In my last post, I talked about the role of risk in art. Commercial risk, artistic risk, personal risk, physical risk, and even spiritual risk are all part of the journey that artists of faith must walk in order to develop and flourish and make meaning of ourselves and our art.
I received a lot of feedback from you—both on-line and personally—so in this post, I thought I would share some of the measured risks you are taking. One commonality I see among those who are venturing out into these areas is that they do so with a premeditated understanding and a certain courage. You understand the risks, but you’ve got to walk into them anyway. As one of you concluded, “I’m being who I was created to be.” And if you think about it, faith is built in this way.
So here are a baker’s dozen of artists taking risks. I encourage you to hit the links to see their websites and dig deeper into each of them.
• My long-time bass player and friend, Matthew, recently left for three weeks to join a band touring the predominantly Muslim country of Kazakhstan. He is joining my former drummer, Steve, who had already answered a full-time missionary call to move his family to Germany with Proclaim! International. Supporting local Christian churches in the area, they will encounter significant challenges in the face of government and public animosity and hostility. This is Matt’s first missions trip.
• Sherri‘s original risk was co-founding an art gallery in Idaho, which is now defunct. Faced with the real world of commercialism (“I realized early on that to sell art I had to create sellable art”), she stopped painting for awhile before realizing that the dialogue of her art to God was a path toward healing, not only for herself, but to others through her. She shares that now, “Abuse victims, the handicapped, and shut-ins started showing up at my proverbial door to paint.”
• Rick, a musician and videographer in Tacoma, decided to stretch himself musically by starting the “Song A Day Project.” Every day for months, he would compose, record, and post an original guitar instrumental, forcing himself to create under a deadline as well as push against his “fear of imperfections.” He shares introspectively, “I think artists have an inherent desire, even a call, to explore the limits, push the false or unnecessary boundaries. This edginess increases their need for humility and teachability, deep relationships with accountability, and a greater love of holiness than of innovation. Otherwise they can move past safe boundaries into harm and sin.”
• Supashmo (his gravatar name) is currently penning “a Christian modern-day fantasy series with swords, magic, the whole shebang. It’s not an allegory, so I get not breaks there. It’s Christians who have the actual Bible in the fantasy world and living it out as it applies to their supernatural existence.” He admits that Christians generally shy away from fantasy and specifically magic, especially if it is not allegory, so he understands the risk of being misunderstood by writing in this genre.
• Judith, a Sacramento-based, mixed-media artist who is self-admittedly hard to categorize, has recently begun expanding—not only in new techniques, but also by exploring “imagery that can be challenging and easily misunderstood: dead birds and small animal skulls paired with nests and butterflies and flowers.” She is trusting that the Spirit has given her a vision, and that God will provide for her financially and with an audience. To the right is one of her new works, entitled, “Sparrow Fallen.” She concluded her note with the following caveat: “I think I sound like a crazy artist…”
• Michaela, a vocalist and aspiring songwriter, is taking a leap of faith. As both a starving artist and a starving college student, she is about to embark on a Kick-Starter campaign to help finance her first solo album, a fairly non-commercial endeavor of ukelele-driven acoustic alternative music. She has a folder full of original songs, a vision for this musical adventure, and a heart willing to take the risk to expose them.
• Joy is a visual artist from Philadelphia. She is admittedly still in process and is quite generally busy in ministry, but has lately felt the need to express herself with some risky art that actually “says something.” She shared with me a Picasso-influenced piece that is shown here on the left. Definitely not a “safe” piece.
• Keith, an artist in Northern Ireland, is in the process of choosing between two career paths—a safe and secure teaching position which provides financial security, or a largely underemployed position developing an arts ministry—his real dream. He is deciding that God is “calling me to paint. I am a Kingdom Risk Taker. As I believe in him, the risk will all be worth it.”
• Lisa, primarily a visual artist in Idaho, sees risk in everything she does: “to be all present in my artmaking, to create in community and fight the instinct to isolate, to let my work speak meaning and passion and depth (even if it’s not what I think it “should” say, but rather allow it to say what it “needs” to say), and to let the art take me to new places, giving myself room to experiment, to learn, to go beyond.” She concludes, “to be an artist is to live a life of risk.”
• Plasso (also known as Dave) is a performance artist in North Carolina who sees risk every time he steps in front of his canvas. Constantly experimenting with new materials and processes (from pencil to tempra to home-made dirt paste), he constrains himself to Spirit-led spontaneity during his church’s 30 minute sermons.
• Perhaps John, an award-winning and critically acclaimed fiction writer based in Montana, said it best: “No risk, no art. And what am I doing? I am not quitting.”
And now something a bit personal. Last weekend, painter Julie and dancer Mary teamed up with me to create a totally improvised piece for a concert called Synthesis 2013. As I created an impromptu three-movement piece on piano and percussion, Julie and Mary interpreted what I played in their respective mediums. Though we had attempted a similar thing once before, Julie and I had no idea how this is going, especially with the added dynamic of this talented and energetic dancer. Stepping into the fear of this improvisation, we teased out—visually, bodily, and musically—the movements of self-discovery, selfishness, and self-awareness. As I attempted to fill the dance hall with sound, Mary pirouetted and jumped and filled the dance floor, and Julie dabbed and stabbed and twirled large circles filling the canvas. Both intense and sublime, it was a scary but wonderful experience.
Julie shared later, “I have struggled for years with the art I wanted to do versus the art the world was convincing me I needed to do. As I have stepped out of my comfort and risked in my art, I have found a loving, grace filled God, embracing me and whispering in my ear, ‘trust me in this.’”
Through the examples above, I hope you begin to realize one Truth: The journey of growing as an artist and the journey of growing in our faith both involve risk. And for us artists of faith, they are often one and the same.
[Note: The painting at the top of this blog post is Julie's painting (seven minutes from blank canvas to finished piece) from our collaborative venture.]
What is the role of risk in the arts? Is what we do as artists “dangerous”?
As artists, we are given the opportunity to risk in many ways. We risk commercially, in that there are always internal and external pressures to be profitable, and we typically must finance ourselves in our work to some degree. We risk artistically, in that art that stands out as unique and exceptional requires that we make stylistic choices that can deviate from acceptability. We also risk our audience, for they have unspoken expectations upon us, expectations to entertain and to perform to their preconceived liking—for we love the adoration of our audience more than we care to admit. We risk being misunderstood, as artists typically battle the demons of acceptance and approval, while still maintaining our vision for our art. And we risk spiritually, in that the choices we make as artists often are accompanied by decisions to compromise our personal integrity, our morals, and even our vision for our art. These risks are both complex and entangled, both highly specific to our art and to our selves.
Risk is no new thing to artists. A 26-year-old Michelangelo risked his reputation and career on a politically vexing and immensely massive block of marble locals called “the Giant.” It was through Michelangelo’s craftsmanship and vision that the huge stone became the iconic Renaissance sculpture, “David.” Experimental painters in the late 1800s, including Monet and Renoir, suffered incessant criticism and ridicule from the established French academics of their day. Originally dubbed “impressionism” as a derisive term, this style and movement would only later became more widely recognized and applauded. In 1965, Bob Dylan was nearly booed off the stage when he unveiled a new electric, rock-influenced sound to his devoted folk audience. Ironically, Dylan was simply expressing the voice of change with the musical instruments which characterized that change. Thomas Langmann sold his home and borrowed from relatives in order to finance this crazy idea of a film, a silent black-and-white movie set in the late 1920s. His 2011 release, “The Artist,” went on to win three Golden Globes and five Academy Awards. Even today, artists around the world are being persecuted with harassment, imprisonment, and torture because their art is in response to “oppression, injustice, and despotism.” Indeed, art can be a dangerous thing.
And artists of faith are not immune to this as well. T.S. Eliot was spurned by some critics when his poetry began to reflect his conversion to orthodox Christianity. Long-haired Christian musicians in the 1970s were ridiculed and rebuked for their use of guitars and drums in the church (a pretty laughable thought in this day and age). Evangelicals continue to have a love/hate relationship with the super group U2, and specifically with their spiritual frontman, Bono. And though this is a relatively small thing, I myself remember instances where, as a Christian playing jazz fusion in the early 1990s, church audiences would actually turn their backs on us.
But maybe the better question might be, what are the consequences of not risking in our art? When we play it safe and minimize risk, what can be the result? We can be ignored. We can cocoon ourselves, either physically in our studios or metaphorically in our Christian subculture, our holy huddles. We can produce art that is cliche and mediocre and derivative. We can be dishonest with ourselves. We can spend a lot of time saying nothing.
