In my last post, I talked about the role of risk in art. Commercial risk, artistic risk, personal risk, physical risk, and even spiritual risk are all part of the journey that artists of faith must walk in order to develop and flourish and make meaning of ourselves and our art.
I received a lot of feedback from you—both on-line and personally—so in this post, I thought I would share some of the measured risks you are taking. One commonality I see among those who are venturing out into these areas is that they do so with a premeditated understanding and a certain courage. You understand the risks, but you’ve got to walk into them anyway. As one of you concluded, “I’m being who I was created to be.” And if you think about it, faith is built in this way.
So here are a baker’s dozen of artists taking risks. I encourage you to hit the links to see their websites and dig deeper into each of them.
• My long-time bass player and friend, Matthew, recently left for three weeks to join a band touring the predominantly Muslim country of Kazakhstan. He is joining my former drummer, Steve, who had already answered a full-time missionary call to move his family to Germany with Proclaim! International. Supporting local Christian churches in the area, they will encounter significant challenges in the face of government and public animosity and hostility. This is Matt’s first missions trip.
• Sherri‘s original risk was co-founding an art gallery in Idaho, which is now defunct. Faced with the real world of commercialism (“I realized early on that to sell art I had to create sellable art”), she stopped painting for awhile before realizing that the dialogue of her art to God was a path toward healing, not only for herself, but to others through her. She shares that now, “Abuse victims, the handicapped, and shut-ins started showing up at my proverbial door to paint.”
• Rick, a musician and videographer in Tacoma, decided to stretch himself musically by starting the “Song A Day Project.” Every day for months, he would compose, record, and post an original guitar instrumental, forcing himself to create under a deadline as well as push against his “fear of imperfections.” He shares introspectively, “I think artists have an inherent desire, even a call, to explore the limits, push the false or unnecessary boundaries. This edginess increases their need for humility and teachability, deep relationships with accountability, and a greater love of holiness than of innovation. Otherwise they can move past safe boundaries into harm and sin.”
• Supashmo (his gravatar name) is currently penning “a Christian modern-day fantasy series with swords, magic, the whole shebang. It’s not an allegory, so I get not breaks there. It’s Christians who have the actual Bible in the fantasy world and living it out as it applies to their supernatural existence.” He admits that Christians generally shy away from fantasy and specifically magic, especially if it is not allegory, so he understands the risk of being misunderstood by writing in this genre.
• Judith, a Sacramento-based, mixed-media artist who is self-admittedly hard to categorize, has recently begun expanding—not only in new techniques, but also by exploring “imagery that can be challenging and easily misunderstood: dead birds and small animal skulls paired with nests and butterflies and flowers.” She is trusting that the Spirit has given her a vision, and that God will provide for her financially and with an audience. To the right is one of her new works, entitled, “Sparrow Fallen.” She concluded her note with the following caveat: “I think I sound like a crazy artist…”
• Michaela, a vocalist and aspiring songwriter, is taking a leap of faith. As both a starving artist and a starving college student, she is about to embark on a Kick-Starter campaign to help finance her first solo album, a fairly non-commercial endeavor of ukelele-driven acoustic alternative music. She has a folder full of original songs, a vision for this musical adventure, and a heart willing to take the risk to expose them.
• Joy is a visual artist from Philadelphia. She is admittedly still in process and is quite generally busy in ministry, but has lately felt the need to express herself with some risky art that actually “says something.” She shared with me a Picasso-influenced piece that is shown here on the left. Definitely not a “safe” piece.
• Keith, an artist in Northern Ireland, is in the process of choosing between two career paths—a safe and secure teaching position which provides financial security, or a largely underemployed position developing an arts ministry—his real dream. He is deciding that God is “calling me to paint. I am a Kingdom Risk Taker. As I believe in him, the risk will all be worth it.”
• Lisa, primarily a visual artist in Idaho, sees risk in everything she does: “to be all present in my artmaking, to create in community and fight the instinct to isolate, to let my work speak meaning and passion and depth (even if it’s not what I think it “should” say, but rather allow it to say what it “needs” to say), and to let the art take me to new places, giving myself room to experiment, to learn, to go beyond.” She concludes, “to be an artist is to live a life of risk.”
• Plasso (also known as Dave) is a performance artist in North Carolina who sees risk every time he steps in front of his canvas. Constantly experimenting with new materials and processes (from pencil to tempra to home-made dirt paste), he constrains himself to Spirit-led spontaneity during his church’s 30 minute sermons.
• Perhaps John, an award-winning and critically acclaimed fiction writer based in Montana, said it best: “No risk, no art. And what am I doing? I am not quitting.”
And now something a bit personal. Last weekend, painter Julie and dancer Mary teamed up with me to create a totally improvised piece for a concert called Synthesis 2013. As I created an impromptu three-movement piece on piano and percussion, Julie and Mary interpreted what I played in their respective mediums. Though we had attempted a similar thing once before, Julie and I had no idea how this is going, especially with the added dynamic of this talented and energetic dancer. Stepping into the fear of this improvisation, we teased out—visually, bodily, and musically—the movements of self-discovery, selfishness, and self-awareness. As I attempted to fill the dance hall with sound, Mary pirouetted and jumped and filled the dance floor, and Julie dabbed and stabbed and twirled large circles filling the canvas. Both intense and sublime, it was a scary but wonderful experience.
Julie shared later, “I have struggled for years with the art I wanted to do versus the art the world was convincing me I needed to do. As I have stepped out of my comfort and risked in my art, I have found a loving, grace filled God, embracing me and whispering in my ear, ‘trust me in this.’”
Through the examples above, I hope you begin to realize one Truth: The journey of growing as an artist and the journey of growing in our faith both involve risk. And for us artists of faith, they are often one and the same.
[Note: The painting at the top of this blog post is Julie's painting (seven minutes from blank canvas to finished piece) from our collaborative venture.]
What is the role of risk in the arts? Is what we do as artists “dangerous”?
As artists, we are given the opportunity to risk in many ways. We risk commercially, in that there are always internal and external pressures to be profitable, and we typically must finance ourselves in our work to some degree. We risk artistically, in that art that stands out as unique and exceptional requires that we make stylistic choices that can deviate from acceptability. We also risk our audience, for they have unspoken expectations upon us, expectations to entertain and to perform to their preconceived liking—for we love the adoration of our audience more than we care to admit. We risk being misunderstood, as artists typically battle the demons of acceptance and approval, while still maintaining our vision for our art. And we risk spiritually, in that the choices we make as artists often are accompanied by decisions to compromise our personal integrity, our morals, and even our vision for our art. These risks are both complex and entangled, both highly specific to our art and to our selves.
