“They don’t make music like that anymore.” I hear that a lot these days. Usually this lament is uttered by someone my age listening to an oldies radio station or commenting on a song I’ve sung on one of my piano bar gigs, but I’ve heard it from young eighties-music-loving twenty-year-olds too. So is it true? Is anyone writing “good” music anymore? Well, the answer is no…and yes.
Think about your favorite music. Chances are, much of the music you love you discovered when you were in your teens and twenties. This is typically the time when one is trying to define oneself, when the deep questions of identity and purpose and meaning and acceptance become prominent in one’s life. And music is one of the ways in which we define ourselves. My twin daughters are now fourteen, and the music they listen to (wholly other than mine) is completely specific to their subculture and their relationships. Their music is a part of how they are discovering who they are.
Music, like any other cultural artifact, helps define us. And in doing so, it also helps us make sense of the world as well. Bing Crosby released “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” during the winter of 1943, and it immediately captured the sentiment of an entire nation dealing with the uncertainty of world war. The Beatles sang “All You Need Is Love” in the summer of 1967, and it became the defining moment for a decade of peace-seeking hippies marching for change. Kurt Cobain delivered the anarchistic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the nihilistic nineties, and it not only propelled Nirvana to the top of the rock charts, it became an anthem for the ironically-tinged Generation X. The War generation, the hippy generation, even Gen X—Music has defined all of us. As poet Ralph Waldo Emerson confirms, “Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto.”
Music is also a language of feelings. It is indeed true that music can sooth the savage breast. But it can also make us feel happy or sad, pensive or elated, boisterous or quiet, angry or indifferent. We have all felt pride as we stood for the National Anthem; quiet, interior peace at the hushed singing of “Silent Night”, anticipation at the promenade of “Pomp and Circumstance”; and butterflies in the stomach at the opening notes of the “Wedding March.” Evocative, emotive, enfolding, music delivers an unspoken dialogue of mood and sentiment, stirring and spirituality. Music, as they say, is what feelings sound like.
There can be only one reason why music has this much expressive, evocative power to us. It is because God designed it—and us—that way. This is one of the on-going themes of this blog. God gave us the imagination and ability to create musical instruments—ten-string lyres and djembes and saxophones and electric guitars—and he gave us the facility to play them. As Shakespeare penned, “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” Equally mind-blowing, he created a world where the physics of sound—from the invisible gradations in air pressure that make up sound waves to the impressively complicated design of the inner ear and the brain—can exist. And finally, God, who made us in his image, imbedded into us the internal aesthetic that causes music and beauty to move our hearts, stir our souls. If you think about it, the simple act of turning on your car radio—mechanically, psycho-acoustically, emotionally, and spiritually—is nothing short of a miracle.
That we are moved by the crescendo of a symphony orchestra or the hush of a lullaby is not an accident. God wanted us to have this very special gift: music. Simply put, God, who is a Being of perfect emotion and passion, is a big fan of music. All kinds of music.
Because music is an expression of our feelings and emotions, we use music to define who we are. And this is especially true when we are in our teens and twenties. So my theory is this: The “good” music we refer to is typically the music of our own generation. Because we have implicitly defined ourselves that way. And this is both good and bad. Good in that music gives us a mode of expression. Bad in that our personal preferences can make us myopic to the larger genres of music that exist in the world.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we would be quick to admit that there’s an awful lot of bad music that was written in the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties. And if you listen with an open mind and heart, you can discover a lot of good music written today.
My twin girls and I will be riding in the car, and as is typical, I let them pick the radio station. Now I don’t let them blast the song, mostly because I want to talk to them about the music they listen to when it’s playing. I’ll ask them if they like a particular song and why, and I’ll offer my opinions as well. Because I want to model to them that music isn’t a static thing. Style and genre and artists change, but there will always be good music.
If you take the time to listen.
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."]
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
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.]
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.
Most of my readership primarily knows me as an author, blogger, pastor, songwriter. But I’ve had the privilege of also being a working musician for over 25 years as well. This is the non-glamorous side of music, making money by playing bars and clubs, working late nights in recording studios, playing weddings and corporate events. It helps pay the bills. And for that, I am grateful.
Some artists see this as being beneath them. They want to make their own music on their own terms. And I understand this. I want the same for myself as well. But my perspective is that being a professional musician is honorable work (at least with the people I work with and for), and I approach the craft in the same way that a master plumber or electrician might display professionalism and integrity with their customers.