What are the risks you are taking as an artist? Are you developing new techniques? Are you seeking new audiences, or seeking to speak to them in new ways? Are you pushing the artificial boundaries of your disciplines or genres? Are you taking some financial risks? Are you seeking to say something worth saying? Are you using your art to champion a cause or speak Truth to the world?
Reply to this blog and I’ll share some of the things you, as an artist of faith, are doing. I can’t wait to hear from you.
[Note: To view the sequel to this blog post, where I describe a baker's dozen worth of artists who are walking into risk, please click the link to the blog post, "Risky Business."]
Just wanted everyone to know that I’ve recently enabled the new Community Widget on my website. Now, subscribers to “Adventures in Faith and Art” will be shown randomly as a small gravatar (your profile picture) in the sidebar of my main page (look on the right). I’m hoping that this might help us connect better with one another.
So this is what you can do. Check out the new “Adventures in Community” sidebar on my webpage, and then surf through the many subscribers’ websites—it’s a virtual community of artists of faith. You might learn something new, see something that inspires you, or just make a new friend.
Of course, I always encourage you to subscribe to my website (see the subscribe button on the right), or just surf through other pages on my blog, including Gigs, Book Review, Web Links, Music, and other stuff. As always, thanks for your support!
In the last years of my mother’s life, there was so much to say, and few ways to say it. The victim of a sudden stroke, she had lost the ability to talk, and in those last few years, she began the slow and implacable slide into dementia. Once a loving but opinionated woman (not untypical of Filipino moms!), she had evolved over time into that quiet, slumped posture that marked the last chapter of a life lived long and hard.
I would visit her every other month or so, and when I did, it was always the same—the dullness of being, the puzzled look in her eyes as she first sees me, a prolonged flash of sudden knowing, and then a large smile that filled her worn but tender face. But the smile always faded quickly, back to the Mona Lisa stare, back to the dullness that was her life.
We had moved her to southern California to live with my brother’s family, and their home was rather small, so I always stayed at a local inn. Often, I would take her on short trips to the hotel, to get her out of the house and give my sister-in-law a break. There, we would sit at the lobby windows, overlooking the pool, she in her wheelchair and me beside her. Holding her small, wrinkled hands, I would share family news and tell stories about the past and show photos of the kids to her on my MacBook. And when this one-sided conversation would begin to wane, I would wheel her to the out-of-tune baby grand piano in the lobby, and play her some songs.
This is where I sometimes felt she could best connect with me and I with her. I would usually play for maybe an hour, going from old songs on the radio to jazz standards to new songs I had written. But her favorite tune was an old Filipino classic called “Dahil Sa Iyo.” She had made me learn the song as a reluctant young boy, and thankfully, I was still able to remember and play this beautiful piece for her. As I would begin the opening bars of the song, I would glance at her to see that small smile appear from her pursed lips, see her head bob ever so slightly with the music. Obviously, I couldn’t read her mind, but I knew through her smile that she connected with the song, connected with the wave of memories it conjured.
There are reasons for this, reasons both scientific and spiritual. And I was reminded of these reasons during our recent Intersections: Faith and the Arts conference, when Tiffany Paige, director of the Sacramento ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimer’s organization, spoke to us.
ARTZ “is an organization that links artists and cultural institutions to people living with dementia and their care partners. Influenced by science and sociology, ARTZ uses artistic and cultural experiences as keys to unlock creativity, create new memories, strengthen relationships, and replace fear with hope.” In short, ARTZ believes strongly that access to creative expression is essential to our human experience.
During Tiffany’s moving presentation, she informed us that while Alzheimer’s disease affects logic and comprehension and communication, it does not affect emotion or memories. This is why her patients are so moved by the visual artwork that she presents to them. The art are triggers to memories and thoughts and feelings, and they are often able to interact with those memories and emotionally respond to them. The response has been sometimes subtle, sometimes astounding.
There is a spiritual dimension to this as well, of course. We are made in the image of God, a God who is both emotional and artistic. He is, in fact, the most joyous, the most artistic, and the most deeply emotional Being in the universe. So we are hard-wired to feel emotion at the sight of beauty and the arts, even when void of logic and rationale. Art extends, literally, beyond reason.
There are other examples of this that are dear to me. Arts Camp is my church’s annual summer day camp for elementary age children. Each year, hundreds of kids from our community are offered the love of Christ through the gifts of dance, drama, music, visual arts, culinary arts, and various crafts. It is one of the most exciting weeks in our church. This year, both of my teen daughters will be shepherds in the “Brush Stokes” class, a small elective taught by my friend Susan Lee that teaches the visual arts to special needs children. Also, for many years, our church ran the The Rhythm Arts Project (TRAP), led by Steve Liberti. Through drum circle and percussion, TRAP “educates individuals with intellectual and developmental differences by embracing a curriculum that encompasses rhythm as a modality” to address basic life and academic skills. Steve led many TRAP classes for the developmentally challenged, as well as for young children, helping them gain skills and self-esteem.
Both of these are examples of where the arts are used to allow young people the opportunity to explore and express themselves beyond mere logic, beyond mere reason, into something deeper inside themselves. Indeed, young or old, we all need to connect through the expressions of the arts.
As a child, I put hundreds of practice hours playing on the old mahogany upright in our living room. And my Mom and Dad were witness to each note and scale, each phrase and flourish. As I look back now, I feel so very fortunate that I had the opportunity to give a little of that back to my Mom in her last days. Because when I played for Mom, it was not just because I wanted to see her smile. I played because I appreciated all she had done for me, all the encouragement and patience and sacrifices and life lessons. I played the piano for her as a simple act of love.
I hope she knew that. I think she did.
[NOTE: For more information, I strongly recommend that you check out the above links to ARTZ, TRAP, and Oak Hills Church Arts Camp.]
This isn’t your typical Adventures in Faith and Art blog. I’ve been collecting movie quotes for awhile now just for fun, and I thought I would share a few that are themed around the issues of creativity, music, the arts, and artists. In general, I’d recommend all of these movies to you, if you hadn’t seen them yet (please be mindful of the ratings). Some of these border on the profound, and some are just fun. And if you have a movie quote you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it.
John Keating: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.”
“Dead Poets Society” (1989)
Norman: “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—came from grace. And grace comes by art. And art does not come easily.”
“A River Runs Through It” (1992)
Sam Phillips [To Johnny Cash]: “If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”
“Walk the Line” (2005)
“The Agony and the Ecstasy” (1965)
Shug: “More than anything God love admiration.”
Celie: “You saying God is vain?”
Shug: “No, not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it p***es God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.”
“The Color Purple” (1985)
“Amazing Grace” (2006)
Willy Wonka: “Invention, my dear friends, is 93 percent perspiration, 6 percent electricity, 4 percent evaporation, and 2 percent butterscotch ripple.”
Dell Paxton: “Ain’t no way to keep a band together. Bands come and go. You got to keep on playing, no matter with who.”
“That Thing You Do” (1996)
Susan [about Lucy]: “She thinks she’s found a magical land in the upstairs wardrobe.”
Professor Kirke: “What did you say?”
Peter: “The wardrobe. Upstairs. Lucy thinks she’s found a forest inside.”
Susan: “She won’t stop going on about it.”
Professor Kirke: “What was it like?”
Susan: “Like talking to a lunatic.”
Professor Kirke: “No, no, no. Not her, the forest!”
Susan [stares]: “You’re not saying you believe her?”
Professor Kirke: “You don’t?”
Susan: “But of course not. I mean, logically it’s impossible. “
Professor Kirke: “What do they teach in schools these days?”
“The Chronicles of Narnia” (2005)
If you liked this blog, you might consider checking out “Most Quoted Movie Scenes by Musicians.”
There’s a couple sitting at the bar. Fifty-something, but dressed like they’re dating. He leans into her, whispers something playfully in her ear. She smiles back at him like she’s eighteen. “Fill my heart with gladness, take away my sadness,” I sing, coaxing the soul out of the piano. The melody cuts through the muted din of shuffling plates and muffled conversations. “Ease my troubles is what you do.”
B flat major seven to an A minor nine. Two chord, dominant five, and slide back to the one. I can feel Van Morrison floating through my fingers, down through the keyboard, and out into the restaurant.
Behind me, an older gentleman sips slowly on a draft. Sitting back in his stool, he keeps time with his fingers. I know he’s there because occasionally, I’ll hear him sing a little of the chorus with me. I float from Adele to Maroon 5 and then to Eric Clapton. He pulls me aside later to tell me something of no small urgency. “You really moved me with that one song, man,” he confesses. “I loved Carole King, used to own her albums.” He nods to himself. “Yeah, they don’t write them like that anymore.”
Key of G. I slide through the circle of fifths to the key of F and land on a 6/8 tempo. Soon I’m deep into Jason Mraz. “I won’t give up on us, even if the skies get rough. I’m giving you all my love, I’m still looking up.”
