A Praise and Worship Jubilee

A Praise and Worship Jubilee

PARADIGM SHIFT: Jason Nelson and company during the live recording of 'Shifting the Atmosphere.'

In an endless sea of new music, sometimes it’s easy to put your ears on autopilot and just allow one song to blend into another, one artist into the next. That would be a mistake with the music of pastor and worship leader Jason Nelson. Nelson’s new CD, Shifting the Atmosphere, recorded live in Baltimore, Maryland, is a 12-track gift of praise and worship that you don’t want to consign to that “generic music” category.

A Baltimore native, Nelson understands his music ministry as a “complement to his pastoral assignment” at the Greater Bethlehem Temple Church in Randallstown, Maryland. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that he participates within the worship moment he facilitates for others. At unpredictable moments, he slips into an intimate interval of thanksgiving or a vulnerable profession of love for God. The earnestness of such moments gives credibility to Nelson’s project. Witnessing his “shift” from the posture of worship leader to worshiper invites the listener to undergo a similar internal transition.

The new album has a taut feel — there are no throwaway tracks. Nelson comments on this dynamic, stating that he “worked hard to put together a CD with no fillers.” Each song advances the theme of shifting the atmosphere. “Don’t Count Me Out” is a hopeful affirmation, rooting positive expectation in the conviction that because God doesn’t count us out, neither should we count ourselves out. “No Words” merits special mention. The song elegantly captures an enduring paradox of faith: no concepts adequately describe God’s grandeur, yet we must speak to give voice to the hope of glory that lies within us. “Dominion” is another standout. It acknowledges that external conditions impact our lives, but denies that such circumstances exhaustively determine our lives. Finally, I must note that midway through the project, the listener is treated to a resplendent rendition of the hymn “Love Lifted Me.”

Months ago, I heard Mr. Nelson perform “Jubilee,” one of the album’s opening songs, at Allen Cathedral. He introduced the song by explaining the biblical tradition of Jubilee. Nelson mentioned that Jubilee represents a communal announcement of liberation: forgiving debts, returning land to its original holders, and setting the captives free. Next, he transitioned into a personal — and soul-stirring — appropriation of that tradition with a song of empowerment in the midst of impediments to fulfilling God’s purposes for our lives.

Calling his family his “greatest accomplishment,” Nelson speaks proudly of his wife  Tonya and their children, Jaelyn and Jason Christopher. A skilled singer-songwriter, he composed the majority of the songs on Shifting the Atmosphere. Shifting is an engaging, well-executed, and uplifting album. The Verity Records project was released earlier this week. I wholeheartedly recommend the album to music lovers everywhere, particularly those who appreciate contemporary gospel music.

Check out a recent interview with Pastor Nelson below:

A Lament for Trayvon Martin

A Lament for Trayvon Martin

On Sunday, February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man, argues that he was acting in self-defense. Incredibly, Mr. Zimmerman has not yet been arrested. However, due to the organizing efforts of his parents, civil rights groups, MSNBC shows, and concerned citizens, the latest racialized miscarriage of our criminal justice system is now getting the widespread attention that it deserves. On Monday, March 20th, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are embarking upon an independent investigation into the causes and circumstances of Mr. Martin’s death. Many important commentaries have been written on the death of Trayvon Martin: in particular, Mark Jefferson’s piece on the Urban Cusp merits special attention.

My aim in writing about Mr. Martin emerges from a threefold motivation. First, Christians ought to publicly lament when a young black man receives a death-dealing blow — or in this case, gunshot — due to an unjustifiable use of force. The occasion for lament intensifies when one considers that local law enforcement, as of today, has not yet arrested Mr. Zimmerman. This apparent disregard for one of our most cherished legal precepts — equal justice under the law — is a principal reason why Mr. Martin’s family, along with hundreds of thousands of citizens across this nation, are protesting and petitioning on behalf of Trayvon Martin. While all of the relevant facts of the situation are not in, it seems highly probable that engaging an unarmed teenager with deadly force will exceed any legal appeal to self-defense. Lament, as Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann notes, is a profound, prophetic indication that something is out of joint socially — a visible acknowledgement that God’s just and peaceable dream of shalom has been shattered in the world. Speaking frankly, a multiracial lament concerning the murder of Mr. Martin might help reduce the cynicism many black and brown Christians harbor about where racial justice stands within evangelical movements for racial reconciliation.

Second, Mr. Martin’s parents have started a petition that merits signing. I encourage you to read about the particulars of his case and consider offering your support.

Thirdly, if you reside in the Greater New York City area, I invite you to attend “A Million Hoody March,” which will be held at Union Square starting this evening at 6 o’clock. The hoody signifies Mr. Martin’s article of clothing at the time of his death.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, the moral arc of Florida’s criminal justice system is bending towards injustice. We can, if we will, play a part in tilting it towards justice.

Click here to read and sign the petition demanding that justice be done in the Trayvon Martin case.

