We just had our latest Intersections: Faith and the Arts Conference this last weekend, and I have been ruminating over the dozens of significant conversations and lectures and artistic expressions I experienced ever since. This once-a-year gathering of artists of faith continues to impress me, and impress upon me. Here are a few thoughts from the conference, in no particular order.
Artists were meant to live in community.
Interestingly, artists are like normal human beings in that we were designed to be in community. One of the best things about this conference is that it is not just a meeting of artists, but more so about the creating and nurturing of relationships between artists. There are quite a number of friendships and connections that have been built over the course of these last five years of conferences, and it’s local focus has resulted in artistic collaboration and deep friendships among many of us. As one person coined, we are “The Bezelites,” and we intrinsically feel the kinship that comes with being fellow artists of faith. (By the way, “Bezelite” is a fun word to say.)
Similar to previous conferences, we had the usual diversity of artistic disciplines—dance, music, filmmaking, theater, visual and literary arts. But this year, I was also struck by the diversity with which God is using the arts. From Tiffany Paige sharing her experiences working with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to Derek Martin sharing his vision for the newly formed Creative Arts Program at William Jessup University. From the many stories I am hearing of the arts being manifested out in the world marketplace—in local community theater, in secular art galleries and midtown art walks, and even in clubs and open mics where people are performing. From the diverse expressions of the arts that are beginning to manifest itself within the walls of the church—Christian Youth Theater programs, art galleries and open studios, and even quality film. No doubt about it, it’s an exciting time to be an artist of faith.
There were quite a number of conversations about the quality of “Christian arts” (e.g., Christian film, Christian painting, Christian music), and how there is quite a communal distaste for art that is cliche, derivative, propaganda-based, dishonest, and mediocre. I think this is a healthy sign. The general view that everyone seemed to agree with is that if our art is to make a difference in the world, it must be art that can stand on the merit of its quality, and not simply its spirituality. And really, art that is excellent inherently glorifies God.
The dialogue seems different now. Five years ago, much of our discussion revolved around asking the question, “Am I an artist?” And while we are still asking that question on deeper levels, I think the conversations have evolved. More and more, we talk about how God is using our art, or furthering our art, or manifesting our art. We are talking about questions of execution and relevance and honesty in our art. We talk about how we can work together to do art together. Once again, it’s an exciting time to be an artist of faith.
Artists are passionate about God.
During the conference, there seemed to me to be an overall meta-narrative that held every conversation together, and it was this: God is doing something in us, through us, and sometimes even in spite of us. But God is doing something with our art. In the inspiration, in the execution, in the circumstance, in the dialogue between art and audience. And there is an overall expectation that He will continue to do so.
I’ll say it again. It’s an exciting time to be an artist of faith.
Thank you to the many volunteers from the many churches who were involved (especially the team of artists from Oak Hills Church—you’re the best!). Thank you to the many people who contributed a word of encouragement, challenge, and wisdom to our on-going dialogue. And thank you to our God for being our Creator, our Inspirer, and Redeemer.
[Photos: (1) Derek Martin, Director of the Creative Arts Program at William Jessup University; (2) Michelle Alias and Kayla Krogh of the professional Christian dance company, Pneuma Movement, present "The Imposter," choreographed by Kelly Archer; (3) Tiffany Paige, Director of ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimers, delivers an moving and inspiring speech; (4) Ryan Harbert and Owen Smith perform an excerpt from "Greater Tuna," a production of the Green Valley Theatre in Sacramento; (5) Jazz pianist extraordinaire Jim Martinez shares some stories and music; (6) Producers Alan Koshiyama and Kevin Haskin share a clip from their independent full-feature film, "I Was Broken."]
And this is why filmmaking may be one of the most difficult things to attempt as an art form. When I write a song, the only person I need share my vision with is myself. But a film producer must bring together a whole host of interdisciplinary artists—actors, directors, camera crew, lighting crew, makeup and wardrobe, screenwriter, film scorer, location scout, film editors and sound developers, caterers and people-who-move-stuff, as well as the small army of investors—to share in a vision for a particular movie idea. It’s enough to make your head spin.
And that’s why I admire so much those brave few who attempt to swim in such deep waters. On the evening of April 13, my church Oak Hills will be hosting a film screening of “I Was Broken,” a full-length feature film produced locally in our Sacramento area.
“Religion, faith, and day-to-day life isn’t easy for anyone, regardless of whether or not you’re Saved, Agnostic, Atheist or other. [We] felt it was time for a film that had God as a focal point, but was reflective of real characters, pure and flawed in their actions, living with the true consequences of bad decisions, living in this reality, this world, with and without faith.
“I WAS BROKEN is a character study of how two estranged brothers work together through the worst scenario imaginable. It’s about family, relationships, love, survival, and the willingness to commit the most unselfish act of all. We’re all walking down a path, a Divine path. And this film will hopefully show us all, that the path of least resistance, is seldom the path one should take.
“I WAS BROKEN is a film that was made for the mere passion of filmmaking. In a way, it’s a love letter to God, thanking him for the gifts and blessings he’s bestowed upon me and the rest of the cast and crew.”
Participants of our annual Intersections: Faith & the Arts Conference will be able to attend this screening for free (the general public is also invited to this screening for $8). We will also have the producers of this film—Kevin Haskin, Jo Haskin, Brian Hamm, Marty Noufer and Alan Koshiyama—available after the screening for a Q&A.
I’m excited to be able to support this quality, heart-moving film, which defies the typical conventions of “Christian film.” The screening will be on Saturday evening, April 13, at 7 PM, at Oak Hills Church, 1100 Blue Ravine Road, in Folsom.
I hope to see you there.
Intersections: Faith and the Arts conference is a local Northern California conference which celebrates the arts in all it’s forms, stirs the dialogue for Sacramento-area artists of faith to connect together, and provides a theological basis for the the arts. Are you a painter, dancer, actor, writer, poet, filmmaker, musician? Then this conference is for you.
This year’s Intersections Conference—slated for Saturday, April 13, from 8:30 AM-5:00 PM at Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California—promises to be one of our best yet. Intersections features many diverse expressions of the arts, breakout sessions in many disciplines, a panel discussion, and speakers that will inspire you to take your art to the next level. Oh, and a few surprises too. Plus, there is always have an amazingly wonderful catered gourmet luncheon (we believe highly in the culinary arts!).
One of the unique things about this conference is that we almost exclusively feature local area artists and speakers. We do this for two reasons: first, we have some great artists of faith in our area! Second, it allows us to create a greater connectivity with one another. This year’s primary conference speakers include:
Bob Kilpatrick is an internationally known artist, speaker, author, and Christian songwriter icon. Although he is best known as the composer of the classic worship chorus, “(In My Life) Lord, Be Glorified,” he has written a number of books including The Art of Being You (Zondervan). This is Bob’s second appearance at Intersections, brought back by popular demand.
Derek Martin is the Director of the newly formed Creative Arts Program at William Jessup University. An actor, musician, and leader of artists, Derek was the coordinator of the Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts at Regent University, as well as resident choreographer and a director. Derek is also Artistic Director of the Americana Theatre Company, a professional summer stock in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Jim Martinez is an internationally featured jazz musician and Steinway artist with twelve CDs to his credit. A contemporary of jazz greats like Oscar Peterson, Lionel Hampton, Vince Guaraldi, Dave Brubeck, and others, he’ll be sharing his expertise and music in a free-flowing mini-concert during the event.
Tiffany Paige is the Director of the Sacramento chapter of ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimers. Although access to memory is affected by Alzheimer’s Disease, imagination and creativity are not. In this light, she will be sharing her thoughts and experiences in this role.
Special Screening: “I Was Broken” We have added a special screening of a locally produced full-length feature Indie Film, “I Was Broken,” at 7 PM that evening. Participants of the conference will be able to attend this screening for free (the general public is also invited to this screening for $8). We will also have the producers of this film—Kevin Haskin, Jo Haskin, Brian Hamm, Marty Noufer and Alan Koshiyama—available during the conference and after the screening for a Q&A. We are excited to be able to support this quality, heart-moving film, which defies the typical conventions of cheesiness, questionable acting, and lack of production value.
I’m also excited for some of Breakout Workshop Facilitators this year, including visual artist Judith Monroe, songwriter Paxson Jeancake, dance and theatre director Kelly Archer, curious human Katie Murphy, dance director Sara Branaman, and others.
I’ve been quite amazed at the connections that have occurred as a result of our conferences, connections that have had far-reaching effects throughout the Sacramento region. If you are an artist—and especially if you are a leader of artists—we encourage you to this year’s conference.
Registration begins at 8:30 AM with the Common Grounds Cafe serving complimentary coffee. Cost for this event is $30 (includes lunch), and $20 for students. Click the link at the top of this blog to register on-line. For additional information, email email@example.com.
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.
The mother views her son with empathetic disappointment. “But honey,” she replies. “You can’t do both.”
I think I have the weirdest job in the world. But I guess I’m one of the lucky ones. I get to play music for a living. Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. Armed with degrees in engineering and business but tainted with a somewhat-ingrained proclivity for contrarianism, I ended up becoming a musician and creative arts pastor.
In twenty two years of full-time ministry, I’ve written a file drawer full of drama scripts, designed dozens of Christmas and Easter programs, charted for horns, strings, and choirs, produced and scored for video, acted in sketches, ran a project recording studio, led seniors in convalescent homes singing old hymns. I’ve painted scenery flats, designed posters and flyers, cartooned, written short stories, produced a weekly radio program, accompanied for dance, taught and lectured, set up an art gallery. I’ve authored books, released albums, keynoted at conferences, dressed up in a gorilla suit. I’ve played the Star Spangled Banner for the Fourth of July, sung “Apples and Bananas” for preschool classes, and been tipped to play “Piano Man” more times than I care to admit. I’ve hung from catwalks, crawled under stages, worked on construction sites, carted tens of thousands of cumulative pounds of PA equipment, and opened for a lot of people who have come and gone.
