Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top 9 of Oh Nine

#1 Best Albums
1. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
- Most refreshing approach to song-writing and performance I've heard in years. Sticks with you in a good way.
2. The Swell Season – Strict Joy There aren't quite the standout songs on this one as on the movie soundtrack for "Once" that made this lineup famous but nonetheless this is a beautiful album.
3. John Scofield - Piety Street Renown Jazz guitarist puts together a lineup of amazing New Orleans musicians for an album of gospel songs done in a classical New Orleans style with elements of blues, funk, and other roots music. I don't know why it took so long for this to happen but I like the result.
4. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend (I know this one came out in '08 but I came across it in '09). These Ivy league musicians sing about alot of things which I can't relate to like stuff related to going to a Ivy League schools, but it doesn't matter because they do it so well with their unique blend of Afro-Caribbean music.
5. U2 – No Line On the Horizon Not my favorite U2 album but certainly better than their last. There are some real standout tracks on here such as Magnificent, Breathe, Moment of Surrender, and Stand Up Comedy.

#2 Best Movies
1. Where the Wild Things Are
- Spike Jonze put together a brilliant film here. Definitely not a film for kids though it taps into the feelings of alienation and loneliness of children in our modern world like no other film I've seen.
2. Invictus Yet another example that great stories make great movies (something that many in Hollywood seem to have forgotten). This story of Nelson Mandela and the South African rugby team is a compelling picture of character, forgiveness, and leadership in trying times and how something as simple as a sports team can rally a nation in a positive direction.
3. Up - Pixar did it again, and are we surprised. How many times do you watch an animated film that makes you cry. Pixar is such an example of a production company that does the fundamentals well like story telling, plot development, and acting while not getting lost in the extravagancies of the medium. Oh, and by the way they still do animation better than anyone out there.
4. District 9 A refreshing contribution to the genre of sci-fi alien films. This is not your parents alien film. District 9 turns the whole genre upside-down with aliens who are weak, stranded far from their home, and many of which who are becoming addicted to substances on earth. The exploration of what happens filmed in kind of a documentary style really works. You will either love this movie or hate it. I thought it was quite creative myself.
5. 500 Days of Summer Dina and I went to see this movie after walking out of Funny People (a movie that was anything but funny). I don't know why this movie didn't make a bigger splash because it was such a different take on the classic romantic comedy and it was done with such creativity and spirit.

#3 Movies I Think Would Have Made My “Best Of” List Had I Seen Them Yet
1. Crazy Heart
2. The Informant
3. Inglourious Basterds
4. Sherlock Holmes
5. Avatar

#4 Music I am Ashamed to Say I Liked in 2009
Black Eyed Peas
– As much as I’ve tried to resist I am weak when it comes to “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Got a Feeling”. A guilty pleasure.

#5 Most Obnoxious Song of 2009
Baby Are You Down, Down, Down, Down, Down (otherwise known as simply “Down”) by Jay Sean (unfortunately the best lyrics are the chorus). This song is a form of pop music terrorism. My wife has tortured me with this song for months now and it has such a sticky chorus that once heard will be stuck as a loop in my mind for the rest of the day. I am actually in danger of getting it stuck in my head just by writing this (but isn’t that just what terrorism is all about!)

#6 Best Culinary Discovery of 2009
Chocolate Covered Bacon

#7 Best Books of 2009
1. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years – Donald Miller
2. Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
3. Not The Religious Type – Dave Schmelzer
4. Myth of a Christian Religion – Greg Boyd
5. Christianity Beyond Belief – Todd Hunter

#8 Best Books I Haven’t Finished Reading
1. Justification – N.T. Wright

I started this book months ago and have found it a great read in small doses. I’m very close to finishing it. Maybe in another 6 months.
2. Musicophelia - Oliver Sacks

#9 Best Concert - The Swell Season, House of Blues, New Orleans I didn’t get to catch Jazz Fest this year or U2 but I did get to catch another Irish band that put on an incredible concert. The Swell Season puts on a concert not to be missed – full of great songs, passion, and heart, not to mention some fine covers of Van Morison and other Louisiana classics.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lead Us Not Into Temptation...

I’ve been praying and pondering the line from the Lord’s prayer – “Lead us not into temptation” quite a bit lately.

Most of the time when I have thought of this line from the Lord’s Prayer I have tended to think more of the obvious temptations out there like lust, lying or cheating. No doubt these are temptations each of us face daily in a world that is so supersaturated with sex and deceit, but I think there is a scarier type of temptation that we are not typically nearly as wise to.

The Gospel of Matthew records (Matt 4:1-11 ) that just after Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness for a time of fasting, testing and temptation, a time of direct confrontation with Satan himself. What is interesting to me is that Satan didn’t tempt Jesus with the obvious evils of illicit sex, lying, or hedonism but rather he tempted him to use his power as God in a way that was counter to the Father’s plans. Another way of stating this would be that Satan tempted Jesus with autonomy.

First Satan tempts a hungry Jesus (he’d been fasting for forty days) to make bread. This may not seem like that big of a deal. It’s not like Satan was asking Jesus to break any of the ten commandments. Then he goes on to tempt Jesus to prove that he’s really God’s son by jumping off the temple and letting the angels catch him. Again this temptation was not towards anything overtly sinful (anything at least in the books of the law). Then finally Satan tempts Jesus with getting everything he came for – all of the kingdoms of the earth if he would bow down and worship before Satan. Now this temptation was to engage in an activity that would no doubt be considered sinful – worshipping Satan. However, even this temptation was tied into what Jesus came to do. Jesus had come for the very thing that Satan was offering, and Satan was offering the express-line, which didn’t involve the pain of the cross that would await him on his current trajectory.

Philippians 2:5-8 (The Message ) says this,
 1-4If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
 5-8Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. (Philippians 2:4-8, The Message)

You see, Jesus did not use his God-ness as something to be exploited to his own advantage. He refused to use the very power he had access to and instead humbled himself as a human and lived in complete harmony with the Father’s will. Jesus faced Satan not as God but as a man and as such began to wrestle back the authority man had given to Satan when he chose autonomy in the beginning.

Perhaps the temptation we need to be most mindful of is the subtle temptation to use our power, our resources, our position and prominence in a way that dominates, coerces, uses, and objectifies others. Sometimes we can so easily do this and find a scripture to justify each of our actions. But just remember that even when Satan was tempting Jesus he offered scripture to justify autonomy from the Father’s will.

What might it look like to live in a stance of humility today, to serve others rather than looking to others for gain or as objects that exist for “my” agenda?
What might it look like to not give the other guy the thing he deserves and what you have every right by law to repay him with for the wrong he committed against you?
What might it look like to live completely for the Father’s will today instead of in autonomy?

I think these kinds of questions can help us into a deeper understanding of “lead us not into temptation” and perhaps more of life as God intended it for us.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Performance, Worship Leading, and American Idol

I have not put out too many blogs recently but I have several in the works. I’ve been thinking about something that I mentioned on a blog a couple of months ago – “Perhaps our biggest enemy is our own experience.” So I’ll explore this idea from another angle today.

On this last season of American Idol I found it interesting that more than half of the last 12 finalists were either worship leaders or sang in church on a regular basis. No doubt there are many who are elated that Christians are breaking into the mainstream a bit and finally getting their due. I think it's pretty cool myself. However as one who has lead worship in the church for years and played music outside of the church quite a bit I find that it brings me some conflicting emotions because I know just how easy it is slip from heartfelt worship to slick performance, to move from worshipping God into the idolatry of the adoration of the masses. Now before I go on, I am in no way passing judgment on the Christian contestants for making it into the final round. For all I know they are all devout and sincere and totally devoted to Christ. If anything I am considering my own journey as a worship leader, as a musician, as a performer who has spent considerable time wrestling with the dynamics of worship and performance. So this is just one of the few examples in popular culture where we see worship leaders taking big strides into the arena of performance and as such offers us a good opportunity for dialogue on this subject. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly raises questions concerning worship leading and performance, questions which deserve some wrestling with, which is what this blog is all about.

