liberal view of foreign policy, the irony is pretty astounding). This is why the pro-choice response of hateful death threats is “par for the course.” The choice to have an abortion is often simply about using death to remove an unwanted/undesirable roadblock in their life. If they ever convince themselves that a pro-life legislator was as insignificant as an unborn child, then we’ll probably start seeing more murders in that realm of life too (because, to be honest, it really doesn’t have much to do with the legality of the matter, for – as the pro-choicer likes to point out – there will always be abortions, legal or illegal).
As if to emphasize this characteristic of the pro-choice worldview, the day after I read the article above was July 4th, and I read a number of patriotic themed posts encouraging us to be thankful for our freedoms and to work hard to maintain them – including the freedom of choice in regards to abortion. Now, I could write a whole other post on the relationship between our freedom and the birth of our nation, but I will acknowledge that Independence Day is a day to be thankful. What is normally emphasized on this day is the sacrifice that our military personnel have made – past and present – but, in actuality, we should also be thankful for all the sacrifices that are made. This includes firemen, policemen, medical personal and all who dedicate their lives to helping others, the everyday Joe who runs toward danger to assist another, or simply the parent who gives their life to their family through the daily grind of perseverance, love and hard work. Independence Day is a day to remember that our country has a proud history of men and women who sacrifice themselves for others in all walks of life…. so, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or get angry at the suggestion that we recognize the most selfish act imaginable on this day – that a mother would kill her child in order for her own desires to be met. This is the epitome of selfishness – the anti-Independence Day… but it is also “par for the course.”
What is a priest? In the Bible, the priest is essentially a servant of the King. We are familiar with certain functions, such as the priest’s need to sprinkle blood on the altar, or to offer the sacrifice on behalf of the people, or even their role as the primary teachers of the scriptures (Deut. 33:10). One role, though, that we are less familiar with is that of guardian (Num. 18). In terms of the Levitical priesthood, we find that the priests were to kill anyone who tried to encroach on God’s holy dwelling place (inside the tent of meeting). Numbers 25 gives us the example of Phinehas, who killed a man and woman who tried to bring false worship into the tabernacle. In one sense, they were to keep people out for their own protection. Getting too close to God without being properly sanctified brought particularly deadly sanctions. In another sense, they were to kill those who were trying to attack the worship of God. So, for instance, while it is highly unlikely that any Israelite did not understand that he could not enter the tent of meeting, the priest was there at the entrance, just in case, to take their slaughtered animal for sacrifice and to tell them exactly what to do. But, if someone did try to attack the tent of meeting, or force their way inside, the priest was “packing.” This was nothing new, though. From the get go, Adam was placed into the garden (which was the sanctuary – the place where God met with His people) and was told to keep (guard) it. Adam was not simply a gardener or farmer, as is often considered, but he was primarily a priest. He, of course, failed in his duty when he allowed Satan to come into the sanctuary and deceive his wife.
The priesthood is the primary stage in the three-fold development of Israel: priest, king, prophet. Many of us are familiar with this as it relates to the sections of the Old Testament. The Pentateuch is considered the priestly section, the middle is full of the wisdom and kingly literature, and the last part is made up of the prophetic books. This, though, is not random; there is a specific order of development. The priestly stage is the primary stage (or the infant stage, you could say) because it is the stage where the law is given. Israel is told to do this and do that. There is no room for broad interpretation – especially as it relates to the worship of God. They either obeyed or they didn’t. This is because Israel was being trained – she was an infant. As she got older, though, she was given more freedom and was allowed to use wisdom and discernment to make decisions. The kingly stage was established when Israel was given the Promised Land and began influencing the nations from her exalted position at the center of the world. The prophetic stage followed as Israel progressed (was forced) out into the surrounding nations.
