November 24, 2014

Why People Sing on Sunday (Part 1)

There are still a lot of articles flying around right now about why people "aren’t singing" in churches since the last time I wrote on this. Some are wise to point out that the issue seems to be common to congregations regardless of style and thus must be something beyond that style. Go figure though, most blame modern music and all blame those of us who design and implement the worship gathering on behalf of our church families. It’s argued, not unsubtly, that people would only sing if we would just work harder.
 Speaking as one who works very hard to make each week a time where my congregation can engage God in song, in silence, and in scripture, it hurts to read these.

But it got me thinking, what about all the people who ARE singing?

I know for a fact that some people sing. Lots, even. Even the most irritatingly uninformed of these articles acknowledge that not EVERYONE is silent; some people actually do sing with the worship leaders. In the three churches I’ve pastored so far, and in the churches before that where I volunteered, lots of people sang with me when I led. Lots. I know, because I could see them, and I could even hear them sometimes over the sound of my crazy rock music and pumping organ. Seriously though, there are lots of reasons people sing.

For example …

Some people sing because they love the music. Shocking, I know, but if you hear a song you like, it’s hard not to sing along. Believe it or not, some people really like classic hymnody. Songs like “And Can it Be” and “Take My Life and Let it be Consecrated” move something inside of them. Other people can’t help singing along to songs like “Oceans” or “Build Your Kingdom Here” or a myriad of other modern pieces. Some people like both. Some people sing along to songs like “Santo Santo Eres” or “Vengan Sus Hijos.” Some sing songs with words like “Agnus dei” or “Kyrie,” though admittedly not many; it seems that truly good music doesn't have an expiration date, but sadly those who love it do (the melody of the Philippians 2 hymn is lost to us for this very reason). But in every culture, a different sort of music points people towards God and helps them worship Him in song. It’s ok to like a certain kind of music. Really, it’s ok! If you like modern music, awesome - lots of people do. If you like classical hymnody, awesome - lots of other people do. If you like hip hop, awesome - lots of people do. But whatever you happen to like, don’t say that someone else’s “lacks theological depth” when what you really mean is that you don’t like their style - honestly, you’re showing your own ignorance of their culture and not your own intellectual prowess.

Judgement happens in churches, believe it or not, and so unfortunately, some people sing out of guilt or peer pressure. They look around them and see everyone else is singing, and they either don’t want to stick out, or they don’t want someone to judge them for silence. But as we’ll see next time, the same people will judge them for singing as well. I wish there was something we could do about this. I pray that if you’re singing out of guilt or pressure the songs start to take root and you’re able to ignore the haters around you and sing with a newfound freedom. Honestly, the haters aren’t worth your anxiety; and if you need silence, take it.

Some people sing because they know it will help them change. Music can help us change our attitude in something called “action-reflection” learning. Basically, it means that we don’t feel like singing, but we sing anyway until we start to feel like singing. Think of a Sunday morning when the kids were awful or the drive to church was fraught with arguments and stress. You arrive, but your mind keeps going to that project at work you have to finish on Monday, or to the book the kids ripped before you left. So you arrive, and you just don’t feel like it, but the worship leader steps up to the mic and says “join me as we sing!” She sounds too chipper for how you feel, but you hear the melody and you start to sing. And sometimes, by the second or third song, you realize that you’ve released the anxiety of those things to God and you’ve been able to sing. It might not work for everyone, but if you haven’t had that experience, I suggest that you try it this week; you might be surprised at how God speaks to you through the music.

I saved the best for last though. I know it can be cliche, but Christians sing in the first place because the Spirit has moved them. Translated out of Christianese, God has done something in the lives of these people and they respond as so many before them - in song. Not a single culture is without music in some form, which means that music is the culturally universal way of expressing what’s happened inside of us, of expressing our hopes and dreams and fears and joys and sorrows. In response to God’s mercy, one thing Christians do is sing. Some people sing hymns. Some people sing rock ballads. Some people sing along with a banjo (though for the life of me I don’t know why). Some people sing in amelodic rhythmic percussion (beatbox, hip hop, rap - yes it is music, even if you don’t like it). Some people sing without words. Some people sing with only words (a capella). Though the method and the words may differ, they all sing in response to the mercy they’ve been offered. In the words of an old spiritual, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free” … They’re forgiven, and they know it.