Obama’s Contraceptive Correction

Obama’s Contraceptive Correction

COURSE CORRECTION: President Obama and Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during their Feb. 10 announcement of a compromise on the contraception mandate. The compromise was a response to the concerns of religious organizations that believe contraceptives violate their religious faith. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Newscom)

Last week, President Obama, along with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, unveiled a compromise agreement for implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). The president, of course, had been getting hammered by both his political friends and foes following a decision to not exempt faith-based organizations (other than houses of worship) from a condition in his healthcare reform requiring employers to cover their employees’ contraception costs.

The Obama administration claims that the compromise balances “individual liberty” and “basic fairness.” Individual liberty here refers specifically to religious liberty claims, especially those made by religiously affiliated organizations like Catholic Charities, hospitals, and universities. Basic fairness, by contrast, signifies groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-choice America, and other advocates who argue that a woman’s wellbeing hinges upon access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare, including contraception. The latter group further maintains that access to such care reduces health-care costs. Opponents generally concede the cost point, but balk at the idea that religious employers should be legally required to pay for or directly provide contraceptive services, an activity which contradicts papal doctrine within the Catholic Church.

President Obama’s compromise predictably attempts to solidify support from progressive Catholics and blunt the “war on religion” critique of political conservatives. Yet another question remains: how did Obama, who received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, so thoroughly misjudge the objections of his supporters, particularly Catholic ones?

One possible account is that Obama failed to gauge the consequences of implementing ACA based on a narrow definition of religious employers. Justice in healthcare markets is not simply a question of who gets coverage, of what sort, and who pays for it. It’s also about the moral significance and legal scope of religious exemptions from mandates within ACA. Under what circumstances are religious groups exempt from laws which bind other organizations? More pointedly, what exactly constitutes a religious employer?

Does it refer exclusively to houses of worship or are religiously affiliated colleges, universities, and social service agencies included? The Obama administration chose the “house of worship” definition, presumably thinking they arranged an acceptable balance between liberty and fairness. The immediate and intense response to their decision convinced the administration that their restrictive definition was perceived not as an attempt to ensure that all recipients of taxpayer dollars play by the same rules, but as an attempt to force religiously affiliated employers to pay for coverage that violates their religious convictions.

I doubt that the administration intentionally sought to marginalize religious liberty in implementing the new healthcare law. Obama, after all, is a Christian who, as he notes, started working in Chicago as a community organizer, paid by the Catholic Church to mobilize Catholic parishes. It would seem odd to undermine the religious liberty of the organization which helped refine his sense of public service.

Nevertheless, the administration apparently neglected to sufficiently consult the fragile coalition that made his ACA possible in the first place — one thinks of Catholic Health United, columnists like the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, and others.

In 2008, President Obama campaigned as an individual change agent who could transform partisan politics and the machinery of public administration. The reality is that, more often than not, politics is a reactive enterprise of elected officials issuing then clarifying public statements; implementing laws, then revising that process in response to organized money, organized people, and organized voices.

Obama initially struck the wrong balance between religious liberty and access to preventive healthcare, giving due attention to the latter principle and insufficient attention to the former. To his credit, he listened and corrected his misjudgment.

When the government upholds an important principle and simultaneously shortchanges the civil right to freely exercise religion, it is the responsibility of religious groups to petition the government for a redress of grievances. That responsibility, after all, is also a civil right.

Left, Right, and Christ

Left, Right, and Christ

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.

A Time to ‘Occupy’?

A Time to ‘Occupy’?

SEIZING THE NATIONAL MOMENT: Thousands marched to NYC's Times Square last month in support of Occupy Wall Street movement. (Photo by Mata Edgar/Newscom)

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On a cold Monday morning, I ran across the foregoing quote at Zuccotti Park, ground zero of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a scene. The general assembly regularly convenes forums, teach-in sessions, and conversations on topics like economic theory and social movements.

The emergence of Occupy Wall Street, along with the continued thrust of the Tea Party, signifies an intensity of citizen engagement that many Americans have not seen in decades. These civic currents also illustrate that some things — tax policy, the distribution of economic productivity, and the expenditures of government among them — are worth debating and dramatizing in public.

More ominously, the vigorous extraparliamentary movement from the left and the right is a populist indictment of our legislative branch — an indicator that many citizens are incensed about the inefficient impasse of lawmaking in Washington. I found it striking to witness a group of people bearing the elements night and day to make a political point. Occupy Wall Street, to be sure, is an act of political theater, but it is also a display of asceticism in the service of communicating a point of view.

Regardless of our socioeconomic views, Occupy Wall Street invites us to express our convictions more consistently, and when deemed appropriate to do so sacrificially. Very little mention of sacrifice and struggle occurs in our churches. In the words of Martin Luther, many of our pulpits have exchanged a theology of the cross for a theology of glory, a strange pattern of speech that rarely mentions disease, death, and despair.

When is the last time your church spoke about something penultimate that mattered? Churches can and should speak of ultimate matters — life and death, sin, and salvation, creation and consummation. But what of penultimate things? Shouldn’t churches offer words of wisdom and love here as well — “on earth as in heaven”?

Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint Church in Atlanta who preached a series on greed and the Great Recession, argues that churches should converse about issues that grip the nation. Occupy Wall Street meets that standard.

The life of the church may not end when we are silent about things that matter, but it is certainly impoverished. There is, of course, a time to be silent. But, as even the most casual Bible reader knows, there is also a time to speak.