If you think about it, this three fold development applies to individual lives as well. We begin life as priests – we’re told exactly what to do, praised when we obey and disciplined when we do not. We have defined boundaries, and we primarily move within a very restricted world (we go where our parents go, essentially) As we grow, we are given more rules, but we are also given more freedom – all in order to prepare us for the next stage. As kings, we move out into the world, get married, have children, go to work, build houses, build up communities and acquire possessions. We take all the rules and instruction we received as priests and apply them to the more complicated choices we make as kings. Finally, we progress into the prophetic stage. We’ve raised children and watched them move into their kingly stages. More importantly, we’ve acquired enough knowledge, maturity and wisdom to become elders in the church and community. The words we speak are prophetic because they carry the weight and authority that only comes with maturity.
This threefold stage applies to the church as well, although this is much harder to see, given the way that most churches are structured nowadays. For instance, ideally the elders of the church would fall into the prophetic stage. This fits perfectly with the qualifications found in I Timothy 3. Unfortunately, many of churches have trended in a younger direction – much to their detriment. On the other end of the spectrum (and getting to the main point of my post), the modern church fails to recognize the priestly role of the children:
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
There’s one more responsibility of the Levite: that of singer. In I Chronicles 6, we find that David placed the Levites in charge of the service of singing in the house of the Lord after the ark had rested there. This last part is key because it clues us in on an important change in levitical responsibilities. In 2 Samuel, the ark returns to Jerusalem after having been possessed by the Philistines. Once the ark is back in Israel’s possession, David is able to conquer all the enemies of the land. Interestingly enough, his final battle is against giants descended from Goliath, the giant of his very first battle. Immediately after this battle is won, David sings a song praising God for delivering the enemy into Israel’s hand (2 Samuel 22). It’s at this point that the ark finds rest, because the battle’s have been won and the land has been cleared of the enemy. God has won and there will be no more war. This explains the somewhat confusing story found in the last chapter of 2 Samuel, when God is angered at David’s census. The reason God is angry is because a census means that David is mustering an army – and there is no more need for war… at least not that type of war. As if to prove this point, we find in I Kings 6 (which is really the first event in Kings – the first 5 chapters are genealogies) David is setting aside the Levites for the service of singing. The point seems to be that now that the land is cleared and the city of Jerusalem is established and is awaiting the construction of the temple, the battles will no longer be physical, but spiritual. The armies are no longer mustered for going to war, but there is also no need to defend the throne of God from physical armies either. The weapons of physical war (spears) have been replaced with the weapons of spiritual war (song).
Of course, a cursory reading of the Psalms makes this point obvious. Over and over we see the importance of singing to the Lord. In one sense, this is the primary way we express our delight in the Lord and His goodness to us, but it serves other functions as well: It proclaims to the world these truths, it encourages our brothers and sisters who are in distress, and it brings devastation to the Lord’s enemies. On a practical level, this means that it is never ok to bomb an abortion clinic – we do not fight in this manner. What is appropriate, though, is for the church to gather outside the abortion clinic and sing psalms (and really, it’s as simple as that… instead of holding anit-abortion signs, we should probably just be holding psalters). As I’ve already stated, we progress through various stages in life – priest, king, then prophet – but we never leave our previous stages behind… we absorb them into our new level of maturity. So, for instance, even though singing is technically a priestly function, we are to never stop singing once we become kings. We become better singers, write new songs, and arrange these songs more beautifully. In one sense, because we are united to our King, we are like him in our function as “prophet, priest and king.” Still, though, it is true that the varying roles and abilities to fulfill these roles avail themselves to us at different points in our life (and in the life of the church).
With that in mind, then, one of the roles that is severely neglected in the church is the child’s role as liturgical singer. The first thing we have to get past is our idea of what singing is. Again, there is a wide degree of maturity when it comes to singing. The most skilled (mature) are those who have spent many years honing their craft, learning the parts, developing their ear and training their bodies to produce beautiful sounds. Yet, the Bible doesn’t require only this type of singing – everyone is required to sing. On the other end of the spectrum, then, is the infant’s laughter, gurgling, cries, and shouts… or, as the scriptures put it, “joyful noises.” This is age-appropriate singing. The second thing we must come to grips with, therefore, is that these noises are a GOOD thing in worship and should be welcomed. Our tendency is to stifle our babies when they make noise, which is why we normally shuffle them off to a nursery during the worship service (there’s obviously some grace here, though – especially for new mothers. Having a nursery is not an evil thing, but can be put to good (yet temporary!) use for the young mother and father who are struggling to train their children). The necessary alternative to this behavior, though, is to recognize that the service is lacking something important and beautiful when those “noises” are not present. If we attended a worship service where there was no prayer, it would feel weird… we should feel the same way about the joyful noises of our babies.