There’s a very real sense of being scared to death when one leads worship for the first time in front of people. It’s a good kind of fear though because it indicates that one is taking it seriously. It’s the kind of fear when one is attempting anything from skiing to cooking to public speaking for the first time. But it is so easy the more one learns about music and worship and what works in a service to lean on what you know rather than “who” you know.

I am a big fan of worship musicians taking the craft of music seriously and not just turning out something second rate because they have good hearts but are too lazy to put the effort into getting better musically. I am also a very big fan of worship leaders taking theology and study of the word seriously. However when one learns how to play the songs right and to say the right things it can be so easy to just coast on autopilot and the truth is no one out there will even know the difference… well at first at least.

I once heard a pastor talk about how when he started a church years ago in a small warehouse with a small group of Christians how they were desperate for God to show up because if God didn’t show up the whole thing was over. He noted though that over time as hundreds of people started showing up and they got a good sound system and lights and good musicians it didn’t matter if God showed up or not because it would still be good. This is the same struggle that we face as musicians and worship leaders (really as anyone endeavoring to follow Christ). We can simply lean on what we know works, on our own experience up to this moment, or we can humbly and sincerely seek to connect with God and lead others with our gifts.

There is a fine line between a heart-felt and passionate rendering of a worship song and just another good performance of that song, a line that is so easy to cross without anyone knowing your heart is not in it. And that should scare us a bit. We ought to remind ourselves regularly of the story of Israel in the Old Testament. The worst parts of their history, when they slipped into idolatry and neglected the poor, were when things were going great, when the blessings were pouring in, when nothing seemed to be going wrong. Too often when things are on the up and up we lose the plot, we drift, we lean on what we know rather than “who” we know.

So I’ll end this blog with these questions and I really would like to hear how some of you might wrestle with these ideas.

1. What does a Christian need in his or her life to consistently live from an authentic place?
2. What place is there for performance in worship leading?
3. How can we do a better job as Christ followers to support artists, musicians, and those in ministry in a way that fosters both excellence and authenticity simultaneously?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bacon Chocolate Bar - Review

I love bacon and I love chocolate. I never thought about putting the two together until yesterday. I was in Whole Foods getting a cup of coffee for the road when I came across Mo's Bacon Bar Intrigued by the idea I picked up the bar and read it's packaging which talked about smoked bacon in rich milk chocolate. I could hear my inner Homer Simpson saying "Mmmmm chocolate... mmm smoked bacon". I couldn't resist this novel combination of 2 things I love so I grabbed the smallest version of the bar available (coming in at about 75 cents for a 2 inch wafer of a bar, the regular size ran about 7 bucks) and bought it with my cup of coffee. There's something about buying anything at Whole Foods that makes you feel like you're doing something healthy even when it's bacon covered in chocolate with a side of coffee.

Well once I was on the road I decided to try it and immediately wished I had a larger bar because it took me about half way through the thing to figure out the best way to eat it. I initially started eating it the way I would eat any candy bar-just chew it up. I found out quickly that this wasn't nearly as rewarding as letting it melt in my mouth until I could begin to taste the saltiness of the bacon coming through a bit before chewing it up and getting the final payoff of the smokiness of the bacon. When done this way the experience was quite good. The only thing that seemed a little unexpected was the actual texture of the bacon. I was expecting it to be crispy or crunchy but it was more chewy. That said, I still found it quite good. And, by the way, it went great with the dark roast coffee i was drinking.

Friday, October 09, 2009

My Dad’s a Superhero!

My son Ezra thinks I’m pretty cool. Actually he thinks I’m about the coolest person in the word, and strong too! He’s at that age where I’ve overheard him telling other boys about how I’m the strongest man in the world and how I can run faster than their dads. And this isn’t just hype to him. He actually believes it… and I let him though I get nervous when he’s talking smack to a kid whose dad was obviously a lineman for a college football team (I’m in big trouble if any other dads want to get into some kinds of test of manhood with me).

This mythology of his dad was confirmed convincingly a few months ago we stopped in at gas station in Mississippi for the typical round of snacks, bathroom breaks and gas about an hour away from the place we frequently go camping. As we walked out of the gas station I heard a woman yell something about a truck that was rolling out of it’s parking place. I immediately ran over behind the truck and was able to stop its momentum without too much effort by using what Ezra believed as superhuman strength. However it wasn’t a big truck, probably a Nissan or Mazda that the guy forgot to engage the parking break on, but to Ezra it confirmed everything he believed about me—“My dad’s a superhero!” In his mind he was actually thinking that I could pick that truck up and toss it across the parking lot but that I was just holding back a bit so as not to let folks in on who I really am. When I got back in the car he was pretty stoked at his super hero of a father. I let him believe it because, well, it’s pretty cool to have one person in the world think that you are superhuman even if it’s not true.

Back in May I attended the National Vineyard Leadership Conference. The theme of the conference was Heroic Leadership (no doubt inspired by the book by Chris Lowney with that title). This meant that every speaker over the course of the conference made an attempt at weaving the theme into each of their respective talks. While none of the speakers had a hard time talking about leadership the subject of heroism seemed a bit difficult. One reason that I think heroism is a strange thing to talk about is because the very folks that want to be heroes tend to disqualify themselves just by the fact of wanting to be a hero (there’s nothing heroic about trying to be a hero, nothing cool about trying to be cool either). I think that most folks think of heroism as a manifestation of something in the core of one’s being that tends to arise when it is needed.

At the conference I was reminded of a song I wrote a few years back called Reluctant Hero:

Reluctant Hero
He just wanted a simple life
But destiny drew him into the fight,
He wasn’t looking for a name or chasing fame
Just contentment in the smallest things

In his heart he held his dreams
A woman to love and a family
Sweat and blood
Just to find a home
Some piece of ground he could call his own

But when darkness falls
And tragedy comes near
When the soul it breaks under the weight of fear
When there’s nowhere to hide
Something rises from the inside

This ain’t what you had in mind
You’ll fight the dark until the sun shines
This is how the story goes
Live or die reluctant hero

There you are
I see you under attack
This fight has changed you
You can never go back
Something inside has been released
You can’t stop ‘til you set it free

For when darkness falls
And tragedy comes near
When the soul it breaks under the weight of fear
When there’s nowhere to hide
Something rises from the inside

This ain’t what you had in mind
To fight the dark until the sun shines
This is how the story goes
Live or die reluctant hero

I remember writing that song as I was pondering the heroes from real life and movies. A key trait that stood out to me about heroes, whether in real life, or in film was how none of them really wanted to be heroes. If anything the heroes were just trying to live ordinary lives whether Frodo, William Wallace, or modern day heroes such as those that rescued people during Katrina or who responded courageously by running into the World Trade Centers on the September eleventh attacks to save whoever they could.

The truth is that we don’t have super heroes in our modern world but we do have plenty of everyday heroes. I think a hero is simply someone who cares enough to do something. A hero is someone who just can’t sit by because his heart won’t let him.

