April 18, 2014

Trust

Worship (v): to offer oneself as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to a merciful God (see Romans 12:1-2)

It is no accident that Paul begins Romans 12 with the reassurance that God is merciful. Remembering God's mercy, or "in view of God's mercy," we are to make ourselves as living sacrifices. Our whole lives require a re-orientation if we're to get this right. Offering ourselves up as sacrifices, even living sacrifices, means that we are now at the mercy of God - every part of our lives are open for His use; every decision, every relationship, every resource.

So worship - true worship - requires an extraordinary amount of trust.

By Paul's definition, I can't worship God if I'm holding something back, because that's not all of me. Trust is scary; people who place their lives or their families or their jobs in the hands of God have lost them. Our individuality is not the only thing at play here, the Kingdom is far bigger than any one of us. Let's face it, it's a risk; we don't know what God is going to do with us once we give our lives to him. There are a lot of reasons to hold something back; I don't want to lose my wife, or my kids, or my job, or my friends, or my house, or my stuff, or my security ... simply, I don't want to lose my self-made identity. I hold on to all these things because I like them, because they matter to me, because I've worked so hard to get those things.

But Jesus says, those who lose their lives find them.

Jesus says that it takes trust in order to truly live. When we hold onto everything so tightly, we're not really alive. Paul observed that when people gave their lives to Jesus, when they let go of everything - when they worshipped - they received back far more than they gave. People that give up everything are transformed into new people, better people, people of a Kingdom made to bring Heaven on Earth. 

If our lives are lived in worship, we model the Passion of Jesus. We don't have to trust blindly; Jesus did it first. Jesus trusted the Father, and said, "not my will, but yours." And so can we die to ourselves, to the things we've created for ourselves, to the things we've decided are most important in this world, trusting that God will start over with us. We can trust that He'll take the lives we've laid down and re-create them stronger, purer, brighter, more true than we ever could have been before. We emerge from our watery graves new, whole, clean.

That is another reason we gather every week: to share those stories. In singing, in hearing from the scriptures, in our conversations with one another, we hear more stories of how God is worthy of our trust, and we are able to encourage others to trust a little more. Because when we gather together, trust comes easier. We can hold up those who don't have enough trust to keep going, who the tides of life have worn down, who hear the voices from the outside screaming of their supposed madness. And together we bury our pride and our insecurities in the presence of God and are again reborn.

We are, after all, a Resurrection people.

April 13, 2014

Victory

Palm Sunday and Resurrection Sunday are both holidays of pomp, circumstance, and celebration. And yet the two stand in stark contrast to one another. As the tradition goes, on Palm Sunday we celebrate Jesus the humble king, who came into Jerusalem on a donkey (rather than a war horse) surrounded by the commoners (instead of royalty) who placed their coats and palm branches at his feet (instead of a red carpet). But notice the subtleties of the story; everyone is celebrating not what Jesus had come to do, but what they wanted him to come and do. They wanted the triumphant warrior who had come to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel to its former glory. The bad guys were, as they say, gonna get what was due. There’s a reason we don’t call Palm Sunday the high point of Jesus’ ministry. I wonder how many people were disappointed when Jesus told the disciples to ask for a donkey rather than a horse. And Jesus didn’t come into Jerusalem thinking “at last, my kingdom.”

He came in weeping. Victorious kings don’t come in weeping.

He knew this wasn’t the start of something grand, something big, some new ministry initiative or some new benevolent monarchy. He knew that something grand had already started thirty years earlier in a dirty cave, or maybe even thousands of years earlier when Abram was called out of Ur by a mysterious God who wanted to redeem the world. Jesus knew there was a final victory needed that only He could win, a new high point to come.

But it wasn’t today. Not palm sunday.

