Category Archives: theology

Strive for Excellence – Really?

I cringe every time  hear someone use the phrase, “strive for excellence”, when discussing the theatrical components of church services. I don’t know what folks mean when they say it. I don’t even know what I personally understand when I hear it.  Excellence can mean so many different things.

One use of ‘excellence’ highlights mechanical sophistication.  This use judges a  poorly read Shakespearean sonnet to third graders more excellent than a perfectly read rendition of an old “Sally, Dick, and Jane” primer.  I doubt the third graders would agree. But, it has some validity. A piece of art can stand on its own without any consideration of a particular audience’s capacity to understand it. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring triggered a riot at its first performance. However, it was, and still is, a great piece of art. Bach’s wife sold some of his manuscripts as scrape paper because she, nor his contemporaries, valued his genius. Their ignorance did not flaw a single fugue. Great art isn’t made great art by popular acclamation.

However, we see a tension between sophistication and target audience in the Bible. For example, the new testament was written in Koine Greek which was the written style of the common masses instead of one of the more academic styles, such as Ionic, used by Homer and Herodotus.  Paul even plainly stated that he, “came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

So, although structural sophistication is a form of excellence, we cannot use it as a goal for church theatrics. I am not saying that all theatrics in church should be simple to the point of stupidity. There is a place in the harvest field for men like C. S. Lewis, Victor Hugo, G. K. Chesterton, J. S. Back, Soren Kierkegard, George Herbert, and Frederic Hart.  Some need the intellectual stimulation of thoughtful seed but the masses only miss the pearl of great price if it is wrapped in a pretentious package. Go ye unto ALL the world. That is why it is fine that most sermons are on an eighth grade level and wall music is below most pop music standards. Most services should target the lowest common denominator.

So what do we mean by excellence? Many confuse accuracy and excellence. They mean they are striving to sing on pitch, quote scripture correctly, and use proper grammar. That is a good goal and we could build a biblical argument for it. “And if there be any blemish therein, as if it be lame, or blind, or have any ill blemish, thou shalt not sacrifice it unto the LORD thy God.” (Deuteronomy 15:21). However, many good commentaries discuss the relative quality of the greek grammar of books in the new testament. The amanuenses, the scribes taking dictation from the apostles, had varying grammatical skill. Some of the books even contain obvious grammatical errors.  Thus, accuracy, while a good goal, is not the mark we need to hit.

Can we say a perfect reading of “Sally, Dick, and Jane” is more excellent than a sonnet reading that has a stumble? Which would you rather hear after elementary school graduation? Substance matters. Being engaged by the material matters.

Have you ever heard a music box? It sounds mechanical because it is 100% accurate. It has no soul.  In fact, the only pop music I like is slightly flawed. I like Willy Nelson because he is out-of-step and I like Bob Dylan because he is slightly off-key. I hate the bland perfection of American idol contestants because it is mere mindless perfection. I love Van Gogh because his paintings are not a Polaroid.   It is said that, “Art imitates life”  but it shouldn’t be a brainless carbon copy.

I like the ancient Greek concept of Arete. Excellence is intimately bound to purpose and function.  Using that standard to judge excellence in the house of God, we look at the true goal of the activity. A sermon is excellent if the target audience is engaged and understand. Who cares if the Illuminati thought it was brilliant? Music is excellent if the entire congregation is engaged and participating in worship. Who cares if they are entertained with a ‘professional’ performance? The entire assembly should sing to themselves in spiritual songs. That is not an audience. The apostle Paul spoke of building the church with wood, hay, stubble, and gold. Entertainment is stubble. Facilitating a heart of worship in the house of God is eternal gold.

— Donnie Bryson

The righteous red-headed priest

Vivaldi – Gloria

Antonio Vivaldi is my hero. Not so much for his music but his life. His music is okay but it can become a little old after awhile. In the words of Liszt, Vivaldi wrote a great concerto — seven hundred times. His music sounds too homogeneous. But, there may be a very good reason for it.

My hero, who was also a priest, ministered for a good portion of his adult life at the Ospedale della Pieta.  It was a home for orphaned and abandoned girls. It also had music school for them. That was the main reason the church sent it Vivalid, one of the best composers of the day. The Red Priest (Tony’s nickname) would write his concerti for whichever instrument played  by the best soloist de jeur.  His compositions were very functional. It was created for a very specific purpose. Provide a series of notes to challenge her the same way the previous music challenged the girl before her. I think the single purpose gives the concerti their too common thread.

