Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Religious Freedom" Bills: Rotten Apples

The recent rash of so-called “religious freedom” legislation proposed in several states is more than irritating. It is infected beyond healing, and the only way to eliminate it is to eliminate the source. Fortunately, we have a free and safe way of doing that in our country: elections.

There is so much that is wrong with these ideas, I hardly know where to begin.

First, I’ll say this: the idea that refusing to serve a particular person is an expression of the Christian Gospel is horrible and offensive and misguided and just plain wrong. There is no basis in scripture for this practice.

In fact, the opposite is true – followers of Christ are called to serve everyone, even (and one could say “especially”) sinners. So whether you believe same-sex relationships to be inherently sinful or not (I do not), that gives you NO cause to discriminate in any way, shape, or form against people who are gay. Disagreeing on the questions surrounding same-sex marriage is acceptable among loving, faithful, grace-filled followers of Jesus; violence, hatred, prejudice, and discrimination against another human being – ANY other human being – is not.

Secondly, the idea that discrimination against a group of people could be not only condoned, but actually legalized in our nation is profoundly antithetical to the fundamental principles that comprise America. We had this conversation in the 1950s and 60s, right? Sounds like a few lawmakers didn’t study their U.S. History in High School.

The first amendment says that Congress cannot make a law that either establishes a national religion or prevents people from practicing their chosen religion, or not. Letting a gay person shop in one’s store is not preventing one from practicing one’s religion. No religion of which I am aware has as one of its teachings, “Thou shalt not sell stuff to the gays.” This is not a practice in need of legal protection.

Thirdly, the idea that blatantly discriminatory legislation is actually intended to prevent discrimination is ludicrous. To frame these proposals as protecting religious freedom insults the reasonable mind and is as transparent as glass. Surely no one is so gullible as to actually believe this. Forcing a Christian to serve a gay person is not an infringement of religious freedom; it is not discrimination against Christians to ask them to treat all people fairly and justly.

As a Christian, I lament what ideas like this do to the perception of Christian people in our communities, around the nation, and throughout the world. One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel. The hateful attitude toward people who are gay is a clear and obvious hindrance to the mission to which we are called as the church and it needs to stop.

As a citizen of the United States, I am angry at the outright disregard being shown to the rights and responsibilities that form the foundation of our nation. “Jim Crow” is an ugly legacy that should be long gone from our experience, something we only read about in history books any more. And yet as it turns out, Jim Crow is alive and well; he has simply selected another target.

Both as a Christian and as an American, I stand against any attempt to legalize discrimination against people who are gay. I applaud Arizona Governor Jan Brewer for her veto, and the Kansas Senate for their discernment. I am hopeful that you will stand with me, and insist that our elected representatives immediately cease offering such horrible legislation here in Missouri and anywhere else it appears.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Jesus and Me: A Dialogue

Jesus: Hey, you should really love your enemies.

Me: Right on, J.C. Not a problem. I’m on it!

Jesus: You seem pretty sure of yourself. It can be hard to love an enemy, you know.

Me: Right, right. I get that. But I’m not going to have a problem with this one. See, I don’t have any enemies.

Jesus: Oh, really? None?

Me: Yeah. I’m such an easy-going guy, you know? I get along with everybody.

Jesus: Um, you know what I mean by “enemy” isn’t just a person with whom you have actual open conflict, right?

Me: Oh … wait, what?

Jesus: Yeah. Confrontation can actually be healthy, when it happens with graciousness and respect.

Me: Really? Who knew? So, who’s my enemy, then?

Jesus: Well, you know that one you look down on? And that one you gossip about? And that one you go out of your way to avoid? And that one who just gets on your nerves? And that one you wish would just put a sock in it? And that one…

Me: Okay, okay! That’s enough, man. I see your point.

Jesus: There’s people who are easy to love; there’s people who are hard to love; there’s people who are all but unlovable. Love. Them. All.

Me: I don’t know, Jesus. I mean, someone who could do that would have to be … perfect.

