Grey Matter (Or The Hazards Of Dancing At Seminary)

Legalize-Dancing1True story: I once got asked to leave the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

Back in high school, I participating in our church’s youth choir summer mission trip. Sensing that the kids (and the adults) couldn’t possibly endure much more time trapped on a tour bus that smelled of farts and dirty fungus feet, we took a pit stop in Louisville, KY at Southern Seminary to fumigate, delouse and disinfect. Our church’s Music Minister was a Southern graduate, and was going to take us for a stroll around the campus to work off some pent-up energy. After we hurried off the bus, we wound up milling around for a few minutes at some sort of reception area on campus. Some of us, who were overjoyed at our release from tour bus bondage, starting throwing a dance party in the lobby. That’s when I noticed it: The beady menacing eyes, scowling frown and folded arms of the young Southern Seminary employee working behind the welcome desk. The smoke coming out his ears indicated that a conniption fit was forthcoming. In no time flat, he stomped his feet over to where our dance of joy was taking place and condescendingly informed us: “There is no dancing permitted at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary! I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

I don’t remember exactly what occurred after that, but I do remember that the matter was serious enough that the adult chaperones intervened. I’m also sure that we didn’t dance again while our feet were planted on the seminary grounds. And somewhere the welcome desk guy is now pastoring the church from Footloose.

Recounting this story, I am reminded of how confusing being a young Christian actually was. I’m pretty sure that we had no clue what a seminary was or why the seminary staff would get so upset about dancing. From that point on, there was so much grey area in Christianity to debate and work through. When I hung out with my church friends, we didn’t spend a ton of time discussing the Gospel, because we all agreed about how you got saved. But we’d spend hours talking about how the older generation frowned upon guys with long hair and earrings who listened to prog rock and industrial music. We agreed that we were saved by God’s grace, but we were confused about how to follow Him as His disciple. Our adult mentors weren’t a ton of help in answering our questions: One would tell us rock music was unquestionably evil and Satanically inspired … Another would show off his KISS record collection.

A few years later, I remember visiting a church friend who was attending the Christian college Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. It was like going on safari to the surface of Mars. Liberty was less mega-campus and more of a bunch of ramshackle office trailers back then. My friend informed me about the now famous demerit policy at the school, where your behavior was held accountable by your peers. I remember how he was deathly afraid of stepping foot on the grounds of the local Lynchburg movie theatre, because he seriously believed that Liberty University had spies stationed at the theatre to ensure that students weren’t watching R-rated movies. As he recounted all his restrictions, I remember thinking how paranoid that he’s become … So concerned about illicitly holding hands with girls. But – most of all – we couldn’t understand how different (and more restrictive) this version of Christian life was from our local church back in Richmond, VA. How could living for Christ mean two different lifestyles in two different places?

Even for mature Christians, the grey areas of Scripture still remain a confusing place. As a Mid-western pastor, I frustratingly find myself answering more questions from people about worship style than major theological issues. There are simply places where we would like further clarity from God about how to walk with Christ:

  • Can I get a tattoo?
  • Can I dance in worship? Or can I dance at all?
  • Should I homeschool my kids or send them to public school?
  • Can I get a nose ring and my tongue pierced?
  • Can I have one glass of wine with dinner?
  • Should I use my free time for missions or rest? Should I even take a vacation?
  • Can my kids celebrate Halloween?
  • Can I use an electric guitar in worship?
  • Should I go see a PG-13 rated movie?
  • What translation of the Bible should I use?

And the reason that most believers ask these questions is their earnest desire to seek the will of God for their life. We simply desire to love and honor Christ. But you start to consider these issues and you wind up in a massive theological shouting match with your Christian brothers and sisters. You could attend two different churches within the same denomination within the same town and experience two different church cultures and levels of social acceptability.

So how do we best navigate the deadly Scylla and Charydis of these grey areas of Biblical interpretation?

