Category Archives: culture

5 of the reasons a “Returning Medium-Term Missionary” might seem a bit weird.

1. “Home” is no longer a clear-cut concept.  Asking ‘how does it feel to be home?’ is likely to be met with a blank look and, at best, a muttered half-truth or at worst, sobs.

2. Feelings change in direct relation to the ticking of a clock, so any question which relates to said feelings (how does it feel to be back? do you feel the cold? do you fancy a cup of tea?) probably means the answer has already changed 4 or 5 times before your voice even has a chance to inflect the question mark.

3. A big part of the brain still operates in a foreign language or some mixed-up version thereof, franglais par exemple.  Therefore common words and phrases like ‘toothbrush’ and ‘go for a walk’ are blanked out and one speaks in structures of sentences bizarre.

4. A big part of the body still carries the habits of the etiquette of the other culture.  When we need to walk past each other in the street, you will politely move over to your left as I politely move over to my right only to discover you’re still in MY way.  At which point, it becomes a game of chicken.  May the best foreigner win.

5. Everything is relative.  Every situation is open to comparison – it wasn’t like this where I was, when I was here before it was like that, I never used to see this, I always used to do that…  The possibilities for difference and discovery and naming of difference are endless as well as the ways in which those differences are important or not.  “Left-hand side of the road, Left-hand side of the road, LEFT-HAND side of the road…”

Tomorrow… a few survival tips (for all involved!) on dealing with a ‘Returning Medium-Term Missionary’ who might seem a bit weird.

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Worship Wars III : We’re all in this together

My last post on Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out without Dumbing Down : A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time finished with this quote :

I need public worship to bring me a holy and merciful God who shows me my sinfulness and yet offers the possibility of repentance and forgiveness… I need an assembly of people who ask God to be God in their lives and thereby proclaim God’s power, faithfulness and gracious healing. (p93)

We saw the dangers of playing to our culture’s individualistic self-seeking by tailoring our church worship services to attract new people or please people in general.  There are delicate but significant nuances found in the counteraction to these ideas.  We must move away, both as those who lead worship and those who participate in it, from this individualism that is so engrained in us by our culture.

We are not, however, moving away from it just for the sake of moving away, but rather because as the Church, we are called to embody God’s Kingdom and His created order.

An integral part of who we are as humans created in the image of God and who we are as the Church, is precisely that : who WE are.  WE are a group, a community, a family of followers of Jesus.  If what we’ve said about worship forming our character is true, then our worship ought to be firmly community focussed, community driven.

Eugh – and then I trip and fall over my own words.

How can worship be ‘firmly community focussed and community driven’ without retoasting toast and diminishing our focus on the infinite truth of God’s character???

Good question.  Let me explain…

It comes back to our illustration of the parable of the Lost Son and what it says about the character of the Father that He does not say the son is not worthy.  I said this :

…because God is our Father and we are His children, the fact that worship is all about him is inextricably linked with our well-being.

So, rather than worship focussing on how the community shapes worship, worship focusses on God – who is the essence and model of community (as the Trinity embodies what it is to live in relationship) – and worship is therefore shaped and shapes according to that truth.  Man.  There’s a whole blog post in itself…

Anyway, hopefully it’s clear that I’m saying we think about the community of worship because GOD is community and so I’ll have greater freedom to express my reflections without having to restate that in every paragraph.

What does it look like, therefore, to plan worship (and participate in worship) which revels in the God who created us for and calls us to community?

Marva says this :

Our preaching and hearing of the Word, the way we use liturgical forms, our participation in the sacraments, our song, art, and architecture all contribute to create the sense that God is with us (plural) and that we respond by dwelling in His new world. (p140)

God is with us

I remember when I first heard Crooked Shore question the practice of closed eyes during worship, I was surprised to find myself in agreement.  I’d never really thought much about it as I have a terrible memory for lyrics and so closing my eyes while singing is barely ever an option, but it makes sense that if God is with us, I should at least be able to see who I’m worshipping with.  Another practice which undermines the sense of community in corporate worship is the number of songs that express their sentiment in the first person : “I will offer up my life”, “Here I am, humbled by your Majesty”, “You are the only one who sets me free”…  Marva Dawn would add a third: practice of expressing subjective (that is personal, depending on each individual, changing according to many factors…) emotion in worship songs.  Too often, worship becomes about what’s going on with ‘me’.  As worship leaders, we need to work hard to remind ourselves and those we lead that God is at work in US as a community of His people.