I notice a family slowly walking through the bar area, watching me sing. Most likely they’ve been listening to me for the past hour as they ate their dinner in the main room. Maybe celebrating a birthday or something. Still playing, I make eye contact with their young daughter and give her a goofy smile. Wide-eyed at the sight of a grown man singing to her, she grins sheepishly and gives me a little wave. Her mother, following behind, mouths a thank you to me. The father puts a five on the bar in front of me, nods in approval, then leaves. I’m reminded of a John Mayer song, so I flip to it and sing.
“Fathers be good to your daughters, daughters will love like you do,” I intone. “Girls become lovers who turn into mothers, So mothers be good to your daughters too.”
I first began to play solo piano when I was eighteen. My little brother was working at a pizza parlor, one of the popular hangouts in our home town, and he convinced the manager to hire me to play the piano on Saturday nights during my summer breaks. My set then was as musically naive as I was: Bread, Elton John, Eagles, and the occasional Charlie Brown theme song. That experience transferred easily to the college coffee house circuit, where I graduated to Al Jarreau, Steely Dan, and the then ubiquitous Billy Joel. By the time I was a young adult, I was playing jazz standards off of fake books at restaurants downtown. Yeah, I’ve forgotten more songs than I know.
I need to mix it up a little bit, so I decide to launch into some old school James Taylor. “Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end…”
Life is made up of stories. My story, your story, their story. All entwined in a series of events and circumstances, in tragedy and in serendipity, fire and rain, stretching back from the beginning of time to the ever present moment. When we meet, when we interact, when we share life together, our stories pass through one another. We write ourselves into one another’s story.
“It’s times like these you learn to live again. It’s times like these you give and give again. It’s times like these you learn to love again. It’s times like these, and time and time again.”
Songs are like stories set to music. Through the melodies, through the lyrics, through the emotions, they remind us of times and places and ideas and feelings. Songs unlock us, unravel us, reveal us. They stir the stories imbedded within us. And sometimes when I sing my songs, they help reveal the story that is my audience.
And this is the sacred act I have the privilege of witnessing when I play piano in these places. I am privy to a little glimpse of the stories that people share with me. The couple at the bar. The older gentlemen humming along. The family having a dinner celebration. As C. S. Lewis reminded us, “There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.”
“The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky, Are often on the faces of people going by. I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘how do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’ I see skies of blue, and clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
I glance at my iPhone, see that there’s only a few minutes to my break. The bartender slips me a napkin with a request written on it. “Sorry,” I reply. “Tell them I don’t know any Barry Manilow.” To appease them, I decide to do some Beatles, the common denominator of all modern musical influences. After all, everyone loves the Beatles.
So I say a little prayer for all the people in the restaurant, take a deep breath, and launch into the last song of my set.
“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better…”
Lent is a period in the Christian calendar preceding Easter intended to reconnect us with the internal thirst we have for God. Hearkening to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, Lent traditionally runs for forty week days, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (the day prior to Easter). Typical Christian practices during Lent include fasting, abstinence, and daily devotionals.
At my church, we have adopted some of these observances and practices, in order to better focus us in a season of anticipation. Easter in many evangelical churches has become simply a day of the year rather than an attitude of the heart. Adopting a season of preparation helps us to slow down and better focus on Jesus’ path to the cross, and ultimately to his death and resurrection.
This includes our artistic expressions as well. And as part of the Lenten season, our Art & Soul Gallery, a year-round gallery featured in our church lobby, we are presenting “Hidden Crosses,” a photographic collection by some of the young people in our church. In the words of our Gallery description:
“Take a step back and think of the cross. That simple geometric form has long been seen as a symbol of Christ. And just as Christ surrounds us always, so too the cross appears all around us if we just take time to notice. The key is to look with new eyes for Christ in our ordinary, everyday world.”
The photos were all taken locally in the Folsom area of ordinary scenes. And just as the image of the cross is imbedded into the routine of our lives, so too is the work of the cross—God’s grace—inextricably imbedded into the world we live in.
Take a moment to open your eyes to the symbols of the cross that surround you today. And as you see them, may they be a reminder that God Is With Us.
Many many years ago, I had just begun serving as the worship pastor for a wonderful church. Now it was important that I win over a number of skeptics, particularly those who preferred a more traditional style of worship. So when I was asked to speak and lead worship at a “North of 50″ event, I knew I had to put my best foot forward.
I had prepared what I felt was a theologically-grounded and engaging sermon, and stacked the worship set that morning with my favorite hymns. But just to give me an additional edge, I invited my wife to bring our two incredibly sweet and cuddly four-year-old twin daughters. I mean, the cutesy factor couldn’t hurt, right?
By the time we arrived, the fellowship hall was already packing out. Now, to call this a “North of 50″ event was a bit generous. Most of those in attendance were retirees, traditional and proper and Baptist. True to form, my daughters began making the rounds, smiling and waving and basically creating delight everywhere they went. I went about the business of “pastoring,” shaking hands and making sure everyone felt welcome and included. But the truth of the matter was, I was the new guy, not them. After some preliminaries, I was invited to step forward and lead them in worship.
As I stated, my worship set was stacked with hymns that morning, in an effort to connect with this demographic slice of my new congregation. I sat at the piano, read and underscored a Psalm as a Call To Worship, and invited them to sing with me.
Now it’s my tendency in worship to close my eyes when I can. It helps me focus vertically, which is important because a worship leader has a lot on his mind during worship. A worship leader is thinking about playing the song, singing the lyrics, leading the congregation, directing the band, cueing the tech people, and paying attention to the senior pastor—all while focusing on God. (A worship leader’s mind is a pretty cluttered place.) So though I close my eyes, I am constantly peeking to make sure everything—and everyone—is doing okay.
Things were going extremely well into the second song. People seemed engaged and were singing robustly, and I was genuinely enjoying these moments before the Lord. What I didn’t know was that one of my daughters had slipped away from my wife and had made her way on to the stage. As I opened my eyes, I suddenly noticed her in front of my grand piano, hands in the air, spring dress twirling, feet swirling in lazy circles. Dancing. Elated, her twin sister quickly joined her. And suddenly, I had two little ballerinas on the stage.
Now when I said these people were Baptist, I mean it in every sense of the word. Dancing is akin to gambling, smoking, drinking, shooting heroin, playing billiards. So I panicked. As a cold sweat broke on the back of my neck, I glanced at my wife, who could only offer me a wide-eyed shrug of the shoulders. I thought about stopping the song and grabbing them, but that would only punctuate the situation. “I am so in trouble,” I thought to myself. Resigned to my fate, I kept singing.
In the midst of my panic, I spied the crowd. By this time, most everyone had stopped singing. But what I saw nearly stopped me in my tracks. Instead of stern disapproval, I saw a room full of warm, wide smiles. To my surprise, every person there had become captivated by this pair of four-year-olds. The freedom and abandonment they had in expressing their simple joy and delight before God was, in a word, intoxicating.
“Then sing my soul, my Savior God to Thee, how great Thou art, how great Thou art…,” I continued to sing.
And as they twirled and jumped and swept their tiny little arms about, I began to realize that I wasn’t leading worship. My daughters were.
Rachel and Paige taught me a few things that morning. Like, worship may not be so much about me and my supposedly weighty concerns. Profound Truth can be found in a simple, unfettered smile. And God takes great delight in the purely offered worship of His children.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3 TNIV
For my daughter Rachel.
“How much further?” She could feel her voice float out of her mouth, suspended briefly in the frost-laden mist, before disappearing into a white vapor. Surrounded by the dull sound of nothingness, snow drifts in shades of white damping her every word. Nothing but the biting crunch of crushed snow at her feet as they walked.
“I said, how much further?,” she repeated. She grew irritated at the silence. Hated it even. They had been at it now all morning. This interminable hike her companion had described as “a little winter jaunt.” Each step up the mountain now seemed a ferocious battle with gravity. It had seemed like a wonderful idea at the time. At the time.
“It’s worth it. I promise.”
These were the words he spoke before the trip. The promise of hot cocoa, and a view that would take your breath away. But his words now hung hollow in the air, empty in the mist of her mind. Promise? How can you promise such things? The path was strewn with icy patches and craggy rocks, upward and still again upward. Gravity had begun to take its toll on her, and she felt the heaviness in her legs. Every step now seemed an endeavor. She regretted now wanting to pack so much into her backpack. Like the promise, it too weighed heavily on her.
“Can’t we stop just a moment?,” she asked, knowing full well the answer. They dare not take too long a delay at any point, for the journey would take all day. To stop too long would make the journey more difficult, as the late afternoon would be retreating to their backs. Then it would be dusk, and the path would become more icy, more difficult to make out in the freshly-fallen snow.