Finally, we must recognize that when our children are not allowed to participate in the worship of the Lord in their appropriate ways, we are doing the church a huge disservice. There is still an enemy in our midst, and his number one goal is to destroy the mission of the church. One way he has done this is by deceiving the church into thinking that children are not mature enough to worship God. This is very similar to his very first deception: “Did God really not say that you cannot eat of any tree in the garden? You will surely not die if you do.” In the same manner, the father of lies asks “Did God really say that all of creation is to worship Him? Surely they are not old enough to make a difference. Surely God does not desire their participation.” Satan is smart because he knows that the babies have a very specific role in the worship of God: To still the enemy. If Satan wants to attack the church, he has to get through the children first… which is pretty easy when the children are not present. People of God, you’re children have a job to do. Do not prevent them from doing it! If we want to see the world changed, then it must start with the church. And the church must be unified and working at 100%. If the Miami Heat had only trotted out 4/5 of their starters, then the San Antonio Spurs would be the current NBA champions. It’s time to recognize the important role of our children in worship. It’s time to anoint them to their priestly service (Baptize them!) and put them on the front lines. The world depends on it.
One of the recent popular topics on the Evangelical blogs has been a discussion regarding the “Radical” Christian life as promoted by David Platt and other like-minded Christian leaders. Generally, the discussions revolve around whether it’s profitable to consider that the obedient Christian life consists of radical practices – like becoming missionaries, selling all you have and moving to the inner city, or adopting children from overseas. I have appreciated the many thoughts that have come from those – especially the mothers – who have pushed against this view and countered that the Christian life is much more “mundane” than this. I certainly agree with this, although – while not very familiar with much of Platt’s (and others) teaching in this regard – I tend to think that the extreme views come more from his fans than from his own teaching. Like many subjects, there is always a lot to learn from each perspective, and the correct answer is rarely ever set in stone, and depends more on the individual’s situation, rather than a simple proof text from the Bible.With this in mind, I would like to add another perspective into the discussion, tying this topic in with another popular subject: Doing hard things ( I wrote about his subject here).
One of the extremes those on my side of the discussion have to be careful to avoid is the error of “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” In other words, just because we believe that many Christians are not called to do “radical” things like move overseas to become missionaries doesn’t mean that there are not many who are truly called to do this. I know a number of missionaries who are called to do this and God has blessed their ministry. The world still needs the gospel, and the church still needs to send missionaries to accomplish this.
As I have followed our friends who are on the mission field, praying for them and staying abreast of their lives through e-mails, letters, and facebook, I have noticed that they struggle with many of the same issues that we struggle with here in the states. This is especially true of those who serve overseas along with their whole family. They still have to deal with potty-training, sibling fights, laziness, and whining. And even though they rarely write about this, I’m sure they also have to deal with their own selfishness, hard-headedness, hurts, and laziness when it comes to their marriages and parenting. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised by this – this is what life is all about. When we choose to do hard things, these are the hard things that we’re choosing to do.
I might be wrong about this, as someone who has only been on a couple of short-term mission trips overseas, but I imagine that the transition from stateside servant of Christ to overseas servant of Christ is relatively simple compared to the daily grind of service. In other words, deciding to move overseas is not so much hard, as it is different. The problem is, we tend to think of the transition as the hard part. If I say, “Do hard things,” you might mistakenly think this means to become a missionary (or move to the inner city, or adopt an orphan, etc…). The decision to do these things, though, is not the hard part – it’s simply the different part. Deciding to move your family to Africa may seem like a really hard thing to many of us, but I suspect that for those who (really)feel a call to do this, it’s not that hard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are some aspects that are difficult and inconvenient – especially at the very beginning (the transition) – but there’s probably a lot of excitement and joy as well. In some respects it may even be easy, because you’re doing what you know God has called you to do… it just feels right. The hard part, though, comes when the transition is over and the daily grind of life begins again.