The community of the King

In worship, the church is identified as the people of God, committed to the lordship of Christ p131

The church is not seeking to counteract/subvert culture and establish itself as separate from ‘the world’ just for the sake of being different, but because God’s Kingdom life is true life.  The church is a community of people who are seeking to live in the reality of God’s Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven – a community who are building (being built into) a new kind of society over and against that of the world.

There is something completely other about corporate worship – let’s not pretend that to come together in a church service is the same as a ‘worship time’ at home alone, or even with a couple of others.  Many, I imagine (and I have heard some), say that they prefer what they experience when they are alone or with two or three like-minded friends; that they cannot connect to worship in a church service the way they do on these less formal occasions.  This is, perhaps, a valid way to spend time worshipping God but the experience it affords is often then set up as an aspiration or even expectation for corporate worship in a congregational setting.

When we lead worship in a way that puts personal preference and entertainment above the importance of the church community and gospel inclusiveness, we are undermining the purpose of the church in the world.  When we seek to lead worship under the lordship of Christ, personal preference or cultural relevance must take a back seat.

Drawing people into the common heritage of the Church

I think so far one of the subjects covered in this book that I’ve really enjoyed poking around with my brain-fingers, is the importance of the church’s heritage when it comes to corporate worship.

A little while ago, I did some thinking about the bible with my good friend JC (that’s Jayber Crow by the way) and I was greatly enlightened as to the role of the faith community in writing, canonising, understanding and applying the word of God.  So, I suppose in some ways, Marva Dawn’s thoughts have been stirring that up a little more in a way that is even more interesting and practical to me as a worship leader.

Once again, I have to admit, she often comes across as a little bit grumpy and I have trouble separating my feeling about that with an objective view on what she’s stating is a valid form of worship or not in regards to how we teach and integrate the church’s heritage.  But I am really intrigued about her encouragement to churches to continue to use liturgy, hymns and rituals in order to create/sustain/nourish a sense of collective memory, understanding and practice within our congregations.  In this way, we link people not just to each other, but to the greater community of faith of the worldwide, historical church.  By invoking the heritage of the faith, we model the life of faith not only to those well-versed in kingdom living, but to our children, to those new to the community and to those outside of the community looking in.

There are dangers, of course, in this pursuit.  Many churches in an honest desire to remain true to their heritage, have been traditionalists for the sake of tradition (for example those who fly certain flags in their sanctuary because its always been done, regardless of the message it sends…) and lose sight of the true heritage they originally claimed to be pursuing.  In some ways, this kind of rigid adherence to perceived heritage is possibly why some other churches throw the baby out with the bath water and go in the absolute opposite direction, serving Mountain Dew and tortilla chips at communion, or even replacing communion with a game of volley ball… (source “Emerging Churches” Gibbs/Bolger).

I’ve always sought to use familiar forms and ‘old’ hymns where possible when leading worship, but partly if not mostly in order to please as many people in the community as possible.  However, this gives a whole other incentive as to why to discover and perpetuate the forms with which my grandparents and those before them were familiar – even in the context where many members of the church are first-generation – or saved later in life – Christians.  Particularly in our light-speed moving culture.

As we bathe in and walk with the heritage of the Church together, we enrobe ourselves in the story of God’s movement in and through His people down through the ages.  We live and breathe the truths of God’s grace at work in the world.  We eat and drink His life until He comes again.  We worship…

Together with all the saints, worldwide, we worship.

Together with all the saints, down through history, we worship.

Together, we worship.

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Worship Wars II : You are what you eat.

Following on from my last post reflecting on Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out without Dumbing Down : A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time, I’d like to think some more about what she says in regards to the effects of our culture on the ways we as a church worship together.

We noted :

1) the impact of media bombardment on our ability/motivation to respond with actions to the infromation we are presented with;

2) an increasing desire for intimacy and community with a growing cluelessness as to how to create it authentically; and

3) the dangers of playing up to society’s desire for entertainment.

This time, we’ll look a little more at another aspect of contemporary culture :

4) individualistic self-seeking.

This video did the rounds a few years ago, so its hardly new, but it still made me smile…

Corporate worship is about God and yet many arguments about it are concerned with personal tastes and the needs of the congregation.  We often place a high importance on the quality of the music in order to attract or keep young people/new people/musical people/*insert appropriate people type*.  Here’s a Marva quote :

Music often becomes the scapegoat after pastors have failed for years to train congregation members to evangelise in their daily lives… if such reaching out has not occurred over the years, sometimes churches suddenly switch music and worship styles in order to “attract” people.  The music of the faithful Church is suddenly jettisoned to compensate for long-term failure to be the Church… (p166)

We back up our own desires for better music by saying we need it to make church more appealing to outsiders – an admirable motivation, perhaps, but even here we’re saying that worship is for ‘us’ as the created rather than for the Creator, n’est-ce pas?  For me, to shape the ways in which we ‘do’ worship in our services first and foremost around those outside (or even inside?) our local church is like putting toast in the toaster to make bread.  In other words, its backwards!

