Monday, February 27, 2017

Thoughts on Silence

I did not get to see the movie Silence but just finished the audiobook. I now understand why many of the people who saw the movie felt a bit conflicted afterward. People are most often drawn to stories in which the conflicts of life are black and white and where the hero, though he may struggle, will prevail in the end. We have an unconscious expectation for every movie to end "and they lived happily ever after." In Silence the real conflict, the major battle, is internal, in the heart, the mind, the seat of faith and trust in the heart of a believer. How does faith remain in the face of great suffering? How can trust and doubt coexist in the same heart? Why does God seem so distant, so silent sometimes? These are the lines of the battle, the space in which religious idealism is tried by fire and famine.
A friend of mine asked me if I enjoyed the book. I replied that enjoy was the wrong term. It was not an enjoyable story but it struck me as more authentic than most, and I am glad to have encountered it. Silence left me with many conflicting thoughts and emotions about my own faith journey. I am thankful for stories like this that do not gloss over the hard questions of faith, God, meaning, and suffering. It is in the conveying of the questions and struggles that I, the reader and the listener, know that I am not alone in my own struggles, questions, and doubts, and that much of the struggle of faith isn't out there but rather in the internal geography of the heart and mind.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How a Match in a Trash Can Led to Musical Inspiration

I am going to do a series of posts about musicians and albums that have inspired me over the years. To kick it off I want to look at musician who has influenced me in a big way over the years… John Scofield.  

I was fourteen years old and doing what fourteen year olds in Midland Texas did for fun, hanging out at Midland Park Mall. Oh, and I had a book of matches. And while walking around with my friends I was striking matches off the book in front of me onto the concrete and into the flower bushes. I didn’t mean anything by it, just goofing off. None of the matches stayed lit for more than a second after hitting the ground except that one that I threw in a trash can. I did not know it stayed lit until a security guard apprehended me and my friends. One thing led to another and I was required to go to teen court where I was sentenced to 6 hours of community service to pay for my crime of unintentional arson. Little did I know at the time but my community service would prove to be a pivotal moment in my musical inspiration.

I served my community service at a local community theater assisting the carpenter who was building sets. He introduced me to the music of John Scofield. I didn’t know much about jazz at the time but this stuff was pretty interesting even if I couldn’t quite appreciate it the way I do now. After serving my time I bought a cassette of Loud Jazz by John Scofield. Loud Jazz was so different from any of the music I was into at that time with lots of complex grooves and Scofield’s quirky melodic runs. 

Fast forward eleven years to 1998 and Scofield released what, to this day, is one of my favorite albums called A Go Go. A Go Go featured Scofield with back up band Medeski, Martin & Wood. A Go Go is a delectable blend of soul, funk and groove. I had never heard of Medeski, Martin & Wood but quickly became a fan. A Go Go is that rare album that is both out there and relatable at the same time. Every member of the band plays their part and has moments where they are shining. I never grow tired of this album. It has influenced me all around from bass grooves to keys, drums, and guitar.

Then in 2009 Scofield did it again with Piety Street, a Gospel Album which featured Scofield backed by Jon Cleary on keys, George Porter on Bass, and Ricky Fataar on drums. This album has become another one of my favorites. One of the highlights of this album for me is Jon Cleary who does lead vocals on many of the songs. Blues, Gospel, Jazz and Country have always seemed much more related than people assume and on this album elements of all three are woven together in a New Orleans gumbo (Piety Street, a Studio in New Orleans from which the album takes its name and where it was recorded). 

There are plenty of other Scofield albums which I enjoy but these three albums have been a special point of inspiration. I am grateful to Scofield for his willingness to push the envelope and to explore different genres. While so many jazz guys just pride themselves on playing outside the box, Scofield manages to play in an expansive way that never lacks in soul and emotional connection.  

I am thankful for that one match in a trash can at the mall that got me in trouble and introduced me to a life long musical influence.

Here are links to the albums mentioned in this blog:
Piety Street

Disclaimer: This article is in no way meant to endorse the throwing of lit matches into public trashcans as good path for musical inspiration. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Omniscient Bearded One We Worship In America Today