One approach that some Christians take to solve the quandary of Biblical grey areas is legalism. Overall, the approach of legalism is to attempt to take the grey areas and turn them into clearcut black and white zones. Legalism delights in filling in the blanks of the moral code of the Bible with numerous stricter regulations. Biblical prohibitions against drunkenness turn into more rules about avoidance of even using alcohol to cook food. Biblical commendations for women to dress modestly turn into more rules about floor length skirts and no pants on women. Legalists always want more rules and less grace. They also use fear, guilt and gossip as crafty tools to keep other believers in line with the rules. There is also an air of condescention: “Thank God that I’m a good person that obeys all the right rules and I’m not like those sinful people outside our church!” Reminds me of the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:9-14. There is an unrighteous comfort found in safely obeying the rules while furrowing your brow at all the other “sinners” outside of the church grounds. But the danger of legalism lies in attempting to justify “thus sayeth the Lord” when the Lord clearly did not “sayeth” in any form or fashion. And the heavy burdens of legalism become deadly when the man-made rules become the litmus test for obtaining or maintaining salvation.

On the other end of the spectrum, other Christians approach grey areas with antinomianism. That’s a big theological word meaning “there is no law.” You probably have never heard this label, but the practice is pretty common in Christian culture. The essence of antinomianism is this: If God forgives all of our sins, then why bother to obey God or stop sinning? If God is so gracious, then God will unwaveringly love me even when I party like a rock star, shack up with my girlfriend and sleep in on Sundays. While one of the founding principles of the Protestant movement is that believers are saved by their faith alone, antinomianism takes this principle to extremes by arguing that believers don’t need to worry about their works, morals and behavior at all. Only faith in Christ is important. God is love and love is God and love is all you need. Antinomianism tells us that not only are there no grey areas … There are no boundaries whatsoever. Of course, antinomianism runs completely counter to the foundational New Testament truth that the believer’s spiritual transformation produces obedience and spiritual fruit (Ezekiel 36:26; John 14:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 5:22; James 1-2; 1 John 5:3).

When it comes to interpreting the grey matters of Scripture, the central issue is simply how we read the Bible. We don’t approach the Bible as a humble student eager to learn or as a menial servant seeking instructions from his master. We approach the Bible as a prooftext to support our pre-formed positions. When we disagree with the Bible, we don’t allow the Bible to change us … We seek to distort, manipulate or ignore the Bible to hold onto our beliefs with our kung-fu grip. In our sound-byte culture, the Bible often gets reduced into whatever slogan can easily fit into a tweet or Facebook status bar. More Bible readers are asking “What passage do I like?” or “What makes me feel good about myself?” instead of asking “What is God saying to me through this passage?” The optimistic verses about God’s love and the believer’s joy are highlighted and virtually everything referring to wrath, judgment, sin or repentance is ignored. In a pick and choose Bible reading strategy, the Bible becomes our blunt-edged instrument of force … Our means to an end.

In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer states: “God breathed on clay and it became a man; He breathes on men and they become clay.” The voice of the Lord is not to be minimized or ignored … It is meant to correct us, criticize us, train us and scold us (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Bible is meant to be God’s instrument to change our hearts and not vice versa. But I would also add to Tozer’s statement that God can just as easily shatter a hardened pot as He can mold moist and supple clay. One way or another, God will have His way regardless of our most stubborn objections and sophisticated argumentation. Our model for reading Scripture should be the famished sojourner who longs for more and more of the broad banquet table of God’s Word … Not the petulant toddler who clamps his lips shut and refuses a mock airplane ride full of solid food. If we have truly tasted and seen the goodness of God, our unceasing hunger should be an increasing supply of His Word and less of the forgeries and mirages of our heart.

Herein lies the real problem with the interpretation of the grey areas of the Bible: Many simply cannot bear the investigation, refinement and transformation that the voice of God produces. Legalists deflect the Bible by arguing that somebody else needs the burning light of investigation … And the antinomians slough the Bible off by arguing that nobody needs transformation. In the end, both sides have the same objection: “I don’t need God to tell me what to do.” Many Christians want protective armor against the double-edged sword of Scripture … Others simply desire to dull the blade into impotence (Hebrews 4:12).

Truly experiencing God through the Bible means that we let go of the safety of legalism, public policy bullet points and the comfort zone of the church walls. On the other side of the equation, it also means God desires to use His word for our spiritual transformation – not stagnation. It’s no better to add your own personal preferences to God’s Word than simply ignore it. Either way, the sin is merely a desire to listen our prideful hearts instead of humbling ourselves in submission to the King. So we must allow God to give us ears to hear His voice speaking to us … And then to pursue Him in love, submission and obedience.