So, if you put toast in the toaster and claim that what comes out is “bread”, you start to change what people understand as bread – see what I mean?  If you retoast toast, okay, there’s something bread-ish about it, but its hidden under all those layers of toasting, you know?  Similarly if we redesign our worship services by putting them through our culture and its needs and demands first, what comes out will be worship-ish, but will we not have lost the hot-from-the-oven, crispy on the outside, soft and fresh on the inside satisfying goodness of true worship “bread”?

For those who LOVE toast, this is probably not a helpful metaphor, but go with it, k?

The problem with redefining the definition of “bread” as pertaining to what you get after you put toast in the toaster, is that our perception of the goodness of “bread” (whilst we may still appreciate it) is distorted and our gourmet world is made that little bit smaller.  Now, if humankind loses all sense of how good true, fresh bread can be (and it arguably has forgotten the value of many real homegrown/handbaked foodstuffs in the face of microchips and GM veggies…) it would be sad and serious.  But imagine the consequences of a church and society for whom ‘worship’ is retoasted toast – what does that do to our idea of God???

I’m not a fan of the kind of self-abasing theology that talks of human beings as ‘nothing’ or as ‘unworthy’ even, so although it may seem that I’m saying worship has nothing to do with us and everything to do with God… well… I am.

BUT.

It is important that we hear that correctly.  Let me use the parable of the lost son(s) as an example (Lk 15:11-32).  When the son who ran away and squandered his inheritance comes back, he says “I am not worthy to be your son…”, the father does NOT say, “No, you’re not, but sure let’s forget about that and have a party”.  He (having already demonstrated his eagerness to welcome back has son by running out to meet him on the road) says “Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him… Let’s celebrate his return!”.  To even for one second consider the possibility that a son is not worthy of his father’s love is to call into question the character of the father.  In a parent-child relationship, the love is nothing to do with worthiness, but (in a perfect world of course) rather it is a given in the very nature of that relationship.

Therefore because God is our father and we are His children, the fact that worship is all about him is inextricably linked with our well-being.  So you see, as I touched on briefly at the end of the last post, our means of worship have the power not only to communicate the true character of God, but also to form that character in us as we feed on Him.  As we worship, we are drawn closer to him.  As we see Him more clearly, we love Him more dearly.  As we trust Him more fully, we reflect Him more truly.

You are what you eat.

I’d love to hear some of your questions and thoughts about what this might look like in the nitty gritty of planning and ‘executing’ a church service?  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some more Marva:

Genuine praise of God involves all our emotions and needs, not by focussing on ourselves, but by proclaiming God’s truth and God’s attributes and actions on our behalf… (p90)

Praise encompassing all of God’s character provides a safe haven within which we can face ourselves and acknowledge the truth of our brokenness, rebellions and idolatries… (p91)

I need public worship to bring me a holy and merciful God who shows me my sinfulness and yet offers the possibility of repentance and forgiveness… I need an assembly of people who ask God to be God in their lives and thereby proclaim God’s power, faithfulness and gracious healing. (p93)

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French Kissing and other cultural reflections on love.

French kissing.  I’ve done it a lot.  Its very nice and I have to say I like it.  But, it can get a little awkward…  Turning this way and that, bumping glasses, not knowing what is acceptable to do with your hands, wondering if I have to kiss EVERY person in the room even though it takes an awful long time to get around everyone.  It gets tiring, all this kissing.

For those of you who aren’t sure what I’m talking about, here’s a little instructional video…

See?

I think even the French get confused.

In other cultural reflection news… I’ve been thinking about how the presence of or lack of words to describe a concept in a certain language has a profound affect on a culture.  The French word/concept that I’ve been thinking about is ‘love’.  Another slightly awkward one for an anglophone.

So, you make a new friend of the opposite sex.  You don’t fancy them, but you do greatly appreciate their friendship and would like to communicate this.  Problem : the verb you would most likely use (‘aimer’) means both like and love.  Awkward.

Or, you make a new friend of the opposite sex.  You are attracted to them and would like to communicate this.  Problem : the verb you would most likely use does not exist.  Your only option is to use ‘aimer’ – I love you.  Immediately you find yourself confessing to be in love with this person.  Awkward?