I have written a good many songs in my life. I wrote some songs because I was inspired and some for the sake of the art. But occasionally I write songs because I find myself frustrated with the songs out there, that there is not a song that says what I am feeling. I feel compelled to write a song because the world needs a song that says something different and so something in me just rises to the occasion. I know this is nothing heroic but to me it is something of what heroism is like. A hero is not looking to be a hero but rises to the occasion because he or she can’t help it. It’s not premeditated or even a goal. It’s as if a certain threshold within is crossed and the person cannot just sit passively by hoping that things will get better, that someone out there will do something. Action is called for and the heart of the hero responds not because he wants to but because to not respond would be the worse form of cowardice that no person could live with.

Truth is most of us insulate ourselves from the very things that would prod us to action that would compel us towards the heroic. We turn the channel. We look the other way. We look for some kind of distraction, and hope that someone else will do something because action is messy, because caring can really hurt, and we have all been burned before when we’ve loved or cared or done something selfless. We don’t want to get involved because we don’t really think that we have much to offer. But sometimes in spite all of our efforts to ignore what’s going on around us or to minimize what we could actually do in response, we can’t and we have to do something—damn the consequences! In these moments whether epic or obscure we step into the heroic, not because we have any desire to be heroes but because we just can’t keep still or silent anymore.

My son thinks I’m a hero, but I know the truth. Most of the time I’m a pretty selfish guy who wants to take the easy way out of things, who wants people to like me, who doesn’t particularly like rocking the boat, who would just assume live a comfortable and quiet life watching movies about heroes rather than actually getting up and doing something that might make a difference. While I like being a hero to my son, I don’t really much care for what it takes to be heroic in reality. As long as we keep ourselves distracted, as long as we don’t really let ourselves feel the pain of the world around us, as long as we are insulated from reality and isolated from others we need not worry about stepping into the heroic for that threshold within will never be crossed.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Observations on Adulthood from My Six Year Old

Last night I’m laying down on Ezra’s bed (my 6 year old boy) as we were having our usual round of closing thoughts on the day. Normally the conversation is about something along the lines of how he thinks Star Wars is real but none of his friends at school believe him, or what kind of cool thing he found out while playing Lego Star Wars on the Wii. But last night he told me that he doesn’t want to grow up. When I asked him why he observed that adults seem so bored. I was a little insulted but I asked him why he thought that. He said that it was because we were always doing stuff and not listening to him. He didn’t say this as if he was trying to make me feel guilty or shame me for my actions. He was just kind of matter-of-fact about it. And that only made it worse. It’s as if he was just kind of resigned to the idea that adults are just like that, that they don’t really want to listen to kids or be bothered by them much. Ouch! I really couldn’t offer much of a defense. I just agreed that being a kid was probably better than being a boring adult who is too wrapped up in “important” things to notice the simple pleasures of just being silly at any random moment of the day.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years - Review

Back in January 2008 I came across an MP3 of Donald Miller speaking at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids from November 2007. The title of his talk was Story, in which he discussed some of the lessons he learned about life and faith as he had been working with two friends on coming up with a screenplay for his book Blue Like Jazz which they were trying to adapt to a movie. I have to say that his talk was very insightful and that I have revisited it many times since. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life is a much more in-depth fleshing out of the premise he set forth on that talk.

A Million Miles begins with Don being approached by a filmmaker named Steve who wants to turn his now famous memoir Blue Like Jazz into a feature length film. Miller takes him up on the offer and then the work of getting the story right begins in earnest as Don, Steve, and a cinematographer named Ben spend many days and nights in front of white boards in Miller’s living room struggling to adapt ideas from the book into a story that will work on screen. Miller doesn’t initially realize what he is getting into and just how painful this process will be as it begins to reveal his own insecurities about himself and more fundamentally the story he has settled for in his own life.

For all intents and purposes Donald Miller was living a good life. He had seen great success as a writer with Blue Like Jazz and several other books he had written since and yet as he started studying about the elements of great stories and characters he came to the conclusion that he wasn’t living a very good story. This epiphany began to eat at him as he realized that he had settled into a life that lacked any kind of ambition for anything larger than his own comfort.

A Million Miles is the story about how he began to find his heart again, of how he began moving towards living in a bigger story that is not simply about comfort and security but of connecting with others and doing something good with his life. The book chronicles various “practice stories” as he calls them from hiking the Incan Trail in Peru to connecting with the father he hadn’t seen in over thirty years to a bike trip across the country. Miller calls these mini-adventures practice stories because he realizes that there is still a greater story that he is being called to live in, but with each practice story and all of the accompanying physical and emotional pain that it brings something happens within Don to make him into a better character within the story.

While I don’t want to spoil the book by revealing many of the parts in detail, I will say that this book was a truly inspirational read. I almost hate using the word inspirational because it reminds me of Hallmark cards and Christian book stores and this book was certainly not inspirational in that kind of way. It was inspiring for other reasons though. Miller’s struggles, of which he is very open, without slipping into self-absorbed narcissism, are the kinds of things we all struggle with- love, work, being authentic, and wanting to do something good with one’s life. He doesn’t deal with these struggles as someone who is trying to fix himself, or others for that matter but as someone who is simply trying to head in a better direction. His writing is very accessible with an ability to connect with folks in a number of different situations. Miller writes as one who has come to terms with his own smallness and yet who has seen a vision of a better place in which the journey is not contingent on talent, or money, or fame but a simple willingness to put the remote control down and get off the couch and start living. It is this simply accessible idea that makes the reader want to join him because the on-ramps are right in front of each of us.

As one who loves to write and create myself, I found that reading this book made me not only want to live in a better story myself but to start writing more. Reading this book had the same affect on me that I’ve noticed when I’ve been to concerts by a select few bands over the years. While there are plenty of great bands to catch live there are very few that make me want to quit everything I’m doing for a bit to start playing music and writing songs. Miller’s book had this effect on me concerning writing. Reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years was the type of read that makes me want to write.

How our world needs more books like this that hit on faith and life from a different angle than that typical of theologians and Bible teachers. Donald Miller doesn’t seem to be trying to teach anybody anything or even make any grand theological statements. He is just sharing a bit of his story of trying to live a better story with us, but as he points out in this book—a story, a good story, is a very powerful thing indeed.

Free Falling

It’s been many years since I watched Jerry Maguire. I figure the last time I caught that movie must have been around the time Dina and I had just got engaged, which certainly provided a different frame of reference for that kind of movie. We no doubt applied the lines “You complete me” and “You had me at hello” personally with all of the accompanying feelings of butterflies in the stomach that you get in those spring days of love.

However for some reason I have been bumping into Jerry Maguire a lot in the past week. I used the infamous “Show me the money” clip when I was speaking last weekend and now for the last 2 days I keep catching different parts of the movie as it is in heavy rotation on TBS. Yesterday I was ironing some shirts for work, when I caught the last part of the movie, the part where most of the romantic elements come together. I couldn’t help thinking of how I could have never imagined in my bachelor days that my future would include not only being married, but spending a Saturday afternoon ironing shirts while watching Jerry Maguire (alone by the way, which adds a bit more a pathetic spin to the scene.) So I watched it and it was certainly better than the infomercials and reruns on the other channels and when I was done I put on one of those freshly ironed shirts and went to work.

This morning as I was trying to wake up I turned on the TV at 7 a.m. and low and behold Jerry Maguire was on yet again. But this time I was catching the story a bit earlier into it than yesterday. I was picking up on the story just after Jerry left his job with the talent agency to step out on his own and follow his heart as a solo talent agent.