Resurrection Sunday, on the other hand, follows a week of insanity, chaos, rebellion. A final supper in which Jesus declared that someone would betray him, followed by betrayal after betrayal. It’s interesting to note, that while Judas was the only one who scripture says would betray Jesus, all of them did; they all fell asleep, they all left. Jesus died in between a thief and a murderer, not between loyal friends; they watched from a distance. Kings aren’t supposed to be crucified, especially not next to criminals, and so when all hope of this victory was lost, the followers of the would-be king dispersed. Some took to hiding, others buried the body, all wept. The world sat in silence. The sabbath passed.

But then, an empty tomb. A mysterious gardener. Strangers on the road.

Victory had come in the strangest way; death itself defeated, the world reborn in a slow, staggering, quiet way, like daybreak. Love had come, but nobody noticed. The contrast is this: while Palm Sunday is mostly about the people celebrating what they wanted, Resurrection Sunday - Easter - is about celebrating what we got. Resurrection comes only when every hope and dream that Palm Sunday celebrates has been dashed against a Roman cross. On Resurrection Sunday, we celebrate that our Palm Sunday hopes weren’t big enough, that God knew what we wanted was too small, and so gave us something better: 

life.

April 8, 2014

Some Rambling Thoughts on Creativity

The creativity of my kids never ceases to amaze me. They seem to be able to come up with new ideas for a story at a moments notice, and have no bias for characters. Spider-Man often saves My Little Ponies from a burning firehouse made entirely of foam blocks, and an unnamed female superhero has a tendency to help a little ghost out of a wad of sticky gum ("gumtrapment" ... she never gets it). Paper towel tubes and sticks find all sorts of new identities. Those multicolored foam blocks become everything from Iron Man to cars to pet houses to mouse traps.

Clearly, for those of us who suffer from bouts of writers' block, there is something to be learned here.

Not that they've caught any mice yet.

The imagination of kids seems, to me, to come from a certain innocence. They haven't yet been totally molded into our cultural lenses because a lot of those lenses still make utterly no sense to them. They've not yet accepted that these two things don't go together because, of course, THAT would be ridiculous. Mice can't be trapped in foam block structures. Ghosts can't be trapped in gum. That doesn't look like a car.

I wonder if creativity has more to do with an innocence of the rules?

A few months ago I was in a mall searching for the Apple store, when I noticed, right across the aisle, a store that looked oddly similar. And then I smirked, because of course, it was the Microsoft store. The two looked nearly identical; same aluminum facade, same backlit tables, same dress-casual employees. And the thought that came to my mind was not "ooh, I want to try the Surface!" but, "boy, it must be sad to define yourself by someone else's standards." Microsoft had gotten good at following the rules; Apple, on the other hand, had decided that they would, instead, make the rules.

Successful creatives don't react to the ideas of others as if there's only one way to do something; they're proactive, constantly searching. Creativity and curiosity go hand in hand, and so they ask two questions a lot, more than any others: "what if?" and "why?" Creativity means seeing the universe for what it can be, not for what it is or for what it's not. Creative people allow themselves the permission to wonder, to explore. Everything is connected and so, often, creativity means finding ways to link ideas that seem unrelated. Inhibitions and fears of getting it wrong can be overridden by the wonder of the possible. It's not that failure doesn't hurt or isn't discouraging, it's that, since every idea is worthy of exploration, every failure can be a learning experience. It means not letting the voices pressuring us about limited resources (voices that are as often inside as outside) get in the way of the possibilities. Creativity is only necessary when there ARE boundaries; we don't need creativity if we don't have a problem to solve (which, coincidentally, explains my fascination with MacGyver and Fringe).

Sometimes that problem is simply "there needs to be more beauty in the world!"

Creativity often comes out of stillness, out of what Ori Brafman calls "white space" - a place where our minds are free to wander and make those connections we wouldn't ordinarily make. It's why I keep a set of bathtub crayons in the shower, to literally record those ideas on white space (since my mind is like that of a fish; three seconds and the idea's gone). I know everyone says that bathtub crayons are just for kids, but I've lost too many good ideas because I forgot, and I've had too many good ideas saved because I wrote them down when I thought of them to follow that rule. Some of my best ideas came when I wasn't trying to think of my best ideas.