There’s also a spiritually formative aspect to this too. I make myself a servant, not only to the audience I play for, but also to the music that I perform. If I’m playing a John Mayer tune for instance, my individuality will poke out, but I still want to maintain the musical integrity of the song. When I work on someone’s CD project, I want to ensure that the songs are a true reflection of the artist and not myself. In other words, it’s not about me.
Equally formative, I’ve also learned over time to have passion for my music, while not allowing an indifferent audience to shake my sometimes fragile psyche. And this is harder to do than one thinks.
Recently, something happened to me that has happened only one other time. I was playing solo piano at a local upscale restaurant which was then only nominally busy. A middle-aged couple at the corner table, I suspected were probably divorced and dating. A young married couple being treated out by the in-laws. A quiet and respectful family having dinner before their movie started. A group of boisterous young twenty-somethings in the center of the room, possibly celebrating a birthday. It seemed a typical Friday night crowd—proper and possibly a bit apathetic.
Two hours into the three hour set. This is when my inner voice begins doubting. I think to myself, am I playing the kind of music they want? Am I getting a little pitchy? Is anyone even listening? Do they even care? Why am I here anyway? It is the existential angst of the piano bar artist.
And suddenly a lady rouses me from my inner dialogue. Approaching me tentatively, she remarks, “I really like your playing. You’re very gifted. I want you to have this.” And she sets a hundred dollar bill in my tip jar.
I re-learned a lesson in that moment. You never know who is listening. You never know who is paying attention. You never know who you are affecting by what you do.
And this is why it is so important to always be who you are. And as they say, who you really are is who you are when no one is looking.
Who am I really? Author, blogger, pastor, songwriter? That’s just what I do. Who I am is a servant—to my audience (whether I think they’re listening or not) and to the music I perform. But mostly to God, through my life and through my art.
[Note: If you liked this blog, I have an older blog that talks a little about Piano Bar Philosophizing. I encourage you to check it out.]
I mentioned a concept briefly in a previous blog, and I thought I would just touch on it a bit deeper here. It deals with a somewhat archaic* word I wish we would use more: Mindfulness. To be mindful, full of mind, that is, to have our minds and souls conscious and aware, attuned to the things around us, to the things of God. For nothing is truly ordinary in God’s created order.
The use of the word “mind” itself is nuanced. “To bear in mind” is to take something into account. “To have something in mind” is to have the intention to act upon something. “To mind the store” is to be in charge. “To come to mind” is to remember. “To have an open mind” is to consider without prejudice. Mindfulness, in my mind (i.e, “in my opinion”), includes all of these connotations—a purposeful openness to the possibility that God is graciously in the midst of all the absurdity around us.
What does mindfulness require? Foundationally, it requires abiding with our Heavenly Father (John 15). Jesus modeled this continually throughout his life. He was constantly abiding in his Heavenly Father, connected in prayer and thought through the Holy Spirit so that he was always in step with the will of the Father. There is also an awareness of our environment, of the beauty of creation around us and the people God brings into our lives. And this is often a subtle and understated thing, more in our peripheral vision than obvious and foreground. And finally, we must walk into each day with an attitude of anticipation, a heightened spiritual expectancy that God is in every moment and may act in it in some mysterious way.
To risk mindfulness is a transcendent act, for we dare to see the spiritual beyond the material. And as such, it is counter-intuitive to the twenty-first century lives we live. In our busyness and preoccupations, we train ourselves to ignore the ordinary. Our eyes and ears have dulled to the sights and sounds of the profoundly sacred. We don’t see the miracle that is the wind or the rain, the sunrise and the sunset, the quiet steady pulse of creation.
But the Apostle Paul issues us a reminder to be mindful: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20 NIV) And the Psalmist joyfully proclaims: “What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.” (Psalm 104:24 The Message) Clearly, we are missing out on something. For creation shouts loudly the glory of God. But we do not hear it. Our ears have dulled to the Small Still Voice.
We grapple with a paradox: The ordinary is sacred, and the sacred is ordinary. The ordinary is sacred in that God created and actively sustains all things through his omnipotence, and permeates all places with his omnipresence, and reveals His glory all around us. The sacred is ordinary because God acts in all things and at all times. By His continuing and ever-sustaining will, atoms spin and heavenly bodies pull at one another. Every act of creation—from the sun that gives life, to the trees that feed from it and create oxygen, to the air that fills our lungs—is an act of His active grace, and a reflection of His divine beauty.
