Monday, November 17, 2014

A Needed Balance




Disclaimer (oooh.. one of those posts? Yep!)
What this post is NOT:
1. An exhaustive comparison of two vast arenas of thought and content
2. An invitation to debate (dialogue, sure, but not argue)
3. A means to criticize someone's preference in church music 

What this post IS:
1. A defining of some misleading terms
2. Some thoughts on the importance of blended worship
3. A reminder that we as a church need to prioritize and stop fighting over petty issues

If you're involved in church, or if you are on social media, or if you have a pulse, you're aware that for whatever reason, music has become one of the most hot-button, controversial topics among Christian people (or at least American Christians who have the freedom to quibble over this stuff while those in foreign countries fear for their lives.) I'm not sure why this is, but literally every time I get online I see another gripping headline that claims to have the answer to the seemingly incompatible sides of the issue. "Throw out the hymns!" some cry, while others insist, "Get rid of that contemporary stuff!"

I'm not here to convince you that one style or type of music is the best one (because that would be impossible and also I like blog traffic but I don't want to wade through dozens of angry, finger-pointing comments.) What I would like to talk about is something that I think we should strive for in our music AND in every other aspect of life, and that's balance. 

We can and should be "extreme" in some areas. Extremely passionate about God's love, extremely grateful for God's grace, extremely awed by His holiness, extremely involved in sharing the Gospel. But sometimes we take areas that should be balanced to extremes, and our preferences (not biblical principles, just "what we like") fall into that category. And I hope you realize what I mean here. Taking any old style of music in the name of "balance" and calling it good is not the issue. "Well, here at ___________ Church we like to really strike a balance between spiritual and carnal so today we're featuring our favorite worship songs and a little Top 40. BALANCE!" Um, no. 

I'm talking strictly about church music (as in, music performed/sung in church by the congregation and/or groups, not what you listen to personally or the lifestyles of these songwriters or anything beyond the songs themselves as they relate to church. Also, I'm assuming from the get-go that when we discuss these songs being used in church, it will be in a Christ-honoring, appropriate way. No need to debate technique or stage setup or lighting. See? The rabbit trail is endless.)

So, like I said, this topic is eeeeverywhere online, and while "both sides" of the argument have a few valid points, what I'm really tired of is generalizations like these:

"All hymns are boring."

"All contemporary music is shallow."

"All hymns are rich in intellectually stimulating lyrics."

"All contemporary music connects you straight to Jesus."

"Hymns are outdated."

"Contemporary music is worldly."

"I can't connect with any hymns."

"I can't connect with any contemporary music."

Wow... those are a little over the top, am I right? And before we go any further, it's important to take a page from C.S. Lewis and define the terms we're discussing here. Most of the time when people talk about hymns, they're referencing songs from at least a few generations ago and sometimes a few hundred years. And usually "contemporary Christian" refers to anything from the 90s to the present. But if we're being fair (and moving away from generalizations, which is part of the point of this post), let's define these in their strictest terms.

According to Webster's, the word hymn means "a religious song or poem, typically of praise to God." And the word contemporary, strictly speaking, means "living or occurring at the same time." (In other words, a contemporary work was written during my lifetime, or yours.) So obviously, we have to acknowledge that there are many, many "contemporary" songs that fall under the category of hymns, and there are many hymns (by definition) that may not have been written in my lifetime, but they're certainly current, at least with older generations.

Anyway, that seems like a lot of bookish talk but it's important to define those terms for a couple of reasons. Number one, it means that just because something isn't found in "the hymnal" doesn't mean it isn't a hymn. (Is it a song that praises God? That's the definition!) And it also means that, according to its definition, there were lots of songs written decades and even centuries ago that- hey!- were contemporary at the time. Guess what? "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" was contemporary when Martin Luther wrote it in the 14th century. The "ancient" hymns didn't just arrive in a time capsule, you know? They were new at some point.

SO what's the point of all this? I guess so far, I'm just trying to point out that it's important to get our terminology straight. If you have a problem with a style of music, be specific. "Hymns" are spiritual songs (and we're commanded multiple times in Scripture to sing them) and "contemporary" means current. That's all.