Every Christmas season our family will inevitably spend some time watching a few Christmas themed movies such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Die Hard (maybe not a Christmas movie but kind of). However, one of our favorite movies to watch each year is Elf. 
This year when we sat down to watch Elf, I enjoyed it as usual but was also struck by how much the popular view of God in America resembles the way we think of Santa. I know most folks don’t conceive of God as a jolly, old, obese guy in a red suit but many folks do in fact imagine God as an old bearded dude who is cold and distant but powerful nonetheless. 
Think about some of the lyrics we sing about Santa: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake” or “He’s making a list and checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” I think many folks conceive of God in the same way - He has omniscient powers which he uses to tally up the good deeds in our lives and then reward us if our good deeds meet his standard. 
In the movie Elf (spoiler alert) the climactic point of the movie is when Santa has had to make an emergency landing in Central Park because his sleigh’s jet engine has malfunctioned. We learned earlier in the movie that Santa has to use a jet on his sleigh because there has been a decline in Christmas spirit over the years and Christmas spirit (specifically belief in Santa) is what magically powered the sleigh in the old days. So the movie wraps up as the main characters gather on live TV to start singing praise to Santa and stir up their belief and Christmas spirit in order to magically fix the sleigh. And of course you know what happens, everyone joins in and Santa miraculously has the power to continue on his journey of rewarding those on the good list. 
While belief is a powerful thing whether on an individual or social level, why do we so often think that God needs us to believe in him so that he can be empowered to act in our lives or in the world? If that is the case then it doesn’t seem like God is really all that powerful. 
If we really want to know what God is like we need only look at Jesus. Jesus reveals that God is not remote, distant or cold but that he is Emmanuel - God With Us. Jesus reveals that God doesn’t simply bless the good and condemn the naughty but that God loves both extravagantly and generously. Jesus reveals how God’s power is not rooted in violence, intimidation or coercion like that of movers and shakers of our world but is rather humble, vulnerable, merciful, and kind. And when it comes to belief, Jesus reveals that God does not need us to believe in him so he can be powerful but rather invites us to be participants in the very life that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Is God powerful? You bet! But how does God use his power? This is a much more interesting question! We find in Jesus that the power of God is not power over but power under. God’s power is not demonstrated by dominating and controlling, but in humility and serving. As we follow in his footsteps we find the very power of God at work in our lives and relationships with one another. We find that it is truly more blessed to give than to receive, to forgive than to become embittered, to live generously instead of hoarding all that we have, to extend hospitality to those who are different than us rather than to make them enemies or projects, to view people as created in the image of God rather objectifying them. 
I will close with one of my favorite passages from the Bible which reveals not only how different God actually is from the way we typically think but also encourages us to follow his example in our relationships with one another. 
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:1-11)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

I Don't Need

Live from my back porch in Abita Springs. You can find the recorded version of this song on Following Branches Down to the Roots.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Worship, Songwriting and Context

I recently listened to the audiobook How Music Works by David Byrne (former lead singer of Talking Heads). He offered an interesting insight into an aspect of songwriting that most folks don’t pay much attention to on a conscious level - context. He noted that for hundreds of years music in the west was confined to major types of scales because the music was predominately played in the context of Cathedrals with reverb times of 4+ seconds. Major scales would ensure that there would be no dissonance, no clashing notes. As a result we in the west have come to associate certain types of music that follow that type of approach as sounding “spiritual”, though for those in Africa or Asia “spiritual” sounding music would sound very different (there would be no sentimentality towards major scales with reverb). Byrne notes how when the Talking Heads first started making music in the mid seventies their regular gig was at CBGB’s, New York City. The club had a much tighter acoustics which in turn influenced how the band both played and wrote songs (early Talking Heads music was very tight and uncluttered sonically).   

I think David Byrne is on to something here. As I reflect on my own journey of songwriting I can see how I have both written songs from and for a certain context and how I have also written songs for an imagined context. The first Delirious album that really moved me in a powerful way was Live and In the Can. I remember watching videos of the band from that era playing in front of thousands in Wimbly Stadium, London. It was like a full on stadium rock concert but it was worship! I remember how that influenced the way I had been writing songs a bit, though at the time I was unaware on a conscious level. I began writing songs with more driving beats and bigger choruses (the kinds that thousands could sing in unison like at a U2 concert). I could imagine thousands of people singing these choruses in unison and it was glorious (at least in my mind). I think what I was experiencing was actually pretty common among worship leaders and songwriters at the time.

Though I have only been a part of the Vineyard (at least attending Vineyard churches) since 2002 I can see how context has been a part of the songwriting process since the beginning. I suspect that one of the reasons Vineyard was on the forefront of worship led on acoustic guitars had to do with the contexts of home groups, coffee houses, and small churches in the mid to late 70s. Then as Wimber began doing many more conferences the sound of Vineyard worship music began to get bigger to match the venues. The rise of megachurches and huge conferences across the country has had a major influence on the types of songs written and sung in churches for the last 20 years. I figure that most of the top worship songs today are probably written for a context of thousands singing in a large venue. While there is nothing wrong with writing songs with large venues in mind, I have, on occasion, experienced the frustration of doing anthemic rock worship songs in an early morning service of 20 people and seen them go over like a turd in a punch bowl. 

The church I pastor recently began having two Sunday gatherings which meant that our crowd of 100-140 adults has been roughly split in half (actually we have had a drop in overall attendance since we went to 2 services). The energy in the room has been noticeably lower which effects not only crowd participation but even the energy of the band a bit. So in thinking through these concepts a bit I emailed the worship team the other day saying that for the next month (at least) we will try and lead worship that takes our current context into consideration a bit more. For the next month we will be doing songs on mainly acoustic instruments (no electric guitars, keyboards or drum sets). This will force us towards simpler arrangements and less dynamics in the sound but will also connect in what I envision as a more intimate way of worship for our more intimate context. I think this could be a way of incarnation ministry, stepping into the community to serve folks where they are rather than imposing something that doesn’t quite fit. I am looking forward to how we can sing and write songs with our new context in mind so as to engage the community in a fresher way. I will update everyone on how this goes in a few weeks.

A couple of questions:
How have you experienced leading songs that didn’t fit the context of the space/community you were leading in worship?

For those who are songwriters, how do you think context has influenced the songs you have written?