Now, for an anglophone (at least in my culture), the phrase ‘I love you’ takes a relationship to a whoooooooole other level – think how many films/tv series include that awkward moment where one person says ‘I love you’ and the other person freaks out because they’re not ready to say it so says something silly like ‘thank you’ and so ensues a whole episode of angst until the second person plucks up the courage and decides its okay to say it but now the other person doesn’t want to hear it etc etc etc.  Awkward.

But anyway.  I digress.

Now imagine yourself French (no rude comments, please).  This is how it works as far as I can tell… You meet someone of the opposite sex and start going out.  How do you express the fact that you like that?  Je t’aime.  I love you.  But that’s okay, because you’re French and you speak French, and that’s what you say.

Incroyable.

It puts such an interesting spin on it all because ‘I love you’ is therefore a somewhat smaller thing to say because it is employed from a very early period in defining a relationship.  It is made even smaller, then, when you break up with someone after a few weeks because you don’t feel like its working – the words ‘Je t’aime’ are therefore as easily revoked as they are employed.  Do you see what I mean?  The words somehow don’t have the same binding power…

But whilst it is a smaller thing to say, it can also be a majassive thing to say, you know?  For example, in the French Christian world, love is, on principal, not bandied around (which is a Good Thing), but at the same time the amount of pressure that is put on a couple to Know from the beginning is huge.  Like, where is that period between friendship and ‘in love’?  Surely that’s an important stage to pass through before committing yourself for a lifetime to a person?  Its sort of an all-or-nothing situation.

Hmmm…. Makes for a more dramatic life I guess.  Perhaps Alicia was in France when she wrote this

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Things I am learning in France : The One where I am a Mature Student (read ‘Nerd’)

I’ve been attending a language school for the sum total of three days.  I’m repeating French words ad nauseum (at times not even full words), doing grammar exercises, writing a crime novel, creating a weather report for a radio station… and LOVING it.

The highlight of my time in France so far has not been the weather, nor the great food, nor even the beauty of arriving in a new city at the most stunning leaves-turning Autumn, nor has it been (sorry) meeting the people I’ll be working with – although all of that has been incredible, I hasten to add!  The highlight of my time so far in France was an hour long lecture in a darkened room looking at slides (yes – SLIDES – as in the small individual plates of glass with pictures printed on them, not as in powerpoint) of Roman-built churches.

I began the lesson in confusion – what on earth did Roman churches have to do with French Culture (the name of the class), never mind my study of the French language?  It doesn’t help that I’ve been put in a class who are already one month into their syllabus.  However, half way through the lesson I found myself on the edge of my seat; eyes wide, nodding eagerly, smiling even with head buzzing and heart pounding – it was incredible.

For a second I saw myself through the eyes of my 19 year old student self, through the eyes of the majority of the undergraduate students around me – I was a Mature Student, ie a Nerd.  Drinking in every word and idea that was being conveyed, turning it over in my mind, poking it and turning it and revelling in the process!  Every so often the teacher would say “Its VERY interesting, isn’t it?” and I could hear my 19 year old self laughing – he was talking about how people used to build buildings for goodness sake!  I almost rolled my eyes instinctively.  And yet – and YET! – it WAS VERY INTERESTING!!! I was fascinated!!!!!

What captured me most, I think, was the passion with which the teacher spoke.  The way in which he had evidently lived and breathed the architecture of the time, he spoke authoritatively but philosophically.  He communicated with his whole body – I have never seen anyone perform a lesson in a such a way as to evoke the language of dance.  I could hear my 19-year-old self laughing and mocking his eccentricity – he was a grown man pretending to be a wall for goodness sake!  I almost nudged the person beside me instinctively.  And yet – and YET! – I have never before left a class feeling so inspired and alive!!!!

To lower the tone slightly… The experience was made all the more special when I noticed he was wearing the kind of specs that rather than having legs which balance them on your ears, they were simply balanced on his nose.  Brilliant.

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The problem with being single – 2.5: Sometimes you lose your voice

The ole stats have been low of late ( 😉 ), so thought I’d post something to make you sit up and pay attention…!  Couldn’t quite decide if this was number 3 of this series as technically the first one I called ‘Mark II ‘ was a cop out, then secondly I posted an edited version of  the original post so anyway… 2.5…

Was chatting to a married friend recently who was articulating some of the things I have long felt niggling at the back of my mind about Christian men.  It was a breath of fresh air to hear her talk so freely about some of the wrong attitudes men appear to have when it comes to dating because you see, the problem with being single is that sometimes you lose your voice.

It was okay for her to comment on the tendancy of Christian men to choose partners first (if not wholly) on consideration of physical attractiveness before going on to consider character; it was okay for her to comment on how often Christian men shy away from any woman who could hold her own in a debate (theological or otherwise), build her own flat-pack furniture or earn a greater salary than he.  It was okay for her because its clear that she’s speaking up for others as she herself is happily married.