Draw in the margins.
Do weird things.
Keep a record of your ideas, even the ones that don't work.
Doodle.
Ask a lot of questions.
Experiment.
Fail.
Look at it from a different side.
Don't just see the problem, smell it, taste it, touch it, hear it.
Try something else.
Play.

Some (ok, all) of that sounds a bit cliche. Do it anyway.

Sometimes, we make things too complicated, we try to over-think, over-analyze, over-create. A piece of music can be refined only so many times; a blog can be re-written only so many times; that canvas can only hold so many layers of paint.

Sometimes, creativity simply means knowing when to stop.

April 6, 2014

Made Alive in You

When I was a kid, my parents had to drag me to church every week. I do mean every week; I'm pretty sure that, between the ages of 8 and 14, I begged my parents every single sunday to let us stay home. Aside from some generational issues, the reason was simple: I am a musician. And I hated the music.

As traditional churches often do, they had hired an organist to accompany the hymns. However, to me it was clear that nobody had interviewed with much vigor (the Eastman school of music is 25 minutes away, so this should have been easy), because the organist was bad. Very bad. Don't get me wrong, he could put his fingers on the right keys and all that (most of the time), but the man would turn any hymn into a funeral march. It was so depressing.

And so I hated hymns. And I refused to sing.

Ever.

Fast forward to seminary. I had overcome any issues with singing when I was introduced to modern music ("contemporary" at the time), and found a heart language in which to sing. I played on worship teams on my sax, and even sang a backup part to "Flood" one Sunday as a teenager, to the surprise of my parents. My loathing of the hymn remained. In my mind, they were too wordy, the melody too complicated for congregational singing, the language too clumsy. They had become, as it were, irrelevant for the culture, and if I had had my way, they would have been banned from churches.


As it turns out, Asbury Seminary didn't feel the same way. In fact, they too had hired an organist, a man in his late 80's (I think) who I could grudgingly appreciate for his remarkable musicianship. The man could seriously play, and while chapel was not a mandatory experience at Asbury, Liz and I began to attend together. The speakers were excellent (mostly professors), but I had to put up with traditional hymns and the occasional acoustic tribute to contemporary music in order to hear them.


I remember it vividly. I was in chapel, standing amongst my peers and rolling my eyes like I usually did after the first hymn, when the organist began the introduction to a traditional Wesleyan hymn called "And Can it Be." And I remember noticing a change in the room. It was a feeling, something intuitive, not something I could measure. But something was definitely different, and as everyone started to sing, the words caught my attention in a way they never had before. I looked around me, and watched as men and women younger than me and much older than me sang with a passion I'd only ever witnessed in large contemporary congregations. They closed their eyes and clenched their fists, they raised their hands and smiled as they sang,
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee
Amazing love, how can it be
That Thou my God should'st die for me?
And it suddenly hit me: I didn't hate the music. In fact, I had never bothered to actually listen to the music, all I had ever done was lament the poor delivery. For years, I had ranted and raved against something made to worship God simply because my first impressions had done the music a disservice. I had been so preoccupied with my own prejudice, I'd never bothered to accept the music on its own terms. But now, God had opened my ears, and my heart - and eventually my lips - began to sing with my peers,
No condemnation now I dread
Jesus and all in Him is mine
Alive in Him my living head
And clothed in righteousness divine
Bold I approach the eternal throne
And claim new life through Christ my own
When I'm asked about my ministry among both modern and traditional congregations, the question often comes up, "what's your favorite kind of music?" While my iPhone has a pretty eclectic assortment of styles and artists, people really want to know, am I traditional or modern? Which is better? And the answer is simply this:

yes.