What a righteous reason for his presumed flaw. Providing an opportunity for some young girl that had lost her parents through death or circumstance. That is why he is my hero. That is why I can forgive him for writing the same great concerto seven hundred times. He took his art and used it for its greatest good — to enrich the lives of children that have been marginalized and forgotten.  What a great way to spend the token of talent the Lord put in his pocket.

— Donnie Bryson

God and the MacGyver Method

God has been good to me because I get to do something that I love for my daily bread. I am a professional software engineer, architect, and inventor. I have been doing it for over 25 years. I have worked on a multitude of systems and used more computer programming languages that I can remember. My choice of system and language was almost always dictated by what I had available. If I could access the system and it had any tools on it then I could eventually achieve the customer’s business goal.

However, different systems have different quirks and strengths. The same can also be said of programming languages. Some tools make it easy to execute mathematical calculations yet very hard to perform database operations. Some are good at both but very hard to program on-the-fly. Some are easy to program on-the-fly yet it is nearly impossible to manipulate graphics with the language.

I am no different than any other professional in a hundred different trades. Any professional takes the tools available to him and creates some acceptable solution that is flavored by his choice of tools. His expression of the solution would have been different with different tools available. In other words, the tools flavor the solution but do not deter from the goal. There is a little MacGyver in any experienced professional.

It hit me today that God does the same thing with us. He has a goal in our church, our community, our nation, and our world. He looks at the tools that He has at His fingertips that are ready and willing. One tool doesn’t have to be like another tool. The solution will not be the same when He uses one tool instead of another. But, God is a master craftsman that can craft a solution to achieve His goal with whatever He finds at His fingertips.

— Donnie Bryson

What’s in your hand Moses?

Exodus 4:2  And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod.

Moses had been working the flocks of Jethro for forty years. He was familiar with the staff. The shepherd’s staff was a general all purpose tool in his profession. It could be used as a weapon, a walking aid, or a gentle snare for the wondering lamb. But it was only a long curved stick used in a profession that was detestable to the Egyptians. But, what miracles God worked through that simple stick. It became a serpent before Pharaoh.  The Nile became blood when Moses struck the river with it. The stretched out rod brought frogs across the land. The rod struck the ground and brought forth lice. The rod brought down thunder and hail with fire running along the ground. The stretched out rod brought locust. The lifted rod and outstretched arm parted the Red Sea and made a way for the children of Israel to escape.

But it was only a common tool of his trade — nothing more, nothing less. God met Moses in Jethro’s fields and asked a terse question, “What is in your hand?” Then He took Moses where He found him and transferred that simple tool into the famous symbol of the Exodus with awesome unction from the throne of God. All it took was the courage of Moses to follow his calling back to the land of captivity to led his brothers out — with his tool in his hand.

God calls each of us where He finds us. He finds us with one simple tool or another. What power He can infuse with His holy unction. Listen to His voice.  What is in your hand?

— Donnie Bryson

House Mouse and the Classical Guitar

I was in the kitchen this morning practicing my latest guitar creation. Wish I could figure out why I only write guitar music that I can barely play. Anyway, that’s a topic for a different time. On to our point for today. We have a few house mice that are thankfully thinning out. I heard one of the survivors scampering in the corner while I played this morning. It brought to my mind one of the dumbest things I ever tried to sell to my wife.

We had only been married a few months. I was in the room next to our bedroom playing my classical guitar. These were the days when I was really a classical guitarist — footstool, no position dots on the neck, left hand fingers perfectly perpendicular to the fretboard, and fingers as close as possible to the strings.

I was playing my heart out — pling, pling, whoosh … pling, pling, pling, whoosh. My ear only heard the plings. My brain subconsciously edited the “whoosh” sound that my fingers were making as I changed positions on the neck of the guitar. Lindy, who was half-asleep in the next room, heard the whoosh sound and yelled, “Donnie, there is a mouse in the house!”  After fifteen minutes we figured out that the mysterious whoosh was only the sound of changing positions on the neck of the guitar.

Here comes the classic donnieism — I attempted to convince Lindy that “whoosh” sounds were only the sign of my great classical guitar technique. Expert fingers are suppose to stay close to the strings and naturally that causes  the “whoosh” sound. Believe me, that was hard to sell with a straight face.

That’s so funny.  But aren’t we Pentecostals doing the same thing? We take our children to kids camp, let them romp and stomp with the church youth group, and politely lay hands on them and listen to their fervent testimony when they come back from camp. Then we watch them leave the church in droves at 21.

