Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Right Number

A woman was at home with her children when the telephone
rang. In going to answer it, she tripped on a rug, grabbed
for something to hold on to and seized the telephone table.
It fell over with a crash, jarring the receiver off the

As it fell, it hit the family dog, which leaped up, howling
and barking. The woman's three-year-old son, startled by
this noise, broke into loud screams. The woman mumbled some
colourful words. She finally managed to pick up the receiver
and lift it to her ear, just in time to hear her husband's
voice on the other end say, "Nobody's said hello yet, but
I'm positive I have the right number."

From Clean Laughs To SUBSCRIBE

It's All About Who, Jesus?

If worship is for God, why are so many songs about us?

If a Martian visited earth and observed earthlings at public worship in contemporary or nontraditional settings, what would he/she/it report back to the home planet? (A similar exercise could be imagined for more traditional churches, with different results.)

My friend John, a music professor rather than an extraterrestrial, noticed something too few earthlings have noticed (see his full article at www.anewkindofchristian.com). Too many of our worship songs are more about us than God. Yes, we say the words "praise/thank/bless God," but mostly, what for?

For glorious attributes and wonderful mysteries? For historic deeds and cosmic judgments? For rescuing the widow and orphan? For setting the captive free? For humbling the arrogant and sending the rich away hungry? For spinning galaxies and salting starfields with glorious light? Uh, no.

Rather, we praise God for holding us close, for keeping us secure, for making us feel loved and blessed and forgiven and warm and cozy in our electric blanket of eternal security (with a warm comforter of national security thrown in too). We congratulate God on how well God is meeting our needs. When we say, "You're such a good God," it sometimes sounds like comforting words spoken to a pet.

It pains me to say that, but I think it needs to be said.

When we're not affirming God for how well we're nurtured, our songs often congratulate ourselves on how well we respond to God's grace. Have you noticed how much we sing about how loud or passionately we sing? We talk a lot about what we're going to do—usually in the singular: I will worship, I will praise you, I will bow down, etc., etc. One beautiful and well-intentioned song even tells us that God thinks of "me above all."

As my professor friend says, "Begging your pardon: the only person who thinks of Me above all is Me."

If it's not in our singing, it's in our preaching. Whether it's contemporary meet-my-needs sermons or old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone, the focus seems to circle in the vicinity of getting our fine wide souls into heaven, and between now and then, into better circumstances here on earth. And yes, I may be overstating the case. But then again, am I?

A Martian visitor might judge, then, that God for the sake of the poor, the forgotten, the alien, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed is not a big hit here. Neither is God for God's sake, apart from what God does for us in contributing to our personal happiness and success, which tends to tell us who is the real star of the show.

Speaking of show, Jim Carrey's The Truman Show comes to mind, along with an unsettling question: if we stood poised, as Carrey's Truman did at the end of the film, ready to step out of our dome, leaving a safe and scripted world where we're the star and where it's all about us, would we take the step?

In my travels (real and virtual), I have the privilege of meeting hundreds of pastors and other Christian leaders, many of them young and many even older than me, who are stepping out of the dome, resigning from spiritual stardom, and stepping from their little ponds into a broader and more humbling world. They are doing the hard work of re-examining their self-centered (and church-centered) theological systems, even if doing so makes them seem odd, dangerous, heretical to some of their friends.

They've grown tired of songs that worship our beautiful, passionate sincerity, and include God as an accessory to our own material, emotional, and spiritual affluence.

They refuse to limit the focus of their preaching to the "needs" of saved and elect insiders, but instead keep the cries of the least, the last, and the lost alive in the ears of their listeners. They're writing new songs and preaching new sermons of justice and compassion, of mission and hope, of God-love and neighbor-love, of the glory of a God who loves, not just me/me/me, but the whole world—red and yellow, black and white, as the old Sunday school song said. In so doing, their sermons and songs shift the focus from a self-centered gospel to a world-blessing gospel.

No doubt, much of the talk about "emerging church" can be fit into the category of a new demographic needing everything tailored to its finicky, funky tastes. It's still all about me, just a me from a different market sector. It's as if we're asking for the set on The Truman Show to be redesigned for a newer, hipper Truman.

But if there's even a spark of something else at work in the emergent conversation, just a flicker of hope that the real God is to be found outside the dome of a narcissistic consumer religion (in any of its demographic forms), and that God is actually so wonderful that we would actually like to sing and preach about God for a while, more than ourselves, then we should fan that flame.

That would give the Martians some good news to report back to the home world. And it would be good news here as well.

Brian McLaren is senior pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland, and contributing editor to Leadership.