So now let's address those blanket statements. Recently I read through the comments of a post discussing these two "styles" of music (again, misleading, but I digress) and some of them blew me away.

"Hymns are so lifeless and boring. I don't even understand a lot of what they're saying."

Really? Lifeless and boring?

 "When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul." (1870)

"Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all." (1707)


"Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me?" (1738)


"O, God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home!" (1719)


And then on the flipside, there's this:

"I just don't get anything out of that contemporary stuff. It just says the same thing over and over."

Hmm... do these sound shallow and empty?

"These are the days of Elijah, declaring the Word of the Lord, and these are the days of your servant Moses, righteousness being restored. And though these are days of great trial, of famine and darkness and sword, still we are the voice in the desert crying prepare ye the way of the Lord! Behold, He comes, riding on the clouds, shining like the sun, at the trumpet call! So lift your voice, it's the year of jubilee, and out of Zion's hill salvation comes!" 

"Blessed be Your name, when the sun's shining down on me, when the world's all as it should be... blessed be Your name, on road marked with suffering, though there's pain in the offering blessed be Your name."


"Jesus Messiah, name above all names, blessed redeemer, Emmanuel, the rescue for sinners, the ransomed from Heaven, Jesus Messiah, Lord of all!" 


"I come broken to be mended, I come wounded to be healed. I come desperate to be rescued, I come empty to be filled. I come guilty to be pardoned by the blood of Christ the Lamb, and I'm welcomed with open arms, praise God, just as I am." 


Of course, I could give examples of hymns that are boring, newer songs that are shallow... and vice versa. (Not every song in the hymnbook is as intellectually stimulating as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and not every modern hymn is as rich and deep as "In Christ Alone.") I think we all know this, but somehow there's a disconnect between what's clearly true and what seems okay or popular to say.

More important than style or semantics, though, is what Jesus says. Does the Bible explicitly outline Charles Wesley over Keith Getty, other that exhorting us to sing praises to God? Colossions 3:16 says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom: teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." (Patch the Pirate theme verse for the win... I can recite the club pledge for you if you want. =) Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs- that's fairly broad and I think there's quite a bit of room under that umbrella. (That's the idea here... the content of these songs and not the way in which they're performed... again assuming that their "performance," for lack of a better term, is appropriate and honoring to God.)

Here's what I'm saying... between these "two sides" (and there's a whole lot of style/preference/genre included there, but I'm narrowing it down since that's what most arguments on the topic do) there is a balance to be found. Ideally, a church service will feature what some people call "blended worship" which incorporates both new and old songs. (Our music minister has really mastered this and should probably teach classes about it. Oh wait... he does! That's a really great thing.) Why avoid all old songs or all new songs? It's safe to say that God Himself is a fan of balance, of different styles, and of "mixing things up."

 We don't have to look any further than Scripture itself to see this proven. God used over forty men to write the sixty-six books of the Bible, and it's pretty clear that not every book is the same style. Does the book of Psalms stir my emotions? Does it repeat itself a lot? YES! Should we dismiss it as shallow and repetitive? NO! Does the book of say, I Chronicles do those things? No. Does it deliver a lot of intellectually challenging information? Yes. Do we toss it out as boring and irrelevant? NO!

The same is true of music. I understand that the Bible was inspired and therefore infallible, but God still chose to use men to write it and allowed their styles to shine through very plainly in the text. He also made each of us different. That leads me to believe that God wants the content and style of our praise to Him, as long as it is biblical, to be as varied as we are! (Once again, this is not a standards/genres/evils of percussion instruments topic, for goodness' sake. Leave that to the professional forum stalkers.) Why miss the blessing of a beloved hymn OR the blessing of a song that can bring thoughts to mind in a fresh way? It doesn't have to be one or the other.