Risk is no new thing to artists. A 26-year-old Michelangelo risked his reputation and career on a politically vexing and immensely massive block of marble locals called “the Giant.” It was through Michelangelo’s craftsmanship and vision that the huge stone became the iconic Renaissance sculpture, “David.” Experimental painters in the late 1800s, including Monet and Renoir, suffered incessant criticism and ridicule from the established French academics of their day. Originally dubbed “impressionism” as a derisive term, this style and movement would only later became more widely recognized and applauded. In 1965, Bob Dylan was nearly booed off the stage when he unveiled a new electric, rock-influenced sound to his devoted folk audience. Ironically, Dylan was simply expressing the voice of change with the musical instruments which characterized that change. Thomas Langmann sold his home and borrowed from relatives in order to finance this crazy idea of a film, a silent black-and-white movie set in the late 1920s. His 2011 release, “The Artist,” went on to win three Golden Globes and five Academy Awards. Even today, artists around the world are being persecuted with harassment, imprisonment, and torture because their art is in response to “oppression, injustice, and despotism.” Indeed, art can be a dangerous thing.
And artists of faith are not immune to this as well. T.S. Eliot was spurned by some critics when his poetry began to reflect his conversion to orthodox Christianity. Long-haired Christian musicians in the 1970s were ridiculed and rebuked for their use of guitars and drums in the church (a pretty laughable thought in this day and age). Evangelicals continue to have a love/hate relationship with the super group U2, and specifically with their spiritual frontman, Bono. And though this is a relatively small thing, I myself remember instances where, as a Christian playing jazz fusion in the early 1990s, church audiences would actually turn their backs on us.
But maybe the better question might be, what are the consequences of not risking in our art? When we play it safe and minimize risk, what can be the result? We can be ignored. We can cocoon ourselves, either physically in our studios or metaphorically in our Christian subculture, our holy huddles. We can produce art that is cliche and mediocre and derivative. We can be dishonest with ourselves. We can spend a lot of time saying nothing.
What are the risks you are taking as an artist? Are you developing new techniques? Are you seeking new audiences, or seeking to speak to them in new ways? Are you pushing the artificial boundaries of your disciplines or genres? Are you taking some financial risks? Are you seeking to say something worth saying? Are you using your art to champion a cause or speak Truth to the world?
Reply to this blog and I’ll share some of the things you, as an artist of faith, are doing. I can’t wait to hear from you.
In the last years of my mother’s life, there was so much to say, and few ways to say it. The victim of a sudden stroke, she had lost the ability to talk, and in those last few years, she began the slow and implacable slide into dementia. Once a loving but opinionated woman (not untypical of Filipino moms!), she had evolved over time into that quiet, slumped posture that marked the last chapter of a life lived long and hard.
I would visit her every other month or so, and when I did, it was always the same—the dullness of being, the puzzled look in her eyes as she first sees me, a prolonged flash of sudden knowing, and then a large smile that filled her worn but tender face. But the smile always faded quickly, back to the Mona Lisa stare, back to the dullness that was her life.
We had moved her to southern California to live with my brother’s family, and their home was rather small, so I always stayed at a local inn. Often, I would take her on short trips to the hotel, to get her out of the house and give my sister-in-law a break. There, we would sit at the lobby windows, overlooking the pool, she in her wheelchair and me beside her. Holding her small, wrinkled hands, I would share family news and tell stories about the past and show photos of the kids to her on my MacBook. And when this one-sided conversation would begin to wane, I would wheel her to the out-of-tune baby grand piano in the lobby, and play her some songs.
This is where I sometimes felt she could best connect with me and I with her. I would usually play for maybe an hour, going from old songs on the radio to jazz standards to new songs I had written. But her favorite tune was an old Filipino classic called “Dahil Sa Iyo.” She had made me learn the song as a reluctant young boy, and thankfully, I was still able to remember and play this beautiful piece for her. As I would begin the opening bars of the song, I would glance at her to see that small smile appear from her pursed lips, see her head bob ever so slightly with the music. Obviously, I couldn’t read her mind, but I knew through her smile that she connected with the song, connected with the wave of memories it conjured.
There are reasons for this, reasons both scientific and spiritual. And I was reminded of these reasons during our recent Intersections: Faith and the Arts conference, when Tiffany Paige, director of the Sacramento ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimer’s organization, spoke to us.
ARTZ “is an organization that links artists and cultural institutions to people living with dementia and their care partners. Influenced by science and sociology, ARTZ uses artistic and cultural experiences as keys to unlock creativity, create new memories, strengthen relationships, and replace fear with hope.” In short, ARTZ believes strongly that access to creative expression is essential to our human experience.
During Tiffany’s moving presentation, she informed us that while Alzheimer’s disease affects logic and comprehension and communication, it does not affect emotion or memories. This is why her patients are so moved by the visual artwork that she presents to them. The art are triggers to memories and thoughts and feelings, and they are often able to interact with those memories and emotionally respond to them. The response has been sometimes subtle, sometimes astounding.
There is a spiritual dimension to this as well, of course. We are made in the image of God, a God who is both emotional and artistic. He is, in fact, the most joyous, the most artistic, and the most deeply emotional Being in the universe. So we are hard-wired to feel emotion at the sight of beauty and the arts, even when void of logic and rationale. Art extends, literally, beyond reason.
There are other examples of this that are dear to me. Arts Camp is my church’s annual summer day camp for elementary age children. Each year, hundreds of kids from our community are offered the love of Christ through the gifts of dance, drama, music, visual arts, culinary arts, and various crafts. It is one of the most exciting weeks in our church. This year, both of my teen daughters will be shepherds in the “Brush Stokes” class, a small elective taught by my friend Susan Lee that teaches the visual arts to special needs children. Also, for many years, our church ran the The Rhythm Arts Project (TRAP), led by Steve Liberti. Through drum circle and percussion, TRAP “educates individuals with intellectual and developmental differences by embracing a curriculum that encompasses rhythm as a modality” to address basic life and academic skills. Steve led many TRAP classes for the developmentally challenged, as well as for young children, helping them gain skills and self-esteem.