One of the most ordinary things I do each day is washing the dishes. But the sink to my kitchen faces out into our backyard, where birds sing in my neighbor’s cherry tree and squirrels occasionally scurry along the vine-covered back fence. There is so much beauty—so much Glory—going on beyond my kitchen sink. But I don’t see the glory. I only see the dirty dishes.
We must open our mind’s eyes, and squint into the brightness of creation. We must train ourselves beyond our conditioned myopia. We must dare seeing a God whose glory permeates the universe.
[*Note: As noted in the sign, "Mind Your Head" is a saying that is intended as a warning to duck under low-lying passages and doorways. I think it's a UK thing, as we don't seem to use it here in the US. Can any of my UK readers please verify that for me? Thanks!]
Artmaking is a paradoxical activity. It is often a highly intimate expression of the artist. Our art is birthed from our talents and sweat-obtained technique, and also from our uniquely individualized story and worldview. But at the same time, great art only happens when we serve the art, allowing the art to be greater than we are. For art—if it is to have any consequence—must have meaning apart from the artist. And so as artists, we must allow our artwork to have a life of its own, to have its own identity and purpose and expression very much separate from ourselves.
In the words of Madeleine L’Engle, “When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly, than he knew; Rembrandt’s brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.”
Michelangelo coaxed the masterpiece David out of 6-tons of flawed marble. He could not will his vision out of the flawed and disfigured mass of stone; he could only work within the imperfections and limitations of it. And so he served the stone, studying it, yielding to it, and eventually unveiling it.
Personally, I experienced this often in my music. I’ve put in a lot of hours in recording studios over the years, both producing and recording for myself and a few others, and more often functioning as the keyboardist or pianist on other albums. When you’re a studio musician, the prime directive is always to serve the song—to play only those notes, and choose only those sounds and colors, that allow the song to be fully conceived, to come alive, to have meaning and passion beyond the individual performances of the players. The recording studio is a maternity ward, and I am simply there to help birth the vision that the artist or producer has of that particular song. As a sideman, I know that the song is never a showcase for my abilities.
And this brings up the second way in which the artist is a servant. For as we serve our art, we serve our audience as well. When I write a song, I am aware that the song will have a relationship with my audience quite apart from me. That song might end up on someone’s iPod or get streamed on someone’s laptop or played on someone’s stereo. It will interact with my audience, as they listen to my song and add their own life experiences and attribute their own meanings upon it. So as I write, I ask myself, “How will the listener receive this? What will they hear beyond what I am saying? Will they be moved?” And so I serve the audience by doing my best to compose my song, and then let go of it, to allow my audience the freedom to make the song their own.
A painter’s painting will interact with an audience when it hangs on a wall. An author’s book will speak to the reader quite apart from the author. A vase will hold water on its own far removed from the hand of the potter.
And maybe in this way, art once again reflects the way of God. For His spiritual economy is peculiar, and not at all like ours. The first shall be last. The least of these is the greatest. The meek will inherit the earth. And to be great in His Kingdom, you must be a servant of all.
Through our art, we serve the work. We serve our audience. We serve our God.
Tinged with an appealing Celtic-influenced sound that blends folk, pop, and a little rock, Amy is at once an instrumentalist, folk and pop singer, worship leader, minister, and artist.
Graduating with a music degree from Wheaton College, Amy’s career began as a recording artist with Sparrow Records as well as being a staff writer at Birdwing Music. She has opened for Larry Carlton and Michael McDonald, performed for the NRB and Praise Gathering, and has worked with Tommy Sims, Norbert Putnam, Brian Hardin, and Peter York. Amy has recorded thirteen records for six companies and has been nominated for a Dove Award. Amy has been featured on the Moody Broadcast Network, GLC-TV worldwide, Focus on the Family, and tours North America speaking and singing in churches, universities, and conferences, including The Voice of the Martyrs and Dee Brestin Ministries.
Since 2004, Amy has been passionate about supporting Christians who have been persecuted worldwide in restricted nations through The Voice of the Martyrs. She has contributed to two recordings featuring Gracia Burnham and several Christian artists to bring awareness of those who have been persecuted for their faith in Jesus.
Her latest album is a sixteen-song vocal CD called “The God Of All Comfort.” Her label, Audio Abbey Records, is also under contract with Zondervan for a 10 song version of the same CD which is available with best selling author Dee Brestin’s women’s study guide based on her book with the same title.