We lie to ourselves and say it is because we are standing for the truth, the old-fashioned way, righteousness … you fill-in the blanks. But, we are lying to ourselves. Young adults have stood for the truth, they have stood for the faith once delivered to the saints, and they have stood for righteousness. Young adults are not allergic to God. Righteous young men and young women of long ago prove it. However, our young adults are simply sick of watching us play church.

Ichabod, ichabod, the glory has departed.   We must get our anointing back. We don’t need slick, we need sanctification. We don’t need a program, we need power. We don’t need a fresh course, we need sweaty-palm Holy Ghost conviction.

In a nutshell. We need to pray through. Our kids need for us to pray through. Our country needs for us to pray through. Our churches need for us to pray through. The night is coming and we need oil in our lamps. The glimmer of the little shiny toys that replaced anointing oil years ago has no light within itself. We need the anointing oil from the hand of the Master to the light the way in the darkness.

My Lord and my God, let a revival start and let it start with me!

— Donnie Bryson

Why this preacher promotes poetry

Originally printed in the Lookout Valley Informer

This is the sixth year that I have sponsored a Christian poetry contest. Every year I answer the same question – “Why is a preacher sponsoring a poetry contest?” The answer is simple. All art, but poetry especially, is important in the army of God. There are three reasons why art is so important.

First, poetry is a way to get the message out to folks that may not otherwise hear it. Millions have heard the gospel from Milton’s pen that would never have heard it apart from Paradise Lost. By the way, quality is the key to opening those doors. C. S. Lewis believed that the world does not need more Christian writers; the world needs more good writers that are Christians. The best fishermen use the tastiest bait.

Second, art is a way to sugarcoat a tough message without compromising. It isn’t obvious sometimes in our English Bible, but much of the Old Testament prophecy books are poetry. The poetic rebuke of the prophets helped “the medicine go down.” The rebuke of the prophet Nathan to King David in II Samuel 12 is the best example of artistic sugarcoating in the Bible. Kings in biblical times had absolute authority to both kill the innocent and forgive the guilty. Nathan had the uncomfortable job of rebuking his absolute monarch for killing committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband to hide the sin. He tells the king a little story about two men – one rich and selfish and one poor and abused. The extended metaphor that God gave Nathan probably made the difference between a stoned prophet and a repentant King.

Third, art forces the artist, performer, and audience to meditate on the things of God while they experience art. I have found three primary ways to mediate on God over the last thirty years – theologically which is mainly a mental process, prayerfully which is mainly a spiritual process, and artistically which is mainly an emotional process. Praying and reading your Bible is great, but using only two legs of that three-legged tripod makes a wobbly Christian. The Psalmist said, “O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD, all the earth.” (Psa 96:1) Praise God with your mind, your heart, and your spirit.

— Donnie Bryson

Purpose, Process, and Product The three P’s of Gospel Music

Originally printed in the Lookout Valley Informer

I often hear fans talk about Gospel music without any reference to the Word of God. That shouldn’t be. Many Bible verses apply to Gospel music either directly or indirectly. Let me demonstrate by considering just three aspects of Gospel music – purpose, process, and product.

Purpose. Gospel music, more than any other type, is music with a purpose. Its purpose is to praise God and to preach the Gospel. Read Psalm 150. It lists every major type of musical instrument – strings, percussion, woodwinds, and brass. After naming all the major types of instruments, it ends with, “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.” Gospel music gives every instrument made by man and every voice in our race the vehicle to obey the command – “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.”

Preaching is the other main purpose of Gospel music. We are still preaching even when we are holding a guitar. The Psalms were originally sung. Also, most Bible scholars, while we cannot prove it, believe a large portion of the prophetic books were originally songs. Think back. The most important concluding point of many Sunday morning sermons was a dear old choir singing “Just as I am.”

Process. Our process should produce the best we have to offer to the Lord. The Old Testament uses the phrase ‘without blemish’ (Ex. 12:5, Lev 1:3, etc.) nearly every time it refers to any offering made to God. We should bring the first fruits of our labor and present it to our Lord (Ex. 23:16), not throw Him the leftovers that we can’t sell in the open market. Please don’t misunderstand me. God wants our best. However, one person’s best may naturally be better than another. On my best day I sing worse than my wife on her worse. The Lord doesn’t hold it against me. I just owe God my personal best – not the best in the world or even better than the pretty young lady standing next to me in church.

Product. After all the gear is loaded in the bus and the last halleluiah has been shouted, we should be able to say with Paul that we were, “determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). The product of Gospel music is the simple message of the cross. The music portion of Gospel music is really just the package. The message is the product we are selling. The message is everything.

— Donnie Bryson