Both of these are examples of where the arts are used to allow young people the opportunity to explore and express themselves beyond mere logic, beyond mere reason, into something deeper inside themselves. Indeed, young or old, we all need to connect through the expressions of the arts.
As a child, I put hundreds of practice hours playing on the old mahogany upright in our living room. And my Mom and Dad were witness to each note and scale, each phrase and flourish. As I look back now, I feel so very fortunate that I had the opportunity to give a little of that back to my Mom in her last days. Because when I played for Mom, it was not just because I wanted to see her smile. I played because I appreciated all she had done for me, all the encouragement and patience and sacrifices and life lessons. I played the piano for her as a simple act of love.
I hope she knew that. I think she did.
[NOTE: For more information, I strongly recommend that you check out the above links to ARTZ, TRAP, and Oak Hills Church Arts Camp.]
“Imagine the beauty of a starry night sky. It stretches out before you like a velvet blanket, shimmering with lights like diamonds. [Photo 1.] Truly, it is a beautiful and remarkable thing, and simply through it’s existence, it breathes a hallelujah to God. Well, we’ve talked a lot previously about beauty and truth, and how beauty was created by God to give Him pleasure and glory, and how God also integrated something deep inside our souls, some mysterious aesthetic that responds to beauty. God designed beauty, defined beauty, and then designed us to respond to beauty. Because of this, we respond to things that are beautiful, like a compass that always points north. So the vast and dark beauty of a starry midnight sky exists to display God’s glory. And we respond to it and are drawn to it. It is uniquely and universally human to do so.
“Now someone can take a photograph of that starry night sky. [Photo 2.] And we all know that the photograph of that night sky is not the night sky. It is only a piece of photo paper, or an image on a computer screen. But if it is photographed well, then the photo hints of the sky, and displays its beauty and majesty interpreted through the eyes of the person who took that photo, through the eyes of the artist. So we suspend our disbelief that this is simply a digital image, and enter into an experience of that night sky through the photograph. And what happens then is called ART. Because we suspend our disbelief, we can see the photo also with the same eyes that saw the night sky—as a beautiful and remarkable thing.
“So in it’s own way, the photo of the night sky also hints at the glory of God in the same way as the sky itself. But you see, the same can be true for a painting of a midnight sky as well. [Photo 3.] We disregard the fact that it is simply pigments and swirls scrawled on a canvas, and we see it as something more. What we do is enter into the beauty of the night sky as interpreted by the painter. It hints of the sky, of the beauty, and of God’s majesty. And we are moved by it.
“I think we all know this painting, “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve read that the swirls are there to signify that God is not a static God, but He is active and moving through the universe. And it is beautifully portrayed in this painting.
“Now here’s the thing. This is also true if I write a song about the night sky, or a poem about the night sky, or a story about the night sky. [Photo 4.] In their own and unique ways, these acts of artistry are all human expressions, all artistic interpretations, of God’s creation. Our artwork is an extension of God’s artwork. And so you could say that artmaking is an echo of sorts of the original creation. This is how art can display truth and beauty and ultimately hint at God’s Glory.”
This is an excerpt from my recent speech at the 2013 Intersections: Faith and the Arts Conference. To freestream or download the audio of this entire 30-minute talk, please hit the Oak Hills Media link here. You’ll be directed to a webpage where you just hit the play button. Enjoy!
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.
Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen composed a song decades ago that has only recently impressed itself upon me. Regarded by some critics as one of the greatest songs ever, “Hallelujah” has been covered by dozens of artists, and has appeared in movies, television shows, and albums worldwide. Both sincere and ironic, Gospel and waltz, celebratory and mournful, the song has been described as “tiptoe(ing) the line between salvation and despair.”
Of musical note is that the chords economically prance around the circle of fifths in literal step with the lyric, while the melody rises in forlorn expectation before sinking despondently into the hook. At the same time, it is a beautifully crafted story song—David before Saul, David with Bethsheba, Samson and Delilah. For us geek songwriters, it may have one of the most perfect first verses ever penned:
I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
The word “hallelujah” is a Hebrew term which roughly translated means “Praise ye the LORD.” It is used in the bible as both an exhortation, i.e., an encouragement to praise God, and as an exaltation, i.e., a direct expression of praise. What completely turns the song upside down for me is that Cohen brilliantly uses the word not only as a term of exhortation and exaltation, but in a more deeply nuanced expression of melancholy, longing, aching. “Hallelujah,” in just a few skillfully crafted verses, becomes an anthem of the deep longings inside each of us—the longing for spiritual peace, for love without reservation, for hope-filled redemption—and ultimately for God.
The reason why the song has recently captured my attention is because I’ve been spending the last six weeks trying not to sing it. Let me explain.
Lent is the period in the Christian calendar preceding Easter. Traditionally marking the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for His ministry, Lent is a period of abstention and self-reflection, intended to prepare us for Holy Week and the ultimate triumph of Christ over the cross.
In several Christian traditions, the practice of abstention also includes not saying or singing the word “hallelujah” in the liturgy. And a number of years ago, we adopted this tradition as a spiritual practice at my church. So over the last two months or so, I’ve been selecting songs and crafting readings in our worship services that avoid the term. (As a sidebar, there is a inexplicable power and freedom in being able to wholeheartedly sing “Hallelujah!” on Easter Sunday after abstaining from it’s use for seven weeks.) So not singing the word, “hallelujah,” has been an act of worship for me personally, and corporately for my church. And in the process, my longing to sing it again on Easter Sunday grows.
For those of us who are songwriters of faith, there’s a lesson to be learned here. There is something more honest, more real, about the way Cohen uses the term “hallelujah” than that which is more obvious and literal. As songwriters, our job is not to write a sermon; it is to create art. For art has the capacity to reveal Truth in ways that mere words cannot. We must always be serious and respectful of our calling as songwriters, always striving to go for the deeper meaning, the deeper honesty, the deeper Truth.
Here’s a version by Rufus Wainwright with some different lyrics (you might know this one as the Shrek song). I invite you to listen to the song with fresh ears, and enter into its poetic humanity.