I am both. The two cultures have much to teach one another. God says to sing a new song, and God says to remember. The two must go hand in hand with the many other forms of musical worship if we are to be the Church. I first sang songs of worship in a contemporary gathering, but I have regularly encountered the living God in both of these styles and more.

I tell this story today because I've finally finished a new recording, one of my own original arrangement of the hymn. I've modernized the language a bit, and written a chorus based on Charles' refrain. Oh, and it's a modern sound; the traditional and the modern, hand in hand.

May your heart sing with mine as you listen.

March 31, 2014

Tool

"We do this every year so people will come to know Jesus."

I was in my first full-time pastorate, and had just been told that the church put on a musical every Easter. A community musical, that I would be supervising, down to costumes, animals, sets, and of course, volunteer actors and actresses.

It's not that what she said made me especially upset, more that something in the sentiment ... bothered me. While I knew her enough to know that her motivation was for the Glory of God, part of me wondered if putting on this huge production really made a difference in the community the way the church thought it did, if amateur theater was being presented in the name of Jesus so that they could add a few names to the rolls for the next few weeks before the newcomers went back to ... whatever they did before.

Sometimes, I don't think we understand how art fits into the world of the Church very well.

There are two mistakes often made regarding the theology of the Mission of the Church, and they both directly impact how churches understand art. The first is to begin our story from a place where humanity sinned and fell short of God's glory, i.e. starting in Genesis 3. The task then comes to fix the problem, to get the world to come back to Jesus. And it's an honest mistake, because it's easier to see the problems of the world all around us than anything else, and it would make sense from this perspective - with ample evidence - that we are fundamentally flawed, broken from the start. It's a story that's about how we need to stop doing certain things and the world will mysteriously be better. And to a degree, this is true; Jesus came into the world to save the world from sin. But sin management isn't the ultimate goal of the Mission; redemption, reconciliation, restoration to relationship with God is. We're not supposed to be living against something, we're supposed to be living FOR something bigger.

Which is why the second theological mishap is a reaction to the first; we start the story with the Mission itself. We go to Matthew 28 or even Genesis 12 and see how we've been called a sent people, and so we focus on the mission of reconciliation. And again, it's an honest mistake, because like I said, we are supposed to be living FOR something, not against something. But this version of the story still begins with a solution, which means it really begins by alluding to a problem. This is still a gospel that is about managing sin, despite the grander vision of working for a better world. 

It's not where the scriptures start. The scriptures are a story, and they start in the beginning, and they say that in the beginning, God created. 

Art is everywhere.

Because of God.

God is an artist.

The first thing God ever did was crack His knuckles (or at least, I imagine He did) and whip up existence. He made galaxies and platypus and grass and selenium and slime mold and giant squid and ice and all sorts of crazy other things. Like people. People are crazy things. But we're part of God's latest art project! In the beginning, the Creator took chaos and brought to it order.

And before anything bad happened, He called Creation GOOD. 

That should change how we see ourselves.

It should change how we see others.

It should change how we perceive our relationship with God.

It should even change how we see salvation.

The Mission of God is what God is up to in the world He created, not what we're up to. We don't have to get the world to come to Jesus, He is already wooing the world to himself ... sometimes through us. Yes, we are being reconciled to God, and yes, we are to participate (God acts, we join in), but ultimately re-creation happens because God is re-creating.

And that is why art belongs in the Church: it is not there so we might increase the roster, or to convince people of their sinfuless, or to get people to hear the gospel message, or so we get some fuzzy nostalgia or weepy emotional highs. Art is not a tool to be used for some other ends, though things like transformation, worship, and learning often happen because of and through the art. No, art IS an end, and it belongs in the Church because God is an artist, because the very heart of God beats for a new creation, a new work of art that's going to be even more amazing than the original.

To be artists is to imitate our Creator.
"We are the product of His hand, heaven’s poetry etched on lives, created in the Anointed, Jesus, to accomplish the good works God arranged long ago." [Ephesians 2:10]