Oh, and I alluded to this at the beginning... but don't you think it's a little silly to be arguing over these issues (and the arguments are out there... in abundance) when our brothers and sisters in Christ in foreign countries would love to have the freedom to sing ANY songs- modern or ancient- above a whisper without fear of extremely dangerous repercussions. Hmm... that makes this issue and quite a bit of what we deem "important" in church seem petty, doesn't it? Arguing until you're blue in the face about a song(s) you prefer is not defending the faith, okay? Facing execution by claiming the name of Christ or answering someone's attack at the gospel is defending the faith. Defending our preferences is not "defending the faith." Okay, (that) rant over.

So... let's be balanced. I have songs and styles I prefer.. we all do. But the blanket statements and unfair generalizations need to stop. They don't benefit or edify anyone. If we come to church having already met with God and worshiped privately, our corporate worship will "make a joyful noise unto the Lord," whether the songs we're singing were written in 2014 or 1714. And that joyful noise, that "melody in our hearts," is what it's all about.



Ash



Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Report

I've been forcing myself to read more nonfiction in the past few months, mostly because the majority of the books I've read in my lifetime have been intended for children been fiction that doesn't require much thought. Don't get me wrong... lighthearted fiction is still my number one choice, but there are so many good nonfiction books (mainly biographies) that I feel like I need to add at least a few to my bag each time I visit the library. You know, so I can stay informed and interesting and all that.

I've finished these three books this week, and they were all good (if a little slow at times.) I can fly through a fiction book in an hour or two but nonfiction takes me a while. (I'm living proof of the attention deficit caused by iPhones.) Anyway, here they are along with my thoughts.


I checked out Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis because I love Charlie Brown (hence last year's bulletin boards and our trunk or treat theme) and I have read enough cute, quirky Charles Schulz quotes over the years to be interested in finding out more about the man who turned a little pen-and-ink cartoon into a billion dollar product. Well, as with my Dr. Seuss, it turns out that the man behind these beloved characters left a lot to be desired as a person.
         I think the number one impression I had of "Sparky" (as Mr. Schulz was known by friends and family his whole life) was, in a word, contradiction. He was, in turn, friendly and charming or painfully shy, confident or self-conscious, a driven, nearly obsessively ambitious businessman or a timid introvert. Though he did have two loving parents, the emotional climate of his childhood was dysfunctional at best. His first marriage, puzzling from the beginning, ended after twenty-two year, in part because of his infidelity. Though he spent years as a professing Christian (even dabbling in street preaching as a young man), later in life he had little to say about his faith and never shared it with his children in any way. Some knew him as emotionally stunted, incapable of confrontation in any way, while others described as the sweet, grandfatherly type portrayed in the media. Sometimes I loved him and sometimes I wanted to strangle him, but it really is fascinating to see the many, many parallels between Peanuts and his personal life. He definitely drew on his own experiences for content, and it worked; he created the most beloved and well-known comic strip probably of all time. It made me sad to see the fallout of his poor decisions, but "Sparky" did give the world Charlie Brown, and for that I am thankful. 



I absolutely love C.S. Lewis but after reading this collection of his correspondence with several young children over the years I love him even more. For some reason, many people (myself included) have had a mental image of C.S. Lewis as a slightly grumpy old scholar, too intellectually lofty to condescend to the level of little kids. But his sweet, thoughtful responses (handwritten!) to so many fans of his books, were not only funny but also spot-on for their age levels. So many people talk down to children but this brilliant, celebrated author knew exactly how to speak their language, both in his beloved novels and in letters to his young friends. There are so many quotable lines, but this was one of my favorites (and so appropriate for the coming holiday season): "Our Christmas was conditioned by having a visitor for nearly three weeks; a very nice fellow but one can't feel quite free." Indeed! =)