Recently I’ve encountered two stories that reflect different aspects (one positive, one negative) of what I’m talking about. First, I read an article about a family who is selling their successful medical practice to move to Haiti. Due to the financial blessings God has bestowed upon them, they have given quite a lot over the years to missionary work in the country. They’ve even taken a few trips there to serve. This year, though, their youngest son has graduated high school and he’s leaving for college. They’ve spent the middle part of their life doing hard things: sustaining a loving marriage, serving their community, earning money, serving their church, and raising chidren. In other words, growing the Kingdom. This is the hard stuff. Now they’ve entered a new stage of life. Adventure awaits. Sure, there will be some difficult aspects to leaving their home behind and beginning this new journey, but they’ll get through it. It may even be fun. This is not to say that young families are not called to missions, but hopefully you get my point. Sometimes patience pays off.
On the other hand, I recently encountered a man at a Bible study who is the brains behind an impressive ministry to the children of the war-torn areas in Africa. As we talked, though, he began sharing how his marriage was a wreck, his children were rebellious, and he felt like a failure… at least on the homefront. He was very proud of his ministry. He spent, on average, 3 weeks a month overseas – away from his family. He even admitted that he looked forward to these trips because home life was so hard (and we’re talking about a man who was regularly shot at!). This is a man who did not do hard things. He shunned his primary duty for “radical” pursuits. Were these pursuits noble and well-intentioned? Sure – but they should have been pursued by someone else.
Here’s the deal: Whether you are called to serve in the mission field, or called to serve in the local church here in America, the hard part is in the service of the Lord. If you choose the easy way to worship (as I discussed in my previous post) – in either case – then you will probably fail. And whether you are called to move into the inner city, or whether you decide to stay in suburbia, the hard part comes in building relationships with your neighbors: inviting them over for dinner, showing an interest in their interests, and otherwise, loving them as yourself. If you choose to take the easy route, then you will probably fail. And, finally, if you are called to adopt an orphan from Ethiopia, or whether you’re called to only have 2 biological children of your own, if you take the easy way out – shunning your responsibilities, refusing to discipline, letting others (the state, neighbors, family, siblings) raise your children – then you will fail. No matter where you are, the hard stuff never changes. It has to be done. Don’t confuse the hard things with the different things. If you want to be fulfilled in life, moving overseas will not be the answer. Do the hard stuff. Today. Then maybe tomorrow God will call you to something “radical.”
“Do Hard Things.” I like this phrase – we use it all the time in our house. Usually it’s when one of our children complain about doing a chore, or going to their ballet class, but often it’s a mantra I use for my own well-being. Every week, one of my daughters inevitably complains about going to dance class, claiming to be sick, tired, or sore. We tell them to “do hard things.” Every week, I come home from a long day at work and I inevitably complain about having to turn right around and shuffle my children off to said dance class. So I tell myself “do hard things.” It’s a good phrase. It’s also become a popular phrase in evangelical circles… we even have books about it. This is a good thing, because our young people – especially our young men – need to hear this repeatedly. They need to see it modeled for them as well. Unfortunately, like most other good phrases, or good intentions, it’s often divorced from the area where it is most needed: corporate worship.
Corporate worship is the center of the Christian life. Everything else that happens in our lives, including the way we respond to everything, flows out of worship. How we worship the Lord is of utmost importance and it should require us to do hard things. Think about it: The point of doing hard things in the rest of life is to help us mature as people, which in turn helps us to better serve and love others. If hard things are vital to our relationships with other people, how much more are they important to our relationship with Christ? Yet, for the most part, when it comes to corporate worship, we settle for the easy things.
First, let’s consider the most prominent aspects of worship – the stuff that’s commanded of us in the Bible. Most evangelical worship services do not require much from it’s congregants. They need to just be there. The pastors pray the prayers, the praise band rocks the music, and the only thing that’s required of us is a little attention during the sermon, and the ability to move money from our pocket to the plate. Sometimes, if it’s old school, they want you to make the journey to the altar during the invitation, but I think that’s becoming more rare nowadays (thankfully).