What follows is that Jerry goes to meet with an upcoming football player who will be his biggest client if he can close the deal, a potential number one draft pick. If he can land this client his career is set. It’s kind of a big deal because this guy is one of two sports players that he is courting and certainly the most promising of the two financially. He meets with the young football player’s father, rehearsing his sales pitch as he is walking into the guy’s living room. Jerry knows that everything will rest on this one meeting and his ability to talk the father into keeping Jerry as his son’s agent even though he has left the larger tallent agency. Surprisingly the meeting is very short. The father tells Jerry that he made up his mind that if Jerry showed up he would keep him as his son’s agent. The father then tell Maguire that he doesn’t believe in signing contracts but that his hand shake is stronger than oak. And with that he offers his hand. Jerry shakes his hand and then hugs him and then just about loses it because he is so excited. This was tremendous news!

The next scene shows a very happy Jerry driving down the highway elated at the success of his deal. He did it! This kid is going to be his bread and butter! All the thoughts of self-doubt are just trailing in the wake behind his car. Maybe he wasn’t completely crazy to follow his heart and leave the talent agency after all. He’s not a looser! He is going to make it and maybe even make it bigger than he had ever dreamed!

So there he is celebrating in the car scanning through songs on the radio for something that might capture the emotion of the moment. He needs a song, and not just any old song will do. He tries a bit of a Rolling Stones song. No that’s not it. After a brief pause on “Just Call Me Angel of the Morning” and a lesser-known country tune he finally lands on “Free Falling” by Tom Petty. That’s the song! He sings it like an anthem giddy with delight over closing the deal, “Yeah I’m freeeee!”… “Free fallin’!”

Maybe it’s my place in life or maybe because I saw the other part of the movie yesterday and know what really happens next, that he’s not going to be this kid’s agent after all because he didn’t get the father to sign a contract and his rival is going to scoop him up behind his back, but this scene on the highway is just brilliant! Jerry is singing “Free Falling” obviously identifying with the free part of the chorus but I know, because I saw the other part of the movie yesterday, that shortly he will be identifying with the falling part.

It’s scary business following your heart, stepping out, leaving your place of comfort and security. Sometimes it feels like freedom and sometimes it feels like falling but most of the time it’s a mixture of both. Six months ago Dina and I made a decision to step out and do some things we feel God put in our hearts. The decision involves leaving our jobs, our home, and breaking the rhythm of a way of life that we have come to really enjoy and moving across a really big lake to start a new chapter. Back in June I felt compelled to buy 3 Tom Petty CDs because they seemed to be the songs running through my mind. They seemed like they would provide the right kind of soundtrack to this season in our lives with songs like Running Down a Dream, Learning to Fly, I Won’t Back Down, and most of all Free Falling. As I watched Jerry Maguire this morning I couldn’t help but connect with that scene of Jerry driving down the road singing, celebrating, not really having a clue what turns await him in the story he’s living in.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Need to Feel Small Part 2

This is part 2 of a series of blogs called The Need to Feel Small. Read Part 1 first here.
When I was in my early teenage years I remember occasionally going to the local First Baptist Church youth group. The youth group was a standard youth group with a very common approach to evangelism. This meant that one was likely to hear the words “if you were to walk out of this room and get hit by a car and die tonight where would you go?” quite frequently. So, as with many of the other teenagers, I found myself praying the sinners’ prayer often just to cover the bases because one can never be too safe with one’s eternal destiny. But this was by no means the only kind of appeal to get the kids of the youth group to respond to God. Another evangelistic argument that was used just as frequently as more of a positive motivation went something like this, “God loves you so much that even if you were the only person on planet earth Jesus would have died for you.” This certainly put things into a bit more of a positive light than say, getting hit by a car when you walk out of the room tonight, but I can’t help but thinking as I continue my faith journey, just how small this kind of thinking is.

The problem with this kind of thinking is not God’s love or for us but that it is so focused on the individual with no greater context other than being forgiven and going to heaven when you die. While the argument was compelling in the moment it certainly didn’t seem to connect with my actual everyday life very effectively. So I was saved, but for what, some kind of disembodied state of bliss when I die? (Bliss, by the way, always seemed to be defined in these contexts as a never-ending church service in the sky which wasn’t all that appealing to me as a teenager and I can’t find it that appealing at this point in my life either.)

I needed to know God’s love for certain, but I needed to feel small as well, not in an insignificant way, but small in terms of being a part of a much greater story. When I responded to the evangelistic messages of the youth group as a teenager the story that was communicated to me, rather unintentionally I suspect, was that I was the story, that I was the point of it all. It’s no wonder that it failed to really affect my real life that much. Perhaps we need to realize that we as individuals are not the point but one of many points in a much larger story of which we are invited into by Jesus to be a part.

I can’t help but think of the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings. They were small both physically as well as in their place of prominence in the world. Yet Frodo and company found their purpose in a much larger story of overthrowing evil and bringing freedom and peace to middle earth. In the story of Lord of the Rings there was no lead character, it was an ensemble cast, a fellowship where everyone involved played a part in overthrowing darkness. It simply wouldn’t have worked if any of them had had too large of a view of themselves or of their particular place in the world. The fellowship worked precisely because they understood they were each a part of something much, much larger.

God loves me and God loves you but He is not simply after setting his kids up for a great retirement community in the here after. He is actually calling each of us to be a part of something much bigger, a fellowship in a much larger story than we have likely settled for. Perhaps we need to take a step back and see the story in it’s epic glory. Perhaps we need to feel small again.

For further reading on this subject I recommend checking out Christianity Beyond Belief by Todd Hunter

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Further Exploration of 5 Notes that Changed the World

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

Luke posted a link to this video on the last blog called Bobby McFerrin Hacks Your Brain With the Pentatonic Scale (thanks Luke). Bobby McFerrin is one of those geniuses that really gets music not in a cerebral way only but intuitively. This video is an amazing illustration of how there is something in the human experience which seems hard wired to get the simplicity of the pentetonic scale. This is very cool. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Speaking of 5 Notes that Changed the World

Last month I posted a blog entitled Wiley Pitman and 5 Notes that Changed the World A friend sent me a link to this compelling Youtube clip which further illustrates those same 5 notes changing the world from a different angle.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Need to Feel Small Part 1

Have you ever had the experience of laying out under the stars, or gazing over a breath-taking view of mountains, or standing on the shores of the ocean watching wave after wave pounding into the beech? Moments like these have a way of bringing forth sense of awe, of holiness, a sense that we are so small in this massive universe, a sense that we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves. We desperately need times like these because so many things in our world are vying for our attention and pushing us to an inflated and false sense of self-importance. When life becomes nothing more than working tirelessly for financial security, for power, for prestige and possessions we need moments of beholding the beauty of God’s creation to rescue us from too large a view of ourselves. We need this sense of perspective not merely in a sense of our physical place in the universe but even when it concerns our aspirations, the things we pour our lives into, and the way we spend our money and time. Nature itself testifies that there is something much more grand that we are a part of and letting ourselves feel weight of this once and a while is absolutely crucial.

Love Is an Orientation - Book Review

There are few issues these days that are a divisive and polarizing as homosexuality and Christianity. Most recently this debate was played out in front of the nation in typical fashion during the Miss USA Pageant when gay gossip columnist Perez Hilton asked contestant Carrie Prejean to give her opinion on same-sex marriage . When Prejean gave an answer affirming traditional marriage it reignited the debate in our country that has been growing for years over gay rights. This most recent culture battle reveals that while the rhetoric is getting much more inflammatory on both sides, nothing redemptive is coming from it. The most obvious fruit of this culture war has simply been greater division and deeper hatred of each other from both camps.