Sorry for the lack of uniformity (no thumb in this picture) but it was a download. =) Years ago, my friend Susan told me about The Devil in Pew Number Seven, and the title and brief description alone were enough to scare me away for a while. =) Growing up a pastor's kid, I didn't have a particular desires to read a true story of a pastor's family who was targeted, tormented, and attacked by a psychotic church member. But when I finally got brave and downloaded it this week, I was amazed at the story. This family experienced unbelievable heartache (and even terror) and near the end I was thinking, "This is so depressing! What's the point of this except to give myself nightmares?" But the last couple of chapters made it so worth the read. The overall theme is forgiveness, and it's amazing that the author was able to forgive the evil people who destroyed her family (and could have destroyed her faith); it definitely put into perspective the petty things that I find hard to forgive. The author presents a list of horrible scenarios that people may experience, and this quote really struck me: 

"You and I cannot walk away from what's been done to us. At the same time, as crazy as it sounds, we're commanded to speak the language of heaven, to forgive as we have been forgiven- generously, fully, and freely. That means we forgive with no strings attached; that may require us to forgive repeatedly. When we do, we shock the world with God's power at work within us. When they shake their heads in wonderment, when they struggle to understand how anyone could forgive like that, we have the opportunity to point them to the Cross."

Wow- the language of heaven is forgiveness? The author points out that more than anything, our deepest human need is God's forgiveness. It's true... what good would God's love be if it didn't guarantee our forgiveness? And since God has forgiven us, we really have no choice but to choose to (continually) forgive others. A hard lesson, but a very needed one, at least for me.


SO... that's it for this week. All good books that I would recommend with varying degrees of enthusiasm. =) If you have any good book recommendations (fiction or non!) send them my way. Or, you know, I'll wait for Janssen to post another book list and then run and check out the entire list. 

Happy reading!


Ash

Monday, November 10, 2014

Hello

Hello, Monday. I'm recovering from another night of insomnia (ugh!) so there's that.

In that vein of thought... hello, coffee. =)

Hello, my sweet little buddy that I got to hang out with after far too long. I love this crazy girl!




















Hello, pretty necklace I'm so happy I bought. (Materialism strikes again.) Also, weird straggly hairs. #awkward


Hello, red cups. Mainstream? You bet. I'll never stop loving caramel apple spice or peppermint mocha. 


Hello, quirky little Christmas panda I found for Amanda. He looks slightly deranged but that's okay. =)

Hello, proof that I got dressed (in actual outfits) three days in a row last week. 




















Hello, best friend pictures taken on the same night five years apart. (Short hair was not a good look for me.)

Hello, gorgeous fall leaves. As eager as I am for Christmas to arrive, I'm kind of dreading all the trees looking bare for the next several months, especially if there's no snow to make them pretty.


Also, hello, awesome church services yesterday, music that just made my heart full, a (close!) win for Bama this weekend, and sweet people we met at our mission service last night. Hello, our annual Christmas list date, progress on my book (baby steps, but still!), and a stack of library books to plow through this week. Hello to Christmas choir music, Christmas shopping, and Christmas movies on Netflix. (Also, You've Got Mail was just added and I might have been jumping up and down like a child. I.love.this.movie.) 

Most of all, hello, my dear friends. I'm so lucky you keep coming by. Have a lovely week. =)


Ash

Friday, November 7, 2014

Follow Friday

If you're not on Twitter, you really should be. It's probably my favorite social media platform, mostly because you can not only follow tons of cool people but also interact with them. (The day Danielle Fishel from Boy Meets World shared my blog post was an amazing day indeed.) I've also had interactions with some of my favorite authors, Stacy London, Tim Conway (!!!), and Patricia Heaton. I'm not saying any of this to be like, "Look at me and my cool tweeting self," because a ton of people chat with celebrities on Twitter... that's why it's so great!

Anyway, there's a "thing" on Twitter called "Follow Friday" and the point is to recommend other accounts to your followers. So, here are a few of my favorites that you should totally be following too.


-Pat Sajak (@patsajak)- not only is he the host of our beloved Wheel of Fortune, but he's a conservative (who knew?) and makes hilarious observations about politics (and really great jokes about Wheel.) 



-Will Friedle (@willfriedle)- it's Eric from Boy Meets World! (Think I'm a fan yet?) He just joined Twitter recently and keeps me laughing. It's seriously like Eric in real life. Ha! I love it.