She began to think to herself how cozy it would have been to simply have stayed home. There would be a warm cozy fire, a blanket on the sofa, maybe a hot cup of cocoa with three marshmallows, her favorite. She would sit and gaze at the warmth of the blaze, orange tongues flicking up from the fireplace and disappearing into the chute above. Why did she agree to go again? There was the promise of a view, one magnificent and grand, beyond description, she was told. Was it worth all this trudging? Was it worth the strain in her legs, the dry perspiration on her neck, the cold wind biting at her nose? She wondered now.
They passed a thicket of trees, all trunks and branches, their leaves all but a memory from the previous fall. Naked and cold, they seemed to shiver in the wintry breeze. She looked up at them for a moment, remembering to steady her boots on the icy patch beneath her. They were beautiful in their own way. It was as if each branch of each tree had chosen it’s own path to the sky. And as they made their way to catch the sun, they met in a little dance of thicket above. She spotted a nest and stopped suddenly. It was small and compact, made of twigs and covered in snowflakes. Maybe a robin or a lark, she wondered. They were cold too, she supposed.
Looking upward, she took a few steps back, and suddenly the snow gave way beneath her. She found herself tumbling down a slope, her backpack jostling, her arms flailing to protect herself from the fall. Try as she might, she could not stop the sliding. The snow dampened more than the sound. She felt herself falling in slow motion, like a cartoon character turning into a snowball. With an abrupt thud, she skid to a stop at the bottom.
Disoriented, she quickly realized that she wasn’t hurt. She picked herself up and began brushing herself off. Above her, she could see she had fallen maybe 30 or 40 feet into a slim ravine. Her blue backpack lay in front of her. She wore only one mitten. The other had deserted her.
“Hey!,” she called out loudly. “Hey there! I fell down! I’m okay, but I don’t know where you are! Do you hear me?” For a moment, she pictured herself in this frosty aloneness. A wave of panic went through her. “Hey!.” She repeated. “I’m here! Do you hear me? Where are you?”
She felt the heavy silence. Then she could hear only her heart. It beat like horse hoofs in a stampede.
“I see you!,” she heard faintly. “Don’t panic! It’s okay!”
“Where are you?,” she shouted. Though his voice was reassuring, she began to feel abandoned. “I can’t see you!”
“…See you!” the ravine replied in a faint echo. It startled her for a moment.
“Listen, I can see you and you’re fine!,” her companion bellowed faintly. “You just need to keep walking straight ahead!”
“What? What do you mean?!”
“The gorge you fell into meets up with the trail up ahead. Three, maybe four miles. Just keep walking!,” the voice encouraged.
His words froze her. Three or four miles. To call her a camping novice was generous. She didn’t know the area, didn’t know the first thing about being in a forest, much less in the dead of winter. But she didn’t want her voice to betray the panic she was beginning to feel. “Why can’t you come down here with me?!”
“There’s no way down! Except for falling, I guess!”
“But I can’t see where you are?!”
“Don’t worry! I can see you! Just stay in the clearing, and walk straight ahead.”
She stood there silently for a moment. She began to feel sorry for herself and angry at herself at the same time.
“I don’t want to be here!,” she blurted. “I want to go home! Do you hear me? I want to go home!”
“…Go home!,” the ravine reverberated quietly.
There was a momentary quiet as the ravine swallowed her words. Then the faint words from above: “Trust me!”
The words riled her at first. But there was nothing else to do. She brushed the snowflakes from her raven hair, and straightened the earmuffs on her head. She picked up her backpack and brushed it off as well, then took a drink from the bottle attached to its side. The icy water went through her body and gave her a shiver. She took a deep breath, and waited for the panic to subside within her.
“Okay!,” she yelled. “Okay! I’m walking!” And with one final brush of her parka, she began again.
Step. Step. Step. The crunching of the snow below her boots kept her company. She looked up occasionally to get her bearings. As she had fallen so far, she realized that the slope of her path had now increased. he had to take smaller steps to compensate for the steep ascent. Her legs, and her pack, felt heavier now. She had taken her scarf and wrapped it around her face to conserve heat, and her breath now warmed her cheeks. Every few minutes, she would yell, “Can you still see me?!,” to reassure herself that she was still on the right path.
“Yeah! Keep going!” was the reply.
Step. Step. Step. She continued on, determined not to quit. She reminded herself that soon, this would be over. Soon, she would be at the top of the mountain. Soon, she would be inside and warm and toasty. Soon. But something didn’t feel right. The path had began sloping downward. She could feel it ease in her legs. And it had veered to the right, skewing away from where she had fallen. She was walking down and away from the mountain. Something was definitely wrong now. Did she stray from the path?
“Hey!,” she bellowed. “Hey! Something’s wrong! The path is sloping down now!” She stopped abruptly. The panic began to well inside her again, like a sudden wave on the beach that knocks you off your feet. She listened for her friend, for some assurance. But there was nothing but silence.
“Hey!,” she yelled again. “Where are you! Can you hear me?!” Her heart began to race. “Answer me!,” she stormed. “Answer me!”
In reply, a deafening stillness. She stood there for a moment, trying to scan the tops of the ravine for any sign of her friend. But there was none. “This isn’t fair,” she muttered quietly to herself. Then she said it again, loudly as if to the entire world, “This isn’t fair! Where are you! Answer me!”
“…Answer me!,” the ravine offered plaintively. Then a long silence. It was the silence that hurt the most. She sunk to her knees. And cried cold tears.
It was as if time had stopped. She discovered herself still on her knees many minutes later. It had begun to snow again, lightly, and specks of white floated like fireflies. Wiping her face, she looked behind her, her eyes tracing the footprints that fell into the distance. Then she turned back to the snowy haze in front of her. She pushed herself off the ground, and stood for a moment. And she began again.
She trudged for what seemed like hours in this silence. A white settling fog now cut her visibility significantly. She couldn’t see beyond the next bend, the next clump of trees, the immediate horizon. She felt so tired, so forsaken. Every step now was simply an act of the will. She didn’t know if she was going in the right direction. She only knew that the next step was away from where she had just been.
But the path had begun again to slope upward which encouraged her. And an old song surprisingly had began to play over and over in her head. Subconsciously, she began to sing to herself quietly. ‘Here comes the sun, do do do do. Here comes the sun, and I say, it’s all right.’ She smiled at the conspicuous irony.
Step. Step. Step. “Little darlin’, it’s been a cold and lonely winter,” she continued, louder now. It was as if she sang in defiance to the silence. “Little darlin’, it seems like years since it’s been clear.”
Then came a familiar voice singing in the distance. “Here comes the sun!” It stopped her in her tracks. “Here comes the sun!,” the voice declared. Up ahead, above the ravine and atop a cliff, was her companion. Her heart seemed to leap out of her parka, and she reached her hands high to wave. He ran down to her now, laughing and singing and skipping down a thin path between trees. When he reached her, he slid to a stop, and gave her a big hug. “You okay?,” he asked urgently, still panting from the run. “That was quite an adventure, wasn’t it?”
“Where were you?,” she asserted accusingly. “I was yelling for you, but you weren’t there.”
“I was up above you the whole time, really,” he explained, pointing up the mountain. “You couldn’t hear me, cause I was so far away, but I was waving my arms like crazy. You sat there for a long time. Maybe a half hour. I wondered if you were hurt.”
“You could see me? When I was sitting there all alone?”
He smiled. “You weren’t alone. At least not in that moment. But I was too far away for you to hear me, I guess. Later, after you got up and started walking again, I hiked beyond where you were so I could double back and meet up with you here.” He put his arm around her now and they began walking slowly up the hill. “You sure you’re okay?”
She looked down at her feet. Her boots were scuffed from the rocks and her toes felt like ice. But she was still moving forward, taking one step after another. “Yeah,” she replied. I’m fine.”
Slowly, they made their way up the serpentine tree-lined path, and up to the top of the hill. Eventually, they came upon a log cabin sitting idyllically in a clearing. Icicle Christmas lights lined the eaves, an over-sized Christmas wreath hung from the big wooden front door, and smoke puffed cheerfully from the chimney. On the porch, she recognized a half dozen of her friends, all laughing and clutching mugs of cocoa. They yelled encouragement to her to join them.
Hugs poured from the porch, and a cup of cocoa with three marshmallows floating on top was thrust into her mittenless hand. The heat from the mug ran through her arm and into her entire body. She laughed out loud now, momentarily forgetting the long day she had endured. And then she stopped suddenly. The view from the porch caught her speechless. It was as promised—it was indeed a breathtaking panorama. Sensing the moment, her friends embraced the sudden silence.
And so did she.