Jesus: Exactly.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

What 'The Internet's Favorite Pianist" Can Teach the Church

I heard the radio announcer introduce the upcoming recording with the phrase, “the internet’s favorite pianist.” I was intrigued, so I did what anyone would do, I googled the phrase.

Google told me to read this Washington Post article about Valentina Lisitsa, a conservatory trained, classical, pianist from the Ukraine. Instead of becoming “just another blond Russian ex-pianist,” as she puts it, Lisitsa decided to do something differently. She uploaded a video of her playing piano to YouTube.

Her channel now has over 126,000 subscribers. Every video has tens of thousands of views. The most popular have millions. And what is the content of these videos? Is it edgy, crazy, and weird? Is it violent, aggressive, and arrogant? Is it exhibitionist, shallow, and vain?

Nope. The videos she posts are her sitting at a piano playing classical music, just like classically trained pianists have done for ever and ever before her. And it just so happens that sitting at a piano playing classical music is something that Valentina Lisitsa does very, very well.

The church needs to pay attention to stuff like this – especially the portion of the church that fears change, that doesn't like to do things differently, or that feels like the Gospel is somehow compromised if presented in a different format.

If there is a sub-culture of the world that is even staler than the church, it must be classical music. The stereotype is old, rich, well-dressed people sitting in luxurious places applauding politely at the appropriate times. The perception is that classical musicians are all about the purity of the art form, appreciating the music at a highly knowledgeable level, and staying faithful to the composers’ intentions without deviation. In other words, snobs.

But Valentina Lisitsa says, “We musicians want a bigger audience, we want more people to come and listen. We sometimes act as though you need a great education to understand [classical music]. But I look at who is listening to my videos on YouTube, and it’s people from developing countries, not associated with classical or big concert halls. I see the growth and want to connect with these fans.”

Now, the ironic kicker in her story is that her online success has led to album sales, concerts, and much of the more traditional markers of classical music success. None of which would she have experienced had she not posted a few videos on YouTube seven years ago.

Not that Valentina understood this inherently; she learned it. A DVD of her playing was being uploaded illegally. At first, she was removing the videos one by one as she discovered them. Conventional wisdom is that online access, free downloads and such, will be detrimental to a musician’s career.

“At first I was removing the clips one by one, but then I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m angering my fans,’ ” she said. “I uploaded it to YouTube and a strange thing happened: It hit number one on Amazon.”

If I might analogize, the music is the Gospel.

The way the music gets to the audience is the church.

If we are unwilling to change the way the music is getting to the audience, then the music will remain unheard.

I do not want the music of the Gospel to go unheard. The church needs to think differently, speak differently, and act differently. We need to stop metaphorically taking down YouTube videos out of fear that it will detract from other markers of so-called “success.”

However, the flipside is also true – I do not want a video of some random person playing Chopsticks to be packaged as the Chopin Etude Opus 10 No.4. Make no mistake, Valentina Lisitsa is a highly talented, conservatory trained pianist whose technical skill and artistic prowess are exceptional. If she was not, there’s no way her Chopin gets 3,750,000 views.

She wanted more people to hear Chopin; she did not want to play “Chopsticks,” thinking somehow it will be more accessible to the audience.

To continue the analogy: sometimes the church thinks we have to change the music so that more people will hear it. Sure, a piano player can start with Chopsticks, but maturing and growing at piano means hard work, moving on from Chopsticks, to “Heart and Soul” and beyond, realizing that Chopin is out there beckoning, inviting, and challenging us to excel.

If the music isn’t getting to the audience, and one of our jobs is making sure it does, then we’re going to want to figure out what to change. It will not suffice to wring our hands and wonder why more people aren’t coming to the concert hall.  Neither will it suffice to put on a concert of repertoire exclusively from Mel Bay’s Big Note Songbook.

We have got to look for new ways to convey the Gospel in new places. We have got to share God’s love with creativity and innovation and vision. We have got to let go of old models and experiment fearlessly.

Dear Church – John Wesley submitted to be more vile for the sake of the Gospel, and we must follow his lead. We have to put Chopin on YouTube.