But what if the conversation could be elevated a bit from back and forth accusations that have characterized this issue? What if instead of shouting and condemning people from both sides there could be a different way forward based on love and respect and seeking to understand others? This is precisely what Andrew Marin is attempting to do in his book Love Is an Orientation.

Andrew Marin, who describes his background as Bible-banging and homophobic, was thrown into a world of turmoil and confusion when over the course of three consecutive months three of his best friends revealed to him that they were gay (Youtube of his testimony). The once distant cultural debate that had been played out in the media and in conversations had now become personal for Marin because these weren’t strangers or TV personalities or even simple conversations around the water cooler. These were his closest friends. Marin shares that after he got over the initial shock of his friend’s revelations he felt God inviting him into a journey of love and understanding. The journey lead Andrew Marin, a heterosexual, evangelical Christian, to immerse himself in the gay community of Boystown in Chicago seeking not to argue or convert people to his way of thinking but simply seeking to try and understand those in the gay community better. This cultural immersion had a profound impact on his life of faith and in the years since he began this journey he has gone on to start the Marin Foundation, an organization that is actively involved in trying to elevate the conversation between the Evangelical and Gay communities.

While books on homosexuality and Christianity are everywhere and while opinions on the subject are numerous, Marin writes in a way that doesn’t treat homosexuality as just another topic to be debated. Through story after story of people he has talked with, prayed with, and listened to from the gay community, Andrew Marin succeeds in rescuing the conversation from speculation, accusations and opinions and bringing it to the place where it needs to be discussed—the context of real people.

This will be a frustrating read for those looking for easy answers to hot-button issues because Marin offers very few concrete answers. Instead he offers a fresh set of questions and a way of dialogue that is based around building bridges rather than walls. The basic premise for Love Is an Orientation and the Marin Foundation is that Christians are not called to judge people or even to convict people of sin, that’s God’s job, instead Chris followers are simply called to love people the way Jesus does. This approach doesn’t ignore or gloss over the issues but engages them in a completely different way.

I found Love Is an Orientation both challenging and refreshing. While loving others by entering into their world is certainly not a new concept or even a foreign concept to Christianity (it’s kind of foundational to the life of Jesus), Marin’s application of this way of love simultaneously expands the evangelical horizon while at the same time making it much more personal. What’s great about this book is that Marin doesn’t just talk about the merits of loving others but rather gives some very practical teaching based on his years of dialogue with those in the gay community on how to actually go about doing this in real life. He also brings a much needed dose of humility to the conversation reflecting on the many times he has experienced greater love, authenticity, and community with gays in Boystown than in much of the church. I found the closing chapters of this book very helpful, not only for conversations on homosexuality and Christianity, but also for more redemptive ways of approaching any of the myriad of hot-button issues in our culture today.

I am grateful for this book for several reasons. First it has helped me to better understand homosexuality from the vantage point of those within the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) community rather than from the outside looking in. Secondly, this book has shed light on both the spiritual yearnings and the spiritual hang-ups of many within gay community. Finally I have found this book has managed to show very practically how love can transcend all kinds of arguments, hang-ups, and divisiveness in a way that is utterly redemptive and which points people, gay and straight alike, towards Jesus. In my opinion Marin has succeeded in elevating the conversation with this book and I can only hope that this approach to the issues at hand gains more adherents.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Myth of a Christian Religion - Book Review

I first came across Greg Boyd in a 2007 documentary on CNN called God’s Warriors which took a look at Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in three two-hour documentaries. I found the two-hour segment a little disheartening not because it seemed critical of Christianity in American (because it seemed pretty balanced in it’s investigation) but because I increasingly cannot comfortably identify myself with much of the type of Christianity of which was given most coverage in the documentary… that is until they interviewed Greg Boyd. Out of all of the churches shown in the two-hour documentary, Boyd’s Church – Woodland Hills Church of St. Paul Minnesota was honestly the only church that I would even want to be a part of.

A few months after watching the documentary I was preparing a teaching for the Kenner Vineyard on Matthew 5:38-43 where Jesus teaches, among other things, to love one’s enemies (a radical text indeed!). As I was discussing the text with a friend of mine, he recommended a book by Greg Boyd called The Myth of a Christian Nation, thinking that it might be helpful in my preparation. So I picked up the book that afternoon and read through it in a matter of days. The book proved to be immensely helpful not only concerning the text at which I was looking but in so many other areas where we have commonly confused American Christian culture with the Kingdom of God. The Myth of a Christian Nation is one of those rare books I’ve read that has affected my life of faith in a profound way, not through deep and esoteric truths hidden in scripture, but with straight-ahead Jesus teachings.

So when I came across Boyd’s new book The Myth of a Christian Religion, I picked it up as soon as I could, anticipating the same kind of kingdom centered critique of church and culture. I have to say that I am normally not all that fond of authors who find a niche with books of the same titles but this second book bearing the title “Myth of…” doesn’t seem so much as marketing a franchise as a legitimate continuation of the ideas pioneered in The Myth of a Christian Nation.

Myth of a Christian Religion, while provocative, is practically minded which likely has something to do with Boyd not only being a theologian but a pastor. The chapters of Myth of a Christian Religion are not mere musings on theological ideas but rather are very much tied into practical application for the life of a Christ-follower. Boyd’s thesis is that Jesus never intended to start a religion—He was after nothing less than revolution. The Myth of a Christian Religion is about revolution, not in the traditional rebellious sense of the word but of a revolution with love as it’s driving force. So each of the chapter present what a love-centered revolution might look like addressing everything from idolatry to judgment, greed, individualism, consumerism, nationalism, violence, racism, and so on (as each of the book’s chapters are laid out). It may seem that Boyd is trying to cover too much in one book, but I would again reiterate that this book is written for practitioners of faith rather than those looking for more theological information and thus reads much more like a devotional (with an accompanying action guide for each chapter at the back of the book). This book seems like it would readily lend itself to small groups or book studies or as a primer for getting discussion started on the various topics contained within.

Though this book is written with everyday Christians in mind it doesn’t mean that Boyd steers away from anything controversial (discipleship light!). On the contrary, I suspect most readers will have a hard time with some of the ideas he is putting forth particularly when it comes to mixing Christianity with nationalism (I had my toes stepped on a couple of times). However, whether you agree with his assessment of American Christianity or not, I think his thoughts definitely merit attention. I would also note that Boyd’s treatment of such controversial issues does not come across as either whinny, contentious, or rebellious like so many on talk radio, cable news and countless other authors who have tried to argue on similar points. Boyd seems like someone who is genuinely interested in really living this stuff out and not just complaining about it which in and of itself is very refreshing these days.

As Christians we need someone to splash some cold water on us from time to time to wake us up to how easily we have succumb to individuality, consumerism, violence, and even nationalism in the name of following Jesus. Greg Boyd is just the person to do this and I would definitely recommend this book for those who are serious about living a life of faith.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Deep Fried Butter and Post Rapture Pet Care

I have come across 2 creative ideas that are so out of the box that they just deserve mentioning. The first is good old State Fair of Texas deep fried butter. As decadent as the idea sounds it may very well have more nutritional value than a Krispy Kreme doughnut. I can just hear Homer Simpson saying "MMMMMM deep fried butter."

The second idea is one of the most positive or should I say enterprising ideas to come from the atheist community. The atheists over at Eternally Earth-Bound Pets want Christians to know that since they don't believe in Jesus they will be left behind if there is a rapture. So for a small fee they will take care of the pets left behind by their raptured human owners. In these days of intense debate between atheists and religious folks sometimes you come across an idea like this and just have to smile. They may be atheists but their creative. I just want to know how many folks take them up on the offer.