Best first tweet EVER. (It's like the Feeny call, obviously.)


-Jon Acuff (@JonAcuff)- I could also list Jon under "inspirational" people to follow because there's definitely plenty of motivational talk but most of his tweets are really, really funny. I retweet him obnoxiously but I can't help it. 


-Laura Guelfi (@LauraMGuelfi)- this is my friend (the one I just had lunch with!) and she is SO funny. Oh my word. It's a shame that everyone can't hang out with her all the time (because she's even more hysterical in person) but Twitter is a good dose of her humor. Also expect a little politics thrown in for good measure. =)



-Jim Gaffigan (@JimGaffigan)- um, one of the funniest comedians ever. Seriously. My favorite tweets of his are always about food (which says more about me than I care to admit.)




-The Honest Toddler (@HonestToddler)- the first time I came across this account I ended up in tears from laughing so hard. Oh my word. I love it and I don't even have kids. It's totally worth looking up and reading through the archives! 



There you go... a few new funny people to follow! And while you're following people, look me up too... @ashleybmcneese. =) (#shamelessplug)


Ash

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Happy Wednesday

Since I'm a hermit not working/going out too much these days, I get excited when I have a reason to put on a real outfit and leave the house. Exciting times, ya know? And yes, I realize that just because I don't have a real reason to get dressed up every day, I probably shouldn't be constantly lounging in my flannel pj's and tank that says, "Sleep is my cardio." (True story.) However, it IS nice to actually have something on my schedule that gives me a reason to plan an outfit. 

Enter my lunch date today, where I met my friend Laura (who is theeee funniest person ever, seriously) at this amazing little Panera-like bakery and we talked and talked and ate massive bread samples and I embarrassed myself laughing. (You know when you're around a really funny person and you know you're laughing so hard that you look stupid but it's so funny that you can't stop so you just sound like a maniacal teenager giggling nonstop? That was me today. I couldn't help it.) We talked about books and writing (she is totally my writing mentor and will be mentioned in the acknowledgments of my first book, whenever that may be) and crazy bloggers and politics and ALL THE THINGS. It was glorious. 

SO I've always been bad about "saving" outfits but I've kind of gotten worse since before I would at least see people at school every day but now I can literally wear something all day and no one will see it... so why bother? I've had this outfit planned in my head for a while though and today was the perfect special occasion for it. (Having lunch with a friend, no matter how special the friend, is considered a special occasion to me so that gives you a good look at my social life these days. Ha!) 

I've been eyeing this shirt for a long, long time. It's one of those things that doesn't really fall into any specific area of my closet (basics, dressy, needs, etc.) but I was just drawn to the colors and the pattern and I tend to get tunnel vision about clothes (there's a ridiculous story along those lines coming to you soon) and this shirt was that way. So when it finally went on clearance I swooped in and snatched it up. I love J.Crew tshirts because they fit really well (not tight but not huge) and last forever. If you can snag one on clearance it's worth the money! I can't wait to wear this one with my many different cardigans. 


I've come to grips with how ankle boots look on me and I've started wearing them anyway. 


Not so flattering without the help of my magic mirror, eh? (#thisismyreallife)

Shirt: J.Crew Factory (cheaper in-store)
Cardigan: Forever 21 (under $9 and they have a ton of colors)
Skirt: Old Navy (similar)
Boots: Belk (last year)



Necklace: Also J.Crew Factory (and an elephant because REPUBLICANS, y'all. Woo!)




And the lady herself. She's the bomb!

It's been a great afternoon, folks. Sometimes you just need to hang out with someone who gets you and makes you laugh, eat yummy food, and laugh at weirdos on Instagram. (And, you know, have an excuse to get dressed. Win!) 

Happy Wednesday!


Ash

Linked up with Lindsay!