There’s the other side too. The spiritual, pastoral side. I’ve prayed with lots of families in lots of hospital rooms. I’ve encouraged and assisted a lot of young aspiring artists to go do it, whatever that it is. I’ve looked across the table at faces who were in the midst of terrible crises or profound grief. I’ve played far too many funerals, but also been privileged to play lots of weddings too. I’ve been around the world many times on missions trips—Germany, the Philippines, Equador, the Bahamas, Italy, Idaho. I’ve done life with so many incredible people. I’ve sat at the piano in the midst of corporate worship when the smile of God would suddenly overwhelm me. So many sacred moments.
I was reflecting on all of this lately when I came across a chapter from Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. This is what she has to say about calling:
“When God calls, it is a very big deal. It is holy ground. It produces within us such reverence and awe that it is hard to know what to do with ourselves. Finally the whole of our life begins to make sense, and new awareness of the divine orchestration that has brought us to this moment makes us want to take off our shoes or fall on our face or maybe even argue with God about the improbability of it all. But no matter how much we may want to resist, the landscape of our life has opened up.”
People have asked me before, how do I know if I am being called to do this? It could be a job offer or a relocation or a missions trip or a ministry opportunity. And though I can’t definitively answer their question, I do believe Barton’s observations are generally true: My life began to really make sense when I entered the calling that God had for me. And ever since, I have repeatedly seen the divine orchestration that stirs and guides and confirms my life trajectory.
As I said, I have the weirdest job in the world. And it was in the convergence of my talents and passions and dreams and experiences, as well as in my fears and inadequacies and naivete, that I found my calling.
It’s my hope that one day—when God knocks at your door—you can say the same as well.
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
I have a theory. I’m at the age where I’ve actually gained some real experiential wisdom, but I’m still relatively young enough to act on it. So I try to consider this stage of my life carefully, not wanting to waste it, but instead use my time fruitfully—in ministry, in my art, with my family, and in my life.
Now that doesn’t always work out that way. (Seriously, I think I might have the weirdest job in the world.) But I do endeavor to place the sillyness of art and ministry in the context of living a life worth living. And I think there’s a little wisdom in that.
Here’s my annual “By The Numbers” blog, where I take a look at highlights of this last year. There have been unique opportunities and new relationships and difficult challenges this year, and I find myself once again grateful and humbled by God’s faithfulness. Here’s a summary of 2012, By The Numbers…
Number of Blog Entries: 37. Creativity and mystery. Artist profiles and short stories. Mission trip reports and reflections on the arts. According to my WordPress host, Adventures in Faith and Art had over 25,000 hits this year. (Relatively speaking, a modest number.) But as the size of my blog audience continues to slowly grow, I am grateful to all of you for the privilege of allowing me to dialogue with you.
Number of Mission Trips: 1. More than just a missions trip, I had an awesome time traveling for three weeks in February to Legazpi City, Philippines, to teach at the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership, sponsored by the North American Baptist Conference. I taught a credited class on worship to their Bible students, as well as conducted workshops, preached, and met many great people who love the Lord. You can read all about it here. I also got in contact with my roots (I’d never been to the Philippines before), and I ate a whole lot of Filipino food. Yum. I hope to go back again.
Number of Gigs: 48. A relatively slow year for me, with highlights that include a few non-profits fundraisers (including The Twin Lakes Food Bank and The Playmakers), some fun concerts, a few corporate events, and a whole lot of piano bar.
Number of Speaking Engagements: 8. Highlights include the Creative Church Conference (speaking and performing) in Boise, locally at our own Intersections Conference, speaking to students at William Jessup University and other locales, and several opportunities while in the Philippines.
Number of New Albums: 1. Featuring the Manuel Luz Trio (ML3), our new album Unraveled was pre-released in December 2012, and will be rolled out in 2013 with a CD Release Concert on January 26. Look for info soon! We’re also looking for opportunities to perform, so let us know if you have a venue you’d like ML3 to play at. [Note: See ordering information as well as exclusive liner notes here on this web page.] Speaking of which…
Number of Books Written: 2. I wrote the bulk of two new manuscripts in 2012, both with different spins on faith and the arts, but at this point, no publishers are interested in them. I’ve tried not to be discouraged by that, knowing the fact that I had Imagine That published at all was a long shot to begin with. I may consider self-publishing; please let me know what you think!
Number of Worship Services: 113. That sounds like a lot of worship services, and maybe it is. I did a rough estimate of the number of services I’ve probably led in the past 22 years of full-time ministry and I came up with over 4,000. That’s a lot of time leading God’s people in worship. Which is to say, I have the best job in the world.
Number of Sabbaticals: 1. One of the reasons my numbers appear “down” from last year is that I was privileged to receive a four-week sabbatical from Oak Hills Church last July. (I am extremely grateful to my church family for such an extravagant gift.) It was a relatively short but significant time for me to connect deeply with my family and recharge my batteries. One would consider 22 years of continuous full-time ministry a long time, and I think it is. But life is a marathon, not a sprint. And I do believe that the best is yet to come.
2013 and Beyond: I’m hoping to kick off the next year with the new CD, pursue publishing one of my titles, and there’s a music tour being planned for southeast Asia next fall. We’re also very excited to be marrying off our son, Justin, to a beautiful young lady from a beautiful family. God continues to surprise us!
[Photos: From top to bottom. (1) A hilarious caricature of me leading worship, drawn by my son, Justin. He does his best work on the backs of church bulletins; (2) Leading an all-day worship workshop during my trip to the Philippines; (3) Playing at the grand opening of a spa in Rocklin. Thank you, thank you very much.; (4) Speaking at the Boise Creative Church Conference. Artist Dean Estes is working behind me as I speak. (5) The new album cover, Unraveled, designed by Keith Elliott; (6) Leading worship at Oak Hills during the Advent season. Sweet.]
[Note: This is an excerpt from a recent sermon I presented on "Engagement in Worship." To listen to the full message, see the Oak Hills Media page for September 30, 2012. I hope it speaks to you.]
The “heart” of the worshiper is a key aspect of worship, but there seems to be some confusion about what that means. These days, the word “heart” is associated with emotion, experience, and sincerity. In other words, if someone says they mean something “with all my heart,” what they imply is that they really, really mean it in an emotional way. Unfortunately, worship that’s dependent only on our efforts to be increasingly sincere can sometimes be manipulative. We’ve all seen “rah rah” moments when emotions can get whipped up for sporting events, political rallies, and even infomercials.
I’ve heard many stories from people about churches where the worship was fervent and spirited and seemingly alive, but behind the scenes, people never lived their lives consistent with the God they worshiped. You see, if all we focused on in worship was emotive sincerity, we can disregard the larger issue of living the life of a worshiper, and concentrate instead on just having experiences of worship.
But the heart has a fuller and more biblical meaning—as the core of an individual. Dallas Willard describes it as that part, “where decisions and choices are made for the whole person.” If this is true, that the heart also includes decisions and choices, then a worshiping heart is one that worships not just as an emotion, but more so as an act of the will.
I was a part of a wedding last weekend. It was a beautiful and moving event, and the climax of the ceremony, as it should be, was the exchanging of vows. Here’s the thing. I’ve been a part of maybe a hundred weddings, and whenever the vows are exchanged, I always restate my vows to my wife silently in my head, kind of a renewing of my commitment to Debbie. As I said, I’ve maybe done this a hundred times over the past 25 years. Because I think it’s important to remind myself continually of the things I’ve committed to, to my wife and before God.
Now when you state your marriage vows to your spouse, you don’t vow to “fall in love.” You vow to “love, honor, and cherish.” In other words, love is more than an emotion. It is more foundationally an act of the will. Think about that. God commands us to love one another, and even our enemies, which is obviously not an emotional love but an act of the will. Certainly love is an emotion, but faithfulness redefines love to be much more than that. It is also a decision, an act of selflessness, something you express even when you don’t feel like it.
So we choose to love our spouse, or our parents, or our children, or our neighbor, or our co-worker, even when we don’t feel like it. Because the choice is as much an act of love as the love itself. That’s what real love is.
Do you see why this is important? I hear people sometimes talk about the fact that they aren’t “in the mood” to worship. Singing is not “me” they would say. And so they reason they decide that it would be more honest to not sing or come into service later after the singing is over. Or they reason that they don’t feel like raising their hands or clapping, so they decide that it would be more honest to leave their arms hanging. But is that right, really?
Another thing is that this narrow view makes worship simply about our feelings. And we’ve all been in situations where our feelings were manipulated. Just watch any chick flick, and you know what I mean. I watched “The Notebook” once with Debbie. And she’s crying and stuff, and I’m looking at her thinking, you know this is a made up story, right? These people don’t really exist. Feelings are extremely important. Feelings can also be wrong.
When we equate worship only with our feelings, then we’ve made the definition of worship—and the definition of love—too small.
Heart worship begins with a choice. It begins as an act of the will. And if heart worship is an act of the will, then it doesn’t matter that much if we are “in the mood” or not. It doesn’t matter if we like the style or the song or the tempo. All of that becomes subservient to the purpose of meeting God and fully responding to the Truth of His Story, to His action and presence in our lives. All of that becomes subservient to simply giving God glory. We worship because He is worthy.
This is a subtle but important distinction. Instead of waiting for the worship leader or the rock band or the laser lights and fog machines to rev us up emotionally for worship, we instead choose to worship—assuming a posture of obedience and surrender—as an act of our will. Then we can more honestly allow the Holy Spirit to be the One who stirs us up emotionally. Emotions are important, but emotions should follow the will, not the other way around.
So, let me say this more bluntly. It doesn’t matter that much if you don’t like to sing or if you like the song. God is worthy of our worship, so maybe you should sing. It doesn’t matter if you feel like it. Biblical love compels you to choose it.