Wrestling Match - Mark Driscoll vs. The Shack

Few figures in American Christianity have managed to draw as much controversy in the last couple of years as Mark Driscoll, Senior Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and William Young, author of The Shack. So when I recently came across a video clip of Driscoll talking about The Shack I couldn’t resist giving it a watch.

As a matter of disclosure I have read both The Shack and some of Driscoll’s writings as well and I am currently reading one of Driscoll’s recent releases - Vintage Church. As one who is in the process of planting a church right now I can say that few books have stirred the fire for church planting the way that Driscoll’s “Confessions of a Reformission Rev.” have. As for The Shack, I read that book about a year ago and found it a refreshing and insightful read that dealt with difficult questions concerning suffering and even the doctrine of the Trinity among other topics. As with other authors such as C. S. Lewis, Gene Edwards, Hanah Hernard (Hinds Feet on High Places), and even John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) the method of using fictional literature as a means of getting to the heart of theology seemed to me to work quite well.

Spoiler alert: If you have not read The Shack this next section of the blog will not make as much sense, so I would recommend reading it before continuing this blog so you have a bit more context.

In this Corner Mark Driscoll...
I wasn’t surprised to see that Driscoll was an outspoken critic of The Shack being that he is consistently a pretty outspoken critic on many issues. While I certainly don’t agree with many of Driscoll’s points of contention with The Shack I think the very nature of the critique raises questions about the relationship between theology and art and is thus important for consideration for artists and theologians. I will sum up the points of the argument and then give my own commentary and then propose a way forward for those of us who are creative people of faith. Here are the main points of Driscoll’s argument:

1. The whole purpose of The Shack is the Trinity.
I would disagree with Mark Driscoll on this because while the Trinity is central to this book, some of the main points have to do with wrestling through bad things happening to the innocent and finding God in the midst of tragedy.

2. The Shack makes a graven image of God by representing God the Father as a Black woman named Papa.
This seems to me to be the weakest of Driscoll’s arguments against The Shack for many reasons. First the very scriptures often refer to God in ways that compare him to attributes in creation:

Psalm 17:8 says, “Hide me under the shadow of your wing”. It is mother chickens that will hide her chicks under her wings. So is the Psalmist saying that God is a mother chicken? No. The psalmist is using an analogy to illustrate our relationship with God.

How about Psalm 23? “The Lord is my shepherd…” Is the Psalmist actually saying that God is a literal shepherd? No. He is getting at a relationship.

Finally Jesus was known to refer to the Father as vinedresser or farmer (John 15). Was Jesus creating a graven image by referring to God as a farmer? Not in the least. In reality he was helping folks understand their connection to God in a deeper and richer way.

It makes me wonder if Mark Driscoll even read The Shack because it is obvious that Papa (God the Father in The Shack) had a purpose in revealing himself as a black woman in the first part of the book and then as a middle-aged white guy with a pony-tail towards the end of the book. While this is certainly a fictional account it is not inconsistent with what we encounter in the Bible. God reveals himself to Israel sometimes as a husband, sometimes as a judge and sometimes as a warrior and yet sometimes as a more nurturing figure. The key in all of this is that it is God revealing himself to people for His purposes. It is very clear to me that this is what was going on in The Shack. God had a purpose in revealing himself to Mack the way that he did at different times and the purpose is made clear.

I think that making the point that William Young is leading people into idolatry with The Shack is quite a stretch.

3. The book encourages goddess worship since it represents God the Father as a woman.
This again ties back into my previous argument so I won’t continue it here but I don not think this book promotes goddess worship at all in any way. To make such statements misses the point and the very arguments set out plainly in the book.

4. Mark Driscoll goes on to accuse William Young of pushing the heretical teaching of Modalism that stands in opposition to Trinitarianism because it doesn’t respect the three-ness of God but instead blurs the lines. He cites the line in The Shack where God the Father states, “I am truly human in Jesus.” Driscoll makes the point that God the Father was never human only Jesus.

Again, I think that Mark Driscoll was missing the forest for the trees. Modalism was never a remote possibility to me when I read this book. Even the line that he was referring to was more about what Jesus referred to as “I am in the Father and He is in Me” than of blurring the lines of their distinctness in the Trinity, that though the three persons of the Trinity are completely distinct they are intimately connected in ways of understanding which we cannot even comprehend.

5. The last point that Mark Driscoll makes is that the book shows a version of the Trinity with no sense of hierarchy that it just gives a picture of a never-ending circle of love. He cites the passage from The Shack in which God tells Mack that hierarchy “only makes sense where there is sin”. He sees this as a big problem because Jesus obviously showed deference to the Father in his earthly ministry and that the New Testament seems to point very clearly to the idea that the Spirit points to Jesus, Jesus points to the Father.

Of all of Driscoll’s arguments this is the one that is the strongest in my opinion. I think that we Americans naturally tend to be much more egalitarian than most cultures and think of equality as one of the highest virtues there is. So this view of God as having no sense of hierarchy is appealing to some of our highest ideals in this culture. That said, it may be a stretch to put this ideal on God and thus on anything else in our world that exhibits hierarchical leadership.

If the Trinity is hierarchical it is not in a sense of power-over but in mutual love. So rather than throw hierarchy out altogether I would say that in the Trinity we see hierarchy apart from corruption—authority in love.

Closing Thoughts / A Way Forward
In the end I think The Shack has helped so many people begin to grapple with theology because it does so by way of art, speaking the language of the heart. Just as Jesus bypassed technical, theological language and arguments of the Pharisees with simple illustrations from nature and the culture, William Young has helped people into a deeper conversation about suffering, God, and the Trinity by speaking with language and pictures that connect with people in some of their biggest questions about faith and suffering and relationship with God.

This very discussion brings up how important theology is, particularly for those of us who create art whether music, writing, or painting. We must continually wrestle with theology in community and create art from that place. Our world desperately needs theologically sound artists who can communicate in the language of the heart so that folks who would never pick up a Bible commentary or theological text might begin to grapple with some of these larger issues themselves. I am grateful to William Young for writing The Shack and communicating in such language for the very reason that he is getting the conversation going in places where it has been stuck for a long time. Here’s to wrestling!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Exploding Diet Coke in My Hot Car

I have never seen nor heard of this happening before but I left an unopened can of Diet Coke in the cup holder in my car. When I was getting ready to leave the office I looked down to see that the top of the can was pealed back and half of the Diet Coke was gone (gone from the can that is because it was partly on the windshield and the passenger seat was soaked). As messy as it was I have to say it was pretty freakin cool!

"I Am One of Them" - Review of Mute Math, Armistice

The much anticipated follow-up to Mute Math’s first self-titled CD has finally dropped after more than three years of the band working on it. Did the time put in pay off? Yes. While there are no songs that pack quite the same punch of Chaos and Typical from their last album, Armistice shows definite creative growth in a positive direction for this New Orleans indie rock quartet. While their last album had more of an overt influence from The Police, this album in some respects reminds me more of U2 (more in spirit rather than trying to be U2 clones). This is perhaps due to the enlisting of Dennis Harris as producer who’s production style really brings out the rhythm section (Roy Mitchell-Cardinas and Darren King) in a way that creates space and energy for Paul Meany’s vocals and Greg Hill’s guitar work. The result is a very cohesive batch of songs which, while still capturing the indie-energy of this band, tie it all together in a bit more of an accessible way than their previous release.

