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Hymnody and the Supposed Sin of John Piper

Article referencedà https://relevantmagazine.com/god/should-john-piper-have-changed-the-name-of-great-is-thy-faithfulness/

I read an article from Relevant magazine recently where John Piper was taken to task for adding a verse to the now classic hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” I must admit, an article that takes John Piper to task for theological stances is normally “click-baity” for me because I disagree with John Piper in so much of his theology. We come from different places and I continually appreciate the challenges he presents me with when I read his teachings because it sharpens my own theological wit. I thought “what has John Piper done now that I’m gonna have to argue with”? Well, nothing really that blew my thinning hair back (it doesn’t take much these days). He was at a conference and wanted to make more connections to the theme throughout the worship experience that day. One response critical of the decision was put so well to Christianity Today:

The University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College’s  director of master of sacred music program Swee Hong Lim told them, “Hymns are theological statements …  To that end, and particularly for Methodism, hymns are not theologically neutral but carry theological distinctiveness. This is one reason why the denomination has sought to review contemporary worship songs for their theological position.”—Swee Hong Lim

Should Piper be taken to task for taking a Methodist hymn and adding verses to add to the context of his message? Sure, why not? Does the above argument made against him make sense? Sure, why not? An artist’s original meaning for a piece is important. Acknowledging the integrity of a piece of art is important, especially when the art is to be used as a teaching tool of some sort. But I caution us to fully take that argument all the way in our ministry contexts and houses of worship. As worship leaders, our aims should be different from perfect performance. We cut and paste, rearrange, modify, add, and take away, all the time when it comes to a piece of music (and how often are we also doing this to Scripture?). We do this to fit our contexts of ministry; hopefully, it’s a faithful modification. And yes, sometimes we might be missing some of the rich theological teaching a particular verse might hold for the overall message of a piece (assuming that the people we are serving are engaged in both lyrics and tune of a song….but that’s a different topic for a different day). But unless one is sticking to the author’s exact meter, order, the original instrument the author had in mind for the piece, sometimes the geographic location of the composition, sometimes even the placement in a worship service (or for concert/performance intentions only) they are marring the song at least partially. This happens when we add elements to a piece as well, like verses, or perhaps an extemporaneous prayer in the song.

As to the ethics of this practice, I tend to take a more Roland Barthes and “death of the author” stance, though I don’t carry his argument nearly as far as he would like me to. On some level, when any modifications are made, I realize I am at least partially bending a piece of art to my will and judgment. How many times have I cut a verse out of a hymn by Charles Wesley (I’m looking at you O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing), or a bridge or a  repeating chorus from another song (I’m looking at you Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Matt Maher, Matt Redman and others)? The answer is that I do this as a worship leader virtually every Sunday. And so do many of the artists and composers mentioned above because their music context is continually changing.

But back to John Piper and this particular emphasis of “meaning” in a hymn. Honestly? I don’t see anything particularly blasphemous or damning in the verses he added—both in adding them and the contents of their message. I get it. I get the argument about how, in this instance of adding, the theology and the tone of the song can change and original meaning can be stretched. But the fact these additional verses might take a more Calvinist turn since Piper is Calvinist (which, I would argue you could impose whatever spin you want on virtually any text if you played with it and stretched it long enough; and the verses in question don’t exactly scream from the TULIPS) I think enhances the tapestry of faithful beliefs and meanings in a hymn. As to whether I like the additions? Meh. They worked for his context and probably won’t show up in a worship service I lead. Happy hymnody!

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

1.

Great is Thy faithfulness
O God my Father
There is no shadow of turning with Thee
Thou changest not
Thy compassions they fail not
As Thou hast been
Thou forever will be

Refrain:

Great is Thy faithfulness
Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
And all I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness
Lord unto me

2.

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,

Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,

Join with all nature in manifold witness

To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

3.

Pardon for sin
And a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer
And to guide
Strength for today
and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside

John Piper’s apparently miasmic additions

I could not love Thee, so blind and unfeeling;
Covenant promises fell not to me.
Then without warning, desire, or deserving,
I found my Treasure, my pleasure, in Thee.

I have no merit to woo or delight Thee,
I have no wisdom or pow’rs to employ;
Yet in thy mercy, how pleasing thou find’st me,
This is Thy pleasure: that Thou art my joy.

 


final-bridges2Matt Bridges is an ordained elder in the United Methodist church and currently serves in New Mexico as the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lovington. Matt has served in ministry in one form or another for the last seventeen years. In particular, he has a passion for music ministry and other types of worship ministry. In all of the things he’s learned in ministry, if he were to write a book on worship right now it would most certainly be titled 1001 Times (and counting)  I said “Well, I’ll Never Do It That Way Again” in Worship. He is joined in ministry by his wife, Corinne, and daughter Emilie. And they all love being the church together.

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By Our Fruits.

The discussion around and about…unfortunately usually not with…LGBT inclusion has been building steam in my denomination.

I have been praying about my own beliefs for a long time but there has been no question for me on where I stand. Let me tell you why.