An act of the will in worship will look different for each person. Maybe it looks like a premeditated decision to set your alarm 15 minutes earlier so you can be at church early. Maybe it looks like a deliberate slowing of your Sunday, you know, really applying the concept of Sabbath to the entire day, so that you are not encumbered by agendas or expectations or hurry. Maybe it looks like a willful surrendering of your body and soul and mind during the worship service, so that hands are raised, voices are loud, without encumbrance or holding back.
Now let me flip around and talk about the emotional part of heart worship. Because I don’t want you to get the impression that we want to downplay emotional worship. Entirely the opposite. Sometimes when I stand here and lead you in worship, and I feel the smile of God upon us, I just feel like exploding. And then I open my eyes and see you guys, and, well, I just want to light a fire under your seats. I want you to move, and raise your hands, and sing really loud, and jump up and down. I want to unleash the inhibitions that keep you from declaring God’s greatness. I want to let loose your emotions! I want to encourage you to let your bodies show the joy that your mouths are singing about.
Unfortunately, I think we may be holding ourselves back. We may be inhibiting ourselves from the fullness of worship that comes from our emotions. And I take responsibility for that, being your worship leader here at Oak Hills. Frankly, I have my own inhibitions and ego and stuff that I have to deal with every time I get up here to lead you all. So we all have some learning to do in the area of emotive worship.
There’s a story in the Bible that bears mentioning here. In the Book of Second Samuel, The Ark of the Lord was physically being moved back into Jerusalem, and King David, the poet warrior, the beloved of God, was pretty stoked about it. As it was being carried in, David gets so excited that he rushes out into the crowd, and right there in the middle of the street, starts doing the moonwalk. He is a dancing fool for the Lord. Now, his wife, Michel, who is the daughter of Saul, becomes disgusted by this undignified display of elation, and she calls him out on it. But David doesn’t care. He turns back to Michel and says this: “I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.” (2 Samuel 6:21-22 NIV)
David, King of all Israel, is not afraid to express the fullness of His joy before the Lord and in front of people. He understood when being “undignified” in the eyes of man was actually the most proper and worshipful act He could express to God in that moment. “Hallel” is a Hebrew word for “praise,” and it actually has the implication that we are expressing ourselves foolishly before God. It’s where we get our expression, “Hallelujah,” which if you look at it that way, can be interpreted to mean, “Crazy praise to You, Yahweh.”
You see, there’s a great deal of vulnerability in worship. When we are truly worshiping God, there is a sense that there is no longer any pretending. We are exposed, revealed, uncovered, to our Holy God. When we are able to embrace our vulnerability before God, it is there where we can learn to accept more and more God’s great love for us.
King David understood—we are God’s undignified people. Maybe it’s time we started acting a bit more like that.
My pastor, Mike Lueken, posed a question to us in his most recent Sunday message. If you were to meet the real Jesus, he posited, the real flesh-in-blood Jesus of the Bible, would you want to be with Him? Would you sit with Him and talk to Him and eat with Him and be drawn to be with Him? Or would you make some small talk for a few minutes, and then find some polite way to excuse yourself and leave? Would you find a conversation with Jesus compelling and deep and delightful, or would you find it stilted and surfacy and uncomfortable? Would you have a lot to talk about, or would you be grasping for words?
It got me thinking about the nature of how we interact with others, and how we will sometimes guard ourselves with our small courtesies and our social graces, to keep ourselves from the risk of knowing and being known by others. Because maybe that applies not just to the people we meet in our neighborhoods and schools and workplaces, but also with God as well.
Artists—at least those of us who are made of equal parts of deep passion and silent melancholy—will often have a tendency to live within ourselves. We secretly desire intimacy, and yet we instinctively protect ourselves by placing distance between ourselves and others. This is true of our lives and also true of our art. So we spend hours in our studios and practice rooms and creative spaces alone in our thoughts, alone in the creative process.
Artmaking is an extremely intimate act. We pour ourselves out into the things we create, fleshing out our inner selves into the clay, the canvas, the guitar strings. Through our creative expressions, we bare a bit of ourselves in everything we make. So in this sense, artmaking is an act of incarnation. We simply can’t help it—our poetry and songs and films reflect the meta-narrative of mortal brokenness and divine redemption. But ironically, in the midst of this creative intimacy, we tend toward aloneness. It’s like giving birth to a baby—you want to show the baby off, but you don’t want too many people in the delivery room either.
There have been a number of times when musician friends of mine will ask me if I’d like to collaborate on some songwriting. I’ll always find myself politely declining the opportunity, for reasons I never quite understand. Really, what am I afraid of?
And I know I’m not alone in this irony. I know many musicians and painters and other artists who create not only alone in their rooms but more profoundly alone in themselves.
If you are one of those solitary artists, I want to encourage you to do two things. First, invite someone you know and trust into your creative process. I don’t know what that might mean to you, given your medium and situation, but I do know that it can be an act of spiritual formation to allow others into the internal space (both physical and emotional) you reserve for yourself. Co-write, collaborate, dialogue your ideas and visions. Dare to get outside of yourself and share the creative process. You may find that a collaborative interaction will stretch and challenge you—artistically and personally and spiritually—in good and formative ways.
Second, don’t forget to allow God into that place also. For our Creator God is an intimate Being as well, and He meets us in the act of creation. Omnipotent and omnipresent, he desires to be with us and share the creative moment. Offer your creativity to God and invite the Holy Spirit to be the inspirer of your work. Allow Him into the process, the struggle, of writing your lyrics or choreography or drawing. Commune with God in every brushstroke you take, every phrase you write, every idea that comes to mind. Make your artmaking a sacred conversation. For God is not only our audience. He is also the origin of all creativity.
Artmaking for the artist can too often be a place we hide from the world, and hide from God. But if that is the case, then we miss out on the intimate horizontal and vertical relationships that enrich the process. Like a conversation with Jesus, the act of creation should be compelling and deep and delightful when shared with others—and especially with God.
Do you have an example—either horizontal or vertical—that you can share about the creative process? I’d love to hear about it.
[Note: If you hadn't figured it out, the photo above is from a scene from the classic eighties movie, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." The painting is "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by French painter, Georges Pierre Seurat.]
Tinged with an appealing Celtic-influenced sound that blends folk, pop, and a little rock, Amy is at once an instrumentalist, folk and pop singer, worship leader, minister, and artist.
Graduating with a music degree from Wheaton College, Amy’s career began as a recording artist with Sparrow Records as well as being a staff writer at Birdwing Music. She has opened for Larry Carlton and Michael McDonald, performed for the NRB and Praise Gathering, and has worked with Tommy Sims, Norbert Putnam, Brian Hardin, and Peter York. Amy has recorded thirteen records for six companies and has been nominated for a Dove Award. Amy has been featured on the Moody Broadcast Network, GLC-TV worldwide, Focus on the Family, and tours North America speaking and singing in churches, universities, and conferences, including The Voice of the Martyrs and Dee Brestin Ministries.
Since 2004, Amy has been passionate about supporting Christians who have been persecuted worldwide in restricted nations through The Voice of the Martyrs. She has contributed to two recordings featuring Gracia Burnham and several Christian artists to bring awareness of those who have been persecuted for their faith in Jesus.
Her latest album is a sixteen-song vocal CD called “The God Of All Comfort.” Her label, Audio Abbey Records, is also under contract with Zondervan for a 10 song version of the same CD which is available with best selling author Dee Brestin’s women’s study guide based on her book with the same title.
Amy is married to producer Gary Wixtrom, and they currently live in Nashville with their ten year-old daughter Elise. I’ve worked with them a number of times, and I find them to be a thoroughly delightful family. For more information, please check out their website.
Amy, along with husband Gary, will be performing and leading worship at my home church, Oak Hills in Folsom, for our Maundy Thursday Service on April 5 at 7 PM (celebrating the Lord’s Supper) and our Good Friday Service on April 6 at noon (commemorating the acts of the cross). Both of these intimate events will be observed in-the-round, and we invite you to join us. I’ll be joining them on the grand piano for the worship. In addition, they will be leading worship at the upcoming Voice of the Martyrs Conference at Oak Hills Church on Saturday, April 14.
I was relating to a friend once that I was preparing for some prison ministry. Specifically, I was taking my band to a northern California correctional facility, to speak and lead worship in their prison chapel for two Sunday services. Everyone has preconceived notions about prison. Mine are colored by movies like “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Walk the Line,” or even “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” Misconceptions aside, my Dad was a correctional officer at Soledad Prison, and I have childhood memories of my Mom informing us that Dad wouldn’t be home today because there was another lock-down. I remember the pained look on her face, the volumes she spoke in her silence.
My friend, Bob, replied that he had a lot of experience doing prison ministry. And he had one piece of advice. “Sing Amazing Grace,” he offered without explanation. “Just do it,” he added, “and tell me how it goes.”
Fast forward to two Sundays later. We had already gone through the security checks, walked our instruments through the inner courtyard and below the watching eyes of the guard tower, a silent, steady reminder that this was no ordinary gig. We had set up our drums, guitars, and keyboard, and now awaited the service to start.
Filing in quietly, about 150 inmates began to fill the chapel, all wearing powder blue shirts and jeans, and solemn looks on their faces. Shoulder-to-shoulder, from pew to pew, it was a full crowd. At the nod of the prison chaplain, we took our places, hit the downbeat, and we were off. These men worshiped! They sang loud and clapped often and raised their hands with heartfelt spontaneity. They overtly encouraged us to lead them. They responded with conviction and certainty and abandon. It was like they really believed the God of the universe was in this chapel with them. Because He was.
The second service that afternoon was filled mostly with new inmates who had heard about the morning session. And it was even more full and lively. “Off the hook!,” our leader Greg described it. “The best response I’ve ever seen.” The 90 minute service ran an extra hour, and I finally had to admit to the crowd of 200 that we had run out of music.