Unlike Mute Math’s previous release, Armistice offers many more questions than answers. Lyrics such as “anymore, I don’t know who to fight anymore, I don’t know what is right anymore” from the song Clipping, and “And if it’s all black and white then tell me what is wrong and what is right, I don’t suppose that anybody knows” from No Response reveal Mute Math’s movement from a world of black and white absolutes to a place where beliefs and people don’t quite so easily fit into the boxes we make for them.

Perhaps on of the most insightful lyrics on the album in from the song Pins and Needles,
Sometimes I get tired of pins and needles,
Facades are a fire on the skin.
And I'm growing fond of broken people,
As I see that I am one of them.

As one who has followed members of this band for many years I cannot help but see these lyrics in light of the journey they’ve been on from leading worship at a local church to the Christian rock band Earthsuit to their current incarnation as an indie-rock band. Perhaps I am finding myself identifying with this point in their journey myself because in many ways I have been in the same place.

How we would love to have all of the answers and have people classified in tidy little containers, to be so sure that we’re the good guys and their the bad guys but as one journeys one can’t help but see that many of the distinctions that we make are very artificial. Truth is we are all broken people, and coming to terms with this is not a casting off faith but rather a deepening of faith—a realizing of faith and love in the deepest places of the heart.

As I said earlier, in some ways this album reminds me of U2 but this is not simply in the musical approach of the band or in how the album was produced but also in the way that this band of Christians is beginning to wrestle with faith as they find their horizon expanding. Armistice is one of many albums coming out from Christians in the last few years that I would say offers a soundtrack to the changing landscape of faith in the western world, a world where suddenly questions have loomed larger than answers. This wrestling with faith may very well seem scary to many but it is a very necessary part of the journey to authentic spirituality—wrestling always is!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A Prayer for Obama

I was saddened today to hear of a pastor in Tempe Arizona by the name of Steven Anderson who has reportedly preached against President Barack Obama even to the point of praying for his death by brain cancer so that he could die as Ted Kenedy last week (which he no doubt links to God’s judgment).
While this kind of hate-speak would be disturbing from anyone, it is particularly disturbing to hear such talk from a minister who identifies himself as a Christian.

Though the words from this pastor present us with an extreme case of Christians opposed to Obama, they do raise the question of how Christ followers are supposed to treat enemies and furthermore who can even be considered an enemy. I suspect that most Christians in America would probably very much disagree with this pastor’s rhetoric and yet many would still have absolutely no problem with associating Obama with the highest forms of evil and feeling very much justified in criticizing, opposing, and wishing ill to him.

It would do us good to remember as followers of Christ that no matter how much we may disagree with certain people, people are never the real enemy (no matter how much you may disagree with Obama he is not the true enemy). As Christ-followers we are to fight for people rather than against people, to love when hated, to bless when reviled, to return good for evil (Matt 5:43-48 , I Peter 3:8-9 , Romans 12:14 ). In this we reveal what God is like and overthrow evil. This doesn’t mean that we need to completely discard any views on politics, religion, or morality but that we cannot ever let our views excuse hatred, a desire for revenge, or even our own self-righteousness.

The path of Jesus is not easy, nor popular for that matter, but it is the only true option for those of us who consider ourselves Christ-Followers. We must be diligent to remember that Jesus overcame the evil of the world not by force or violence but by loving people sacrificially even when it cost him his own life.

So perhaps we can take our lead from Jesus and instead of criticizing Obama for his beliefs and actions we can pray for him, asking God to grant him wisdom and understanding and to surround him with His Holy Spirit. Perhaps we can pray for God to bless him physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and to bless his relationship with his wife and children and even with his colleagues. Perhaps instead of slinging more mud we can choose to love instead.

A prayer for Obama
Father God,
We thank you for President Obama
We ask that you would bless him right now
Refresh him and renew him by Your Spirit
Let him feel Your grace and Your strength
We ask that even in this moment
that You would lift the stress and anxiety from his mind and body.
Grant him the wisdom he needs for this day in all of the situations he is facing.
Let him sense Your presence
And let his ears be open to what You are saying
We pray that every spiritual attack directed against him would be thwarted
And that You would uphold him and protect him from those who would wish him harm.

In the name of Jesus

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Divine Commodity - A Review

It almost feels weird reviewing a book on the commodification of spirituality (as if I am treating it like some kind of consumer product). Perhaps this very feeling is what makes a book like this so difficult.

I love the way Jethani takes illustrations from the spiritual life and art of Vincent Van Gogh and uses it to help point the reader in a more vibrant and spiritually rich direction that seeks to bypass the rampant consumerism of our age. Yet as clever and impacting (and creative) his idea for this book was, it seems like a hard premise to base an entire book around. It kind of reminds me of a great Saturday Night Live skit that is then turned into a movie and inevitably lacks the punch to sustain a feature length film.

While the first few chapters were indeed intriguing and convicting the argument of consumerism got a bit tired. I couldn't help but get a feeling of how cynical Jethani was sounding as the book progressed. In fact had it not been for the epilogue section, I would have been left with that feeling. Skye Jethani does conclude the book with a few pages on how he sees this rampant consumerism in his own heart and how he hates in others what he despises in himself. That said, the statement came too late in the book for me and almost seemed like a recommendation from the publisher to soften the blow a bit from his railing against the problems of consumerism in the church (perhaps this is my own cynicism rearing its head).

While I certainly agree with his thesis that the church is way too mired in consumerism to truly be a light to the world, I found his approach to this problem not very constructive in the end which is a shame because the premise of this book is very creative.

Wiley Pitman and Five Notes that Changed the World

Several years ago I watched the movie “Ray”, a biopic on the life of Ray Charles. There was one scene from the movie that really struck me as a musician. Ray Charles as a child of about three-years-old lived next door to a cafĂ© and general store owned by Wiley Pittman who happened to be a great boogie-woogie piano player. In those earliest years of Ray’s life, before he had become totally blind he would drop by Pittman’s not just to listen to him practice but because he wanted to learn how to play the piano himself. The scene from the movie that really got me was how Wiley Pittman was able to teach Ray to begin playing the blues by introducing him to the pentatonic scale – five notes which provide the foundation for many styles of music from around the world from Chinese to Celtic to Blues to Country. The scene really connected with me because it reminded me of how those same 5 basic notes of the Blues scale changed my musical life as well.

I started taking piano lessons when I was around eight years old, but for the most part the first five years of piano lessons failed to really engage my heart. But one day, when I was probably about fourteen years old, I walked into a local music store to look at keyboards. That keyboard salesman will never know how, in trying to sell me a keyboard, he changed my life by introducing me to the very same pentatonic scale which got Ray Charles going as a child. Up to that day I had known how to play the piano a bit and I was even beginning to write some of my own songs but the simplicity of pentatonic scale brought it all together in a way that piano lessons never did. It connected the dots to what I had been stumbling on intuitively. All of the sudden a whole new world of musical possibilities opened up for me.

Within weeks I was writing blues songs and beginning to figure out some blues licks. Over the next four years that followed, my musicianship grew exponentially in all kinds of ways. It wasn’t that I had learned nothing in those few years of piano lessons. It’s just that I got more out of that few minutes with a keyboard salesman because it connected with my heart and my mind in a way that my lessons never could—in a way that changed the course of my life. Had I not had that encounter at that point in my life I might not have pursued music the way that I had and my life would have certainly taken a different path.

The Word Became Flesh
John 1:14 (The Message) says,
14The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.

This is a scripture that is no doubt familiar to many Christians but one which doesn’t seem to inform how many Christians practice their faith much. In this simple verse John kicks his gospel off with the revolutionary truth of the incarnation—God loved us not from a distance as Bette Midler once sang but by entering our neighborhood, our world, the place where we live, as one of us... as a human, with everything that goes with being a human—hunger, physical limitations, morning breath, and so on.