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
It’s a story I’ve heard many times before. Someone, typically a well-established adult, begins to take up some art form—maybe playing with watercolors or learning to play an instrument—and in the process, they begin to discover a part of who they are that they had forgotten about themselves. As they delve into their latent artistic predispositions, they begin to see themselves differently—as a creative being, as an artist. And as they do so, they discover a simple but profound knowledge of themselves, an intrinsic identity unlocked in the depths of their soul. They are wonderfully made in the image of a Creative God.
A great story to be sure. And as I said, one I’ve heard many, many times. Except this time, it’s happening to my wife.
Now Debbie and I have been married an amazing 25 years. Thankfully, we are very compatible in a hundred different ways, and love and life seem to mesh easily between the two of us. But one of the things we’ve never had in common is the arts. She has never considered herself an artist—though she even read my book! She shies away from the stage and any limelight, she won’t sing in front of me, She’ll only dance with me at weddings, and she wouldn’t step anywhere near an easel or a musical instrument.
But lately something very different has been happening. A few months ago, she decided to take a class in Creative Art Journaling from a wonderful local art teacher and life coach, Sherry Meneley. And suddenly she has become this mixed media maniac.
I’ll come home, and the entire house—kitchen counters, dining table, desk and easel—will be covered in plastic and art supplies. Papers, paintbrushes, and pigments. Glues and bottles of gesso and other odd concoctions. Custom stamps and colored pencils and other art tools I don’t know the names of. And as I walk into the room, I’ll find Debbie sitting on her stool, pensively mulling over a large watercolor matte, concentrating madly, the handled tip of a paintbrush pinched loosely in her mouth.
She’ll greet me with a smile, then with a certain vexing coyness, ask me, “Want to see my art journal?” Turning the pages slowly, she will offer a few caveats and invite a few compliments. In response, I will gush sincerely over her work, a dazzling splash of colors and textures and experiments and emotions. And somewhere in that moment, I will recognize the simple satisfaction that twinkles in her eyes as she explains and elucidates every page. Because as an artist, I know what that satisfaction feels like. God made us to feel that exact emotion when we create. And I am so gratified that she is experiencing it too.
All four of our children see themselves as artists in one shape or form—guitarists, painters, drummers, harpists, sculptors, actors, filmmakers, writers. So our household is a pretty creative place. And now we can add Mom to that mix.
[Note: For the record, Debbie approved this blog. And she created these photos too.]
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.]
For my daughter Rachel.
“How much further?” She could feel her voice float out of her mouth, suspended briefly in the frost-laden mist, before disappearing into a white vapor. Surrounded by the dull sound of nothingness, snow drifts in shades of white damping her every word. Nothing but the biting crunch of crushed snow at her feet as they walked.
“I said, how much further?,” she repeated. She grew irritated at the silence. Hated it even. They had been at it now all morning. This interminable hike her companion had described as “a little winter jaunt.” Each step up the mountain now seemed a ferocious battle with gravity. It had seemed like a wonderful idea at the time. At the time.
“It’s worth it. I promise.”
These were the words he spoke before the trip. The promise of hot cocoa, and a view that would take your breath away. But his words now hung hollow in the air, empty in the mist of her mind. Promise? How can you promise such things? The path was strewn with icy patches and craggy rocks, upward and still again upward. Gravity had begun to take its toll on her, and she felt the heaviness in her legs. Every step now seemed an endeavor. She regretted now wanting to pack so much into her backpack. Like the promise, it too weighed heavily on her.
“Can’t we stop just a moment?,” she asked, knowing full well the answer. They dare not take too long a delay at any point, for the journey would take all day. To stop too long would make the journey more difficult, as the late afternoon would be retreating to their backs. Then it would be dusk, and the path would become more icy, more difficult to make out in the freshly-fallen snow.
She began to think to herself how cozy it would have been to simply have stayed home. There would be a warm cozy fire, a blanket on the sofa, maybe a hot cup of cocoa with three marshmallows, her favorite. She would sit and gaze at the warmth of the blaze, orange tongues flicking up from the fireplace and disappearing into the chute above. Why did she agree to go again? There was the promise of a view, one magnificent and grand, beyond description, she was told. Was it worth all this trudging? Was it worth the strain in her legs, the dry perspiration on her neck, the cold wind biting at her nose? She wondered now.
They passed a thicket of trees, all trunks and branches, their leaves all but a memory from the previous fall. Naked and cold, they seemed to shiver in the wintry breeze. She looked up at them for a moment, remembering to steady her boots on the icy patch beneath her. They were beautiful in their own way. It was as if each branch of each tree had chosen it’s own path to the sky. And as they made their way to catch the sun, they met in a little dance of thicket above. She spotted a nest and stopped suddenly. It was small and compact, made of twigs and covered in snowflakes. Maybe a robin or a lark, she wondered. They were cold too, she supposed.
Looking upward, she took a few steps back, and suddenly the snow gave way beneath her. She found herself tumbling down a slope, her backpack jostling, her arms flailing to protect herself from the fall. Try as she might, she could not stop the sliding. The snow dampened more than the sound. She felt herself falling in slow motion, like a cartoon character turning into a snowball. With an abrupt thud, she skid to a stop at the bottom.
Disoriented, she quickly realized that she wasn’t hurt. She picked herself up and began brushing herself off. Above her, she could see she had fallen maybe 30 or 40 feet into a slim ravine. Her blue backpack lay in front of her. She wore only one mitten. The other had deserted her.
“Hey!,” she called out loudly. “Hey there! I fell down! I’m okay, but I don’t know where you are! Do you hear me?” For a moment, she pictured herself in this frosty aloneness. A wave of panic went through her. “Hey!.” She repeated. “I’m here! Do you hear me? Where are you?”
She felt the heavy silence. Then she could hear only her heart. It beat like horse hoofs in a stampede.
“I see you!,” she heard faintly. “Don’t panic! It’s okay!”
“Where are you?,” she shouted. Though his voice was reassuring, she began to feel abandoned. “I can’t see you!”
“…See you!” the ravine replied in a faint echo. It startled her for a moment.
“Listen, I can see you and you’re fine!,” her companion bellowed faintly. “You just need to keep walking straight ahead!”
“What? What do you mean?!”
“The gorge you fell into meets up with the trail up ahead. Three, maybe four miles. Just keep walking!,” the voice encouraged.
His words froze her. Three or four miles. To call her a camping novice was generous. She didn’t know the area, didn’t know the first thing about being in a forest, much less in the dead of winter. But she didn’t want her voice to betray the panic she was beginning to feel. “Why can’t you come down here with me?!”