“Sing Amazing Grace!,” one of the men shouted. So I did. And it was.
The response was nothing short of supernatural. Grown men falling to their knees and on their faces, crying and singing and coming forward for prayer. Thirty inmates came forward at the altar call, with others coming forward to meet them. It was extraordinary to see these men, tattooed and otherwise hardened by stories unspoken, completely unashamed of their need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
One truth became tangibly real to me that afternoon. These men knew about God’s grace in ways that I did not. Each experience of grace was both unique and intense for each individual. And they didn’t take that grace for granted. In a sense, it was all they had. They had no privilege born to them, no busyness to distract them, no technology to hide behind. In that moment, they had only a song to sing. And that song unwrapped them, exposed them, spoke into them, healed them.
What was it about that particular song, sung at that particular time, to these particular people? So much of that answer is shrouded in God’s mystery. But I do believe it has to do with some combination of the Beauty of the song and lyric, the Truth that the song expressed, and God’s transcendent movement in the expression of it.
King Saul knew the healing potential of the arts. The first King of Israel after the rule of the Judges, he was caught between the politics of governing a nation and a series of border wars, primarily with the Ammonites and the Philistines. But there was a new wrinkle to his story. Troubled by an evil spirit, he was unable to sleep, and his troubled mind greatly worried his advisers and servants. In response, they encouraged him to find relief in music. Saul took their advice, and sent for a harpist to play for him. Providentially, the man summoned was a young shepherd named David, skilled in the lyre and described to the King as “a brave man and a warrior.” (1 Samuel 16:18) The Bible says that David’s music provided a continual soothing relief for Saul, and the evil spirit that plagued his peace eventually left him.
We’ve discussed in previous blogs how the arts are a powerful means of speaking deeply to the brokenness that is a part of our humanity. The arts uproot our doubts and our disappointments, our pain and our scars, our secret sins and our unspoken fears. Everyone needs saving, and in some subterranean chasm of our souls, we all know it. But the arts go beyond exposing our brokenness. The arts also have the capacity to be a balm, to be an ointment for healing. Beyond mere proclamations of Truth, the arts can speak to us in ways that are therapeutic, restorative, life-giving.
It seems the world believes this much more than Christians. A recent Google search of the words “art” and “healing” yields over 141 million results. And practically none of these are Christian sites. The arts are regularly used for physical and psychological therapy, with the general understanding that the practice of the arts in its various forms allows the body to relax and de-stress, affecting the body neurologically, hormonally, and psychologically. Some of these websites cite “scientific studies” that show measurable benefits to the practice of the arts.
And while there may be truth to this view, the Christian arts may provide a different dynamic altogether, one less physiological or psychological and more primarily spiritual. In a very real sense, the artist functions as a healer when their art is a catalyst for healing.
One of my good friends, Steve, initiated a music program targeted for children. Specifically, he adopted The Rhythm Arts Project (TRAP), a program that uses percussion instruments in a drum circle format to facilitate learning for people, especially children or those who have mental or physical disabilities (e.g., Downs syndrome, autism, etc.). More than just music, TRAP facilitates socialization, develops gross and fine motor skills, and teaches basic knowledge (like numbers, colors, etc.). Seeing a class in action, you get a sense that there is something beautiful, even sacred, happening. Children are engaging, laughing, learning, playing. Music becomes for the TRAP children a language, an expression, a soul-filling activity.
As we had argued earlier, the arts are transcendent by nature, a language of the soul. The arts bypass the typical human defenses and rationale that ward off mere words, so that the Truth can hit deep broken places that are otherwise untouched. We sing Amazing Grace, and the song rekindles the deep Hope that fills the void of our mortality. It is more than the mere proclamation of Truth. It is like Truth applied to the sin, like a salve upon the wound. Artist becomes healer.
And it goes beyond words. Dance, painting, film, and other art forms have this same capability. It is because, as we had stated earlier, Beauty is also a form of Truth, the revelation of God’s glory.
It is said that the poet T. S. Eliot, on a visit to Rome, fell to his knees in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta, the famous sculpture of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, and converted to Anglicanism soon after.
Henri Nouwen narrates in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, his own spiritual journey through a chance encounter with a Rembrandt painting which so captured the elements of the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) that it brought to him spiritual healing and a renewed vision for his life.
Not surprisingly, it is the self-expression of the artists’ brokenness that allows the arts to speak with such intensity and empathy. As artists, we feel deeply, and tapping into the depths of ourselves in our artmaking makes our art relatable and accessible to our audience. Many artists I know turn to their paintbrushes, cameras, and musical instruments when they are discouraged, depressed, grieving. Personally, the piano was the way I was able to work out the storm of emotions and doubts I felt, especially as a teenager. And when I came to faith in Christ, the piano became my altar, the primary way in which I worshiped and communed with God.
I believe the reason why artmaking is in itself a healing activity is as stated previously—the combination of Beauty of form in the art we create, the Truth revealed through the art, and God’s transcendent movement in the act of artmaking. With every act of artmaking, we realize something that God intended of us and designed into us—the creation of beauty and truth is a soul-filling activity.
A mother of two passed away last year from cancer. She had been battling this for years, bravely and honestly and in full view of eternity. But through the years of chemo and radiation treatments, her body had tired and wore out. She was dearly beloved by our entire church, and was just a magnificently lovely person. So you can imagine how difficult the memorial service was for everyone.
With decades of full-time ministry, I’ve participated in way-too-many memorial services. It is in light of our mortality that we are confronted by the big questions and magnified emotions: Sadness, fear, denial, introspection, a search for significance. But for the Christ follower, there are other dynamics as well: Grace, heaven, release, hope.
As a congregation, we had already been rocked by a series of unexpected and unrelated deaths among us, all dearly loved people. It was as if we were going through a season of grieving. So it was in the valley of the shadow of death that many hundreds of people gathered for her memorial service. We sang, reminisced, told stories, honored the family, and loved one another. And at the end of the service, we decided to sing one last song, Here Comes the Sun, by the Beatles.
Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, do do do do
Here comes the sun, and I say, It’s all right
Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear
Here comes the sun, do do do do
Here comes the sun, and I say, It’s all right
Here comes the sun, do do do do
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right, It’s all right
Far beyond the mere lyrics, the song bathed us like a sweet balm, reaching into the cracks of our broken hearts with the reminder that we have a faithful and eternal God. Obviously, John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t write this song for this reason. But in context, the song dug deeply into our individual and corporate pain, and washed the dirt and grime from it, and worked like a soothing medicine to our souls.
I am convinced that in moments like that, artmaking is a sacred thing. We are not just performers. We are priests. Not that our talents or skills make us worthy, but only through God’s mercy are we accorded the God-given privilege of ushering in His manifold grace to others through our art.
When the movie blockbuster, The Matrix, was first released over a decade ago, it created quite a stir, not only because of it’s cutting-edge special effects and graphic novel sophistication, but because it was a provocative blending of mythology, eastern mysticism, Christian themes, philosophy, science fiction, and a fist full of kung fu. Blending the hero’s journey with the messiah story, it can be viewed as both religious and atheistic, intellectual and exploitative, profoundly thought-provoking and shallow fun. And at the heart of the story lies the ultimate question: What is the truth about the nature of life?
It is one of the fundamental questions. And in a word where truth, like beauty, is considered to be a relative thing, it is ironic that the heart of man still searches for some semblance of what is genuinely, objectively, and ultimately True.
The Bible had a word for those whose job was to tell the truth about God and about life, past, present, and future. The word is “prophet.” And unfortunately, the word conjures up many unintended meanings. There’s a lonely and quite misunderstood bearded man in the desert, yelling at people to repent. Or maybe a fortuneteller bearing a jeweled turban who promises to tell you the future. Or the man wearing the sandwich board yelling at the corner, bringing the annoying message that the end is near. Any modern use of the term requires a sense of explanation or apology.
To say that something is prophetic is to imply that we can predict the future. And there is obviously Biblical precedent for this (e.g., the books of Isaiah or Revelation). But practically speaking, the prophetic gift has more to do with helping people see things as they really are. Prophets clarify, illuminate, and reveal. Like Morpheus offering Neo the red pill, the prophet offers to help people see the larger reality, the Kingdom perspective. In the Bible, the role of the prophet was to remind people of God’s sovereignty and His direction for us, a voice from outside the babel that calls us back, a champion of all that is Godly when we have lost our way. Prophets remind us of what is real and important. Prophets are Truth tellers.
Such is the role of the artist as well. If we are doing our job, if we are creating art that is noteworthy and unique, then our art implies a perspective of life that stands apart from the norm. Our art pulls back the curtain, offers a different point of view, provokes thought and feeling. This should be even more true for the Christian artist as well, for our work provides a perspective of life that not only stands apart from the norm, but is grounded in the eternal.
In the collection, Intruding Upon the Timeless, author Gregory Wolfe explains:
“Like the biblical prophet, the artist is often an outsider, one who stands apart and delivers a challenge to the community. The prophets of old employed many of the same tricks used by writers and artists: lofty rhetoric, apocalyptic imagery, biting satire, lyrical evocations of better times, and subversive irony. To be sure, the true prophet came not to proclaim his own message, but that of the Lord.”
“The artist and the prophet bring far things near; they somehow bring the urgencies of the eschatological realm into the mundane world of the here and now.”
The Christian artist must be a prophet, in that in some small way, our art should reveal the greater Truth. And that is easier said than done. So if I may, please indulge me a two contrasting examples.
Thomas Kinkade is arguably the most recognizable Christian painter today. His work—revealing pastoral scenes, beautiful landscapes, pastel cottages and a romanticized view of days gone by—has become extremely popular over the last few decades, particularly with evangelical Christians. Stylistically, he is a master of drawing light from the canvas, allowing us to see these scenes through softened, dreamy lenses. Dubbed, “The Painter of Light,” Kinkade is not only an accomplished artist, but is also a successful book author, businessman, and prolific philanthropist. Many people, Christians in particular, have purchased his prints, collectibles, themed home furnishings, and even crafts and puzzles. His popularity, I suspect, is much more than simple technique; his true talent may lie in his ability to answer the soul’s yearning for some semblance of otherworldly peace.
