Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared about writing a blog post. Last week I allowed my fear to silence me about Ferguson. But here I am, sleepless at 3.30am, deeply troubled about Eric Garner’s homicide and irresistibly burdened to write.
I start with hardly any idea about what to write, but I do know why I ‘m writing. I want to stand with my African American brothers and sisters. More than that, “I’m all in” with them.
And that’s why I’m scared. Because I know that for many people, that automatically puts me “outside.” It puts me on the other side. It makes me suspect. It makes me soft. It makes me left-wing. It makes me anti-police. It makes me pro-thug.
And I could defend myself as Paul did when he said, “I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the law, a Pharisee.” Similarly I could say, “I am a conservative of the conservatives, concerning the law, a Fox-Newser.”
But this is not about me. Me must be sacrificed at times. And this is such a time.
Disgusted with Hannity
I think what pushed me over the edge was Sean Hannity. I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to listen to him since the Trayvon Martin case. Some of his bullying interviews with Michael Brown supporters last week were repulsive. But when I turned on the radio yesterday to hear his commentary on Eric Garner’s murder, only to find him aggressively blaming New York’s excessive taxes on cigarettes for Garner’s death, that was it. There wasn’t an ounce of sympathy for Garner or his family. There was only diversion and distraction from the real issue. I was sick to my core.
And remember, I’m coming at this with the strongest possible default in favor of the law, the police, the courts, etc. If Hannity and Fox lose people like me, they’ll lose everything.
But, and I think this is what I really want to say here, I believe good will come out of all this personal pain and national distress.
Previous cases, like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, were never strong enough to challenge the majority white community’s worldview. The Brown case actually just confirmed it. But Eric Garner’s case is different, very different, different enough not just to challenge our worldview but change it. As I said last night on Twitter, “I see a cloud about the size of a man’s hand. Aslan is on the move.” God’s wise providence is being worked out here as He sovereignly moves in and through these events.
What possible good could come out of this? I see four goods.
End of Denial
First, white people can no longer deny the problem. We have it in technicolor on Youtube. The Michael Brown case was escalated by Brown. We sat back and said, “Well that’s what you get when you rob a store, threaten a shopkeeper, assault a police officer, try to grab his gun, etc.”
Sure, there were some things that disturbed us even about this case. For example, I was deeply shocked by the callous insensitivity of Officer Darrin Wilson when interviewed on TV last week. He said he had a clean conscience, would change nothing about what he did that day, and would not apologize to the family. Even though he was acting in self-defense, his words and attitude struck me as incredibly revealing and frightening. Change nothing? Wilson did a lot of damage to the police in that interview.
Garner’s homicide is impossible to excuse or explain away. When Hannity’s strongest defense is an attack on New York’s tobacco tax, you know you’ve got a strong and persuasive case. It’s strong enough to bear the weight of worldview challenge and change.
More Black Police Officers
There is no solution to this problem without a massive increase in black police officers. Few white people realize how strongly communal the black community is. There’s a solidarity and a togetherness that more individualist whites cannot fully understand. That’s why it’s so important for far more black police officers to police the black community. The problem is that the police are now viewed so much as the enemy that to join them is considered an act of betrayal among many blacks.
But there are other situations where similar problems have been overcome. In Northern Ireland, the police force was largely Protestant, and therefore hated by the Roman Catholic community.
Part of the political settlement of “the troubles” there was the formation of a new police force with a commitment to much greater Roman Catholic recruitment. It’s nowhere near perfect, but much progress has been made and can surely be a model for re-constituting the make-up of American police forces over the next several decades.
This is also going to take strong and brave leadership from African American leaders to persuade African Americans that these forces have changed and that they should join.
Grand Jury System
It appears that the Grand Jury system is not so grand. America is practically the last country in the world still using this as part of their legal system. While it may have had its good uses, I don’t think many Americans realize just how bad it looks to outside observers.
As has often been said, “It’s not enough that justice is done, it must be seen to be done.” The problem is that secret justice can so easily become injustice, or be perceived as such.