CD and MP3: cdbaby.com
Of course, you can get the album direct from me if you prefer. Just come out to a gig, or see me at my church!
As an added bonus, I’ve included expanded liner notes for the album here on the website. This is especially helpful if you’re a downloader.
Let me add a few kudos here. ML3 includes Chad Jackson on drums and Matt Sawhill on basses. We’re also grateful to the other guest musicians on this project which include: Steven Randal (electric guitar), Kent Peterson (electric guitar), Bob Kilpatrick (acoustic guitar), Kim Peterson (sax), Steve Liberti (percussion). We also give a special thanks to Greg Davis at Proclaim! International Studio and BK at Won World Studio, and particularly to the most talented Keith Elliott, who provided art direction and photography.
[Note: Everyone has been commenting on how mean Chad looks on the album photo, so I thought I would post the photo above to show off his muppet smile.]
The act of celebrating Communion has always been unspeakably, mysteriously meaningful to me, even as a young boy receiving the Eucharist in the Catholic mass. Kneeling on the cold marble floor of the sanctuary, the taste of the round white wafer melting on my tongue, listening to the monsignor’s words, “The body of Christ.” These were indelible moments for me, simple actions where I came face to face with the mystery of our faith. We enter into a sacramental action that has been repeated millions of times over thousands of years, all the way back to that ancient moment when Jesus sat up at the table to share the bread and cup with his closest friends. It was a highly intimate act, an amazing act of self-disclosure, as Jesus reveals his death in light of the most sacred of Jewish celebrations, the Passover meal. As he served the bread, “this is my body,” and the wine, “this is my blood, given up for you,” he revealed that he was the final sacrifice, the Perfect Lamb, whose blood would guard the doorposts of our homes, whose life would carry the sins of all mankind.
And this is why it struck me so deeply again, as we began our Advent season. I’ve often thought that the act of incarnation—the act of God the Son eternal entering into the limited dimensions of our universe and clothing himself in fragile flesh—had to be more of a shock to Jesus than even dying on the cross. Think about that. He goes from infinite to finite, from Almighty God to helpless swaddling newborn, from timelessness to the ever-fleeting now, from the embrace of the perfect community of the Trinity to the utter aloneness of human being. No creature can fathom what that must have been like.
These were my thoughts as we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, and we repeated Jesus’ declaration, “This is my body,” and “this is my blood.” For the act of incarnation, the act of becoming this baby in a manger, was God’s ultimate act of self-disclosure. For we can truly know the nature and heart of God only through Jesus, who was God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us. When Jesus was born, it was as if God were saying, “This is my body, and this is my blood, given up for you.” It is only through the humanity of Jesus that we can fully know the nature of the Divine.
So the table represents a bridge between the birth, God’s revelation through incarnation, and the cross, God’s revelation through resurrection. The bread and the cup point backwards to the promise of Abraham and his descendents who were saved from Pharaoh. And they also point forward to the cross and the empty tomb and ultimately to our life in Christ now and into eternity.
Beautiful, metaphorical, artistic, the Lord’s Supper is an intersection of mysteries—Christmas and Easter, incarnation and resurrection, the Promise and the Fulfillment.
[Note: artwork by June Wright. Please visit this talented artist's website here.]
One member of our family sits unassumingly in the corner of the living room. Black and curvy, patient and loyal, it awaits some whiff of inspiration to bring me over to it to open its lid, sit my fingers on the keys, press out a chord, a song, a symphony.
The story of my Yamaha grand piano is a story of thankfulness. So I thought I would share it with you today.
One day, over a decade ago, after a fairly typical worship service, someone in our congregation approached me to ask me how much a grand piano cost. I replied that there was a pretty wide range, depending on your needs. Tell me what you’re looking for, I offered, and maybe I could help you.
His reply took me aback. As he was engaged in the worship that morning, he told me, a very specific idea suddenly popped into his head: We need to buy the Luz family a piano. It was a notion so strong that he could not ignore it, so much so that he felt the need to tell his wife, who was sitting next to him. He turned to her, but before he could say a word, she looked back at him and quickly declared, “Honey, I think we need to buy the Luz family a piano.”
A week or so later, I found myself scouring the classifieds (this was way before the internet), looking for a quality grand piano at a low cost. One in particular caught my eye, a gray market Yamaha that was obviously undervalued, and I made an appointment to see it. I knew something was abnormal, because the seller on the other end of the phone told me they were “interviewing” people to take the piano.
I arrived at the appointed time with my son, Justin. Standing at the front porch of an expansive and well-appointed modern ranch home, it was obvious that the family was Japanese and well-off. As we were invited in, my son and I instinctively took our shoes off at the door to come in (I found out later that we were the only people who took our shoes off), and we walked through a large entryway into an even larger living room. The room was set up like a small recital hall, with four or five upright pianos along the walls. Sitting at the front of the room were two magnificent grand pianos, a nine-foot Young Chang, and a seven-foot Bosendorfer. The man directed us past the pianos down a hallway and into an individual practice room where the for-sale Yamaha grand sat by itself. He told me to feel free to play it, and he would be back shortly.
The bench was creaky, the ebony body had several blemishes, the gloss had lost a little sheen, and there was a minor gash on the keyboard—it definitely showed some age. But there was something warm and inviting about it. Now this might not sound theologically orthodox, but I do believe that some pianos have souls. Mine does. And in the fifteen minutes that Justin and I were with it, I discovered it.
Thankfully, I got along extremely well with the seller—we had several points of commonality, from being an American born Asian, to having a love for music. From our conversation, I gathered that he was an established lawyer in Sacramento and his wife taught Japanese national exchange students from their home. The piano was a family heirloom, brought over from Japan, and had sentimental value. They wanted it to go to a good home where it would be appreciated. The money was secondary. By the end of our talk, I got the feeling that he would sell it to us. He walked us into the main room, wanting to introduce us to his wife.
I had never played a Bosendorfer before (considered one of the finest pianos made), so I respectfully asked permission to do so. The lawyer husband thoughtfully replied, “I’d better ask my wife first.” But he let me play the Young Chang (an exquisite piano by the way, originally purchased by the first chair cellist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but they couldn’t figure out how to bring it up the stairs of his home), which ended up being an audition of sorts. His wife came in—listening to me—and after being introduced with a formal bow (which we reciprocated), she allowed me to play the Bosendorfer.
When I say that the Young Chang was exquisite, I am not exaggerating. But the Bosendorfer made the Young Chang sound just a little thin and antiseptic. Warm, emotive, complex—playing the Bosendorfer was like the first time I had a very expensive glass of wine. I simply didn’t know that a piano could taste that good. Over the pianos, we shared some music and some life together.
Looking back now, I can see God’s hand upon the entire experience. From God speaking separately and specifically to a couple of extremely generous friends, to the charming time we had with the Japanese couple, to the actual purchase of the piano—I consider it one of the most distinct and tangible and extravagant acts of grace God had ever orchestrated in my life.
And also, I would like to believe that this couple had made a good decision in selling their family heirloom to us. The Yamaha has been a faithful part of our family, a source of artistic inspiration, and an altar for my personal worship.
Of course, not all of God’s acts of grace are quite so obvious. In fact, most of life can seem pretty crummy and unfair. But they are there nonetheless. From the powder blue sky that greeted me this morning, to the laughter coming from my children in the living room as I type, to the very next breath that fills my lungs. Life is full of reasons to give thanks to God, if you only look hard enough.
“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Psalm 118 NIV
I think it might be my best sounding album yet, showcasing songs that have been mulling around my head for the past three years. There are definitely some nods to my influences, from Mayer and Hornsby to Miles and Sting. I would say it is not unsimilar to a Jamie Cullum, interpreting a variety of different styles in a piano-driven style through a trio format.
And I think that’s where this album is different than my other three solo efforts, in that it really features the Manuel Luz Trio—Matt Sawhill on basses and Chad Jackson on drums. I also have a little help from my friends—a little classical guitar from Bob Kilpatrick, a little rock’n'roll from Kent Peterson, a little blues from Steven Randal, some jazz sax from Kim Peterson, and a heavy dose of banging from ML3 alum, Steve Liberti. And of course, I’ve managed to throw in not a few piano solos in the process.
Please look for some dates we’ll be playing through December and January as we begin to release this project. And thanks again for your continued support!
*NOTE: Officially, we’ll be releasing in January 2013, but advanced CDs will be available in November.
Recently, Christian author & blogger Rachel Held Evans created a little controversy over her newest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Specifically, LifeWay Christian Resources, a large, conservative Christian book chain, had decided not to carry this book, apparently because she used the word, “vagina.” (Note: LifeWay is the same bookstore chain that previously created a stir by banning the popular and well-intentioned movie, “The Blind Side,” from their stores.)