“There’s no way down! Except for falling, I guess!”
“But I can’t see where you are?!”
“Don’t worry! I can see you! Just stay in the clearing, and walk straight ahead.”
She stood there silently for a moment. She began to feel sorry for herself and angry at herself at the same time.
“I don’t want to be here!,” she blurted. “I want to go home! Do you hear me? I want to go home!”
“…Go home!,” the ravine reverberated quietly.
There was a momentary quiet as the ravine swallowed her words. Then the faint words from above: “Trust me!”
The words riled her at first. But there was nothing else to do. She brushed the snowflakes from her raven hair, and straightened the earmuffs on her head. She picked up her backpack and brushed it off as well, then took a drink from the bottle attached to its side. The icy water went through her body and gave her a shiver. She took a deep breath, and waited for the panic to subside within her.
“Okay!,” she yelled. “Okay! I’m walking!” And with one final brush of her parka, she began again.
Step. Step. Step. The crunching of the snow below her boots kept her company. She looked up occasionally to get her bearings. As she had fallen so far, she realized that the slope of her path had now increased. he had to take smaller steps to compensate for the steep ascent. Her legs, and her pack, felt heavier now. She had taken her scarf and wrapped it around her face to conserve heat, and her breath now warmed her cheeks. Every few minutes, she would yell, “Can you still see me?!,” to reassure herself that she was still on the right path.
“Yeah! Keep going!” was the reply.
Step. Step. Step. She continued on, determined not to quit. She reminded herself that soon, this would be over. Soon, she would be at the top of the mountain. Soon, she would be inside and warm and toasty. Soon. But something didn’t feel right. The path had began sloping downward. She could feel it ease in her legs. And it had veered to the right, skewing away from where she had fallen. She was walking down and away from the mountain. Something was definitely wrong now. Did she stray from the path?
“Hey!,” she bellowed. “Hey! Something’s wrong! The path is sloping down now!” She stopped abruptly. The panic began to well inside her again, like a sudden wave on the beach that knocks you off your feet. She listened for her friend, for some assurance. But there was nothing but silence.
“Hey!,” she yelled again. “Where are you! Can you hear me?!” Her heart began to race. “Answer me!,” she stormed. “Answer me!”
In reply, a deafening stillness. She stood there for a moment, trying to scan the tops of the ravine for any sign of her friend. But there was none. “This isn’t fair,” she muttered quietly to herself. Then she said it again, loudly as if to the entire world, “This isn’t fair! Where are you! Answer me!”
“…Answer me!,” the ravine offered plaintively. Then a long silence. It was the silence that hurt the most. She sunk to her knees. And cried cold tears.
It was as if time had stopped. She discovered herself still on her knees many minutes later. It had begun to snow again, lightly, and specks of white floated like fireflies. Wiping her face, she looked behind her, her eyes tracing the footprints that fell into the distance. Then she turned back to the snowy haze in front of her. She pushed herself off the ground, and stood for a moment. And she began again.
She trudged for what seemed like hours in this silence. A white settling fog now cut her visibility significantly. She couldn’t see beyond the next bend, the next clump of trees, the immediate horizon. She felt so tired, so forsaken. Every step now was simply an act of the will. She didn’t know if she was going in the right direction. She only knew that the next step was away from where she had just been.
But the path had begun again to slope upward which encouraged her. And an old song surprisingly had began to play over and over in her head. Subconsciously, she began to sing to herself quietly. ‘Here comes the sun, do do do do. Here comes the sun, and I say, it’s all right.’ She smiled at the conspicuous irony.
Step. Step. Step. “Little darlin’, it’s been a cold and lonely winter,” she continued, louder now. It was as if she sang in defiance to the silence. “Little darlin’, it seems like years since it’s been clear.”
Then came a familiar voice singing in the distance. “Here comes the sun!” It stopped her in her tracks. “Here comes the sun!,” the voice declared. Up ahead, above the ravine and atop a cliff, was her companion. Her heart seemed to leap out of her parka, and she reached her hands high to wave. He ran down to her now, laughing and singing and skipping down a thin path between trees. When he reached her, he slid to a stop, and gave her a big hug. “You okay?,” he asked urgently, still panting from the run. “That was quite an adventure, wasn’t it?”
“Where were you?,” she asserted accusingly. “I was yelling for you, but you weren’t there.”
“I was up above you the whole time, really,” he explained, pointing up the mountain. “You couldn’t hear me, cause I was so far away, but I was waving my arms like crazy. You sat there for a long time. Maybe a half hour. I wondered if you were hurt.”
“You could see me? When I was sitting there all alone?”
He smiled. “You weren’t alone. At least not in that moment. But I was too far away for you to hear me, I guess. Later, after you got up and started walking again, I hiked beyond where you were so I could double back and meet up with you here.” He put his arm around her now and they began walking slowly up the hill. “You sure you’re okay?”
She looked down at her feet. Her boots were scuffed from the rocks and her toes felt like ice. But she was still moving forward, taking one step after another. “Yeah,” she replied. I’m fine.”
Slowly, they made their way up the serpentine tree-lined path, and up to the top of the hill. Eventually, they came upon a log cabin sitting idyllically in a clearing. Icicle Christmas lights lined the eaves, an over-sized Christmas wreath hung from the big wooden front door, and smoke puffed cheerfully from the chimney. On the porch, she recognized a half dozen of her friends, all laughing and clutching mugs of cocoa. They yelled encouragement to her to join them.
Hugs poured from the porch, and a cup of cocoa with three marshmallows floating on top was thrust into her mittenless hand. The heat from the mug ran through her arm and into her entire body. She laughed out loud now, momentarily forgetting the long day she had endured. And then she stopped suddenly. The view from the porch caught her speechless. It was as promised—it was indeed a breathtaking panorama. Sensing the moment, her friends embraced the sudden silence.
And so did she.
The act of celebrating Communion has always been unspeakably, mysteriously meaningful to me, even as a young boy receiving the Eucharist in the Catholic mass. Kneeling on the cold marble floor of the sanctuary, the taste of the round white wafer melting on my tongue, listening to the monsignor’s words, “The body of Christ.” These were indelible moments for me, simple actions where I came face to face with the mystery of our faith. We enter into a sacramental action that has been repeated millions of times over thousands of years, all the way back to that ancient moment when Jesus sat up at the table to share the bread and cup with his closest friends. It was a highly intimate act, an amazing act of self-disclosure, as Jesus reveals his death in light of the most sacred of Jewish celebrations, the Passover meal. As he served the bread, “this is my body,” and the wine, “this is my blood, given up for you,” he revealed that he was the final sacrifice, the Perfect Lamb, whose blood would guard the doorposts of our homes, whose life would carry the sins of all mankind.