Saturday, November 1, 2014

Seasons

If you've been following along for the past couple months, you know that my life has changed pretty radically since August... and that I haven't exactly made a seamless transition into this new chapter. Isn't it funny that in 2013, my word of the year was contentment? I try very hard to keep things in perspective and I know that most of what I "struggle" with is a laugh compared to the trials of others, but it's still been a rocky few months while I navigate the waters of this "new normal." (The following paragraph is plagiarized from myself straight from Instagram, so if it sounds familiar then you've probably already read it. =)




It's hard to believe that today is November 1 and the holiday season is upon us (yay!). This time last year I was directing two programs, teaching, and busier than I'd ever been in my life. I would have given anything for a slower pace! And now I'm definitely on the other end of the spectrum with a whole lot of free time and not very many responsibilities... And I'm missing the frantic rush of it all! This morning I listened to a message called "Seasons" by Cary Schmidt (download the podcast... It's a good one!) and was convicted by the reminder to not only be content in each season of life, but also to love and cherish each one. Wow! That's a whole lot easier said than done, and I have to admit that I have not done a good job of it here lately, but the sermon was just the reminder I needed after a good little chunk of time feeling sorry for myself.

So, instead of being sad that I am literally living the schedule I would have killed for a year ago, I decided to put on my favorite scarf, get a peppermint mocha frap (yes!!!), and explore the beautiful new Christmas aisles at Target (which of course led to a different kind of discontentment. :) The point is that life rarely is in the season we want it to be... But then that season passes and we wish for it back. When I was engaged, I wanted to be married. When I got married, I wanted to have a baby. (Well, I still want that, but all in good time.) When your kids are little, you wish they were bigger and when they grow up you wish they hadn't. It goes on and on! I'm praying not just for contentment but also the ability- with the Lord's help- to love and cherish my current season, the one He's placed me in "for such a time as this."

Season's (see what I did there?) Greetings! 

And expect a whole lot of holiday cheer around here for the next two months because it is CHRISTMAS time, folks! That's a season I can celebrate, no matter what.





Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Successful Library Trip

I wanted to kill time in my endless day go to the library this afternoon totally forgot that my card was in our car, with Jonathan, at work. 

*Time out- this is AFTER I woke up this morning with blood all over my pillow. There's nothing like coming out of a deep sleep and feeling like you're in a murder scene. Okay, it wasn't that bad, but I was frantically trying to discover the source of the carnage and found that it had come from my completely gashed-up lip. Who knows how that happened?! It was a less-than-leisurely way to start the day, needless to say. So maybe I just needed a nice, relaxing outing. Time in.*

I ran over anyway to drop off my books (just in time!) and hoped that we could come back later. (I say "hope" because for some mysterious reason my husband doesn't really love following me around the library while I load myself down with yet another bagful of books.) Anyway, I persuaded him to drop me off tonight on his way to get a haircut and I was inspired on the way over to look at the movie section, something I've never bothered with before. 

Our local library in California had, seriously, the most incredible movie section with an unbelievably awesome selection of classics. Every library I've been to since has been a letdown, so I've just stuck to the books. However, I've been in a Broadway mood ALL day (ask anyone who saw me jamming to Wicked in my car) and I was itching for a good musical. (Sadly my actual movie collection is pitifully small... one day I'm robbing my parents blind.) Anyway, I hit the JACKPOT at the library and made myself narrow my choices down to five so that I didn't become a complete zombie for the next couple days. 




High Society, Good News, Holiday Inn, The King and I, and Oklahoma! I could die of happiness. 

If I could add to this list, I'd include State Fair, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, and Take Me Out to the Ballgame. You just can't beat a great musical. (Also I'm enjoying these while Mamaw's out of town since she doesn't like "all that singing." I'm nothing if not a good granddaughter.) 


AND even though I wasn't even planning on checking out books (I already have Killing Lincoln and Life of Pi waiting on my Kindle), I just couldn't help myself and came out with a new stack just like always. Now I've got my coffee and I'm bundled up in a sweatshirt and looking obnoxiously jolly: 


I'm all settled in for the night (and possibly the weekend.) The headphones are because Jonathan is has an unsophisticated entertainment palate and did not want to watch (or sing) along with me. Oh well... his loss! Here's to escaping reality for hours at a time! =)  

Ash