The question is this: Can the body of his work be considered redemptive? Does it reflect a Christian worldview? Does his work point people to the greater story of God?
Kinkade explains of his work, “I like to portray a world without the Fall.” And it is true that he masterfully expresses an idyllic pastel world of serenity and peacefulness in his works. But consider a world without the fall. Is that consistent with the Christian meta-narrative—creation, fall, and redemption? Is it true to the Story? While Kinkaide may convey a noble sentiment, it is more than nostalgic wishing. It is theologically wrong.
The Gospel is that God is in the business of rescuing a world that is broken and lost and doomed without Him. The worldview that Kinkade so carefully cultivates in his body of work is a world without brokenness, transgression, conflict, sin. And in a world without the fall, the blood of Jesus is, in Gregory Wolfe’s words, “rendered superfluous.” Grace becomes unnecessary where there is no sin. Redemption is nonessential, for there is nothing from which to be redeemed.
In Kinkade’s works, we find ourselves sampling the harmless and counterfeit titillations we talked about earlier in the theme park. 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 and beauty, should have at its core, redemption. For Grace is God’s loving response to the Fall.
So while Kinkade taps into a longing that is true, what he depicts in response to this longing is not. The otherworldly peace that is the soul’s true yearning is called shalom. Shalom is a Jewish word that implies “the reality and hope of wholeness for the individual, within societal relations, and for the whole world.” More than simply the lack of war, shalom refers to God’s pervasive will upon a place in truth, justice, benevolence, and reign. This is why Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. This is the true yearning of our hearts, to find redemption in a broken world that desperately needs Jesus, the Prince of Shalom.
A second example of a Christian artist is C. S. Lewis, apologist (arguably the greatest of his time), scholar, historian, radio personality, and author. He is probably best known for a series of children’s books entitled The Chronicles of Narnia. As these books were of the fantasy genre, they are, by definition, not true in the sense that it is based on historical reality. But the question still remains: Does his work point people to the greater story of God?
Much has been written about The Chronicles of Narnia, so a deep analysis is unnecessary. We understand it is not allegorical in nature, though the central character, Aslan, is definitely a nod to Christ. But there is nothing that necessarily points to the Gospel. There are no four spiritual laws, no mention of the church, no overt symbols of the Christian faith (and in fact, many pagan symbols instead). There are, however, recurring themes: Good and evil, the nature of man, the ugliness of sin, the need for justice, the power of forgiveness. The books model love, integrity, family, loyalty, grace. They are truthful to the complexities of selfishness, avarice, pride, deception, death. The overarching worldview that undergirds all of the stories is that there really is absolute Truth in a chaotic world. And the overarching message is that the world has been somehow marred by sin, and it is through the benevolence of an all mighty power that we will be redeemed.
Are the Chronicles of Narnia consistent with the Christian meta-narrative, the Big Story? Is it consistent with Truth? Is his work prophetic in some way? I think the answer is yes.
How does the artist become a Truth teller? Philip Graham Ryken shares in his short treatise, Art for God’s Sake, his view:
“Art communicates truth in various ways. Sometimes it tells a story, and the story is true to human experience—it is an incarnation of the human condition. Sometimes art tells the truth in the form of propositions. This is especially characteristic of literary art forms, which speak with words. Art can also convey emotional and experiential truth, and it can do this without words, as is often the case with music. But whatever stories it tells, and whatever ideas or emotions it communicates, art is true only if it points in some way to the one true story of salvation—the story of God’s creation, human sin, and the triumph of grace through Christ.”
The mixed media artist paints a tree in the forest, strong and sinewy, timeless like eternity. Beneath the tree, real leaves and twigs affixed to the canvas form a foreground, reminding us of God’s fingerprint upon creation. Art reveals Truth.
The photographer captures the image of an orphan girl, wrapped in the tragedy of her generational poverty. Clothed in rags and powdered in dirt, her glancing eyes and her guarded smile disclose the image of God within her. Art reveals Truth.
A choreographer creates an evocative piece with seven dancers using east Indian music. Through movement, she tells the story of the Dalit, the people of the lowest caste system in Indian society. Known as the Untouchables, there is still extreme prejudice and suppression placed upon these people. Though not a word is spoken in the dance, we begin to see an inner beauty in these people, and in spite of their condition, they are still loved by God. Art reveals Truth.
A songwriter sings a simple love song, not of sensual romance, but of a deeper kind. Through the poetry of his lyrics, he reflects on forgiveness offered and accepted, a relationship broken but restored. Once again, art reveals Truth.
A missionary assembles a group of artists—musicians, graphic artists, sound and lighting and video technicians—and presents a series of concerts featuring American music in a largely non-Christian European city. It draws the music fan, the bored, the curious. As the concert unfolds, the Gospel begins to shine—not just through the music they play or the words they sing or the visuals they project, but also in the way they interact with one another and with the audience, and in the conversations that surely follow a concert like this. Those in attendance are impressed not only by the quality of the music, but the quality of the people. Art reveals Truth.
As artists of faith, we must offer our audience the red pill. Our art must ultimately magnify, colorize, illuminate, and heighten the perception of Truth. And that Truth should captivate us, reframe our senses, compel us to action, and inspire us to something Greater. In this sense, it is fitting that the arts can be an expression of that Real Truth. And when that happens, the artist is a prophet, in the truest sense of the word.
By the early 1930s, trumpet virtuoso Louis Armstrong had already established himself as the definitive master of this infant musical genre called “jazz.” His fluid, emotive, powerful style and uniquely innovative playing had already become the benchmark for all jazz performers of his era. His trumpet solos were beyond expressive—they were conversational, charismatic, prodigious. But he had not yet become the household name he would one day be, and touring between Los Angeles and Chicago, he began a three-day run at the Hotel Driscoll in Austin, Texas. It was the fall of 1931.
Among those in attendance that evening was a white teenage boy in his first year at the University of Texas named Charlie Black. Black didn’t know anything about Armstrong and knew little about jazz; in fact, he was at the Driscoll simply to meet girls. But that was before Armstrong began to play.
Black would later write of his experience, “He played mostly with his eyes closed, letting flow from that inner space of music things that had never before existed. He was the first genius I’d ever seen. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen year-old southern boy seeing genius for the first time in a black person. We literally never saw a black then in anything but a servant’s capacity. Louis opened my eyes wide and put to me a choice. ‘Blacks’, the saying went, ‘were in their place.’ But what was the place for such a man, and the people from which he sprung?”
Twenty-two years later, at the cusp of the American Civil Rights movement, the Supreme Court was hearing the now historic Brown v. Board of Education. The NAACP Legal Defense was assembling their case in an effort to convince the court that segregation on the basis of race was unconstitutional. The person who wrote the legal brief upon which the case was grounded was Charles L. Black, now a distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale University, and senior advisor to Thurgood Marshall.
Black’s encounter with the music of Louis Armstrong was not simply memorable. For there was more coming out of Armstrong’s trumpet than music. What was emanating from his horn was a greater Truth about the world. Though young Charlie Black did not fully understand it at the time, history shows that Armstrong’s music changed his life—and ours—forever.
[Note: The five unnamed examples above are actually all real-life friends of mine. You know who you are.]
Intersections: Faith and the Arts Conference 2012 will be held this year on Saturday, March 17, at Oak Hills Church in Folsom. This conference, featuring local artists and speakers, is intended to further the dialogue between faith and the arts. That dialogue includes both connecting artists of different disciplines together, and also connecting them deeper with the spiritual and theological implications of their art.
I will be a speaker at this event, as well as a wide variety of other artists, and there will be many opportunities to connect and be inspired. Any artist of faith will gain insight and encouragement from this event.
This year’s artists include:
Alan Koshiyama, an award-winning composer with an impressive resume of feature film, television, video game (can you say “Pac-Man Party”?), and national commercial work with clients including Disney, Time Warner, various national networks, and video games. Variety Magazine calls Koshiyama’s music “evocative.” Koshiyama also serves as Worship Music Director at Adventure Christian Church in Roseville.
Steve Scott, British expat, finished art school in the mid 1970s and then moved to US, initially to record an album with Larry Norman. He ended up moving to northern California to join the staff of arts-friendly Warehouse Christian Ministries, and since that time has released ten albums of music, published three small press books of poetry and two books of collected essays on art theory. He directs CANA (Christian Artists Networking Association), which has helped organize arts conferences in SE Asia and Eastern Europe.
Susan Miller has been a part of Sacramento’s theater and broadcasting community for over 20 years. Her broadcast experience ranges from on air and production radio work in country, pop and smooth jazz formats as well as voice-over and on-camera work for area television stations. She now divides her time doing commercial VO with her own production company, and house managing several area theaters including Sacramento Theater Company and California Musical Theater’s Music Circus. The “productions” she is most proud of are her 4 great kids who have inherited her love of music and the theater.
Katie Albert is a talented photographer, graphic artist, and occasional helicopter pilot. She will be sharing her experiences and photography from her recent missions trip to Manipur, India, in partnership with one of Oak Hills’ ministry partners, the Nehemiah Project, which assists local pregnant women affected by HIV and runs the Nehemiah Children’s Home.
Yvette Johnson is a dance major at UC Santa Barbara. She has been dancing since the age of six and trained at Northern California Dance Conservatory during high school before moving to Santa Barbara to continue her studies. It was in Santa Barbara where she encountered the presence of God in the dance studios through various relationships with a very special group of dancers. Her dedication to following Jesus and moving for the Lord provides the basis for her testimony at Intersections.