When I was a Senior in high school my best friend came out to me. There was much trepidation around this revelation because he knew I was a Christian and he had been burnt by Christians before. The preachers I knew never spoke against same-sex orientation…that I noticed anyway but I zoned out a lot. My parents, at that time, had never brought it up because this was NW Iowa, people, and we did NOT talk about that stuff. The only thing I knew was my experience of my friend…and my friend was, and continues to be, one of the nicest, most compassionate and intelligent people I have ever met.

So he came out and I said something to the effect that of course I loved him and those other Christians must be idiots for rejecting someone as wonderful as him. And that has been my “stance” ever since.

The discussion typically involves someone claiming Biblical truth and then they start slinging around Bible verses. There have been many excellent books written on what these verses mean. I encourage you to read up on the discussion. I have recently finally gotten it all together in my head.

There is this section in Romans 1 where Paul goes off on a rant about how God has abandoned pagan worshippers to “unnatural desires” like same-sex sex. The chapter continues with:

Since they didn’t think it was worthwhile to acknowledge God, God abandoned them to a defective mind to do inappropriate things. So they were filled with all injustice, wicked behavior, greed, and evil behavior. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deception, and malice. They are gossips, they slander people, and they hate God. They are rude and proud, and they brag. They invent ways to be evil, and they are disobedient to their parents. They are without understanding, disloyal, without affection, and without mercy.

In chapter 2 (btw, the chapter markers were added MUCH later so we would do well to read the Bible more continuously and less in a plucking out a pericope fashion) Paul then goes on to talk about how those who judge are probably hypocritical and therefore just as bad.

What we appear to have from Paul, in my understanding, is a list of behaviors that spring from a disbelief in God and the fruit of that disbelief are broken relationships. Not only that, but encouragement for others to break relationships. Every behavior of the people being called out by Paul is about objectifying other people. This caused me to think about the words of Jesus.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit. (Matthew 7:15-20, CEB)

Paul might be speaking about rotten trees, including those who judge others without attending to their own health first. But experience has taught me…and many others…that LGBTQ lives and loves are not signs of rotten trees. There is good fruit from the lives, loves, and ministry of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. If practicing their love was so awful, so sinful, that it must be condemned in every form, then I would expect there to be consistently bad fruit. Except that’s not what we see at all.

To be fair-ish. I also don’t see rotten fruit from every single person who struggles with the question of whether or not certain behaviors are sinful. Some I do…especially those who have made it their focus to preach and teach on it. But some folks are just folks who haven’t had a chance to really be taught different, or ask their questions, or sit with the possibility for a new perspective long enough. Some folks need us to be able to talk about what is sinful behavior in any sexual orientation and what is healthy before they can really become advocates.

Some of the best people I know are LGBTQ, and some of the best people I know are just now considering the possibility that it’s ok to be a practicing LGBTQ person. We will know them, and ourselves, by our fruit.


alexis

Alexis Johnson is a mom of two, married to a seminary student/new clergy, an Ordained Elder in the Iowa UMC, and feeds three furry mammals. So busy. Alexis is busy. But she is passionate about God and passionate about people. She is always up for good conversations and connecting, especially if there is coffee or wine involved.

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Sin: Part 2

Sins against God

Sin is any behavior, word, thought, or feeling that moves a human, including ourselves, from human to object. This is where I started with my first Bearded Blog post. I got some pushback because I did not say anything about God.

That was on purpose.

Sins against people are easier for us to understand. If we have an ounce of empathy at all, we can see the pain we cause in others. And if we have no empathy, we can at least know the pain others have caused in us.

My postulated new definition of sin holds as true for God as it does for people. Maybe even more so, because it easier to do this to God…and even well-intentioned God followers do this to God ALL the time. So here it is:

Sin is any behavior, word, thought, or feeling that moves God, from God to object.

The question that this begs is, who is God? For those of us Christians, we believe God has revealed God’s self through Jesus Christ and throughout Scripture (through the lens of real people caught up in a particular context, but revealed nonetheless.)

In Exodus 3, God tells Moses that God’s name is “I Am Who I Am” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be.”

Jesus continues to use this divine name every time He says “I Am” especially in John’s Gospel. God is primal, God just is, God was and is and is to come.

This leads me to believe that God may only be experienced. God may be described as long as we are humble in our descriptions and realize they are limited…they are signs that point to God, rather than God’s actual self. (Yep, you can call God, Father…this teaches us beautiful things about the nature of God. But it does not mean that God is male/has a penis/or cannot also be described as Mother.) All of our descriptions fall short of the actual experience of God within a relationship with God.

We, insiders of the church/preacher type people, call sin against God idolatry.

Idolatry is placing anyone, or anything, above God in priority. Here’s my big struggle, that means God comes before family. 99% of the time, the two will not be in conflict. Following God will probably make us a better spouse/child/parent etc…but God still comes first. God comes before church. Hello. If our institution conflicts with God, our institution has become a source of sin.

Idolatry is also attempting to worship God by a definition that doesn’t actually match who God is.