Yes, plenty of people are reading the Bible … But who is allowing the Bible to read them?

Here’s the middle path to approaching the grey areas of Scripture: Learn to lovingly submit where God has spoken … And experience joy and freedom where God has not spoken. And become wise enough to realize that most of the time we don’t need to speak at all.

Over the next few months, I’ll be blogging about the grey matters of Scripture. I’ve already posted the first blog here. Buckle up … it should be fun.

A Broken Hallelujah

Sheet MusicState of Mind. That was the name of the college worship band that I was a part of. Just like every college band, we were full of youthful, brash egotism and thought we were pretty hot stuff. I mean just look at the one or two ever-so-holy Christian girls with floor-length skirts swooning all over us.  Oh, the animal magnetism of the mash-up of Jesus and “amps to 11” rock music. Our most clever move was doing a cover of Bad Company’s “I Feel Like Making Love” … Except we changed the lyrics. Instead of singing “I feel like making love to you,” we sang with conviction and hubris “I feel like praising God with you.” Get it?!? Pretty clever, hunh.

To quote Wayne and Garth: “Not.”

Every year, there seems to be some Christian co-opting of a pop song that contains the words “God,” “Jesus,” “cross” or “religion.” I mean … Who hasn’t heard some sermon series attempting cultural relevance that lends its title from Joan Osborne’s “What If God Was One Of Us,” Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” or Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer”? I once heard an entire three-month sermon series on Galatians based on R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” They even played the R.E.M. song as the intro music to every message. I was attending another church where the sermon series was (*and I kid you not*) 10 sermons based on the hidden truth of pop songs … And the worship team stumbled through each song that the pastor selected right before the message. Imagine your vaguely talented worship team playing a poor cover of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and you get the picture. For that matter, it seems like every horn-rimmed hipster worship leader keeps trying to surreptitiously slip U2 and Dylan tunes into the song service now a-days.

For that matter, who hasn’t heard some pop song inexplicably altered to suddenly contain church-appropriate lyrics? The great philosopher Eric Cartman once argued that all you needed to do to make a hit Christian record is: (1) Pick a popular secular song about love; and (2) Remove the word “baby” and insert the word “God” or “Jesus.” Can’t you just hear Peter Frampton singing: “Oooooooh Jesus I love your way”? On that note, there was the time at a nightclub where I heard an amazing blues cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” with the chorus: “He’s alright … Jesus Christ … Take His hand … He’ll take you to the promised land.” But my personal all-time favorite is “Baby Got Book”:

And then there’s the “is it or isn’t it” range of songs, where endless hours are spent in Christian small groups vigorously debating whether “Everything” by Lifehouse really is a “Christian” worship song. Or whether Switchfoot is a Christian band or a band made up of Christians. Then there’s that awkward moment when your worship leader and church member argue about whether “Jesus Take The Wheel” is an appropriate song for a special music selection during worship.

One secular song which Christians are now routinely abusing is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It’s a beautiful tune (especially the Jeff Buckley version), but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the original song is about unrequited love and sex. While the chorus does contain Hebrew word for “praise God,” there’s also a naughty girl described as a volatile combination of Bathsheba and Delilah and an awkward reference to the Holy Spirit and rhythmic sexual movement (“Remember when I moved in you … The holy dove was moving too … And every breath we drew was Hallelujah”). Several well-meaning popular worship leaders have recently eviscerated Cohen’s original lyrics to twist the song into a worship tune. Knowing the original meaning of the song (especially that Holy Spirit reference), trotting the song out as a worship tune seems incredibly creepy and uncomfortable to me.

Within the last 50 years, evangelicalism and pop music have had a pretty rocky relationship. During the 80s, I remember my youth minister having a “parents only” meeting where they showed the Christian documentary (and I use that term loosely) “Hells Bells,” which showed the supposed Satanic origins of metal music. The documentary goes out of its way to demonstrate the demonically inspired messages back-masked onto our Judas Priest and Iron Maiden records. (Note: For those who don’t remember the whole back-masking controversy, some conspiracy theorists with WAAAAAAAAAY too much time on their hands were arguing that pop artists were embedding secret Satanic messages that you could hear by playing their records in reverse.) Parents all over our church were FREAKED OUT, smashing record collections and instantly forbidding their kids from listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” while watching “The Wizard of Oz.”