Early in development, Evan’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, had recommended that she delete the word from her manuscript, and she did so. It was simply used in a colorful phrase, and wouldn’t change the overall meaning of her point in context. However, her blog readers began writing in to her (and even started a petition which they sent to Thomas Nelson) to encourage her to keep the word in the manuscript. So she did.
Her ruminations on this are well documented on her popular blogsite, and you can read up on it if you want more information. There has certainly been enough press on it, from The Huffington Post to Slate to The Christian Post.
Now on some level, I commend her for trying to maintain integrity in her writing and in her life by keeping the word in. I also commend her publisher for allowing her to do so, even at the risk of sales repercussions. On some other level, I also understand that keeping the word in has probably generated lots of media coverage and other sales, and she is probably enjoying all the controversy and notoriety as well, but I’m not going to judge their motivations on that one. But this does bring up some interesting questions, from the nature of censorship to what makes a book Christian.
First off, I’m not against censorship per se. Practically every medium you see has a necessary degree of censorship, from motion picture ratings to the dress codes established by public schools. Just the act of deciding what goes on the front page of a newspaper versus the back page (or not at all) is an act of censorship. Censorship is a necessary part of communication—just think about all the things you said in your mind today that you didn’t say out loud.
Censorship is a necessary part of the artistic process as well. As authors and songwriters, we are constantly choosing words, evaluating their nuance and intention and power. All artists—from dancers to sculptors to graphic designers—exercise a form of self-censorship, as we strive to evoke ideas and emotions from our work. Recently, we performed a drama sketch at our church involving two people in conflict. One of the characters was supposed to say, “what the hell!,” in a derogatory manner, which was consistent with the role and setting. However, during rehearsal, we decided to change the dialogue because we knew that the phrase might hinder some people from hearing the real message of the piece, and we were able to find other ways to dramatize this person’s anger artistically.
In the case of Evan’s no-no word, however, something else is going on here. I believe that at the heart of this controversy are two things: a legalistic view of what it is to live in the Kingdom of God, and book sales (i.e., money). And one leads to the other, I’m afraid.
Now when I say a “legalistic view” I speak specifically of those who think that Christians are people who don’t swear, or don’t drink or smoke, or don’t have body piercings or tattoos, or don’t fill-in-the-blank. And while there isn’t anything necessarily good about any of these things, to use them as boundary markers to the Christian faith is somewhat absurd. The life of a follower of Christ is one of wholeness restored, goodness prevailing, grace abounding, love motivating and superceding everything. It is not defined simply by external behaviors (the sin of the Pharisees), but completely defined by interior, spiritual rebirth that leads to changed life. But somewhere down the line, the word “vagina” became a boundary marker for what is not acceptable for Christian authors to use in their works.
All authors eventually face this at some level. My Waterloo was the phrase, “kick butt,” which I penned in the original manuscript for my book, Imagine That, to humorously describe a scene from the seventies TV show, “Kung Fu.” Late in the editing process, my publisher asked that I change the phrase to something more benign, like “beat up.” While it wasn’t a deal-breaker by any means, I felt that their phrase completely loses the meaning of what I was trying to say. So we compromised with the term “whomp” which is a made-up word—and an inside joke that they didn’t get—coined in the Saturday morning cartoon, “Recess.” (If you have ten minutes to spare, I highly recommend this clip for some surprisingly refreshing perspective.)
I’ve blogged before on the importance of being honest in our art. Artist Edward Knippers states, “The believer’s art should be rooted in the rich soil of believing that humanity is far worse off than we think and God’s grace extends far beyond what we can imagine.” Art, if it aspires to Truth, must be real in portraying the realities of a sin-bathed world as well as God’s great love for that world. If this is true, then being truthful to these realities must occasionally mean that we will use words like “vagina” and “butt” and other vulgarities. Certainly the Bible—the divinely-inspired but also R-rated Story of God in the universe—does not shy away from such realities.
Or to be more crass, let me quote Rachel Evans herself: “…if Christian bookstores stuck to their own ridiculous standards, they wouldn’t be able carry the freaking Bible.”
Which brings me to the second thing, money. Christian publishers, like all publishers, are motivated primarily by finances. They have to be. They are in the business of selling books, and the people who run these businesses have mortgages to pay and families to feed. So loss of sales becomes this unspoken but all-pervasive threat that Christian publishers always feel. The easy road for publishers is to simply avoid the controversies, the boundary markers, which might stir up the conservative segments of their audiences. To state the obvious, we as authors and readers must understand that the Christian book industry primarily functions—for better and for worse—as an industry. And one corollary to that is that the best books are not always published, but the most popular (and often benign) books most certainly are.
So where does that leave us? Ultimately, we Christians finds ourselves squarely along the path of missing the point once again. Evans’ book will not be known for what it was written for — as an experiment in Christian complementarianism — but as “the vagina book.” Those conservatives who oppose the book will unwittingly add to its sales, fueled by a titillated public. Christian evangelicals have once again displayed that we define ourselves according to what we are against, not what we are for. And the secular public and media will have one more excuse to poke fun at the ignorant Christians.
Last weekend, our church presented Mosaic: A Night with the Arts, which is an annual event featuring an eclectic blend of artistic expressions—poetry, drama, performance painting, dance, music, short story, art gallery, technical arts. It’s a presentation from the many artists in our local church, so there’s a wide variety of styles and flavors—from classical to jazz, from modern to lyrical dance, from watercolor to oils to quilting. During Mosaic, we give ourselves permission to do the things that might not be applicable to a Sunday morning service, pushing the envelope artistically as well as dealing with adult themes and concepts.
One of the elements we decided to do this year was a mixed-discipline improvisation. Specifically, I was to spontaneously create a three-movement piece on the piano, and one of our abstract painters, Julie Lueken, was to spontaneously paint what I was playing. Julie and I didn’t collaborate before-hand; we simply talked about what the three movements would be: awakening, conflict, redemption.
The week prior, I talked to Julie and asked her if it would be wise if we practiced some improvisation together. She replied, “We’d better not. I think I just need to step into the fear.” I knew what she meant by that. There is a natural fear that permeates any honest artmaking. Because making good art is very difficult. And making honest art even harder. As artists, we sometimes feel the fear of the struggle—a struggle not only to make good art, but to be at peace with the art we end up making.
Now, my musical piece was less John Mayer and more John Cage. I banged on the piano (with our nine-foot Steinway Model D, there’s a lot of piano to bang), plucked and strummed the strings, played a lot of unusual dissonance. I went from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again. I probably played about eight minutes. And as I banged and stroked and played, Julie was hard at work, floating golden streaks and stabbing crimson dots and stroking chocolate scribbles on the canvas. Awakening. Conflict. Redemption.
It was at once thrilling and frightening.
And at the end, it seemed that we both sensed that we were done, both sensed a peace about our performance. As I sat back from the piano, she wiped her paintbrush and set it down in the jar. The eight minutes of extemporaneous fear gave way to a relaxed Shalom.
I’ve spoken many times before about how art is a dialogue—both horizontally to our audience and to one another, and vertically with God. I can’t truly explain what I was feeling as I sat at the piano, not knowing what my next note would be until the moment I played it. And I don’t think Julie could explain each brushstroke either. But I do trust that the Holy Spirit was present in the creation of this piece, just as the audience sat, present and mesmerized, by our performance.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10 NIV
I am the current guest blogger on the Worship Studio. They’ve published a small portion of one of my unpublished book manuscripts entitled, “Stepping into the Wilderness.” I encourage you to check it out.
The Worship Studio is:
• An Equipping Resource for Artists of all Creative Mediums
• A Catalyst for Creativity in the Kingdom around the World
• A Hub for Creative Communities
The Worship Studio is led by Matt Tommey, author of Unlocking the Heart of the Artist. As always, I am hardcore supportive of all efforts to further the dialogue of faith and the arts, and I am grateful to Matt and his crew for the opportunity to lend my voice to the growing conversation.
I’ve guest blogged on quite a variety of websites, including Inside Pages, (a blog on faith, publishing, and literary culture), Transpositions (a faith and arts blog from the University of St. Andrews in in Scotland), and Conversant Life (a blog on faith and culture), and I always welcome other opportunities to do so. Please keep me in mind if you think of some other website for me to lend my voice.
Most of my readership primarily knows me as an author, blogger, pastor, songwriter. But I’ve had the privilege of also being a working musician for over 25 years as well. This is the non-glamorous side of music, making money by playing bars and clubs, working late nights in recording studios, playing weddings and corporate events. It helps pay the bills. And for that, I am grateful.
Some artists see this as being beneath them. They want to make their own music on their own terms. And I understand this. I want the same for myself as well. But my perspective is that being a professional musician is honorable work (at least with the people I work with and for), and I approach the craft in the same way that a master plumber or electrician might display professionalism and integrity with their customers.