And this is why it struck me so deeply again, as we began our Advent season. I’ve often thought that the act of incarnation—the act of God the Son eternal entering into the limited dimensions of our universe and clothing himself in fragile flesh—had to be more of a shock to Jesus than even dying on the cross. Think about that. He goes from infinite to finite, from Almighty God to helpless swaddling newborn, from timelessness to the ever-fleeting now, from the embrace of the perfect community of the Trinity to the utter aloneness of human being. No creature can fathom what that must have been like.
These were my thoughts as we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, and we repeated Jesus’ declaration, “This is my body,” and “this is my blood.” For the act of incarnation, the act of becoming this baby in a manger, was God’s ultimate act of self-disclosure. For we can truly know the nature and heart of God only through Jesus, who was God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us. When Jesus was born, it was as if God were saying, “This is my body, and this is my blood, given up for you.” It is only through the humanity of Jesus that we can fully know the nature of the Divine.
So the table represents a bridge between the birth, God’s revelation through incarnation, and the cross, God’s revelation through resurrection. The bread and the cup point backwards to the promise of Abraham and his descendents who were saved from Pharaoh. And they also point forward to the cross and the empty tomb and ultimately to our life in Christ now and into eternity.
Beautiful, metaphorical, artistic, the Lord’s Supper is an intersection of mysteries—Christmas and Easter, incarnation and resurrection, the Promise and the Fulfillment.
[Note: artwork by June Wright. Please visit this talented artist's website here.]
One member of our family sits unassumingly in the corner of the living room. Black and curvy, patient and loyal, it awaits some whiff of inspiration to bring me over to it to open its lid, sit my fingers on the keys, press out a chord, a song, a symphony.
The story of my Yamaha grand piano is a story of thankfulness. So I thought I would share it with you today.
One day, over a decade ago, after a fairly typical worship service, someone in our congregation approached me to ask me how much a grand piano cost. I replied that there was a pretty wide range, depending on your needs. Tell me what you’re looking for, I offered, and maybe I could help you.
His reply took me aback. As he was engaged in the worship that morning, he told me, a very specific idea suddenly popped into his head: We need to buy the Luz family a piano. It was a notion so strong that he could not ignore it, so much so that he felt the need to tell his wife, who was sitting next to him. He turned to her, but before he could say a word, she looked back at him and quickly declared, “Honey, I think we need to buy the Luz family a piano.”
A week or so later, I found myself scouring the classifieds (this was way before the internet), looking for a quality grand piano at a low cost. One in particular caught my eye, a gray market Yamaha that was obviously undervalued, and I made an appointment to see it. I knew something was abnormal, because the seller on the other end of the phone told me they were “interviewing” people to take the piano.
I arrived at the appointed time with my son, Justin. Standing at the front porch of an expansive and well-appointed modern ranch home, it was obvious that the family was Japanese and well-off. As we were invited in, my son and I instinctively took our shoes off at the door to come in (I found out later that we were the only people who took our shoes off), and we walked through a large entryway into an even larger living room. The room was set up like a small recital hall, with four or five upright pianos along the walls. Sitting at the front of the room were two magnificent grand pianos, a nine-foot Young Chang, and a seven-foot Bosendorfer. The man directed us past the pianos down a hallway and into an individual practice room where the for-sale Yamaha grand sat by itself. He told me to feel free to play it, and he would be back shortly.
The bench was creaky, the ebony body had several blemishes, the gloss had lost a little sheen, and there was a minor gash on the keyboard—it definitely showed some age. But there was something warm and inviting about it. Now this might not sound theologically orthodox, but I do believe that some pianos have souls. Mine does. And in the fifteen minutes that Justin and I were with it, I discovered it.
Thankfully, I got along extremely well with the seller—we had several points of commonality, from being an American born Asian, to having a love for music. From our conversation, I gathered that he was an established lawyer in Sacramento and his wife taught Japanese national exchange students from their home. The piano was a family heirloom, brought over from Japan, and had sentimental value. They wanted it to go to a good home where it would be appreciated. The money was secondary. By the end of our talk, I got the feeling that he would sell it to us. He walked us into the main room, wanting to introduce us to his wife.
I had never played a Bosendorfer before (considered one of the finest pianos made), so I respectfully asked permission to do so. The lawyer husband thoughtfully replied, “I’d better ask my wife first.” But he let me play the Young Chang (an exquisite piano by the way, originally purchased by the first chair cellist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but they couldn’t figure out how to bring it up the stairs of his home), which ended up being an audition of sorts. His wife came in—listening to me—and after being introduced with a formal bow (which we reciprocated), she allowed me to play the Bosendorfer.
When I say that the Young Chang was exquisite, I am not exaggerating. But the Bosendorfer made the Young Chang sound just a little thin and antiseptic. Warm, emotive, complex—playing the Bosendorfer was like the first time I had a very expensive glass of wine. I simply didn’t know that a piano could taste that good. Over the pianos, we shared some music and some life together.
Looking back now, I can see God’s hand upon the entire experience. From God speaking separately and specifically to a couple of extremely generous friends, to the charming time we had with the Japanese couple, to the actual purchase of the piano—I consider it one of the most distinct and tangible and extravagant acts of grace God had ever orchestrated in my life.
And also, I would like to believe that this couple had made a good decision in selling their family heirloom to us. The Yamaha has been a faithful part of our family, a source of artistic inspiration, and an altar for my personal worship.
Of course, not all of God’s acts of grace are quite so obvious. In fact, most of life can seem pretty crummy and unfair. But they are there nonetheless. From the powder blue sky that greeted me this morning, to the laughter coming from my children in the living room as I type, to the very next breath that fills my lungs. Life is full of reasons to give thanks to God, if you only look hard enough.