Meanwhile, my brother and I were just trying to hide our cassette tape of Guns and Roses’ “Appetite For Destruction.” And I might add that we never wanted to play it backwards.

Surprisingly, much of the old Christian hokum about the Satanic danger of pop music is still alive and well thanks to the Internet, where old conspiracy theories never die. Not convinced? Here’s a test: Go to Google … Type in the name of any current pop artist and the word “Satan.” Within the top 10 results, you are almost guaranteed to find someone claiming that artist’s songs contain secret back-masked (or even direct) messages about Satanism. I mean … Didn’t you know that The Jonas Brothers were Satanists? And here’s a pretty funny YouTube clip about Satanic messages supposedly back-masked on Justin Beiber records (even “Baby”!):

Can Christians Listen To Secular Music?:

So let’s address the debate: Can Christians listen to secular music? Sure. There is no direct prohibition within Scripture. However, Paul provides an important regulating principle in Philippians 4:8-9: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” In other words, the believer’s love for God compels him to demonstrate His love for and obedience to God. If the believer truly loves God, his desire will increasingly be for the pure and lovely things that God declares good.

As so goes the believer’s relationship with secular music: Our hearts should be set on what draws us closer to Christ. As believers, we get too entrenched in the ever-changing nuances of what words are vulgar and what lyrics are offensive. Arguing about which lines of “Telephone” by Lady Gaga need to be bleeped completely misses the point. We fall back into a works-based mentality, seeking to stay out of trouble with God more than love God with everything we’ve got. Overall, we should be focused less on the question of “can we” or “can’t we” and more on the question of “why would we ever want to.” The most important question lies in reference to our hearts: Are we hungry for God alone? Once we have tasted and seen the goodness of Christ, our desire should be to feast on the extravagant riches of Christ alone and to let go of everything that is a pale, bland imitation. To truly taste God is to discover all else is worthless vanity. As A.W. Tozer aptly explains in The Pursuit of God, the paradox of Christ is that once we have truly found Him then we desire Him all the more and the world all the less.

A secondary question is thus: What will draw others to Christ? In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul addresses one of the many, many, many problems in the Corinthian church. Some believers are eating food sacrificed to idols with a clear conscience. Why waste good food? To others, the act of eating “idol food” reminds them of their old idolatrous life. The act is offensive. Neither group is willing to compromise. So Paul commands the church in 1 Corinthians 10:31-33: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” And there’s the question that we so often miss: Will my actions lead to someone else being saved? It’s the essence of Christian love: Seeking to fulfill the needs of our neighbor instead of our own. Our actions should always seek to do what will draw other people closer to Christ. “We Are Young” by Fun is a catchy song, but the believer must question whether a song about drinking to excess will lead their neighbor to Christ.

I was in high school when 2 Live Crew’s infamously banned album, Nasty As They Wanna Be, was released. A friend in youth group somehow obtained a cassette tape of the uncensored version of the album. Right before one Wednesday night youth group, my friend flashed the album cover at me from behind his jacket as if he was smuggling crack cocaine. Curious, I was interested to hear what the controversy over the album was all about. So there we were: A litany of profanity and raw sex to a 4/4 beat unlike anything I’d ever experienced started blaring from his sub-woofer … With the windows of his beat-up Ford truck rolled down in the middle of the church parking lot. And then a funny thing happened. I started getting sick to my stomach at the vulgarity of the lyrics and ran away from the truck as fast as my legs could carry me. I believe that the Holy Spirit was convicting me to get out of there. At that point in my life, I had truly tasted God’s love and knew that cassette was a pale imitation of what God desired for my life.

Honestly, I hardly ever listen to secular music anymore. It’s not out of legalism or pride or an attempt to please God … I just don’t have a spiritual appetite for it anymore. I’d much rather listen to a good sermon or worship album. Yes, I’m that crazy guy singing at the top of his lungs and raising his hands in his idling car while the stoplight changes. God has gradually changed my heart and my appetites. My daily desire is to draw closer to Him. As the old hymn goes: “I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.”