But what would it look like if we did hard things? Well, first of all, it would mean that we start participating in worship. The easy thing is to sit back and take it all in. The hard thing is to participate in congregational responses, whether it’s a hearty “Amen” after our prayers and songs, or antiphonal call and responses (pastor: “The Lord is risen!” congregation: “He is risen indeed!”) Undoubtedly, this is uncomfortable for many evangelicals, but this is part of doing hard things. Stepping out of your comfort zone is hard. God, though, requires our participation in worship, and it’s gnostic to think that this participation only occurs in our thoughts. You know what else is hard? Proper posture. Lifting our hands in praise or kneeling for corporate confession. But, again, this is something the Lord wants us to do… even if it’s uncomfortable. Congregational prayer is also uncomfortable – it’s much easier to let one person say it while you give your private ascent. Doing hard things also means letting go of some of our preconceived notions. In many cases, this may be the hardest thing to do. But Jesus didn’t tell us to drink grape juice as often as we meet in remembrance of Him. He told us to drink wine. Wine is important to communion and we can’t get around this. It may be hard for some to get over their generational teetotalism, but isn’t that the point?
Singing is also hard. It used to be that the church could sing all the psalms, as well as many hymns. Not any more. It’s rare to find a church that tackles a full hymn (they might go for 2 or 3 stanzas from time to time), much less a psalm. In fact, they don’t even know how to read music anymore. Now they simply put words on a big screen and let a rock band “lead” them in singing. This is why the singing is really poor in practically every evangelical church. The thought behind this type of worship, though, is to promote easy things. Everything in terms of music has been engineered to make it as simple as possible… to not “put off” anyone in the congregation – especially the guests. Doing hard things, though, would mean that the church would have to start gathering together on a regular basis to learn how to sing. They would need a song leader who could teach them how to read notes. They would have to possibly learn how to sing in parts. They would have to be willing to work through hymns that are 5 or 6 stanzas long… maybe a lot more. They would have to learn to sing as a body. They would have to get over their insecurities and be willing to sing loud. It may also mean that many of our worship leaders would have to admit that they don’t know much about congregational singing and either begin the long (hard) process of learning, or stepping down and allowing someone more qualified to lead.
You know what’s really hard? Bringing your children into worship. They squirm. They wiggle. They laugh. They cry. We fret. We worry about distracting others. We worry that we won’t hear all of the sermon. Frankly, many look forward to church because it’s a short break: Ship the kids of to nursery for an hour and let someone else take care of them. But this is not what God wants. He wants our children in worship, because they are part of the body. If the children are not in the worship service, then the body is incomplete. This will probably mean that parents have to deal with whines, wails, and wiggle worms on a weekly basis until they get used to being in there. It will be hard, but it will happen – trust me. Even more importantly, this will mean the rest of the congregation will need to do hard things. They’ll need to stop giving the stink eye to the mom whose child is being a little disruptive. They’ll need to start appreciating the ill-timed squeals and squawks. They’ll need to come to terms with the fact that their own worship doesn’t quite measure up to the kiddos (Psalm 8), and that God loves it!
Doing hard things also applies to the peripheral areas of corporate worship. For instance, it’s really easy to wake up late on a Sunday morning, throw on a pair of raggedy jeans, toss on a flannel shirt, and jump in the car to go to church. What’s hard is getting up a little early to iron your clothes, and even though that tie is a bit uncomfortable, taking the time and care to dress as if you were presenting yourself before the King of Kings. It’s also easy to grab some fast food on the way home from church and spend a relaxing day watching football or napping. What’s hard is preparing a meal the night before and inviting a family over to your house for the afternoon. Purposeful community is really hard – especially when your stepping out of your comfort zone and getting to know people; inviting them into your home to invade your private space. You may have to turn off the television. You may have to listen to them talk about NASCAR or the stock market (both sound equally boring to me). But if there’s one thing the Bible tells us about the corporate life of the church, it’s that it wouldn’t be easy.