Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What Matters

I finished my last blog post with the question, “What types of things are we planting in our hearts? I want to pick up where the last blog left off (please read the last one if you haven’t already). But first I want to modify the metaphor from farming to gardening since the analogy of gardening refines farming to a more intimate endeavor than planting crops while also expanding the scope of what grows. Gardening can encompass everything from spice (herbs), to sustenance (vegetables / fruit) to beauty (flowers). This analogy helps point us to what we humans really need - a heart that will sustain us, that will bear the fruit of creativity and passion, and happiness. Using the analogy of gardening I want to grapple with the question of what we really want to grow in our hearts and then how we can structure our lives to be environments of growth for these desires.

In the second century, Irenaeus wrote “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” In this blog I will be talking of a lot of things that matter in our hearts. Some might notice that God and church are conspicuously absent from the list. I want to clarify from the beginning that I believe that God is the most important thing in my life. However our ability to experience God and give our religious beliefs an authentic expression in the world is directly tied to the way we take care of our lives. I believe that the things that are most important to each of us, the desires at the core of our beings are a gift from God. To give value to these places is not to devalue God but rather to more fully become the human beings that we were created to be.

The first work in tending the garden of our hearts is to identify what we want to grow. All too often we spend our efforts, our time, and resources focused on things that ultimately don’t matter such as what type of car we will drive, where we will live, how big of a house we will live in, how big of a paycheck we can get, etc. The question of what we want to grow in our heart gets us down to what ultimately matters, what is non-negotiable, what desires reside at our core. If we can get past all of the externals and materialism of our world and get in touch with our hearts for a moment we would find that what really matters to us are the more intangible things of life such as authentic relationships, intimacy, family, living a life that counts, making a difference for good in this world, creativity, etc. Like the fruit and vegetables of gardens, these things will nourish and sustain our souls in both high times and hard times if we tend to them as faithful gardeners.

As the lyric of the song “Nobody Number One” by Over the Rhine says, “You can’t put no band aid on this cancer, like a twenty dollar bill for a topless dancer, you need questions forget about the answers…”

The process of gardening starts with questions, not answers.
The first question we gardeners need to ask is about what we want to plant, which can be posed as the question – “What really matters to me?”

Ask yourself,
“What really matters to me?” and follow it up with the question, “How have I been living a life that values these things?”
Go ahead, ask.
These are dangerous questions, but not nearly so dangerous as not asking them.
These are risky questions but not nearly as risky as playing it safe while dying a slow death detached from what matters.

When we ask these questions they wake us up because they begin to shed light on how we have not really been valuing what matters in our lives. It is precisely this undervaluing of what matters to us that causes weeds of resentment spring up in our hearts over time.

But be warned, as soon as you begin to ask these questions, denial wrapped in a list of rationalizations will be the first defense to kick in because we don’t want to face the compromise within our own souls.
The mind will quickly retort with,
“I’m a pretty good person!”
“I do a lot of really good things!”
“I work really hard!”
“I’ve invested a lot of my life to get to this point, this status, this place!”

But the question is not about how good you are, or how good you are doing or even how hard you work or how much you’ve invested. The question is “What matters? And how have you lived your life valuing that?”

And the hardened ground is breaking
And weeds are being uprooted
And this is the beginning of gardening.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Farming or Building?

Several years ago I helped lead a songwriting clinic for a Vineyard youth camp. The focus of the clinic was how to write worship songs. Up until that time I had never really thought too much about how to write a worship song. So the type of songwriting advice I ended up offering had very little to do with the actual mechanics of a song.

My advice for writing a worship song was something like “1. Love God, 2. Love music, 3. Spend time with God with instrument in hand and songs will come forth.” Though my answer was pretty simplistic, it was what seemed to be my experience of writing worship songs. I have matured some in my growth as a musician and songwriter in the years since that clinic yet my initial stance on songwriting remains, though somewhat expanded.

As far as I’m concerned much of the typical advice for writing songs such as crafting catchy choruses, or having good melodic sensibilities, or solid structure—though helpful are not a good place to start. If you start there you may very well write a catchy song but “catchy” doesn’t necessarily mean good (remember advertising jingles are catchy songs that most folks detest, for example- “free credit report dot com”). While there are some common traits of great songs, most songwriters will tell you that the best songs come as gifts—almost like magic. Good songs are the fruit rather that the root, the manifestation rather than the source. The best an aspiring songwriter can do is to set up a situation, a context, a lifestyle, an environment where good songs are likely to be birthed. Now this doesn’t mean that there’s no work in writing a song, it’s just not the type of work that one typically thinks of.

Songwriting is much more related to farming than building.

To make good songs requires the kind of work that a farmer does: clearing the ground, tilling the soil, planting seeds, making sure the ground has water, sunshine, and that weeds are kept out. As for the actual growth of the plant and subsequent fruit, the farmer simply has to trust that the hard work in preparing the environment will end up fostering life.

I share this brief little story because I find that all too often we are looking for tools or techniques to get certain work in our lives done whether songwriting, business, family life or even spirituality when really we ought to be paying more attention to getting the context of our lives right. We must realize that the right thing in the wrong context is the wrong thing.

If we are always building and never farming we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of growth or “life” in our lives. When we find ourselves disconnected from our hearts and our passions, going through the motions, simply trying harder and getting busier won’t do. What needs to happen is that we stop for a moment to begin asking ourselves the types of questions that farmers ask:

How’s the soil?

Are we getting enough sunlight and water?

Are we overgrown with weeds and suffering from neglect?

What types of things are we planting in our hearts?