Amy is married to producer Gary Wixtrom, and they currently live in Nashville with their ten year-old daughter Elise. I’ve worked with them a number of times, and I find them to be a thoroughly delightful family. For more information, please check out their website.
Amy, along with husband Gary, will be performing and leading worship at my home church, Oak Hills in Folsom, for our Maundy Thursday Service on April 5 at 7 PM (celebrating the Lord’s Supper) and our Good Friday Service on April 6 at noon (commemorating the acts of the cross). Both of these intimate events will be observed in-the-round, and we invite you to join us. I’ll be joining them on the grand piano for the worship. In addition, they will be leading worship at the upcoming Voice of the Martyrs Conference at Oak Hills Church on Saturday, April 14.
When the movie blockbuster, The Matrix, was first released over a decade ago, it created quite a stir, not only because of it’s cutting-edge special effects and graphic novel sophistication, but because it was a provocative blending of mythology, eastern mysticism, Christian themes, philosophy, science fiction, and a fist full of kung fu. Blending the hero’s journey with the messiah story, it can be viewed as both religious and atheistic, intellectual and exploitative, profoundly thought-provoking and shallow fun. And at the heart of the story lies the ultimate question: What is the truth about the nature of life?
It is one of the fundamental questions. And in a word where truth, like beauty, is considered to be a relative thing, it is ironic that the heart of man still searches for some semblance of what is genuinely, objectively, and ultimately True.
The Bible had a word for those whose job was to tell the truth about God and about life, past, present, and future. The word is “prophet.” And unfortunately, the word conjures up many unintended meanings. There’s a lonely and quite misunderstood bearded man in the desert, yelling at people to repent. Or maybe a fortuneteller bearing a jeweled turban who promises to tell you the future. Or the man wearing the sandwich board yelling at the corner, bringing the annoying message that the end is near. Any modern use of the term requires a sense of explanation or apology.
To say that something is prophetic is to imply that we can predict the future. And there is obviously Biblical precedent for this (e.g., the books of Isaiah or Revelation). But practically speaking, the prophetic gift has more to do with helping people see things as they really are. Prophets clarify, illuminate, and reveal. Like Morpheus offering Neo the red pill, the prophet offers to help people see the larger reality, the Kingdom perspective. In the Bible, the role of the prophet was to remind people of God’s sovereignty and His direction for us, a voice from outside the babel that calls us back, a champion of all that is Godly when we have lost our way. Prophets remind us of what is real and important. Prophets are Truth tellers.
Such is the role of the artist as well. If we are doing our job, if we are creating art that is noteworthy and unique, then our art implies a perspective of life that stands apart from the norm. Our art pulls back the curtain, offers a different point of view, provokes thought and feeling. This should be even more true for the Christian artist as well, for our work provides a perspective of life that not only stands apart from the norm, but is grounded in the eternal.
In the collection, Intruding Upon the Timeless, author Gregory Wolfe explains:
“Like the biblical prophet, the artist is often an outsider, one who stands apart and delivers a challenge to the community. The prophets of old employed many of the same tricks used by writers and artists: lofty rhetoric, apocalyptic imagery, biting satire, lyrical evocations of better times, and subversive irony. To be sure, the true prophet came not to proclaim his own message, but that of the Lord.”
“The artist and the prophet bring far things near; they somehow bring the urgencies of the eschatological realm into the mundane world of the here and now.”
The Christian artist must be a prophet, in that in some small way, our art should reveal the greater Truth. And that is easier said than done. So if I may, please indulge me a two contrasting examples.
Thomas Kinkade is arguably the most recognizable Christian painter today. His work—revealing pastoral scenes, beautiful landscapes, pastel cottages and a romanticized view of days gone by—has become extremely popular over the last few decades, particularly with evangelical Christians. Stylistically, he is a master of drawing light from the canvas, allowing us to see these scenes through softened, dreamy lenses. Dubbed, “The Painter of Light,” Kinkade is not only an accomplished artist, but is also a successful book author, businessman, and prolific philanthropist. Many people, Christians in particular, have purchased his prints, collectibles, themed home furnishings, and even crafts and puzzles. His popularity, I suspect, is much more than simple technique; his true talent may lie in his ability to answer the soul’s yearning for some semblance of otherworldly peace.
The question is this: Can the body of his work be considered redemptive? Does it reflect a Christian worldview? Does his work point people to the greater story of God?