Recent grand juries do not seem to take into sufficient account the “public interest” aspect of justice, with too much focus on technical legal terms like “probable cause” etc. I don’t see how it’s possible for public trust to be rebuilt in the justice system without it becoming a much more public and accountable system.
Christians are stirring
Christians are discussing these things more than at any time in recent history. On the whole, the tone has been civil and constructive. And I hope that continues. Most of us are on a journey here, and we sometimes take wrong turns and say wrong things. But with continued patience and Christian love, we will hopefully all arrive at a better place.
We’re also listening to voices, Christian voices, outside our own churches and communities. We’re learning about other people’s lives and problems, seeing things from different perspectives, letting go of prejudices and faulty presuppositions. The greatest hope of reducing violence and persuading people to pursue change through peaceful means is to convince them that we are listening…and changing.
We’re praying for police officers as never before. It must be extremely frustrating for the majority of good officers who have devoted their lives to fairness and justice, to be tarnished as racists and have their own lives endangered because of the actions of others. If it was hard to be a police officer before Michael Brown and Eric Garner, then it’s ten times harder now. I can hardly imagine what it must feel like to get up in the morning or go out at night and know that you’re moving into communities that are extremely hostile and dangerous to your life. I know I couldn’t do it (although my son is hoping to) and have the utmost admiration for those who do.
Above all, we’re hoping for Gospel transformation. We’re looking to Christ and the power of the Gospel to break down walls of hostility between black, white, and every color in between. If God can reconcile sinners to Himself, and Jews to Gentiles, then he can reconcile every color of American through the blood-red sufferings of THE barrier-breaker and bridge-builder.
Based on my experience of parenting teens, pastoring teens, and being a teen, I’d like to burn three words into the hearts and minds of all teens: FOCUS, FORCE, FAITH. These three words are the key to success in any walk of life, any calling, any course of study.
“Focus” is not a word many of us would associate with teens. “Blur,” maybe, or “Diffuse.” Instead of traveling down one road and aiming at one destination, they often try every road they can with little idea where they hope to eventually end up: college, work, social media, church, business ideas, home, sports, trucks, hobbies, shopping, TV, Internet videos, music, fashion, books, photography, sleep (sometimes), friends, and on and on. And that’s just in the morning.
This is partly a cultural problem; there’s just never been so much choice, mobility, accessibility, availability, and possibility. And never so much insanity!
The fact is, I’ve never seen anyone succeed who is not totally focused on one thing. That doesn’t mean they only do one thing; it means everything serves, advances, and contributes to one thing.
For example, the teen who’s totally focused on his studies works part-time, but only to pay his tuition. He plays sport, but only to relax and reward his hours in the library. He has a friend or two, but not dozens of them and they don’t dominate his life or distract him from his goal.
The focused teen ruthlessly cuts out everything extraneous. Nothing secondary is ever allowed to become primary. Nothing peripheral becomes central. Without harming physical or spiritual health, the maximum number of hours are devoted to a single aim.
What should that “one thing” be? “Follow your passion” say many today. No, no, no! The biblical route is “Follow your talent.” Passions may not be God-given; talents are. Your gifting is the primary indicator of God’s guidance and call.
The biggest favor we can do our teens is to help them to find and follow this focus; to sharpen their vision and encourage them to aim at one thing.
“Force” should naturally follow “focus.” Just as the river increases in speed and force when narrowed by rocky gulleys, so a focused life should be a much more forceful life, with forward drive and unstoppable momentum.
However, this doesn’t necessarily follow. We all know people who have only one or maybe two interests, but they approach life with too much of a laid-back and casual mindset. They stroll along a single path but with little energy and make little progress.
Yet, such is the cut-throat competition today, that without drive and determination, half-hearted teens will quickly be left behind. Also, there are so many “thorns and thistles” in their path that they will need tons of motivation to push through difficulties and setbacks.