There’s also a spiritually formative aspect to this too. I make myself a servant, not only to the audience I play for, but also to the music that I perform. If I’m playing a John Mayer tune for instance, my individuality will poke out, but I still want to maintain the musical integrity of the song. When I work on someone’s CD project, I want to ensure that the songs are a true reflection of the artist and not myself. In other words, it’s not about me.
Equally formative, I’ve also learned over time to have passion for my music, while not allowing an indifferent audience to shake my sometimes fragile psyche. And this is harder to do than one thinks.
Recently, something happened to me that has happened only one other time. I was playing solo piano at a local upscale restaurant which was then only nominally busy. A middle-aged couple at the corner table, I suspected were probably divorced and dating. A young married couple being treated out by the in-laws. A quiet and respectful family having dinner before their movie started. A group of boisterous young twenty-somethings in the center of the room, possibly celebrating a birthday. It seemed a typical Friday night crowd—proper and possibly a bit apathetic.
Two hours into the three hour set. This is when my inner voice begins doubting. I think to myself, am I playing the kind of music they want? Am I getting a little pitchy? Is anyone even listening? Do they even care? Why am I here anyway? It is the existential angst of the piano bar artist.
And suddenly a lady rouses me from my inner dialogue. Approaching me tentatively, she remarks, “I really like your playing. You’re very gifted. I want you to have this.” And she sets a hundred dollar bill in my tip jar.
I re-learned a lesson in that moment. You never know who is listening. You never know who is paying attention. You never know who you are affecting by what you do.
And this is why it is so important to always be who you are. And as they say, who you really are is who you are when no one is looking.
Who am I really? Author, blogger, pastor, songwriter? That’s just what I do. Who I am is a servant—to my audience (whether I think they’re listening or not) and to the music I perform. But mostly to God, through my life and through my art.
[Note: If you liked this blog, I have an older blog that talks a little about Piano Bar Philosophizing. I encourage you to check it out.]
As the title of the website suggests (it is a nod to a C. S. Lewis essay), it is a unique blending of artistic expression and conversation on Christian theology and the arts. There is an international and ecumenical flavor (although I would opine definitely not a typical evangelical one), and features some of the heavy hitters in current thinking of theology of the arts. Transpositions was a first runner-up in the Christian News Media Awards in 2011.
I am grateful to their editors and readership for the opportunity to lend my voice to the growing dialogue of faith and the arts. I encourage you to check out my blog here.
Many of you know that, through the month of June, I was on a one-month sabbatical from vocational ministry. I’m very grateful to the people of Oak Hills Church for gifting me in this way, and I took advantage by filling my time with much family-filled lollygagging, loitering, and general lackadaisy.
Everyone asks what I did during the sabbatical, so I thought I would answer with a blog. So in no particular order, [drum roll] direct from our home office in El Dorado Hills, the Top Ten Things I Did During My Sabbatical:
Number 10. Worked almost all the way through the original Star Trek series on Netflix. The new version is digitized and the colors and effects are a bit updated. And yes, I made my daughter Rachel watch “The Trouble With Tribbles” with me. Best comment by my kids: “People didn’t really believe in being in shape back in those days, did they?”
Number 9. Played at a few different churches and concerts with friends, which was a blast. Of note is debuting some of our new songs with ML3 at an outdoor concert in Shingle Springs. As always, it’s a blast playing with bandmates Chad Jackson on drums and Matt Sawhill on basses.
Number 8. My birthday was also on a Sunday, and I got the very rare experience of actually sleeping in on a Sunday morning. “Wow! That was great! No wonder everyone shows up late at church!”
Number 7. Baptized my daughter, Paige, and her BFF, Sami, at our annual Oak Hills River Baptism. That was awesome. I am so very proud of the young ladies they are becoming. (For the record, twin sister Rachel was baptized two years ago.)
Number 6. Began production of a new album, the title of which is still To Be Determined. Something new I’m trying: I’ve asked a bunch of friends from all over—Washington, Florida, Sacramento, Germany, Canada—to contribute to the album. They pick the song, record the parts, and submit their music. And then I compile it and mix it down. I’m really excited that I have the potential to incorporate a few of my long-distance musician friends into this project. By the way, the tunes sound great!
Number 5. Stayed home while my wife went to Arizona for a week of training through Holy Yoga. She is now a certified yoga instructor, and hopes to start teaching classes by the end of the year. I’m so very excited for her and what God may have planned for her in this way. You can check out her website, which will be updated when she has this all set up.
Number 4. Spent time with extended family for Father’s Day, a few June birthdays, trail hiking, and getting maximum use of our season pass with multiple trips to Beale’s Point (at Folsom Lake).
Number 3. Root canal.
Number 2. Finished a book proposal and submitted it to a publisher. Tentatively titled, Echoes of the Divine, it is a book for non-artists about experiencing God through creation, beauty, and the arts. If you follow my blog regularly, you’ve gotten a taste of what I’m writing about. We’ll see if they like it.
Number 1. Went with my honey to an area bed and breakfast to celebrate our anniversary. The best part of our vacation: Knowing after 25 years of marriage that we are still hopelessly in love. Second best part: Sleeping in. It’s amazing just how quiet it can be when you’re not around kids.
[Pics: (1) Paige being baptized by Pastor Kent Carlson and myself at Negro Bar in Folsom (more pics here); (2) Eric, Justin and I hiking up to Horsetail Falls near Lake Tahoe; (3) Deb and I during our B&B getaway.]
When I was a little kid, my brothers and I used to play “Raft.” Raft was a simple game, something we probably made up on a boring, nondescript afternoon. We would all jump on our parents’ king-size bed and pretend that our ship had sank, and we were the lone survivors on a small, inflatable raft. In our minds, we could taste the salt water, feel the waves bob us about, hear the lonely cry of a sea gull in the distance. And then, as always, my older brother would quietly announce that he could see sharks in the water. He would explain that the only way the sharks would leave us alone would be if they had some food to eat. And then we would look at one another for one brief, adrenalized moment. And then we would suddenly lunge at one another, frantically throwing each other off the bed.
That was so much fun. It was boy sweat. It was brothers in headlocks. It was laughing and pushing and tickling and torturing each other like only brothers could. It is one of the fondest remembrances of my youth. I can still smell the briny sea air, still feel the steady tussle of the ocean on the bed.
Suspension of Disbelief is the concept that the audience of any storytelling must willingly and temporarily put aside feelings of implausibility in order to engage in the narrative of that story. First coined by aesthetic philosopher Samuel Coleridge, the idea is that reality must be suspended to some degree, in order to accept the premise of a tale or advance a storyline to its ultimate conclusion. Science fiction, fantasy, suspense, horror, parables, mythology, even bedtime stories—all require some suspension of disbelief from the audience.
We must accept that it is possible for Dorothy to be whisked away by a cyclone to a Technicolor land filled with munchkins and witches and flying monkeys; otherwise, there is no Wizard of Oz. We must accept the idea that transporters and warp drives and Klingons are possible; otherwise, there is no Star Trek. And we must accept that sponges and starfish can talk and drive boats underwater; otherwise, there is no Bikini Bottom.
Suspension of disbelief is an essential aspect of any storytelling art form, from filmmaking to fiction writing to comic book authoring. That is the way it must be for the story to work. And as the audience for these stories, we willingly put aside our doubts and rationale and cynicism for the sake of being entertained, for the sake of story. Superman puts on his eyeglasses and suddenly no one suspects that Clark Kent can leap tall buildings in a single bound. They cannot suspect, for if they do, the story fails us. The foundations of the story crumble. And we are left only with reality.
And this is the way that art works as well. An ordinary rose is a beautiful and remarkable thing, an organic and living masterpiece created by God. As we stated earlier, the beauty of the rose displays God’s glory. Now a photograph of that rose is not the rose. It is only a piece of paper. But if it is photographed well, then the photo hints of the rose, and displays its beauty and majesty interpreted through the eyes of the person who took that photo. So we suspend our disbelief that this is simply a piece of paper, and enter into an experience of that rose through the photograph. And what happens then is art. Because we suspend our disbelief, we can see the photo also with the same eyes that saw the rose—as a beautiful and remarkable thing.
In a way, the photo of the rose hints at the glory of God. But you see, the same can be true for a painting of that rose, or a song about the rose, or a poem about the rose. They are all human expressions, all artistic interpretations, of God’s creation. Our artwork is an extension of God’s artwork. Artmaking is re-creation, a distant echo of the original creation. And so art can display Truth and Beauty and ultimately God’s Glory.