For example, God is not in the business of wish-fulfillment. Praying only when we need/want something is idolatry and a sin against God. One of the primary purposes of prayer is to deepen our relationship with God so that our hearts resemble God’s heart, and we begin to petition God with petitions aligned to God’s will. (This is Jesus’s big prayer for His disciples at the end of John’s Gospel.)

When we sin against other people, we are also sinning against God. We have made God’s beautiful image, found in other people, less than God intended us to make it.

So, in essence, every sin is against God…and sinning against God directly is something we must always be on guard against.

 


image2I’m an Ordained Elder in the UMC committed to building the Kingdom regardless of what goes down in 2019. I finally have an Associate Pastor, and he happens to by my husband…who shares my office. So now you know about my day! I love to talk to people with all different viewpoints, and I look forward to engaging in good dialog!

 

 

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United Methodist Social Principles: Rights of Children

Iowa has recently become embroiled in a debate over school vouchers. I should clarify, the most recent iteration of the debate around education in Iowa has centered around Educational Savings Accounts (ESA’s) that would use tax dollars to fund students who choose private school, online learning, or homeschooling to receive their education. You can read the bill here https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislation/BillBook?ga=87&ba=HSB651  Part of the argument in favor of this bill is that it will create a market environment where public schools will have to do better to compete with the other options. The irony of this argument is, of course, that they will have to be better with even less money, and our public schools have been losing funding for years now.

I’m excited to say that the Iowa United Methodist Conference Lobbyists all declared themselves as against the ESA bill. (https://www.legis.iowa.gov/lobbyist/reports/declarations?ga=87&ba=HSB651)

In light of these events, I have become convicted about the fact that I don’t teach from the Social Principles enough. You see, in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, there are at least two Social Principles that address the education of young people.

Section III, subsection C Rights of Children contains this:

Thus, we support the development of school systems and innovative methods

of education designed to assist every child toward complete fulfillment as an

individual person of worth. All children have the right to quality education, including

full sex education appropriate to their stage of development that utilizes the best

educational techniques and insights.     

Section V, subsection E Education has this sentence:

In society, this function can best be fulfilled through public policies that ensure

access for all persons to free public elementary and secondary school and to post-

secondary schools of their choice.

Now, I’m going back and teaching my people about these Social Principles that call us to ensure access to public education for all kids. This means supporting our public schools, especially since our rural students do not have easy access to private schools. We could argue about the online or the homeschooling option, but this privileges parents/guardians who are able to stay home with their students instead of working. (Because who the heck can leave a kid alone to teach themselves all day?? At best, you’d come home to a destroyed house and a kid who still hadn’t done their homework…)

We, as United Methodists, believe in the ability to reason as a powerful tool for understanding the world and, more importantly, for understanding God. It makes sense that we would advocate for our entire population being educated so that we can all reason together. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of issues and conversations we are facing as a world that we need to be able to reason through. Sharing the ability to think through these issues and act accordingly, benefits us all. Even if you have chosen to not have kids, or if your kids have already finished schooling, the education of the people around you will affect your experience of the world. (Imagine someone taking care of you in the nursing home that does not have even an elementary school education??)

I know this started as a discussion about an Iowa problem, but according to Education Week, our US Schools are C-average at best. You can see the rankings here. https://www.edweek.org/ew/collections/quality-counts-2018-state-grades/report-card-map-rankings.html  Which means, at least according to this source, the entire country is struggling when it comes to education.

It’s time for us all to become United Methodists, and start advocating for the education of our young people…not just here in the US, but all over the world.


image2.jpeg
Alexis Johnson is a mom of two, married to a seminary student/new clergy, an Ordained Elder in the Iowa UMC, and feeds three furry mammals. So busy. Alexis is busy. But she is passionate about God and passionate about people. She is always up for good conversations and connecting, especially if there is coffee or wine involved.

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Political Responsibility

“The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens. The church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust.”

When reviewing the Social Principles, I was surprised that the Church challenges us to be not only concerned, but also involved with the application of public policy and ideological discourse. So many times have I heard the maxim “Don’t talk about religion, money, or politics”.

It’s fascinating, however, that the UMC would want us to become invested in a sphere of influence in society that, in American culture, outright seeks to reject us.

By no means do I believe this section of the Social Principles asks us to proselytize, but to use our social capital to give voices to those who have been muted by unlawful legislation, a platform for those who would seek equity when there is none.

Our Wesleyan understanding of God’s grace, love, and justice must extend into those taboo areas- from the dining room conversation to the front steps of the capitol.

Faith is political. Religion is political. God is political.

We must rally and use our privileges as a longstanding institution of charity, education, and justice to advocate for the oppressed; to aid in liberating those who cannot see God in their laws and their leaders.


cody

Cody C. Robinson is a Cherokee scholar from Tahlequah, Oklahoma and student at Phillips Theological Seminary. When he isn’t trying to make disciple of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, Cody spends his spare time taking too long to order at familiar restaurants and seeking the perfect grilled cheese.