I know it’s not “cool” to be hot about anything today. But I also know that without passionate enthusiasm, mediocrity is guaranteed. No, we don’t want our teens to be characterized by ruthless and selfish ambition, but we do want them to do whatever they do with ALL their might (Eccl. 9:10).
FOCUS + FORCE can be a horrific combination, if not combined with FAITH. Without FAITH, without the blessing of God, FOCUS + FORCE will produce nothing, or at least nothing worth having. Sure, you might make a pile of money, but what shall it profit if you gain the whole world and lose your soul? (Mark 8:36)
Christian faith helps a young person find their focus. The Christian teen comes to God and says, “I can’t do everything. I can only do one thing well. Please show me what talent you’ve given me and what you want me to do with it. Help me to cut everything that would hinder my life purpose and to get everything essential in the right position and proportion in my life.”
Christian faith helps a young person find their force. The Christian teen comes before God recognizing her limitations and liabilities, and says, “Lord, please give me the drive, the determination, the energy I need for my calling. Help me to be deaf to the discouragements, and to persevere through the difficulties. Help me to show that I am energized and enthused by your presence and pleasure in my life.”
Christian faith helps a young person look to God for blessing, and for contentment with whatever their God-given focus and force produces.
In summary, I’d say to any teen (as I often do to my own), “With God’s help, pick one thing, pour yourself into it, and plead with God for His blessing.”
In The Holiness of God, R C Sproul addressed the problem of large numbers of people leaving church because they are bored. As we saw previously, Sproul’s solution is more awe in our worship services, which puts significant responsibility on the pastor or worship-leader. But it also places important obligations upon worshippers too if we are to be awed by the evident presence of God.
1. Preparation. Just as the worship leader has to prepare, so do worshippers. If we’re busy all Saturday, get to bed after midnight on Saturday evening, sleep long on Sunday morning, rush to church in mild panic, and arrive with little or no time to get ready for worship, we’re not going to experience awe or much of anything beneficial. If we haven’t met God privately, we’re unlikely to meet Him publicly.
2. Enthusiasm. If we go to church reluctantly, dragging our heels and hearts, with little anticipation or excitement, our expectations are likely to be met. But if we go with eager optimism, prayerfully seeking God and pleading with Him to come down and bless, then God will often exceed our expectation.
3. Participation. Worship is not a spectator sport but one in which all must take part. Joyful singing not only stirs up our hearts, but others’ hearts too. Engaged postures and lively expressions are contagious – as are mumbled songs, slouching shoulders, and sleepy eyes. When the pastor is praying, let’s engage our hearts and minds fully with him. When Scripture is read, let’s listen to it as the very voice of God.
4. Unity. God delights to dwell where His people are united in love of the truth and love for one another. He will not honor churches with His presence where there is disunity and division. But when there is union around the truth and communion with each other, God comes down with His unmistakeable presence.
5. Reverence. When we realize who we are, what worship is, and who it is we are trying to worship, there will be a careful gravity and sobriety about what we do. It won’t be depressingly dull and dour, but it will affect what we wear, how we sit or stand, how we listen. It might even make us skip the Starbucks and candy in the sanctuary. Need help with this? Read The Holiness of God,and you’ll never worship the same way again.
6. Concentration. Some of the greatest impediments to awe in worship are distraction, noises, and actions that divert the congregation’s focus and concentration. I’ve been in services where I’ve almost started waving in the pulpit and saying “Hello! Have you never seen a kid walk to the bathroom before?” Or, “Do you all really need to know exactly which kid is crying over there?” Having said that, parents of young children also have responsibilities to ensure that their children are not disrupting services too much or too often. This is a delicate balance requiring much wisdom.
I end where I began yesterday – with the sovereignty of God. Yes, there are things we can do that hinder and obstruct awe in worship services. And, yes, there are steps we can take that God is often pleased to respond to with His presence. However, we cannot create or produce awe; God alone can do that. And when He does, it is unforgettable and utterly compelling.