So they sing.

Next time, we’ll talk about why someone might choose not to sing. Stay tuned …

November 3, 2014

Vertigo

I was laid flat with vertigo most of the day on Friday. It started around 4am, when I woke up suddenly feeling like I was spinning around on a centrifuge, burning up and freezing at the same time. If I lay really still, I almost felt normal, but that illusion would disappear as soon as I’d either open my eyes or move my head slightly. Then, I’d see the room start sliding one direction or the other, usually towards the left, and as I closed them again, I’d feel like I was back in the centrifuge.

Oddly enough, I never actually threw up.

The little semicircular canals in the middle ear are the bits that aid with balance (or, as wikipedia calls it, “equilibrioception”); they’re our own personal gyroscopes. Mine are known, in my family, for their hypersensitivity - they’re just the worst. Because of this, I’ve thrown up in multiple states and countries on multiple vacations, making my family miserable because I got car sick at inopportune times (although, really, IS there an opportune time?). But this time I didn’t. And the reason might actually be the fact that I AM so sensitive - because I’ve been through this before. Sometimes, my ears just don’t tell me what’s really going on, a fact of which I’ve become acutely aware. I know and accept that my ears are not infallible, and have often failed me, causing my body to do things it really shouldn’t (like vomiting, which is just about the worst feeling ever). Even as I lay in bed, it occurred to me that, though my eyes told me otherwise, my wife couldn’t possibly be walking around the apartment unless it really wasn’t rotating in three simultaneous directions.

What we think we’re experiencing isn’t always what’s real. When the world feels like it’s spinning out of control, it might be that whatever we’re using to measure that or experience that is actually broken and needs fixing. “We do not lose heart,” Paul writes; “though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Peel back the layers, he says, and there’s always way more going on that you can’t see. Sometimes what’s going on right in front of you isn’t what you think; sometimes, what you think you see or hear isn’t really there (or sometimes something is there you don’t think you see); sometimes, your body or your mind betray you; sometimes, your senses are wrong.

It takes courage to see this.

How many of us, when the world feels like it's warped and twisted into unrecognizably dizzying shapes, have tried to lay still just to make the hurting stop? Change can render the best of us inert, frozen, unable to move in the direction we've been called because it can be so disorienting. Our collective senses are designed for what’s right in front of us, which means we’ve been built to trust God for the rest of the story, for the things that haven’t yet happened. 

When I'm a passenger in a car, and I find that we're starting to pull a bunch of hair-pin turns through canyons or mountains, I've discovered that the best place to focus is not on the road in front of me, but on the road far ahead. When I keep my eyes focused on the bigger perspective of my orientation to the end, rather than the spinning and bouncing of the now, I survive the lurching feeling of a car that feels out of control. Dizziness still happens, because the windy road I'm driving must still stay in my peripheral vision, but it's manageable; I can still make it to where I'm going. In our spiritual vertigo, the things of the now can be deceptive if we try to forecast them forward; only God sees the bigger picture, and so we must trust that God is working for the redemption of this world. This is why we’re so often told to focus on the end-game of the Kingdom, and not to focus on the short-term wins and losses. Things of the past can point us towards this reality - the incarnation, the cross and resurrection, and the many times in our personal histories and in our world’s history when God came through for His creation.

But once again, this is why it is called “faith” - we can walk, even run, despite that our eyes sometimes say the ground is missing and our ears tell us that we're falling, spinning out of control. If we're running where God is leading, our feet will always find purchase, though 'purchase' may look very different than we might expect. When the world begins falling apart, we'll survive the hairpin turns when our eyes strain to see what God sees: 

redemption, restoration, and a Kingdom that will never end.