The Intersections Conference features a variety of expressions including painting, photography, dance, and music; breakout sessions in specific areas of the arts; a panel discussion by local experts; and a wonderfully catered gourmet lunch (we believe highly in the culinary arts!). Registration begins at 8:30 AM with our Common Grounds Cafe serving complimentary coffee. Cost for this event is $30 (includes lunch), payable at the door. Please reserve your spot by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org today!
It’s raining again. Through last weekend and throughout last night, the weather has been a continuous cycle of drizzle, downpour, and brief pauses of run-off. Gutters swell periodically and the drainage canal next to our apartment rises threateningly, and I wonder where all the water goes. Pedi-cab drivers in the street below struggle to pedal their cabs while holding umbrellas, dodging puddles and other street spills. Some simply give up—drenched to the bone, they will their way to the corner to drop off their umbrella-clad fares, then turn and head up the street, looking for their next passenger.
In the distance, beyond the sound of Jeepneys beeping and whistles blowing, I can hear the sound of the Philippine National Anthem being played. The day has begun at the nearby private Catholic school. The morning sky is a blanket of dirty white. I try to picture the Mayon volcano in the distance, but I cannot. The drum roll of raindrops on corrugated rooftops, like white noise on the radio, crescendos and decrescendos, momentarily drawing me away from my thoughts.
And my thoughts now are of home. I think about what it must be like in El Dorado Hills, California, right at this moment. Blue skies, moderate temperatures, wall-to-wall carpeting and hot water coming out of the faucets. Debbie is probably thinking about starting dinner—maybe something Mexican like fajitas or taco salad—with all the conveniences of a modern kitchen and a well-stocked refrigerator at her disposal. I think about the girls probably having a post-school snack, doing their homework, texting their friends about the day.
I muse now about how different this world is than the one I call home. Ironically, the more I am with these beautiful people—people that I look like and look like me, people who love Jesus like me, people who live and breathe just like me—the more I am reminded that I am not like them. I grew up in a fundamentally different culture, with a fundamentally different set of social and cultural and economic values, and as a result, I think fundamentally differently than they do.
They have a humorous saying here: “Nosebleed.” It’s the lighthearted word they use to describe the struggle they have when speaking English to Americans, Canadians, Australians, and other travelers. I am giving the people I have met—especially the enrollees in the class I am teaching—nosebleeds.
Several times each session, I will say something that they will not understand, or tell them something that might be misconstrued in an unintended way. I will share an example that in our context is quite normal, but for them, may be inappropriate. Or I will tell a joke that will simply bomb big-time. I feel a little embarrassed because I am so woefully mono-lingual, but they have been very gracious and kind and forgiving in our communication and interaction.
These are all typical issues in any cultural interchange. But I realize it is more than language. And so I am trying to learn, not just their culture and their ways, but trying to grasp how they think as well. Now I believe I have a leg up on most of the Americans who come to this part of the Philippines, because some of their ethnocultural values were passed on to me by my parents. But as I said, the more I am here, the more my “California-ness” pokes out.
The rain has paused briefly now. What remains is a cool damp air that sticks to the skin. The morning rush of traffic has slowed a bit, and I suddenly recognize the sound of clucking chickens somewhere in the neighborhood.
And then I suddenly think, maybe Debbie is making chicken for dinner.
• The class that I have taken on is a relatively new batch of BCCL students, so it is early in their two year cycle. (Students take a series of intensive classes over a two-year period resulting in a Graduate Certificate in Urban Ministries, or GCUM.) As a result, the students are not just getting to know me, some are still in the process of getting to know one another.
• This fact is for all my builder friends. There’s very little building lumber here. Unlike California, where most homes are built with doug fir stud frames overlayed with drywall and siding, almost all the buildings here are cinderblock with plaster over the top. Houses are sturdy, but they don’t wear well in this climate. Most of the forests in the Philippines have been stripped, so there’s a moratorium on hardwoods.
• Our last trip to the grocery store, I bought some ensaymada ube, which is a sweet pastry flavored with ube, a sweet purple paste made from a root of some kind. This was one of my Mom’s favorites, and she would buy it regularly at the Filipino Store in Salinas. It’s a pretty good substitute for apple fritters.
• Speaking of breakfast, Gregg made French toast yesterday, and purchased some “maple-flavored hotcake syrup” to go with it. Among the nutritional facts on the label, instead of the word “calories,” they use the word, “energy.” The first three main ingredients: glucose corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar. Yum.
[A collection of miscellaneous photos today. Top photo: A view of the Embarcadero in Legaspi City—Beautiful and upscale, but also empty. Second photo: Rufus Genovea and Gregg Evans at the church in Ligao City. Third photo: Part of the Worship Team at Jesus First Christian Ministries at their Sunday morning service. “Purihin ang Diyos!” Bottom photo: The nutritional label of our hotcake syrup.]
I find myself at the mid-point of my trip here—and it’s been a very full agenda so far. The Worship & Arts Class I’m teaching is half over, the all-day Worship Team Workshop was well attended, I’ve visited three different church services, and we also squeezed in a trip to Naga to visit a BCCL satellite location. I’ve also been able to experience a “pedi-cab” ride (basically an old Stingray-style bike with a hooded sidecar welded on), a “tricycle” ride (a small motorcycle with sidecar), and a whole host of Filipino dishes and desserts. Details below.
College Group Tonight, I was the guest speaker at the Fifth Anniversary Celebration of YHB (Yeshua Heart Beat), which is a relatively large college group associated with the Albay Bible Community Church. (My topic was “Abiding in God’s Love” From John 15.) There’s an explosion going on among the young people here. There are over 100 students regularly involved in the ABC youth ministry. Engineering, architecture, business, education, and medical students—and they are involved, aware, and alive in Christ. I see them as being among the next generation of Christian leaders here in the Philippines. Unfortunately, the Philippines economy can’t support all the grads coming out of their schools, and many of them are having to take lesser jobs outside of their fields of education. It was exciting being with them and sharing in their joy and passion and fun!
Filipino Worship This morning, I visited Jesus First Christian Ministries, where I experienced an entire worship service in Tagalog. Songs, Scripture, sermon, and even offering was given in Tagalog. Amazingly, I was able to follow along pretty well (due to the occasional word I could pick up, plus the PowerPoint that was in English), and I was even able to sing along with most songs. As we sang, I could picture my home church, Oak Hills, half-way across the world, worshiping as well. It was a very cool thought.
Worship Team Workshop The BCCL rented a large hall right in one of the provincial government buildings in Old Albay for this all-day event, which meant that we were worshiping at one of the seats of local government. (How weird is that!) During this workshop, I lectured briefly about the importance of the worship team, the roles of each of the instruments of the worship team, and then taught them a bunch of songs. Specifically, I took volunteers from the crowd to form a worship band, then taught them one of the newer worship songs. I did this about five times, with different groups each time. I think this was helpful, as they learned new songs to bring back to their congregations, and I was able to show them how I run a rehearsal and put the different elements of the band together. I also took the time to teach worship concepts in the midst of it all too.
The best thing about this workshop was when Mayette Ativo-Bueno (BCCL Director) told me during the break that the teams I was working with were formed with people that had never even met before. She was quick to jump on that, and before the end of the day, she had brought together the worship leaders from all the different churches and formed a twice-a-month gathering for them. Yeah!
Naga Friday, we took a field trip to the city of Naga, which is about two hours drive from Legaspi. BCCL does satellite classes there and has plans to put a facility in the city, to increase their visibility. It’s exciting to see BCCL extend their influence and continue to make a difference in this region.
• When I took the pedi-cab, it was raining like crazy. Mayette and I piled into the cab, and the driver, a man in his sixties wearing shorts and flip-flops, began pedaling us vigorously down the street. I felt like telling the man, “That’s okay, let me pedal for you.” Except that he was in better shape than I was. FYI, the cab drive cost us 20 pesos, or not quite fifty cents.
• It’s amazing what the musicians here are able to play and do with the equipment they have. Our drummers and guitarists would be appalled by the condition of the instruments and sound systems, which don’t age well in this humidity and heat (which is another way of saying that all of us instrumentalists need to be a lot more thankful for what we’ve got!). I have made a mental note to come back next time with a brick of drumsticks and a bag full of tuners and guitar strings.
• The Filipinos love their cameras—especially the young people. I am finding photos of me popping up all over Facebook!
• Today, I missed Justin’s birthday. So I miss him. And on Tuesday, I’ll be missing Valentine’s Day with Debbie and the girls. I’ll have to make it up to them somehow.
• I can’t let a blog go without talking about food somehow. One of the foods that I ate recently was lugaw, a soup made of rice and chicken with hint of ginger. I remember my Mom used to make it for us when we were sick (kind of like chicken soup). It tasted great, and brought back lots of memories, but I couldn’t get over the fact that here, this warm soup is considered a mid-meal snack. I’m also quite bummed that I can’t try one of the desserts of my childhood, halo-halo, because it is made from ice (which I’ve been warned to stay away from).
[Top photo: I lead and instruct different musicians at the Worship Team Workshop. That was a blast! Second photo: They start them young early here. The god son of Pastor Tony Bueno, of Jesus First Christian Ministries, can't keep from whacking away with the drumsticks. Third photo: Another photo of the crowd from the Worship Team Workshop. Fourth photo: I have a late lunch with BCCL Director, Mayette, along with her husband, Pastor Tony. Bottom photo: This is the "tricycle" ride I took back to the apartment. This was truly an adventure for me, as it splashed and splayed through an extremely rainy morning.]
The humid morning air hangs thick and a little sticky, and the pale gray sky is beginning to lighten like an opaque curtain hanging primly in a window. I can hear the sounds of Jeepneys and motorcycles honking at one another in the street below me, and a rooster crows steadily above the din of the traffic. Already a steady stream of padjak (for-hire bicycle taxis with sidecars), uniformed school children, and hospital workers are making their way past the apartment to their morning destinations.
