Guest Post – It Happened in Iowa

My husband Nathan, our two children, and I are in the midst of a 19-day road trip, spending this week on Lake Michigan and heading on to Pennsylvania next week. We stopped at a motel after our first day of driving, and Nathan had a memorable interaction about which he spent the next morning writing on the laptop in the car.

I have been encouraging him to start a blog, but he said I could post this piece he wrote on my blog. So here it is. If you want to hear more from him, send him an e-mail (nathan@cabinoflove.com) and add your voice to mine in begging for a Nathan Bloom blog!

Here it is:

Last night, I was traveling with my family en route to our vacation destination in Michigan. We were driving through Iowa, the sun had set, and the kids were asleep, so Julia and I decided to put on some “easy miles” before stopping for the night.

Just after 11pm, we opted to call it a night and pulled into a Days Inn. As I walked into the hotel lobby, I noticed an elderly couple laboriously exiting a minivan. The receptionist was busy checking in another guest, and the three of us stood wearily in the lobby, waiting silently. The woman stood rigidly by the corner of the front desk, while the man wandered back into the empty lounge. As I waited, the thought occurred to me that it would be a courteous gesture to defer my ‘next-in-line’ status to this couple. Though my wife and children were waiting in the car, I made up my mind that when my turn came, I would let it pass to my elders.

The sleepy atmosphere was suddenly rent by a shockingly loud episode of flatulence coming from the lounge. My resolve wavered a little. After finishing checking in the guests ahead of us, the receptionist called out: “who’s next?” The woman at the corner of the desk glanced back. “Go ahead,” I offered. She immediately placed her enormous purse on the desk and commenced the check-in process.

The short, stoop-shouldered man ambled back from the lounge, and looked up at me. “Whererya from” he queried

“Minnesota”, I replied.

“Whereabouts?”

“Owatonna”

“Oh yeah. . . up on 169” he said.

“No, it’s on I35”

“Oh yeah” he returned vaguely. “I’m from Algona”

“Where are you headed?” I re-orientated the conversation.

“Chicago”, he sturdily responded. “We are going to a booksellers convention.” “A Christian bookseller’s convention,” he quickly clarified.

The woman quickly turned away from the desk and corrected somewhat severely: “It is a Craft Fair this time.” She included some more apparently important details which I didn’t comprehend, and I didn’t ask, not wanting to prolong the correction. She turned back to the receptionist.

“We belong to the Evangelical Free church,” the man volunteered unexpectedly, “What church do you belong to?”

I faltered, unprepared to answer: “The church I attend is not affiliated. . .uh, non-denominational, I guess. . . The church I grew up in was Baptist General Conference, though,” I added, trying to give him something meaningful within his presumed construct.

“Ah Yes,” he replied. “The fighting baptists.” I smiled, understanding his reference to the particularly schismatic history of baptist churches in the USA. “There was a big split in one of the baptist churches in Algona,” he added.

“Yeah,” I responded with detached amusement, “Jesus said: ‘One command I give you- Love one another’, but it seems like that is always the first thing to go out the window!”

The woman suddenly turned back around, and with the austere gaze of a fundamentalist Sunday School teacher, demanded: “But what was his other commandment?”

I fumbled, trying not to be intimidated, mentally re-scanning my words, and Jesus’ words, desperately trying to remember what the second of the one commandment was.

With trepidation, I held my ground: “He said one command.”

“Ye must be born again” She said sharply. “That is the greatest commandment. You can love all you want, but it won’t do you any good!” She continued her stern gaze, and I held my tongue.

She turned back, finished her check-in, and the two left to go to their rooms (I now understand why they had gotten two.)

Confessions of a worship leader

juliatakaminecroppedI wrote this a couple weeks ago and almost didn’t post it – because I realized I am SO out of touch with trends in worship music that I may be criticizing a relic of the past rather than the present situation. I changed the channel for my sources of church music roughly seven years ago. Here’s the post – what do you think (besides the fact that it’s awfully long!)? How have things changed or stayed the same in recent years?

May I confess something? Lean in while I glance around and try to be discreet. Okay . . . I do not enjoy worship music. I also don’t listen to Christian radio or have much familiarity with the latest and greatest contemporary Christian music, or praise songs, or whatever the hip terminology is these days.

I could say much about what I find to be the often uninteresting, generally poor quality of the music itself, while freely admitting the same could be said about much of the music I write. Interesting music doesn’t just grow on trees (or radio airwaves, Christian or otherwise). I’m sure there is well-done music on Christian radio stations, but frankly I’ve grown tired of listening through so much else just to hear something worthwhile now and then.

The God described in the lyrics for much of this music isn’t someone I feel inspired to worship. Date or marry, maybe – he sure sounds like a fantastic boyfriend in the sky (strong and sensitive and always there for me!) – but I feel cheap and plastic when I attempt to worship the Creator of the Universe by singing songs that could just as easily work by replacing “Jesus” with “baby.”

Don’t get me wrong – I do not wish to categorically denounce modern church music. I grew up in churches singing only hymns accompanied by piano and organ and a man (always a man) up front waving his arms like a conductor. Until I learned to read and got to hold the hymnal, I wondered what a “pyonder” was, because no one I knew said anything remotely like “when the roll is called up yonder” anywhere besides in church.