October 6, 2014

Whatever

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” — Leonardo DaVinci


There’s some part of every artist that will never be happy with the status quo. Every artist I’ve ever met has issues with dissatisfaction and perfectionism - nothing will ever be quite … done for us. There’s always one extra edit to make, one more smear of paint to add, one more rehearsal to perfect that one phrase, one more paragraph to add. It’s a temperament that has served artists well for a long time - we improve our craft and produce our best art when we obsess, not only over the big picture, but also over the details. Like many things, however, such a strength can also be an achilles heel; spend too much time on something, and other projects, family, housework, even health will all suffer. At some point, we need to put the brush down, call it “done” (or at least, “as done as it can get”) and move on. If we abandon ourselves to obsession over one piece, we’ll never make anything new.

I’m finding, though, that this same thing is true - for myself, at least - when starting art. I know what good writing or photography looks like, what good music sounds like, and so if I don’t feel like I have it within me that day to craft a fantastic blog post or an excellent essay or a beautiful song, I somehow get it in my head that it’s best not to even start;

Why waste the time producing sub-par material?

Cue writer’s block.

There are a few things colliding here. The aforementioned obsession with perfection is obviously a major contributor; I want to make the best thing, but I want to make it right from the start. Which is the second element: we Americans are, for some reason or other, also obsessed with efficiency. We’re very bad at lingering, at taking the long way around, because our cultural narrative of production demands that if we think we have time to take the long way, we could probably take the short way twice and thereby produce more. I’ve written before about our culture’s desire to produce as much as possible, and while we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far the other way (we do need to make something or else we won’t be able to survive), creativity often comes from the times of disruption, silence, quiet, lingering, and seeming inefficiency.

Which means that sometimes, when I find myself in a rut and unable to start, I’m finding that it’s good to do something totally inefficient. Last night, for example, after dinner I pulled out my pastels (for the first time in a long time) and simply blended color together on blank pages in my notebook. My seven year old kept asking what I was drawing. When I told her that I was just making color, she looked confused, insisting that this must be a tree or something (Rorschach was a genius, by the way). In truth, I was just burning up pastels to see what might come out of it. I wasn’t making “something;” I was making anything, or more accurately, I was making “whatever” - flexing my mind to see which direction it might bend. You might call it artistic calisthenics; other art forms often inspire our primary form simply because they pull us away from our patterns and help us try new things.

Sometimes, change for the sake of change is actually a good, healthy thing. I don’t actually like doing it, personally - I like my patterns, my habits, my routines. But if I stick to them as if they’re the point, I end up leading a stale life, and my writing, my leadership, my music, and even my parenting ends up sort of … blah. Lifeless. Inert. Lacking flavor.

Lives lived well - lives in which God is working, lives that are works of art - will always need to experience new things, learn new ideas, try new activities, go new places, and at least occasionally, break their routines in order for God to work. It is true that God works in many routines - of gathering and sending, of daily prayer, of sunrise and sunset - but it’s just as true that God works by breaking those same routines - retreats, camps, fasting, celebrations, vacations, even weekly sabbath to break the rhythms of work.

I had a professor once who told me that he felt like his teaching was stale for a while, but couldn’t figure out why. And then he realized that he’d been telling the same stories over and over again; he start teaching, and then one day it had suddenly been five years since he’d told a new story to his classes. He’d gotten so used to telling the stories he’d collected that he’d forgotten to make new stories to tell. He was no longer modeling the life he was trying to teach because he’d gotten sucked into teaching the life in a classroom. 

If you think about it, a routine is like telling the same story over and over and over again, and one day we wake up and realize that it’s been years since we told a new story, that everyone around us has tuned out because they’ve heard that one about a thousand times. You might say that our salt loses its saltiness. So if you’re like me and have a tendency to get sucked into your routine, be brave and try something new. Go to a different restaurant for lunch this week, or take a different route home from work, try holding your pen a different way. It doesn’t matter what, but do something NEW! Don’t let your story get so routine that you forget to tell it!

After all, your life could be a work of art, and art is never finished, 

only abandoned.