Kinkade explains of his work, “I like to portray a world without the Fall.” And it is true that he masterfully expresses an idyllic pastel world of serenity and peacefulness in his works. But consider a world without the fall. Is that consistent with the Christian meta-narrative—creation, fall, and redemption? Is it true to the Story? While Kinkaide may convey a noble sentiment, it is more than nostalgic wishing. It is theologically wrong.
The Gospel is that God is in the business of rescuing a world that is broken and lost and doomed without Him. The worldview that Kinkade so carefully cultivates in his body of work is a world without brokenness, transgression, conflict, sin. And in a world without the fall, the blood of Jesus is, in Gregory Wolfe’s words, “rendered superfluous.” Grace becomes unnecessary where there is no sin. Redemption is nonessential, for there is nothing from which to be redeemed.
In Kinkade’s works, we find ourselves sampling the harmless and counterfeit titillations we talked about earlier in the theme park. Artist Edward Knippers states, “The believer’s art should be rooted in the rich soil of believing that humanity is far worse off than we think and God’s grace extends far beyond what we can imagine.” Art, if it aspires to Truth and beauty, should have at its core, redemption. For Grace is God’s loving response to the Fall.
So while Kinkade taps into a longing that is true, what he depicts in response to this longing is not. The otherworldly peace that is the soul’s true yearning is called shalom. Shalom is a Jewish word that implies “the reality and hope of wholeness for the individual, within societal relations, and for the whole world.” More than simply the lack of war, shalom refers to God’s pervasive will upon a place in truth, justice, benevolence, and reign. This is why Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. This is the true yearning of our hearts, to find redemption in a broken world that desperately needs Jesus, the Prince of Shalom.
A second example of a Christian artist is C. S. Lewis, apologist (arguably the greatest of his time), scholar, historian, radio personality, and author. He is probably best known for a series of children’s books entitled The Chronicles of Narnia. As these books were of the fantasy genre, they are, by definition, not true in the sense that it is based on historical reality. But the question still remains: Does his work point people to the greater story of God?
Much has been written about The Chronicles of Narnia, so a deep analysis is unnecessary. We understand it is not allegorical in nature, though the central character, Aslan, is definitely a nod to Christ. But there is nothing that necessarily points to the Gospel. There are no four spiritual laws, no mention of the church, no overt symbols of the Christian faith (and in fact, many pagan symbols instead). There are, however, recurring themes: Good and evil, the nature of man, the ugliness of sin, the need for justice, the power of forgiveness. The books model love, integrity, family, loyalty, grace. They are truthful to the complexities of selfishness, avarice, pride, deception, death. The overarching worldview that undergirds all of the stories is that there really is absolute Truth in a chaotic world. And the overarching message is that the world has been somehow marred by sin, and it is through the benevolence of an all mighty power that we will be redeemed.
Are the Chronicles of Narnia consistent with the Christian meta-narrative, the Big Story? Is it consistent with Truth? Is his work prophetic in some way? I think the answer is yes.
How does the artist become a Truth teller? Philip Graham Ryken shares in his short treatise, Art for God’s Sake, his view:
“Art communicates truth in various ways. Sometimes it tells a story, and the story is true to human experience—it is an incarnation of the human condition. Sometimes art tells the truth in the form of propositions. This is especially characteristic of literary art forms, which speak with words. Art can also convey emotional and experiential truth, and it can do this without words, as is often the case with music. But whatever stories it tells, and whatever ideas or emotions it communicates, art is true only if it points in some way to the one true story of salvation—the story of God’s creation, human sin, and the triumph of grace through Christ.”
The mixed media artist paints a tree in the forest, strong and sinewy, timeless like eternity. Beneath the tree, real leaves and twigs affixed to the canvas form a foreground, reminding us of God’s fingerprint upon creation. Art reveals Truth.
The photographer captures the image of an orphan girl, wrapped in the tragedy of her generational poverty. Clothed in rags and powdered in dirt, her glancing eyes and her guarded smile disclose the image of God within her. Art reveals Truth.
A choreographer creates an evocative piece with seven dancers using east Indian music. Through movement, she tells the story of the Dalit, the people of the lowest caste system in Indian society. Known as the Untouchables, there is still extreme prejudice and suppression placed upon these people. Though not a word is spoken in the dance, we begin to see an inner beauty in these people, and in spite of their condition, they are still loved by God. Art reveals Truth.