A blanket of rain appears, and the street is suddenly dotted with brightly colored umbrellas. It first patters the corrugated rooftops, then bangs like a snare roll, and then yields to a gentle drizzle.
Eventually, these clouds will clear, and the magnificent Mayon volcano will appear, large and looming, filling our second-floor apartment view with a quiet, imposing beauty. It too, like everything I experience this Wednesday morning, is a reminder that I’m not in California.
So far, I’ve taught two sessions on worship and the arts here at BCCL. Twenty enrolled students, as well as twenty-five additional audited students and BCCL staff, are attending my class, by far, the largest class given at BCCL to date. I was reminded that many of these people, both young students and older professionals and pastors, are coming each evening at great personal inconvenience, which is an indication of the great hunger that they have for teaching in worship. It makes me humble, diligent, and a little anxious for the class.
Understandably, the first session was a little hard for me to read. In cross-cultural exchanges, I’ve found it good to not lean on my own American sensibilities, and field director Gregg Evans has been extremely helpful in coaching me to communicate more effectively. After the first break of the first class, Gregg kindly encouraged me: “Don’t tell them you’re passionate about worship. Show them.” So we entered into a time of worship that was both sweet and unifying. The classroom time since then has been much more open and animated.
Teaching worship in this context begins with definitions. And the word, “worship” has many connotations. It is both a big word and a small one. It can mean the way that we live our lives in obedience to the Lord (Romans 12), and it can mean the singing portion of the Sunday morning service. So the first few sessions have been a series of deconstructions and theological reconstructions. But more than just shake up their ideas of worship, I’m trying to give them a bigger, grander understanding of who God is, and what our role is in helping His people enrich and deepen the transcendent dialogue.
I have found the students earnest, eager, and respectful. They love the Lord with passion and obedience. None of them are “full-time” pastors or ministers in the sense that we understand the term, and yet they fill their time with Bible studies, discipleship, and service. I find it refreshing—and somewhat humbling—to be with people for whom following Christ is so deeply integrated into their lives. In particular, there are many younger people (university students and others) involved in the leadership of these churches, particularly in worship teams. It’s great to see the movement of God in this cultural, inter-generational, and interdenominational context.
Please continue to pray for the class, particularly that God would impress upon all of us what He wants to form in our hearts regarding worship. Fifteen local churches are represented in the fifty or so people attending my class, so what we learn together has the capacity to affect many people. Once again, I thank you for the support and the opportunity to represent you here in Legaspi.
• I think Debbie would be appalled (but not surprised) by the amount of white rice I’m eating.
• The Super Bowl was pretty much non-existent here. Flipping through all the sports channels during the Super Bowl (it began about 7 AM Monday morning, by the way), I think we found soccer, rugby, and two basketball games (one US college and one NBA). They love their basketball!
• We are cooking on a hot plate in our apartment, so we’ve been to the grocery store a few times already. The grocery store is always a revealing cultural indicator of any society. Lots of things are different, from cookies to fruit to dish soap. Of greatest interest: the dairy section doesn’t have milk, butter, or cream. And the rice section is huge.
• At Gregg’s encouragement, I played Justin’s Asian-market toothpaste commercial for the class. They immediately recognized the commercial, and if he were to ever come here, he would be an immediate celebrity (especially among a few of the younger female students!).
• Some of you expressed concern to me about the recent earthquake. It was a large earthquake (I was told 6.9 on the Richter scale with aftershocks), but quite a ways away from Legaspi (near Cebu), so we didn’t feel it. Thanks for your concern.
[Top two photos: My second day of teaching at BCCL. Please pray for each of these people, and for the ministries they represent. Bottom photo: Some of the children at the Ligao City Bible Community pile into the main mode of transportation for many here, a motorcycle with roofed sidecar. I counted twelve adults and children on this one as it sped away.]
We arrived in Legaspi on Saturday morning, and settled in to a small apartment on site at BCCL. Gregg Evans showed me around the city, as he is an experienced driver, and the school has a car. So on this day, I experienced the local mall (where we purchased food and supplies for our stay), the upscale Embarcadero (a waterfront tourist attraction that seems too ambitious for this area), and the traffic (the main means of transportation seem to be modified low cc motorcycles with questionable sheet metal and tubing sidecars attached. With up to 6 people on one, it looks like a wild ride!).
The local economy is pretty stagnant, and the average person here makes very little money. Gregg informed me that many workers and field hands might make only 100-200 pesos per day (three to five dollars US). There is definitely a social hierarchy here, with the rich, the very rich, and the very poor, with only a small percentage in between. Gregg mentioned to me that one of the signs of improvement in a third world economy is the growth of a middle class. There is little of that here. My first impression of the urban town of Legaspi is that it is not unsimilar to Mexico or South America (outside of the resort areas).
The facilities at BCCL could be considered spartan by our standards, but impressive given what they’ve built over the last ten years. A large room functions as both classroom for BCCL and worship sanctuary for a number of ministries. They offer clerical help to other churches during the week, and have a relatively large Christian library as well. I already sat and observed a college group worship team that was playing a mix of current worship songs.
On Sunday morning, we visited Ligao City Bible Community, a barrio church led by Rufus and his wife Mirasol. Rufus is a good friend of Gregg, one of his first partners in church planting, and Mirasol is a local school teacher. (Some of you old Oak Hillians might remember Rufus from the “Pray for Rufus” bumper stickers we had about 15 years ago.) Together, they faithfully lead this small congregation of mostly young people. I was asked to share music with them, and shared a handful of songs during their service. Funny that I found myself worshiping with them and picturing Oak Hills worshiping at the same time—half a world away, but worshiping the same God. I will be visiting another church this evening which meets at the BCCL main facilities.
I’m grateful for your contributions that allowed me to purchase a portable but quality keyboard for this trip (sounds great and runs on batteries!). My task now is to do final preparations for the class tomorrow night. I’ve discussed my curriculum with Gregg Evans, and am more settled on how I will approach this first day of studies.
Fun facts: Whereas in Manila, where you would find a Starbucks next to a Seattle’s Best next to a doughnut shop, here in Legaspi, we are enjoying instant coffee with no cream (the dairy section of the grocery store did not stock milk, cream, or sour cream—only yogurt and eggs). I’ll never complain about Pastor Kent’s coffee ever again.
[Top photo: Touching down in Legaspi. Second photo: A view of our neighbors from the roof deck of our apartment building at BCCL. Third photo: Me sharing some music at Ligao City Community Bible. Bottom photo: I’m at the grocery store with Close-Up Fire and Ice toothpaste. (This is an inside joke—my model son, Justin, did a commercial for Close-Up which runs in this part of the world.)]
After the typically long plane flight to Manila, I’m happy to announce that in my first 24 hours, I’ve already had a few delicious Filipino meals and visited the local mega-mall twice. That doesn’t sound like much of a trip report, but the first order of business in any missions trip is simply to get one’s bearings. And it’s obvious that I’m not in Kansas anymore.
My hotel is deep in the heart of Manila, surrounded by high rises and towering construction cranes. The beautiful high-end mall stands in contrast to some of the more economically-disadvantaged people I’ve already met. The local newspaper announces the killing of top Al Quaida-linked terrorists by Philippine military forces, as well as the impeachment of a Filipino Chief Justice. The hotel cable shares Filipino music videos, local talk shows, Letterman, and Japanese Anime. Speaking with locals, as well as being briefed by field director Gregg Evans, I am reminded that the Philippines is a contrast of third world socio-economic issues and first world sensibilities and sophistication.
First thing tomorrow, Gregg and I will be catching a plane for Legaspi City, where the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL) is located. I’ll be making that home base as I visit a few churches on Sunday and begin teaching Monday for the following two weeks. I also have an all-day workshop scheduled the following Saturday, and I’ll probably be speaking at a few churches the following Sunday morning and evening. I’ve been encouraged to be flexible as I may be asked to speak or lead worship at other churches and venues as well.
[Top photo: The Manila skyline from our hotel rooftop deck. Bottom photo: Gregg Evans and I having breakfast. Yes, that is fried rice with eggs and pork tocino.]
When I was fourteen years old, my piano professor left me. After having bounced around from teacher to teacher over the course of seven years, my parents found a legitimate, classically-trained instructor to mentor me. Professor Kraus was a big German man with burly hands and a friendly accent who didn’t just teach me—He challenged me, focused me, inspired me, and taught me to love music. He was like Mr. Miyagi, and I was the Karate Kid. But after a few years of intense Bach Paint-The-Fence and Mozart Wax On-Wax Off, he left for a position in Germany. I no longer had someone to play to, play with, play for.
This was a great period of self-discovery for me, as it would be for any teenager. I had to learn to love music on my own, apart from the challenge of learning a curriculum or impressing people. And I also began composing music on my own, which in itself was an expression of my self-discovery.
After a few more years of this, my parents decided it was time I cashed in on my talents, so they encouraged me to begin teaching. They put the word out to several people, and before I knew it, I had a half a dozen five and six year old piano students. At the age of sixteen, I had become a piano teacher. And I took it seriously.
I studied the piano books and learned—beyond playing—how to communicate the language of music. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Basic concepts like quarter notes and measures can be difficult for children who don’t yet understand the concept of fractions or subdividing. And try teaching the concept of a “rest” to a five year old!
Two things. It gave me a great appreciation for those whose vocation is teaching. And it also forced me to understand music theory in ways I couldn’t have gotten any other way.
In a few weeks, I’ll be leaving for a trip to the Philippines to teach a two-week intensive on worship and the arts. I’ll be teaching at the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL), a bible school supported by our denomination, the North American Baptist Conference. So over the last month, I’ve been developing the curriculum for eight 3 hour sessions. And I find myself back again—like I was sixteen—relearning the things I’ve learned, so I can teach the things I do.