Many church growth experts tell us that we’ve got to make church more casual, less threatening, more like “normal life.” That will certainly get people in the door. But it won’t keep them there for long. Why should anyone go to church for ordinary normality? They can get that in the mall or at the football; and many bored churchgoers go back to that.
Instead, what we want are churches that are places of the extraordinary, supernatural, different, abnormal, unusual presence and power of a holy God. We don’t want people coming and just saying, “That was nice.” Rather we look for what the Apostle Paul described in the early church:
“An unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you” (1 Cor. 14:24-25).
When was the last time that happened in our churches?
"A recent survey of people who used to be church members revealed that the main reason they stopped going to church was that they found it boring. It is difficult for many people to find worship a thrilling and moving experience." - R C Sproul
“'How awesome is this place!' This was Jacob’s response to being in the house of God. People do not normally feel that way in church. There is no sense of awe, no sense of being in the presence of One who makes us tremble. People in awe never complain that church is boring." - R C Sproul
The two quotes are from The Holiness of God by R C Sproul. The first identifies boredom as the main reason people stop going to church, and the second identifyies awe as the antidote to boredom.
Summary: More awe in church services = less boredom in church = less people leave church.
If Sproul is right, and I believe he is, how do we create more awe in our church services. Is this something only God can give, so we have to just wait for it to happen? Or is it something for which we are also responsible?
Obviously, it’s God’s presence alone that can create awe, and therefore, ultimately, we are entirely dependent upon Him to choose to honor our worship services with His presence. However, there are important elements of human responsibility here too. God usually works through human means, and that puts obligations on the worship leader and the worshipping people.
The Worship Leader
In my own tradition, the preaching pastor is also the worship leader, and it’s that worship model I have primarily in mind here. However, most of this can also apply where the role is divided between two or more people.
1. Preparation. The worship leader should be prayerfully preparing for worship just as he prayerfully prepares his sermons. Far too often the pastor gives 15 hours to his sermon, 15 minutes to choosing songs, and 15 seconds to thinking about public prayer. He may pray for hours about his sermon and not at all for the singing, praying, and scripture reading. I’ve often found it helpful preparation to sing or listen to some Psalms in my office in the last few minutes before going to church.
2. Integration. The worship leader must ensure that the songs he chooses, the scripture reading, the prayer, and the spirit in which he conducts all this, fit the sermon theme. For example, there’s no point in having all praise songs if the sermon is about confession of sin. The prayer should also reflect at least some of the sermon content.
3. Organization. There should be a regular and recognized order to the worship so that the worshippers know what’s happening rather than just a haphazard free-for all, jumping from one thing to another without any rhyme nor reason. The Apostle Paul said that one of the ways to ensure that visiting worshippers are awed and stunned by the church’s worship is by orderliness and regularity (1 Cor. 14:23-32), not by novelty and unpredictability.
4. Conviction. No one is awed without conviction of sin. Look from Genesis to Revelation – from Jacob to Job to Isaiah to Ezekiel to Daniel to Peter to Thomas to Paul to John in Patmos – and you won’t find one example of any awed worshipper apart from them being first convicted of their sin. We’d love to go straight to doxology but there’s no shortcut past the valley of humiliation. Through song, prayer, and Scripture readings, worship leaders must remind people of their sin and sinfulness and lead them in confession.
5. Passion. Although some worship leaders sometimes take this way too far and the whole worship experience ends up in artificial emotionalism, which is more fleshly than spiritual, many in my more Reformed world take this to the other extreme and lead worship like a robot. If we look and sound bored, little surprise if those we are leading look and sound the same. If we’re not enthused, excited, and expectant, no one else is going to be.
6. Education. Perhaps the greatest need today is re-educating people about worship. We assume far too much. Do most people really know what worship is? Who’s it to? Who’s it for? Who is the God we are worshipping? A great start would be to give every worshipper Sproul’s book, The Holiness of God.
Next time, we’ll look at the responsibility of worshippers for creating awesome worship services. Meanwhile, what else do you think we can do to make our services more awe-full?