A songwriter sings a simple love song, not of sensual romance, but of a deeper kind. Through the poetry of his lyrics, he reflects on forgiveness offered and accepted, a relationship broken but restored. Once again, art reveals Truth.
A missionary assembles a group of artists—musicians, graphic artists, sound and lighting and video technicians—and presents a series of concerts featuring American music in a largely non-Christian European city. It draws the music fan, the bored, the curious. As the concert unfolds, the Gospel begins to shine—not just through the music they play or the words they sing or the visuals they project, but also in the way they interact with one another and with the audience, and in the conversations that surely follow a concert like this. Those in attendance are impressed not only by the quality of the music, but the quality of the people. Art reveals Truth.
As artists of faith, we must offer our audience the red pill. Our art must ultimately magnify, colorize, illuminate, and heighten the perception of Truth. And that Truth should captivate us, reframe our senses, compel us to action, and inspire us to something Greater. In this sense, it is fitting that the arts can be an expression of that Real Truth. And when that happens, the artist is a prophet, in the truest sense of the word.
By the early 1930s, trumpet virtuoso Louis Armstrong had already established himself as the definitive master of this infant musical genre called “jazz.” His fluid, emotive, powerful style and uniquely innovative playing had already become the benchmark for all jazz performers of his era. His trumpet solos were beyond expressive—they were conversational, charismatic, prodigious. But he had not yet become the household name he would one day be, and touring between Los Angeles and Chicago, he began a three-day run at the Hotel Driscoll in Austin, Texas. It was the fall of 1931.
Among those in attendance that evening was a white teenage boy in his first year at the University of Texas named Charlie Black. Black didn’t know anything about Armstrong and knew little about jazz; in fact, he was at the Driscoll simply to meet girls. But that was before Armstrong began to play.
Black would later write of his experience, “He played mostly with his eyes closed, letting flow from that inner space of music things that had never before existed. He was the first genius I’d ever seen. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen year-old southern boy seeing genius for the first time in a black person. We literally never saw a black then in anything but a servant’s capacity. Louis opened my eyes wide and put to me a choice. ‘Blacks’, the saying went, ‘were in their place.’ But what was the place for such a man, and the people from which he sprung?”
Twenty-two years later, at the cusp of the American Civil Rights movement, the Supreme Court was hearing the now historic Brown v. Board of Education. The NAACP Legal Defense was assembling their case in an effort to convince the court that segregation on the basis of race was unconstitutional. The person who wrote the legal brief upon which the case was grounded was Charles L. Black, now a distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale University, and senior advisor to Thurgood Marshall.
Black’s encounter with the music of Louis Armstrong was not simply memorable. For there was more coming out of Armstrong’s trumpet than music. What was emanating from his horn was a greater Truth about the world. Though young Charlie Black did not fully understand it at the time, history shows that Armstrong’s music changed his life—and ours—forever.
[Note: The five unnamed examples above are actually all real-life friends of mine. You know who you are.]
Intersections: Faith and the Arts Conference 2012 will be held this year on Saturday, March 17, at Oak Hills Church in Folsom. This conference, featuring local artists and speakers, is intended to further the dialogue between faith and the arts. That dialogue includes both connecting artists of different disciplines together, and also connecting them deeper with the spiritual and theological implications of their art.
I will be a speaker at this event, as well as a wide variety of other artists, and there will be many opportunities to connect and be inspired. Any artist of faith will gain insight and encouragement from this event.
This year’s artists include:
Alan Koshiyama, an award-winning composer with an impressive resume of feature film, television, video game (can you say “Pac-Man Party”?), and national commercial work with clients including Disney, Time Warner, various national networks, and video games. Variety Magazine calls Koshiyama’s music “evocative.” Koshiyama also serves as Worship Music Director at Adventure Christian Church in Roseville.
Steve Scott, British expat, finished art school in the mid 1970s and then moved to US, initially to record an album with Larry Norman. He ended up moving to northern California to join the staff of arts-friendly Warehouse Christian Ministries, and since that time has released ten albums of music, published three small press books of poetry and two books of collected essays on art theory. He directs CANA (Christian Artists Networking Association), which has helped organize arts conferences in SE Asia and Eastern Europe.
Susan Miller has been a part of Sacramento’s theater and broadcasting community for over 20 years. Her broadcast experience ranges from on air and production radio work in country, pop and smooth jazz formats as well as voice-over and on-camera work for area television stations. She now divides her time doing commercial VO with her own production company, and house managing several area theaters including Sacramento Theater Company and California Musical Theater’s Music Circus. The “productions” she is most proud of are her 4 great kids who have inherited her love of music and the theater.