Occasionally we sang well-written hymns, like “What Wondrous Love” (that haunting melody and ageless lyrics from Walker’s Southern Harmony), “This is My Father’s World,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and anything by Isaac Watts. But page through any hymnal and you’ll discover reams of oldies-and-not-so-goodies.

Many of the old hymns that nobody feels like singing anymore were popular in their day. Some of them were set to corny music that was only trendy for a few years, and that’s why we don’t sing them anymore. While music can be changed if the words warrant singing again, many of these songs employed images that were powerful for the writer’s contemporaries but can’t connect across the ages. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Hold the Fort, for I am Coming” are two examples of hymns using war imagery in a time when wars and soldiers were highly idealized, before Vietnam produced a cultural shift in perspective about war (i suppose September 11th produced a pendulum-swing cultural shift, but that’s another conversation).

Maybe today’s preoccupation with God as the ultimate boyfriend is a reflection of our oversexed, Disney-princess-ized culture. Many of the songs we sing these days are written from an individual perspective (“I” the believer in Christ, not “we” the body of Christ), and describe that individual as a weak and helpless person who needs nothing else but God, strong and loving, who will rescue her from evil, hold her gently, love her forever, and one day take her home to his castle in the air (Heaven).

These aren’t necessarily wrong ideas, though I would argue against the “going away to Heaven” idea vs. Heaven coming to earth and healing it (see N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope), but pounding away on this one metaphor again and again, we lose perspective. Our God – and we humans – and the relationship between us – are more complex than that. There’s simply a lot more we could say when we sing about God, including some of my personal favorites: justice, the kingdom of God, and resurrection.

Some of the ultimate-boyfriend love songs are well-written, and I actually like and use them. I just don’t like singing more than one or two of them at a time.

There are fantastic songs, old and new, that can help us step out of our romance-novel mold. Some of my favorite newer ones are “He Reigns” by Steve Taylor, “Faithful” by David Ruis, and “Lutheran Hymn” by Michael Roe (the latter two are not popular but worth finding). And I’ll bet there are many more.

Because I am familiar with so many hymns, and because they’re public domain, and also because they connect us with our roots and the larger century-spanning community of faith, I have begun incorporating more of my favorites into the worship services I lead. It’s harder to keep up with, and access on a limited budget, newer songs.

So I’ll end my confession with a petition: does anyone have suggestions for places to look, or songs you enjoy that break out of the love-song mold? And what other comments do you have? I’m all ears now that I’ve used so many words!

Good Girl, Humanized

I’m a pastor’s kid, AND . . . (I learned about the power of ‘and’ from my friend Cindy, who recently said labels too often keep us stuck. She said, for example, that although she is often impatient, she likes to say it like this – “I am impatient, AND I am learning to wait”).

So, I’m a pastor’s kid, AND I am learning to live boldly in spite of people’s opinions of me.

I was born to a Bible college student, and my younger brother was born to a seminarian. Our mother was a Bible college student’s wife, and then a seminarian’s wife, AND . . . although she wasn’t much encouraged to imagine the other side of the AND.

Officially I became a pastor’s kid (PK) when I was four and we moved to a tiny town in Rhode Island where my father became the pastor of a proportionally tiny church just about as old as America, with real steeple bells that the big boys got to ring every Sunday morning.

Two memories of our time at that church stand out to me. One morning, sitting in the front row with my mother and brother and a friend, I entertained myself and my friend during my father’s sermon by copying his gestures (with a bit of extra animation). Another Sunday, as my mother stood and sang in the choir, my three-year-old brother, terrified by a spider crawling on the pew beside him, ran to her and jumped in her arms.

After each of those services, I and my brother were respectively reprimanded for our antics. It may not have been spoken, but somehow we got the message that everyone was watching us, that we must behave well and not reflect poorly on our family.

It’s a lesson I learned early and well. Pastors’ kids, as people have over-generalized, are either angels or demons. I, proving the generalization, was a good girl in every way imaginable. Stepping into any new place when I was a child, my first concern was what the rules were, to make sure I kept them. As I grew into adolescence, so did the good girl. She was smart but quiet, pretty but safe in her always-modest dresses, passionate but only daring to hint at those passions through her handy talents of singing and writing.

Over the years my father went on his own journey of self-discovery and admitted that pastoring was something his mother had pushed on him more than he had desired. For a while I was a Bible college professor’s kid, at other times a salesman’s kid, a freelance writer’s kid, an unemployed man’s kid.

This past year I once again became a pastor’s kid, now with kids of my own. I’ve moved a long way from the good girl of my youth, not to rebel daughter, but to more confident, willingly weak, hungry, less-afraid, question-asking human. Very human. Repenting of the “we-they” “saved-lost” country club mentality from which I have operated most of my life growing up a pastor’s kid in church. The suitable-for-framing theology of my youth now looks to me just about as quaint and useless as my senior pictures.

This pastor’s kid wears shorts, drinks alcohol, plays rock music, goes to movies, and often votes Democrat. She also leads worship music in local churches, and regularly prays and reads her Bible. And she’s learned that abstaining from or exercising any of these things is a poor indicator of anyone’s faith.

The pastor whose kid I am has also changed. Now, when we meet on a Sunday evening after a morning when he was preaching and I was lounging in the back yard with my family and a cup of coffee, we smile and hug and talk about the past week, and the thought of what people might be thinking is as far away and irrelevant as the choir robe my mother wore that Sunday in Rhode Island.