Throughout the gospels the Pharisees seem mainly concerned with the trivialities of following the law, with how to be righteous, with who’s in and who’s out, with religious rituals, and with the fine points of doctrine. But Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t waste time on long theological statements or religious platitudes, rather he related the realities of the kingdom to things that people encountered in everyday life: “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed”… “There once was a guy who owned a vineyard”… “A shepherd lost a sheep”… “A son asked for his dad’s inheritance”. It wasn’t that Jesus was incapable of debating religion with the most intellectual minds of his day but to do that would have missed the point of why he came. The reality is that he loved us enough to not only enter our world as a human but to engage us on human terms, in familiar language and in the everyday places where everyday people live whether at a wedding feast or on a fishing boat or at a party with tax collectors. While the Pharisees were busy avoiding people and making it hard for others to be a part of their “club”, Jesus was busy meeting people right where they were with the good news that no matter their background, social status, race, or moral state they could enter into the kingdom of God.

What might it look like for us to enter into the world of others and to relate to them on their terms?

I read something by Henri Nouwen once that I think gives us a great starting point:
“From experience you know those who care for you become present to you. When they listen, they listen to you. When they speak they speak to you. Their presence is a healing presence because they accept you on your terms, and they encourage you on your terms, and they encourage you to take your own life seriously.”

Have you ever known someone that embodied the above quote? I think we all have at one time or another. When you feel like someone is genuinely interested in you, and sincerely listening to you, and right there with you (as opposed to somewhere else in their mind) you feel like they care. Why? Because in a very simple way they are entering into your world and meeting you right where you are.

Let’s look back at Ray Charles for a moment. Wiley Pittman provides us with a good analogy of what it looks like to enter into the world of another and help them understand something in a very simple way. Had Wiley Pittman not tried to show little Ray music in a way that he could get it, or had he just been too bothered by the pestering of that little kid wanting to bang on his piano and interrupt his practice, our world would have missed out on the amazing treasure of Ray Charles’ music. But Wiley Pittman instead met him right where he was with a simple idea… simple enough for a three-year-old… five notes that changed his life.

As Christians we are faced with a couple of options: Like the Pharisees we can make it harder for people to grasp what God is about with confusing language, customs, and traditions, or we can go the way of Jesus and connect with people right where they are—listening more than speaking, meeting folks on their terms, being present when we are with them, and being deliberately simple when talking about God.

Perhaps our biggest enemy is our own experience. Sometimes we think because of our experience with God that we have somehow become experts and like the Pharisees we can so easily begin talking like experts and alienating the very folks we want to encounter God. Jesus once encouraged his disciples to become like children for “such is the kingdom of Heaven”. While Wiley Pittman was a seasoned piano player of many years he had not lost the ability in his experience on the piano to connect with a child. Perhaps this is a bit of the childlike quality Jesus is calling us to.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Review of Piety Street by John Scofield

I have been a John Scofield fan since I pulled a stint of community service in high school for setting fire to a trash can in front of the local mall. (completely by accident, I promise!) But the good news is that I was able to serve my few hours of community service by helping out building sets at the local community theater where the head carpenter turned me on to John Scofield. I must have only been about fourteen or fifteen at the time and didn’t have a huge appreciation for Jazz music, but there was something pretty cool about Scofield even then to my unrefined teenage ears.

So I have followed Scofield these last 22 years through all sorts of turns in his musical journey from fusion to classic jazz to groovy sixties soul jazz to his more recent explorations of electronic music. I have to say that though there have been some albums from Scofield over the years that stuck out to me as amazing such as his collaboration with Medeski, Martin, and Wood on A Go Go or even more recently his very modern / techno-twinged Uberjam, but wherever he goes on his musical journey, I usually find Scofield’s work very good.

I recently came across Scofield’s latest album Piety Street that marks yet another turn in his exploration of styles and genres. I admit that I found the concept of this new album very exciting—old gospel songs played with a band made up predominately of funky New Orleans musicians, recorded in one of New Orleans’ premier studios and fronted by Scofield. Well, after a few days of listening to Piety Street I am not in the least disappointed.

On Piety Street Scofield and company connect Gospel, Blues, Jazz, and R&B effortlessly and naturally. The line-up is simple with iconic New Orleans bass player George Porter and drummer Ricky Fataar as the rhythm section and Jon Cleary on keys and vocals and John Scofield on guitar. The simplicity of this four-piece approach to gospel give the songs an understated quality that seems so lost in modern Gospel and R&B music but which allows plenty of room for the songs to move and groove, which they do quite well.

While Scofield’s playing is great as usual the one who really shines for me on this record is John Cleary. His vocals are just, well right—soulful without being piercing, gritty without being grimy and his keyboard playing whether organs or piano provide the perfect backing to allow Scofield’s guitar to sing.

There is something about the understanding of roots music by New Orleans musicians that just works with these old gospel songs. Listening to these songs is like hearing them the way they were meant to be played and then realizing that you have never quite heard gospel songs played like this with a touch of New Orleans Backbeat Funk, Delta Blues, Old Spirituals, a sprinkle of Country Blues, and topping it off with a generous helping Jazz guitar. Anyone else could have made an absolute train wreck of this idea but Scofield, Cleary, Porter, and Fataar (with speacial guests John Boutte and Shannon Powell) have done something really worthwhile here. I hope this is not their last collaboration because I find myself wanting more already.

Bear Grylls Did Alpha… So How’s that Supposed to Make Me Want To?

While I am a big fan of the Alpha Course (Northshore Vineyard is gearing up to run the course in Covington in October) and have certainly seen how it has been a powerful tool for introducing people to Jesus I am a bit puzzled by the newest Alpha promotional video released by Alpha USA—“Bear Grylls Did Alpha”.

The obvious idea behind this marketing campaign is to appeal to public interest in celebrity to make people want to take the Alpha Course. This is quite problematic to me though in light of the evidence that emerged back in 2007 of how many segments of the show Man vs. Wild were not as authentic as the audience was led to believe. In fact if you type in the name “Bear Grylls” on the first and most played clips which will come up are either about how fake certain aspects of Grylls’ Man vs. Wild show were or of Grylls trying to defend himself against accusations of being a phony, though not very convincingly, in an interview with Dave Letterman. Grylls has what might commonly be referred to as a credibility problem. People don’t trust him. So if people don’t trust him in his regular gig (his field of expertise) then why would they trust him with the weightier issues of faith?

While I am happy that Grylls has gone through the Alpha Course is now a Christ-follower, I can’t see how using his life as a testimony for those seeking answers to faith is going to yield very good results with those outside the faith. It may be exciting for a Christian to know that a celebrity is now a Christian but I don’t think that any of my friends who are not Christians would be encouraged to investigate faith further because a celebrity who is very much linked to faking a whole lot of his show is now a person of faith.

If you’re going to get a testimony from a Christian who is a celebrity why not try someone like Mel Gibson?… oh wait there’s a credibility issue there too… Wait, there's Heidi and Spencer Pratt who claim to be Christians… oh yeah there's the same problem there too… hmmm surely there’s some celebrity out there who is a Christ-follower who still has credibility. Or maybe celebrity and credibility are just not as synonymous as we would like to think. Or maybe, as the Apostle Paul made the case in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, if we are looking to celebrities, to the wealthy and the powerful for examples of faith then perhaps we are looking in the wrong place and should not be too discouraged when examples are few and far between. Perhaps the best examples of changed lives from the Alpha Course are just from regular everyday folks.