Trinitarian worship, dialogical worship, Levitical worship, sacramental worship, defining and designing worship, lifestyle worship—I find myself diving into the deep end of the concepts that have molded me over the last 21 years of ministry. Because I need to know it well enough to communicate it to people who haven’t ever received any formal teaching in worship theology. And I’m finding myself being refreshed and re-ignited in the coolness of these deep waters.
So in two weeks, I’ll be setting up a little worship dojo, teaching to worship deeply with both passion and theological understanding. In the words of Mr. Miyagi, “Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good, everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home.” I’ll be blogging while I’m there, so stay tuned. And if you’d like to support my trip, please contact me.
It happens to everyone, at an early age. At some point in our wonder-filled Kindergarten experience, we were all handed a piece of paper smothered in dots. And we were all instructed to carefully draw lines from one dot to another, following the numerical sequence, with the promise that an image would appear. Thick crayons scrunched in our tiny hands, we all learned how to “connect the dots” and find the hidden pirate or giraffe or pumpkin. It was like magic.
The ancients knew how to connect the dots too. The Greeks, the Romans, the Babylonians, the Chinese—they all pondered the night sky and grouped the stars into constellations upon which they tried to derive greater purpose and ultimate significance. There were figures in the stars that pointed to something greater than themselves—ancient mythos, creation stories, immutable fates and foreboding omens—and although this was more related to superstition than truth, they all understood the concept that they were a part of something larger than themselves.
The ancient Hebrews also saw themselves as part of a greater story. Quite unlike modern twenty-first century man, the Hebrews defined themselves not primarily as individuals but foremost as a part of the nation Israel. Although they still had a sense of the personal nature of their relationship with God, they also understood that the Eternal God had a corporate relationship with His people, of which each individual played a part. Their identity came from God first, and each person saw oneself as an expression of the people of God. Thus, they were each a part of a larger picture, a greater story.
In contrast we see ourselves as fiercely independent dots on the page. We are disparate, unconnected, alone. The Hebrew saw himself as a dot in a numerical sequence, and the lines that connected their dots defined the greater picture that was their identity, their calling, their promise.
King David, poet warrior and beloved of God, saw the connection of these dots. In Psalm 8, he gazes deeply into the night sky and sees God’s eternal and infinite glory, and our place before Him in creation:
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Psalm 8:3-9 NIV
David did not see the stars as merely points of light. He saw as it truly was—a beautiful, vast, constant reminder of who the Creator was, and by extension, who we are as His people.
In the Christian meta-narrative, God connects the dots of our lives through His patterns of redemptive activity. My story of His saving grace is connected to other people’s stories through this amazing thing called life. These connections interact with one another, through action, through prayer, through acts of kindness, through evangelism, through movements of the Kingdom of God. And these connections can be traced sequentially, from one dot to another, all the way back through the person who first told you about God’s grace, and through the person who told him, through the great Reformers, through the saints and missionaries, through the first-century martyrs, through Paul and Peter and the disciples, and all the way to Christ on the cross.
Consider what it is that we intend to do in our Sunday worship services. Robert Webber asserts that “worship is a rehearsal of the saving deeds of God in history.” If you look at worship in the Old Testament—the feasts, Passover, and even regular gatherings in the synagogue—you see that worship is centered on the re-telling of God’s story of redemption. Corporate worship is then a recurring dialogue of revelation and response—God revealing himself through His Word, His mighty acts, His Spirit, His creation, and our response of humility, gratitude, love, and obedience. More than an encounter with God, we encounter the Truth of God—who He is, what He has done, and what He continues to do. We are reminded that God is still in the business of enfolding our redemption stories into His redemptive meta-narrative. Truly, this is one of the most personal definitions of the Church—when we can look at one another in the eyes, and I know your story and you know mine, and our corporate worship pours from the shared story that is between us and the Triune God.
So it is with art. Art is also a dialogue, one shared between the artist and the audience. For we artists cannot fully realize the expression of our art without an audience to interact with. For some of us, it is the audience in the recital hall, or in the art gallery, or in the darkened theater. But the dialogue of art cannot be consummated without art’s revelation and the audience’s response.
Great art—if one can put a label on the term, is a dialogue of revelation and response as well. As Christian artists, we have the capacity to tell a story through our paintings, motion pictures, choreography, compositions. And that story—in some small way—should reveal God’s story that the world is somehow broken, and motivated by a great encompassing love, He is in the process of rescuing and redeeming it. And not only that—our art should then provoke a response from our audience, some meaningful reaction to the story from the person who experiences our art. In one small way or another, our art should be a catalyst for the dialogue that somehow reveals the worldview of the Christian meta-narrative.
Thus, one of our roles as artists is to be a Story Teller of the meta-narrative. Through our art, we render the points of light in the sky that declare God’s glory. Our creations should tell the story of God’s glory in creation, the reality of brokenness of our world, and the grace-filled promise of redemption and renewal.
The northern skies feature a small constellation of seven stars, known by many names: the Plough, the Butcher’s Cleaver, the Big Bear, the Seven Sages, the Big Dipper. It is significant, in part because it is a point of reference to Polaris, the North Star or Pole Star, one of the brightest stars in the sky and the one star that seemed never to move. Sailors would use this constellation in navigation, to determine latitude and direction. Runaway slaves would “follow the drinking Gourd” to the north and to freedom. According to an Old English Rune poem, the Pole Star “keeps faith well.”
As artists, we must understand that part of our calling is to help people connect the dots of our lives. We must tell the grand story of creation, fall, and redemption. And we must shine our points of light, and be a part of the constellation that tells God’s Story. Because without understanding the big picture—and the Hand that draws it—we are doomed to lose our way.
I have an amazing ministry opportunity set before me right now, one years in the making. And I’d like to have your support to make this happen. I’ve been asked by our denomination, the North American Baptist Conference (NAB), to commit to a multi-year ministry to teach worship and the arts at our Bible training center in the Philippines. Here is what Director Gregg Evans has to say about it:
“NAB’s flagship ministry in the Philippines—the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL)—has been providing theological, Biblical and pastoral training for pastors, evangelists and church planters in the least-churched non-Muslim region of the Philippines for ten years now. The students are a mix of full-time Christian workers, active church members and college students from a dozen different churches, most getting their first systematic instruction in theology and Biblical studies. With a growing reputation for solid Bible teaching, the Center is quickly becoming the hub of Evangelical Christianity in Albay Province, and what it is doing in Albay is spreading to other provinces. BCCL has the potential to become the single most influential Christian institution in the region in the years ahead, impacting hundreds, and eventually thousands, of pastors, evangelists, church planters and rank-and-file members. Amid BCCL’s success in the area of theological and Biblical instruction, what has been lacking, and desperately needed, is an arts emphasis—a theology of the arts—and guidance in worship and music. In 2012, we want to start changing that, and we’d like for Manuel Luz to come out for a couple weeks to get the ball rolling. Manuel’s passion and expertise are exactly what are needed at BCCL right now. Please participate in the improvement of BCCL by supporting Manuel in this endeavor.”
I’m obviously excited about this opportunity for a variety of reasons. One, the Filipinos of the Albay Province are passionate and talented, but are under-resourced and need training. I have the opportunity to provide theologically-intensive teaching and musical training that has the potential to profoundly influence the tenor of the entire region. Two, BCCL has been an important catalyst in bringing together the many disparate area churches in an uncharacteristic spirit of cooperation and unity. I hope to increase this sense of unity through worship (the most moving kind of unity!) and eventually through outreach using the arts. Third, one of my main goals will be to establish long-term relationships with the many dedicated but under-resourced people there, and provide pastoral direction and personal encouragement to them.
My first trip will be for almost three weeks in February 2012. And to maximize my ministry potential, I am committed to making this an annual trip if it works out, hopefully bringing teams of people over the next few years. Oak Hills Church is firmly behind this trip and is the sending organization. But I will need to raise financial and prayer support.
From a personal standpoint, I feel like I may be uniquely qualified to answer this calling. I’ve never been to the Philippines, although I’ve wanted to go my entire adult life. To be able to explore some of my heritage and connect with it would be amazing to me. Please stay tuned to this blog, and I’ll give you more info as this unfolds. And if you are interested in supporting me, please let me know. Thanks!
My church has gone through a series of tragedies lately. As of last Thursday, we’ve hosted six separate memorial services for different people in our community, all of whom were dearly loved, most all of whom died before their time. In response, we’ve decided to postpone our planned service programming and simply meet Together for three Sundays and pray, worship, and love one another. Our worship will be unplugged and in-the-round, and we will have a lot of opportunities to touch one another, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
In the midst of this, I am reminded that God is the God of our sorrow as well as the God of our joy. The Bible models a lot of worship that is cast in sorrow, including many of the Psalms, the book of Lamentations, and other passages. We also know that Jesus was a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53), well acquainted with grief Himself. And so, in order to properly reflect the condition of our souls before God, we will worship in the shadow of longing, sadness, neediness, and ultimately, our certain hope.
I was reflecting upon this succession of memorial services, and I was so profoundly moved by the testimonies of those who grieved our losses. Our dear friends who have passed lived lives fully immersed in God’s grace, loving and caring for those around them. In their own ways, they each made a marked and eternal difference in the lives of many people. It was inspiring, as well as humbling, as I heard testimony after testimony, funeral after funeral, of those who shared the stories of God in the midst of it all. My only regret the departed couldn’t hear these testimonies with us.
In response, a friend of mine shared a story of an older man he knows. This gentleman, also well acquainted with grief, was known for being complimentary to everyone, encouraging and speaking truth to all around him. When asked about why he was so supportive and cheery, he explained that he had laid down roses on the coffins of many friends over the years. And he realized that he wanted to spend the rest of his life laying roses on the people who were still living.
I’ve found myself thanking people a lot more lately. I’m making room in the cracks of my life to voice my appreciation to others. I’m being more purposeful in speaking words of encouragement. And I’m also taking the time to just stop and be thankful to God for my friends.
Laying roses. Sounds like a good way to live.