There is another word that theologians use to describe suspension of disbelief. It is “faith.” Or at least the beginnings of faith. For “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 NASB), and the first step of faith is by definition, a step into the unseen, the unsure, the unknown, and ultimately, the unknowable.
Abraham and Sarah needed a suspension of disbelief when God told them they would be parents of a vast family. Noah needed a suspension of disbelief in order to build his great boat. The trumpeters needed a suspension of disbelief in order to topple the walls of Jericho. Moses needed a suspension of disbelief in order to part the Red Sea. Peter needed a suspension of disbelief when he stepped out of the boat and walked on water. The apostle John needed no small suspension of disbelief when he was moved to write the book of Revelation. Acts of faith, both great and small, require some suspension of disbelief.
And perhaps this is one more aspect where faith and art can intersect. Faith is required if we are to be carried along in the art of a story. And as God writes the stories of each of our lives, faith is also required. Perhaps then, the suspension of disbelief ultimately results in an elevation of belief. If faith really is the substance of things unseen, then this must be true.
Suspension of disbelief allows us to engage and appreciate a painting or photograph or poem of an ordinary rose. But it allows us much more. Suspension of disbelief says that anything is possible in a world where God is in control. As such, it allows us to engage more deeply into the very Story of God. It allows us to have vision for our future. It allows us to dream big dreams. It is a necessary component of childlike faith, and ultimately of Joy.
Some evenings at bedtime, before my children became too old, I would gather them on our queen-size bed. I would explain that our ship had sank, and we were the lone survivors on a small, inflatable raft. And then, as always, I would announce that I could see sharks in the water, and the only way the sharks would leave us alone would be if they had some food to eat. And then we would look at one another for one brief, adrenalized moment. And then we would suddenly lunge at one another, frantically throwing each other off the bed.
[Note: This is an excerpt of a new book I hope to release next year. Hope you like it!]
One of the concepts that beginning music students naturally have a hard time with is the rest. A musical rest is an interval of silence with a specific duration, and can last a single beat or less, to several or more measures. Unless a musician knows how to “play” the rests, a song will implode into cacophony. Because music is defined as much by what notes you don’t play as what you do play. And there is a lesson to learned in this metaphor.
Through the month of June, I will be entering into a month-long sabbatical compliments of my church. I’m taking time off from the fast pace of ministry to rest up, play with the family, and maybe take a few short trips. I also intend to begin production of another CD project with the Manuel Luz Trio, and I’ve been working steadily on a new book manuscript as well.
The concept of the sabbatical comes originally from the book of Genesis. God’s creation was poetically spoken into existence in six days, and God rested on the seventh day. The Hebrew concept of the Sabbath, a weekly day of abstinence from work in order to rest and worship, is derived from this. In today’s modern age, sabbaticals are often granted by corporations, universities, and religious organizations, and extend from just a few weeks to a year.
Of course, the concept behind the concept is that we were hardwired by God to both work and rest in regular intervals. We are not unlike music in this way.
The word “rest” has implications, not just physical but emotional and spiritual as well. To rest your body. To rest your soul. To rest in Him. In a perfect world, we should purposefully schedule times of rest into the cycles of every day, every week, and every year.
I’m extremely grateful to my church for the opportunity to take a sabbatical. The last one I took, my wife bought me a soprano saxophone which I learned to play during my time off. Yeah, I suspect that I’m trying to be a little too busy with my month (artistic endeavors fill me up, as you can imagine!), so I need to purposefully temper my ambitions by listening to the Small Still Voice. Because if you’re gonna play music, you’ve got to play the rests.
There are a lot of ordinary things in the world. That is, by definition, what ordinary is. Flowers growing in a field. Birds flying effortlessly in the sky. Farmers planting their seed in the earth. Fish swimming in the deep blue sea.
We tend to see past the ordinary. We drive to work or to the store, and our eyes do not see the beauty that whizzes by our windows. There’s a long line of trees that I pass by every day on my way to work, young and green and hopeful. They stretch their tiny branches up to the sky, catching rays of sunlight, catching bits of life in every single leaf. Intricate and delicate stems intersect their way down to a fledgling but sturdy trunk and underground to unseen roots below. In their own way and by their very design, they declare the glory of God. But I do not see the trees, I do not see the leaves, I do not see the life abounding. I only see the traffic lights.
Jesus saw things very differently than us. He saw the lilies, the birds, the budding fig tree, the sheep in the pasture, the little children, the vine and the branches. And in His seeing, He saw Truth.
Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven was like treasure hidden in a field, and like a merchant looking for fine pearls, and like a very tiny mustard seed. He warned us of the plank in our own eyes, the wolves in sheep’s clothing, and the house built on sand. He called us salt and He called us light. He was trying to explain to us the very mysteries of the universe—God’s plan and God’s Kingdom—and he chose the ordinary things to convey them.
There is a lesson to be learned here, I think. Jesus had an extremely poetic, artistic view of life. And this should not surprise us. The Bible says that the whole of the universe, the whole of creation, was created through him and for him (John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17, 1 Corinthians 8:6, etc.). Think about that—the creative muse of the Trinity flowed through the person of Jesus. So his view of life allowed Him to be open to the beauty and truth that surrounded Him, even in the most tenuous, desert-drenched, poverty-stricken circumstances. And if we are to be more like him, we need to have eyes that see like him, have a mind that is open to a God revealed in the ordinary.
Do we understand that there is a type of Truth in a line of trees? And that same Truth can be found in a child’s laughter, or a winsome melody, or a formation of geese flying south for the winter? The birds don’t realize that we humans—in the depths of our slumber and the yearnings of our souls—dream of flying. Birds just fly. The trees don’t realize that photosynthesis is an astounding miracle. And a child, in her laughter, does not realize how sacred is their being.
There’s a somewhat archaic word I wish we would use more: Mindfulness. To be full of mind, that is, to have our minds attuned to the things around us, to the things of God. For nothing is truly ordinary in God’s created order.
There is an implication here. If this is true, then that same Truth in the trees can exist in a photograph of the trees, or a painting of the trees, or a song about the trees. Because our artwork is an extension of God’s artwork. Art is re-creation, an echo of creation. And if you think about it in this way, then we as artists must aspire to ordinary things.
“What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.” Psalm 104:24 The Message
[Note: Artwork is "Endless Battle (Tree Story #141)" by Judith Monroe. Black & white photograph with mixed media on cradled wood panel, including actual leaves and a poem written specifically for this image by a poet in Sweden. I encourage you to check out Judith's Portfolio.]
Artmaking is a paradoxical activity. It is often a highly intimate expression of the artist. Our art is birthed from our talents and sweat-obtained technique, and also from our uniquely individualized story and worldview. But at the same time, great art only happens when we serve the art, allowing the art to be greater than we are. For art—if it is to have any consequence—must have meaning apart from the artist. And so as artists, we must allow our artwork to have a life of its own, to have its own identity and purpose and expression very much separate from ourselves.
In the words of Madeleine L’Engle, “When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly, than he knew; Rembrandt’s brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.”
Michelangelo coaxed the masterpiece David out of 6-tons of flawed marble. He could not will his vision out of the flawed and disfigured mass of stone; he could only work within the imperfections and limitations of it. And so he served the stone, studying it, yielding to it, and eventually unveiling it.
Personally, I experienced this often in my music. I’ve put in a lot of hours in recording studios over the years, both producing and recording for myself and a few others, and more often functioning as the keyboardist or pianist on other albums. When you’re a studio musician, the prime directive is always to serve the song—to play only those notes, and choose only those sounds and colors, that allow the song to be fully conceived, to come alive, to have meaning and passion beyond the individual performances of the players. The recording studio is a maternity ward, and I am simply there to help birth the vision that the artist or producer has of that particular song. As a sideman, I know that the song is never a showcase for my abilities.
And this brings up the second way in which the artist is a servant. For as we serve our art, we serve our audience as well. When I write a song, I am aware that the song will have a relationship with my audience quite apart from me. That song might end up on someone’s iPod or get streamed on someone’s laptop or played on someone’s stereo. It will interact with my audience, as they listen to my song and add their own life experiences and attribute their own meanings upon it. So as I write, I ask myself, “How will the listener receive this? What will they hear beyond what I am saying? Will they be moved?” And so I serve the audience by doing my best to compose my song, and then let go of it, to allow my audience the freedom to make the song their own.
A painter’s painting will interact with an audience when it hangs on a wall. An author’s book will speak to the reader quite apart from the author. A vase will hold water on its own far removed from the hand of the potter.
And maybe in this way, art once again reflects the way of God. For His spiritual economy is peculiar, and not at all like ours. The first shall be last. The least of these is the greatest. The meek will inherit the earth. And to be great in His Kingdom, you must be a servant of all.
Through our art, we serve the work. We serve our audience. We serve our God.