Can Christians Use Secular Music Within Worship?:

But there’s a further question: Can Christians use secular music within worship? That’s an easier question to answer. Secular songs used as worship music is a battlefield littered with land-mines and the steaming wreckage of shell-shocked worship leaders. A couple Biblical cautions are pertinent. First, the song must be theologically sound. As Paul warns in 2 Corinthians 11:4, we must be wary of anyone proclaiming a different Christ, Spirit or Gospel than preached in Scripture. If the song has fuzzy theology, might just be about the songwriter’s girlfriend or speaks more of “how I feel” instead of who God is, you’d probably be better off to pick a different song that boldly and clearly expresses the Gospel. Regardless of whether you think “Awake My Soul” by Mumford and Sons is a great song that just so happens to borrow a line from Psalm 57, it is far to ambiguous and open to interpretation to use as an actual worship song. We never want to be unclear about who we worship and why we worship. If you have to bother to ask “Is this song about Jesus,” then that’s probably a red flag.

Second, the song must be spiritually edifying to the entire body of believers (1 Corinthians 14). That song that you sing at the top of your lungs in your car might be best left in your car if no else can figure out the song’s meaning without an exhaustingly long explanation. Never be selfish in your worship. A pastor friend told me about one of his church members who left the congregation confused by singing “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash right before his sermon. Talk about awkward transitions.

But there’s a deeper theological issue regarding secular music in worship. There’s an old theological term that was once used to describe the character of God that we don’t use anymore: Omnificent. It means that God is perfect in His creativity. The omnificent character of God is described best in Psalm 139:13-18, where the Psalmist describes how God knits together each and every one of us. As God laid out the majesty and diversity of the stars and skies, God so created us as His fearful and wonderful handiwork. We worship a God who creative beyond our imagination. If God truly is omnificent, then surely God will inspire believers to craft awe-inspiring artistry that will cause man to lift his eyes to the heavens in wonder. In short, God makes U2 and Dylan look like hacks.

The Reverend Rowland Hill beat Larry Norman by give-or-take a hundred years when he preached in 1844: “The devil should not have all the best tunes.” This line really has nothing to do with rock and roll or pop music (contrary to the Larry Norman song). Here’s the real meaning of Hill’s statement: If God provided members of His church with the spiritual gift of music, then there’s no reason that “Christian” music has to stink worse than a dirty diaper. Our worship should never be based on our own cleverness or relevance for relevance’s sake. Our worship should be based on the Gospel story. Surely our omnipotent God has the power to inspire the human heart to produce great songs that exalt His unchanging goodness and unfailing love. It comes down to the omnificent character of God. Christians don’t really need to lean on the world for music when our God has gifted and inspired believers to craft higher and loftier songs to point to the greatest artist of all time: God Himself.

The question is simply this: Is Christ magnified? If yes, sing it at the top of your lungs with joy and without restraint to the glory of our Lord and King. And let the world shake at the joyful sound it hears.

I Am The Father of a 1st Grader

US-SCHOOL-SHOOTINGI am the father of a 1st grader.

My daughter likes Batman. A lot. She strutted around a glitter-covered Batgirl outfit for the Halloween / Fall Festival season. She got enough Halloween candy that she’s still grazing on her massive haul after Christmastime. She’s got this awkward gap in the front of her mouth where most of her front front teeth have fallen out … And then exchanged for “tooth fairy” money from Mom and Dad. We love hanging out with the other soccer families down at the weekend YMCA games. She can’t stop talking about “that one time I kicked the soccer ball really hard.” She loves dumping Legos all over the floor and using her imagination to build new hideouts for Lego Batman. Not a day goes by without painfully gouging my foot on Legos hidden in the shag carpet. There’s the inexplicable obsession with McDonalds as fine dining. Every night, I turn on her light-up rainbow clock, tuck her into her zebra sheets and pray our nightly prayers: “Now I lay me down to sleep …” She never forgets to pray for her grandmother’s cat, Morris. And then she enthusiastically bounds into my bedroom at the crack of dawn with a huge grin two inches from my face telling me that it’s time for a brand, new day. Who needs an alarm clock?!? There is an unbridled joy, honesty and innocence. I love being the father of a 1st grader … I want to freeze-frame her at this age and keep her from growing up.

I look at the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting, and I see kids just like my precious daughter: Pee-wee sports pictures … Missing front teeth … Goofy smiling faces … Playing with unbridled joy and zest for life. They are little kids just like my daughter. Honestly, it haunts me … I keep thinking that if a shooter somehow broke into the front door of my daughter’s elementary school, my daughter’s classroom is the first one on the right. It makes me want to wrap my arms around my daughter and refuse to let her go.