“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Psalm 118 NIV
Recently, Christian author & blogger Rachel Held Evans created a little controversy over her newest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Specifically, LifeWay Christian Resources, a large, conservative Christian book chain, had decided not to carry this book, apparently because she used the word, “vagina.” (Note: LifeWay is the same bookstore chain that previously created a stir by banning the popular and well-intentioned movie, “The Blind Side,” from their stores.)
Early in development, Evan’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, had recommended that she delete the word from her manuscript, and she did so. It was simply used in a colorful phrase, and wouldn’t change the overall meaning of her point in context. However, her blog readers began writing in to her (and even started a petition which they sent to Thomas Nelson) to encourage her to keep the word in the manuscript. So she did.
Her ruminations on this are well documented on her popular blogsite, and you can read up on it if you want more information. There has certainly been enough press on it, from The Huffington Post to Slate to The Christian Post.
Now on some level, I commend her for trying to maintain integrity in her writing and in her life by keeping the word in. I also commend her publisher for allowing her to do so, even at the risk of sales repercussions. On some other level, I also understand that keeping the word in has probably generated lots of media coverage and other sales, and she is probably enjoying all the controversy and notoriety as well, but I’m not going to judge their motivations on that one. But this does bring up some interesting questions, from the nature of censorship to what makes a book Christian.
First off, I’m not against censorship per se. Practically every medium you see has a necessary degree of censorship, from motion picture ratings to the dress codes established by public schools. Just the act of deciding what goes on the front page of a newspaper versus the back page (or not at all) is an act of censorship. Censorship is a necessary part of communication—just think about all the things you said in your mind today that you didn’t say out loud.
Censorship is a necessary part of the artistic process as well. As authors and songwriters, we are constantly choosing words, evaluating their nuance and intention and power. All artists—from dancers to sculptors to graphic designers—exercise a form of self-censorship, as we strive to evoke ideas and emotions from our work. Recently, we performed a drama sketch at our church involving two people in conflict. One of the characters was supposed to say, “what the hell!,” in a derogatory manner, which was consistent with the role and setting. However, during rehearsal, we decided to change the dialogue because we knew that the phrase might hinder some people from hearing the real message of the piece, and we were able to find other ways to dramatize this person’s anger artistically.
In the case of Evan’s no-no word, however, something else is going on here. I believe that at the heart of this controversy are two things: a legalistic view of what it is to live in the Kingdom of God, and book sales (i.e., money). And one leads to the other, I’m afraid.
Now when I say a “legalistic view” I speak specifically of those who think that Christians are people who don’t swear, or don’t drink or smoke, or don’t have body piercings or tattoos, or don’t fill-in-the-blank. And while there isn’t anything necessarily good about any of these things, to use them as boundary markers to the Christian faith is somewhat absurd. The life of a follower of Christ is one of wholeness restored, goodness prevailing, grace abounding, love motivating and superceding everything. It is not defined simply by external behaviors (the sin of the Pharisees), but completely defined by interior, spiritual rebirth that leads to changed life. But somewhere down the line, the word “vagina” became a boundary marker for what is not acceptable for Christian authors to use in their works.
All authors eventually face this at some level. My Waterloo was the phrase, “kick butt,” which I penned in the original manuscript for my book, Imagine That, to humorously describe a scene from the seventies TV show, “Kung Fu.” Late in the editing process, my publisher asked that I change the phrase to something more benign, like “beat up.” While it wasn’t a deal-breaker by any means, I felt that their phrase completely loses the meaning of what I was trying to say. So we compromised with the term “whomp” which is a made-up word—and an inside joke that they didn’t get—coined in the Saturday morning cartoon, “Recess.” (If you have ten minutes to spare, I highly recommend this clip for some surprisingly refreshing perspective.)
I’ve blogged before on the importance of being honest in our art. Artist Edward Knippers states, “The believer’s art should be rooted in the rich soil of believing that humanity is far worse off than we think and God’s grace extends far beyond what we can imagine.” Art, if it aspires to Truth, must be real in portraying the realities of a sin-bathed world as well as God’s great love for that world. If this is true, then being truthful to these realities must occasionally mean that we will use words like “vagina” and “butt” and other vulgarities. Certainly the Bible—the divinely-inspired but also R-rated Story of God in the universe—does not shy away from such realities.
Or to be more crass, let me quote Rachel Evans herself: “…if Christian bookstores stuck to their own ridiculous standards, they wouldn’t be able carry the freaking Bible.”
Which brings me to the second thing, money. Christian publishers, like all publishers, are motivated primarily by finances. They have to be. They are in the business of selling books, and the people who run these businesses have mortgages to pay and families to feed. So loss of sales becomes this unspoken but all-pervasive threat that Christian publishers always feel. The easy road for publishers is to simply avoid the controversies, the boundary markers, which might stir up the conservative segments of their audiences. To state the obvious, we as authors and readers must understand that the Christian book industry primarily functions—for better and for worse—as an industry. And one corollary to that is that the best books are not always published, but the most popular (and often benign) books most certainly are.
So where does that leave us? Ultimately, we Christians finds ourselves squarely along the path of missing the point once again. Evans’ book will not be known for what it was written for — as an experiment in Christian complementarianism — but as “the vagina book.” Those conservatives who oppose the book will unwittingly add to its sales, fueled by a titillated public. Christian evangelicals have once again displayed that we define ourselves according to what we are against, not what we are for. And the secular public and media will have one more excuse to poke fun at the ignorant Christians.
Last weekend, our church presented Mosaic: A Night with the Arts, which is an annual event featuring an eclectic blend of artistic expressions—poetry, drama, performance painting, dance, music, short story, art gallery, technical arts. It’s a presentation from the many artists in our local church, so there’s a wide variety of styles and flavors—from classical to jazz, from modern to lyrical dance, from watercolor to oils to quilting. During Mosaic, we give ourselves permission to do the things that might not be applicable to a Sunday morning service, pushing the envelope artistically as well as dealing with adult themes and concepts.
One of the elements we decided to do this year was a mixed-discipline improvisation. Specifically, I was to spontaneously create a three-movement piece on the piano, and one of our abstract painters, Julie Lueken, was to spontaneously paint what I was playing. Julie and I didn’t collaborate before-hand; we simply talked about what the three movements would be: awakening, conflict, redemption.
The week prior, I talked to Julie and asked her if it would be wise if we practiced some improvisation together. She replied, “We’d better not. I think I just need to step into the fear.” I knew what she meant by that. There is a natural fear that permeates any honest artmaking. Because making good art is very difficult. And making honest art even harder. As artists, we sometimes feel the fear of the struggle—a struggle not only to make good art, but to be at peace with the art we end up making.