Somehow it doesn’t feel okay for me to say those things.  Somehow it sounds self-serving and bitter and sad.  In my worse moments, perhaps it is self-serving and bitter, but in the depths of my gut I truly long for men and women to know and love each other as God has made them.  Too often women feel the need to lose weight, buy clothes, shut up, dumb down in order to be considered as dateable never mind marriagable.  Too often we’re compelled to be someone other than our true selves.

I don’t just long for that for women, this is not just a ‘women’s issue’.  I also long that men would so set aside their own fear of not matching up to the world’s standards in their relationships and achievements that they could truly begin to live in love and partnership with women.

But I’d never say that without great fear and trepidation because the problem with being single is that sometimes you lose your voice.

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Feminism and Flat-pack Furniture

While she was building a flat-pack chair, my friend once commented “Does this mean I’m an Independent Woman now? I’m worried that means I don’t need a husband.”

Now, there are several things about that statement that worry me. Apologies to said friend if ever she should read this. It is not criticism of her nor her plight, but it was the perfect example with which to write a blog that has been brewing for a few days. PLUS it gave the perfect alliterative title!

These are only preliminary thoughts which I hope to develop over time. How many of them I publish here depends on my waxing and waning concerns over how I am perceived and judged by any readership that should stumble across my small corner.

Okay, here goes … in no particular order…

1. Inherent is a picture of a God who gives women certain skills so they can cope when he makes them live as old spinsters.

Women I know (in this context of the single variety) often think about whether or not God is ‘calling’ them to be single til the grave (I imagine men also think about this but with perhaps less urgency…). It’s a big thing. Perhaps it’s the bio-clock a-ticking (of which we’re aware in one way or another from a ridiculously young age), perhaps it’s the importance and honour which the media and culture place on couples/romance or perhaps – and I think that often – it is rooted in a tragic sense of ‘What if…?’ What if I’m not attractive enough? What if I’m not good enough? What if I don’t deserve it? What if God doesn’t love me enough to give me what I most desperately want? Relationship. Connection. Community. What if God is giving me practice at building flat-pack furniture so I can look after myself when all my friends get married and I’m alone?’

Is this really the provision of which ‘Jehovah-Jireh’ speaks?

2. Negative connotations of being independent – as if its not a feminine quality.

Now, I know Beyoncé and the girls coined this idea of an Independent Woman – and let’s face it, if we could wave a wand and be like Beyoncé I’m not too sure how many of us would decline the offer (the Spice Girls’ ‘Girl Power’ might be somewhat less tempting…) – but, actually in reality, culture (at least N.I Christian culture) seems to consider independence in a woman isn’t ‘all that’.

I’m in great danger here of stealing another blogger’s soapbox and start ranting, but I’ll curtail it for now as this, I hope, is just the introduction to a series of posts on these things.

Suffice to say (for now) that, whether explicitly or otherwise, culture says that ‘real’ women are pink and fluffy. Which leads to my third preliminary observation…

3. Desire to be seen as ‘feminine’ in ‘masculine’ eyes.

Again, the fear that we don’t match up to what we’re ‘supposed’ to be. Most women (we cannot be completely free from generalisations here…) are greatly concerned with relationships and connections with people – its what we love, its our frame of reference for our identity. It is both a blessing and a curse. The curse being that we want others to think well of us and thus the concern to be desirable to the opposite sex in the hope of finding that one relationship that will remain til death do us part. So we fuss about our hair, our weight, our clothes; as students we cook for the boys’ house down the road, we do their dishes to ‘serve’ them ‘like Jesus would’, we talk about relationships to show we’re interested,  but not too much in case we look desperate… We want to be the ‘feminine’ friends our ‘masculine’ friends feel safe with, always fearing that if we get it wrong we’ll soon be spinsters with nothing but feline friends to inhabit our flat-pack furniture filled flats… FOREVER.

Perhaps this all sounds very negative and pessimistic, but it is sometimes necessary to talk in extremes in order to illustrate the issues. My intention is NOT to enforce flat-pack furniture lessons and burping contests on girls from the age of three, neither is it to criticise nor diminish the incredibly important, demanding and beautiful work that mothers and homemakers do every day. Nor is my intention to incite hatred towards men – their struggles are as big as our own (I just don’t have the same kind of insight into them.) and we must learn to love each other well as people made in the image of God. Rather, my desire is to become, and help others become, who God has designed us to be rather than what society would tell us to be.

I also will NOT be burning any bras…

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