In the midst of these tragedies, we now become transfixed by the 24-hour news channels, unable to avert our gaze as the horror unfolds across our TV screens. After maybe one day of mourning, the hucksters, pundits and public policy trolls reared their seemingly omniscient heads out of their groundhog holes and began to pontificate on 24 hour cable news about why the Newtown tragedy happened. Theories … solutions … accusations … arguments … rinse … repeat … ad nauseum. Through all of the muckraking, the most offensive thing that I hear during every school tragedy actually comes from the evangelical pundits. There always seems to be some sort of absolutely outrageous equation between the lack of school prayer and school violence. Bryan Fisher of the American Family Association blamed the shooting on the fact that prayer, the Bible and the Ten Commandments are not taught. Fisher went further by stating that God could have protected the Sandy Hook students but “God is not going to go where He is not wanted.” Evangelical pundits always seem to shake their heads at these school tragedies: “If only there were prayer in school …” Similar arguments always seem to trickle down out of Christian social media and in Sunday School classroom hallways. There’s also an awful joke version of this notion floating around the Internet:

Child: “God, why do you allow so much violence in our schools?”

God: “Because I’m not allowed in schools.”

There is an incredibly fine theological line to be walked in this argument (and crude joke) about schools and public prayer. Yes, mankind lives in a fallen and sinful world (Romans 3:10-11, 23-24). All of creation is groaning in frustration and is crying out for restoration from God (Romans 8:22). The wisdom and glory of God has been traded for foolishness, lies and idols (Romans 1:18-25). The effects of sin – including disease, death and all manner of evil – tarnish the glory and goodness of what God has created, and believers long for liberation from the world’s decay and adoption as sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:23-24). In an extraordinarily broad level, all of the ugliness and violence in the world stems from mankind’s rebellion and reticence to surrender to the Lord. On a general level, our failure to pray – including public prayer – demonstrates a lack of confidence in the sovereignty of God. And school shootings are a sign that our world is horribly broken and in need of a Savior to restore, reconcile and heal.

However, attempting to draw a direct correlation between school shootings and lack of public prayer in schools is ridiculous. There is a grave danger in overzealously prognosticating that school shooting are God’s wrath-filled judgment upon lack of public prayer in schools. Just on face value, can we pause and think about how awful the whole premise really sounds? Is God really wagging His finger and chastising us?: “You better publicly pray or God’s gonna allow someone to shoot your kids.” The principal claim that God is allowing little children to be slaughtered because there is no public prayer is flat-out gross. That claim makes me angry, because it is completely without merit or evidence. To make such a declaration requires incredibly specific, mind-reading into the methodology of God worthy of Johnny Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent” routine. How can anyone assume to know the mind of God enough to confidently declare a direct correlation between lack of school prayer and school violence? Has God magically ESPed evangelical 24-hour news pundits a special e-mail proclaiming that the violence in Newtown is His judgment upon lack of prayer? Such reckless comments are on par with Jerry Falwell declaring that 9-11 was God’s judgment upon pagans, feminists, abortionists and homosexuals. Or Pat Robertson correlating the recent Haitian earthquake to some historically dubious Satanic hokum. Or anything related to Westboro Baptist Church. Definitively making a declaration that a bunch of 1st graders were shot multiple times due to a lack of public prayer is just plain reckless, unfathomably wrong and – in particular – unhelpful to those grieving.

The claim is also a hideous affront to the immutable character of God. Can the omnipresence of God actually be hindered by whether or not we pray? No! God is present at all places at all times. It’s theologically audacious and just flat-out WRONG to claim that God’s presence can be expelled from a particular location! Consider Proverbs 15:3: “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” Or Jeremiah 23:24: “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.” And especially Psalms 139:7-10:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?

Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light about me be night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is bright as the day,

for darkness is as light with you.

It’s equally as wrong to claim that God withdraws His presence when people refuse to pray. God is not a magic genie that we summon and push around to do our bidding. If God truly is omnipotent, then He remains present in our schools regardless our public prayer life. If there is public prayer, He is there. If there is no public prayer, no barred door or the mightiest set of locks could keep God out. From the joyous to the sorrowful to the horrific, God is always present … God is there. You cannot kick God out of anywhere. And God will never leave or forsake those that believe in Him … Throughout the power of the Holy Spirit, He is always present in the life of the believer (Matthew 28:18-20).