Katie Albert is a talented photographer, graphic artist, and occasional helicopter pilot. She will be sharing her experiences and photography from her recent missions trip to Manipur, India, in partnership with one of Oak Hills’ ministry partners, the Nehemiah Project, which assists local pregnant women affected by HIV and runs the Nehemiah Children’s Home.
Yvette Johnson is a dance major at UC Santa Barbara. She has been dancing since the age of six and trained at Northern California Dance Conservatory during high school before moving to Santa Barbara to continue her studies. It was in Santa Barbara where she encountered the presence of God in the dance studios through various relationships with a very special group of dancers. Her dedication to following Jesus and moving for the Lord provides the basis for her testimony at Intersections.
The Intersections Conference features a variety of expressions including painting, photography, dance, and music; breakout sessions in specific areas of the arts; a panel discussion by local experts; and a wonderfully catered gourmet lunch (we believe highly in the culinary arts!). Registration begins at 8:30 AM with our Common Grounds Cafe serving complimentary coffee. Cost for this event is $30 (includes lunch), payable at the door. Please reserve your spot by emailing email@example.com today!
On the first day of class here at BCCL, I had each student write a short pop-quiz essay entitled, “What is worship?” I got a lot of varied responses from them, and it was enlightening to see their collective perspective regarding this very big and deep word. On the last day of class, I surprised them and gave them the very same pop-quiz: “What is worship?” The point was to see how their perspective of worship has changed over the last two weeks of study.
In these last two weeks, we’ve learned theology, philosophy, practices. We’ve discussed Trinitarian, ecclesiological, sacramental, and dialogical aspects of worship. We’ve broken down Scripture, from Genesis to the Gospels to the epistles. We’ve also gotten very practical and discussed service flow, song lyrics and selection, musical arranging, and other practical considerations. We talked about the calling of the worship leader, and the qualifications of the worship team. And we’ve worshiped a lot in class too, to practically put action to our words. We’ve traveled quite a journey of discovery together. So the answers to the question were considerably different and thoughtful, even profound.
As a gift to the class, I put on a short mini-concert for them, for which they were very appreciative (I had given them all CDs of my music as well as my book at the beginning of the first class). There were many gifts and well-wishes given to me at the end of our class, and about a million photos were taken (did I mention yet how much Filipinos love taking photos?).
There is one other thing too. After reviewing everything I had taught them, I took a moment and shared with them some of the things that they had taught me. Here are a few reflections, some things my class has taught me.
A Greater Humility. I’ve been teaching worship for the last two weeks. But I have been teaching people whose lives are so completely sold out to Jesus, saints who have paid a tremendous price—persecution, isolation, economic hardship—for the joy of sharing their faith in their own part of the world. They totally love God, and are totally sold out to His Kingdom-purposes. In many ways, through their lives, they have been the ones who have taught me instead. Honestly, I am humbled in their presence.
A Thankful Heart. One of the things that missions trips almost always provide—if your eyes are open to it—is perspective. And traveling to a part of the world that is less advantaged than we are will certainly give you perspective. I think about how amazingly easy life is in America—everything from hot running water to washing clothes to getting coffee—we are simply an over-privileged nation. I think about what hardships people here have to go through just to get to church. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the persecutions—both from family and from society—that they have to go through just to attend an evangelical church. And I contrast that with how easy it is for American Christians to justify staying home on a Sunday morning. We really don’t understand the degree to which we make God our servant. I come away from my experiences here in Legaspi with a renewed spirit of thankfulness, one that doesn’t take for granted our privileges and blessings.
A Bigger Picture. One of the things I continually preach in worship is the idea that our corporate worship activity is an entering in to a larger, continuous worship that extends through time and history, place and geography, and spiritually into the heavens. When we worship as a local church, we join other Christians around the world, the saints through history, the angels and the heavenly realms, and ultimately all of creation in glorifying God. More than just a few moments that start and stop on Sunday morning, worship is a continuous and eternal act that we join into. My time here has been bathed in the act of worship, through constant singing, exclamation, teaching, exhortation, training, fellowship, and even eating! Through it all, I have gotten a much bigger picture of who God is, and what He continues to do to advance His Kingdom in the hearts of people. It has been an exciting thing to see firsthand.