Now, my musical piece was less John Mayer and more John Cage. I banged on the piano (with our nine-foot Steinway Model D, there’s a lot of piano to bang), plucked and strummed the strings, played a lot of unusual dissonance. I went from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again. I probably played about eight minutes. And as I banged and stroked and played, Julie was hard at work, floating golden streaks and stabbing crimson dots and stroking chocolate scribbles on the canvas. Awakening. Conflict. Redemption.
It was at once thrilling and frightening.
And at the end, it seemed that we both sensed that we were done, both sensed a peace about our performance. As I sat back from the piano, she wiped her paintbrush and set it down in the jar. The eight minutes of extemporaneous fear gave way to a relaxed Shalom.
I’ve spoken many times before about how art is a dialogue—both horizontally to our audience and to one another, and vertically with God. I can’t truly explain what I was feeling as I sat at the piano, not knowing what my next note would be until the moment I played it. And I don’t think Julie could explain each brushstroke either. But I do trust that the Holy Spirit was present in the creation of this piece, just as the audience sat, present and mesmerized, by our performance.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10 NIV
[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.
Stylistically, our aspirations for worship in the church today seem to be less about transcendence and more about spectacle. On one hand, there is a growing tendency in the modern church to aspire to fog machines, computer-controlled lighting, splashes of fast-moving multimedia on large high-definition screens, and a guitar-driven rock band amplified with jet-engine decibel level sound systems. At the other extreme, large robed choirs and splashy cantatas are the highlight of a traditional style that can get lost in its own anachronism. And the climax of both of these services is not a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which is by definition a celebration of the mystery, but the sermon. Fueled by centuries of modernism, the sermon has unwittingly become the undaunted forum for explaining away the mysteries of our faith.
Now, I’m not an opponent of any of these things per se. But in the midst of the spectacle, we are in danger of a missing an experience with one of the greatest aspects of worship: mystery. Because worship is an encounter with the Holy, the Infinite, the Revered, the Unknowable. Without the language of beauty and the arts to help us, without sacred space that allows us to meet God on His terms and not ours, without the humility that comes from realizing that God is beyond our understanding, we lack the vocabulary to speak deeply into the mystery. And I think our souls desperately thirst for experiences of mystery. We thirst for intimacy with an unfathomable God. Ultimately, what we seek is spiritual transcendence, not artistic titillations.
As a worship leader, I interrupted my worship service recently. At the beginning of the service, I challenged my congregation to internally search their feelings in answering this question: Do you really believe that the God of creation, the God who exists in Tri-Unity—the God who spins the atoms and sustains the universe by his active will—is actually here in this place? Do we believe that This Very Big God is here among us? And if the answer was, “yes,” why aren’t we all on our faces, trembling in holy fear, hands raised and heads bowed, slain where we stand? But Annie Dillard said it better:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
Worship is an attempt to dwell with the Mystery. And such brushes with the Mystery will change us.
My son’s drum set had been sitting in the garage for quite awhile collecting dust, so I figured I would set it up and play on it a little. (Drummer jokes aside, it is a well-known secret that all musicians secretly wish they could play the drums.)
Now, I’m not a drummer. So I’ve always been a little uncoordinated on the drums, even though I can keep a steady beat and can program drums very quickly and credibly. I’d always attributed my klutziness to not having any formal training in 4-way coordination (for you non-musicians, that means banging something with each limb at the same time in a way that doesn’t sound like someone is falling down the stairs).
And then something long ago occurred to me. Many years ago as an adult, I was visiting my parents and was looking through some of the old family photo albums. I asked them why there were a number of childhood photos with me holding objects with my left hand, mirroring my little brother. Things like pop guns or hammers or other toys. My father then confessed to me that when I was a very little boy, I showed left-handed tendencies. But he forced me to use my right hand—eating with a fork, writing with a pencil, picking up the phone, everything. He had reasoned that life would be easier for me as a right-handed person.
It turned out he was wrong. I bat left-handed, throw right-handed, kick left-footed, and am right-eye dominant. In other words, in sports, I was all messed up. Not only was I a short and dumpy kid, but I had always felt a little awkward and uncoordinated.
So this is what I did. I took the snare drum, which sits just to the left front of the kick drum, and switched it with the floor tom, which normally sits on the right. I took the cymbal stand, normally on the right, and placed it on the left. And so on. What I ended up with was a completely left-handed drum set. Then I took a couple of sticks, sat down on the throne, took a deep breath, and began to play.
At first, I was like Bambi on ice. But though it was slow going, something about the way my body was positioned felt really right. My stroke was fluid, my beat was steady, my cross-sticking was meshing like gears on a bike. Experimenting, I went from a straight rock beat to hip hop. I closed my eyes, switched to traditional grip, and suddenly I was Stewart Copeland. Then I grabbed some brushes, laid into the ride cymbal, and suddenly I was a sloppy version of Buddy Rich. I went back to match grip and became a sweaty two-fisted Carter Beauford. About a half hour of this and I came to the slow realization—I could actually play the drums!
Now, I certainly make no claims at being an idiot savant (though I have been accused of this more than once). And I’m decades of practice away from considering myself a real drummer. But I did experience a small but marked epiphany about myself and how I approach art.
You know that I believe and espouse that we are all artists. But I also believe now that some of us have never experienced the artistic medium(s) to which we are best suited. Some of us are photographers who could be amazing oil painters if we gave ourselves the chance. Some of us play clarinet when our true destiny is the cello. I have personally supervised the transformation of several wannabe guitarists who found joy and side careers as bass players. And on and on. We must never be too old, or too set in our ways, to experiment with other mediums, other techniques, other paradigms.
Also, within our given mediums, we need to rattle our preconceptions of how we create. For me, it is a pianist getting behind a drum set. It will be different for others. If you write lyrical songs, maybe you should try writing an instrumental piece and focus on stronger melody. Visual artists who lean into representational art should experiment with creating abstract or iconographic art forms. Aspiring novelists should try a little poetry now and then. If you are primarily a ballet dancer, you should try line dancing (okay, maybe not line dancing, but you get the idea).
Can you relate to this? Do you have a tale to tell? Have you experienced moments when right was wrong? I invite you to share your story with me.