But – for the sake fully debunking this awful theory – let’s make this incredibly personal. My wife and I made the decision to send our pastor’s kid to public school. We strongly believe that Christians are called to be salt and light in the public school system and not to withdraw our children from our public schools (but that’s another blog for another time). My daughter prays with me several times per day at home and at church. One of the deacons at my church teaches at my daughter’s school, and I am confident that he prays throughout the day. I have been able to interact with many other Christians at my daughter’s school, and I’m confident that many of them pray at home and at their place of worship. So my daughter, my church family and other Christians are going to get shot and killed when they voluntarily pray at home or at church instead of perfunctorily pray in their schools? So praying some sort of rote formal prayer is going to appease the wrath of God from thundering down on my child’s school building? How does that make the one true and living God any better than any whiny emo kid or some archaic Mayan god that child sacrifices are offered to? The believer’s prayer is effective because of the mediatory work of Christ – not because a prayer is mechanically recited by an appointed person in a specific location.

In contrast to the public prayer argument, we do find violence in places where God clearly IS “allowed.” Let’s not forget the 1999 shooting at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX, where 7 people were killed in the church sanctuary. Let’s not forget the 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, PA, where 5 young children were killed. This year, a man walked into a suburban Atlanta megachurch and shoot the man who was leading the church prayer service. Yes … Shootings are happening throughout America in places where people routinely pray. Praying Christians are not immune to cancer, illness, natural disasters and death. Suffering happens to praying, Bible-believing Christians.

In the face of awful tragedy, we should be reticent to cling to reductionistic easy answers. It’s too easy of an answer to say that God is good to us when we are good to Him. And that God punishes us when we are unfaithful to him. That’s not the Gospel … That’s not grace. The Gospel says that Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). God is good to us even when we turn our back to Him. And, furthermore, Godly Christians with a healthy prayer life suffer every day. Consider Job, who was blameless in God’s sight but lost his entire world: children, household, health and possessions. Consider Elijah, who stuck his neck out for God but spent a good portion of his ministry on the run from a death sentence. Consider Jeremiah, who pretty much angered everyone no matter what he said and was depressed to the point of death. Consider Ezekiel, who endured ridicule and public humiliation for the sake of God’s message. Consider Paul, who was routinely thrown in jail and beaten by mobs because he was openly preaching the Gospel. And consider Jesus, who was God in human flesh but willingly endured the agony of the cross. There is no direct correlation with our good behavior and our suffering (or lack thereof). If God was good to those who prayed, then there are a whole bunch of cancer survivors in my church who are currently getting a raw deal from God.

Don’t get me wrong: I fully believe in the power of prayer. I have witnessed God healing, reconciling, restoring and providing hope in direct response to prayer. I believe that God is sovereign, living and active, inclining to hear the prayer of the believer (1 John 5:14). I believe that Jesus mediates on behalf the believer (1 Timothy 2:5). I believe that the Holy Spirit helps the believer pray in our weakness (Romans 8:26). I believe that parents (especially fathers) should be taking personal responsibility for teaching their children about God, prayer and the Gospel – instead of abdicating this important responsibility to schools (public or private), youth ministers, children’s ministers or church staff (Ephesians 6:4). And I fully advocate for the right of believers to be able to pray on public property. Yep … Prayer works.

And we should sincerely pray. Not out of pity, politics or personal gain … But in the anguishing cry of a child in desperate need of the one true healing Father. The Sandy Hook shootings reinforce for me that we live in an evil world clamoring for the grace of a just and good God. In response to the Sandy Hook shootings, we should pray that God would wrap His strong, healing arms around victim’s families and the Newtown community in this time of horrible loss. We should pray that God would be glorified and that He would draw people closer Him in the midst of the tragedy. We should pray that people throughout our communities would be drawn into a personal relationship with Jesus. We should pray that God would protect our beautiful 1st graders and prevent malicious people from doing them harm. We should pray that God would give us clarity and understanding in confusing times. And we should pray that Christ would return soon to finish His work of restoration.

So let’s pray without ceasing … And demonstrate the love of Christ to our 1st graders.