When I first got here, I would lead these people in worship and picture my congregation in Folsom worshiping with them. Now, when I lead worship in Folsom, I will picture my Filipino friends singing and raising hands in worship. It’s a beautiful thing.
A Larger Picture of Myself. My cultural heritage has always been something experienced through my childhood—my parents, extended family, and the Filipino Community I grew up with in Salinas. But now I have a first-hand understanding of the land of my Father and Mother. I’ve experienced a whole lot of the Philippines in my short time here, and it has given me a greater perspective of where I’ve come from.
Though we will be far apart, I will keep these memories and people in my heart wherever I go.
Neither Red Nor Green: Legaspi is a city of almost 800,000 people, yet there is only one stop light in the whole city, and it’s turned off. Believe me when I say driving around here is more than a ride, it’s an adventure.
Funniest Road Sign: “Piglets for sale.”
New Favorite Food: The best thing I ate in a restaurant here (and I’ve eaten a lot of stuff here) is called “Bicol Express,” a local pork dish with coconut milk and red and green peppers. A bit hot, but amazing over white rice. Yum. [BTW I think I put on 5 pounds easy on this trip.]
Our Schtick: One of the common occurrences traveling with Gregg Evans is that when we go to a restaurant, the waiter will always look at me and begin to speak in Tagalog. I’ll give him a sheepish shrug, and then Gregg will begin ordering for us in fluent Tagalog. Freaks the waiters out.
Mayon Volcano: We took advantage of a relatively unrainy day and took a motor tour around the Mayon Volcano, the primary landmark in this area. Known as the most symmetrically formed volcano in the world, it is a marvel of beauty, so much so that any photos pale in comparison. I don’t have the words to express it’s beauty. And that’s on a cloudy day.
Pili Nuts: One of the delicacies of the region, pili nuts are sugared, coated, salted, and buttered. I think I have a half dozen packages of pili nuts, as well as assorted pili nut souvenirs, to take home with me. Sometimes you feel like a nut…
[Top photo: The BCCL Worship and Arts Class of 2012. Second photo: The wonderful staff at Bicol Center for Christian Leadership. I hope to see them again. Third photo: Gregg shares some coinage with some quite disadvantaged local children during our sightseeing trip around the volcano. Fourth photo: My distant cousin, Tony, and I share a meal in Manila after all the fun of ministry is done. This was my first time to meet him. Bottom photo: A view of the Mayon volcano. Startlingly beautiful, beyond words really, even if you can only see the bottom half.]
It’s raining again. Through last weekend and throughout last night, the weather has been a continuous cycle of drizzle, downpour, and brief pauses of run-off. Gutters swell periodically and the drainage canal next to our apartment rises threateningly, and I wonder where all the water goes. Pedi-cab drivers in the street below struggle to pedal their cabs while holding umbrellas, dodging puddles and other street spills. Some simply give up—drenched to the bone, they will their way to the corner to drop off their umbrella-clad fares, then turn and head up the street, looking for their next passenger.
In the distance, beyond the sound of Jeepneys beeping and whistles blowing, I can hear the sound of the Philippine National Anthem being played. The day has begun at the nearby private Catholic school. The morning sky is a blanket of dirty white. I try to picture the Mayon volcano in the distance, but I cannot. The drum roll of raindrops on corrugated rooftops, like white noise on the radio, crescendos and decrescendos, momentarily drawing me away from my thoughts.
And my thoughts now are of home. I think about what it must be like in El Dorado Hills, California, right at this moment. Blue skies, moderate temperatures, wall-to-wall carpeting and hot water coming out of the faucets. Debbie is probably thinking about starting dinner—maybe something Mexican like fajitas or taco salad—with all the conveniences of a modern kitchen and a well-stocked refrigerator at her disposal. I think about the girls probably having a post-school snack, doing their homework, texting their friends about the day.
I muse now about how different this world is than the one I call home. Ironically, the more I am with these beautiful people—people that I look like and look like me, people who love Jesus like me, people who live and breathe just like me—the more I am reminded that I am not like them. I grew up in a fundamentally different culture, with a fundamentally different set of social and cultural and economic values, and as a result, I think fundamentally differently than they do.
They have a humorous saying here: “Nosebleed.” It’s the lighthearted word they use to describe the struggle they have when speaking English to Americans, Canadians, Australians, and other travelers. I am giving the people I have met—especially the enrollees in the class I am teaching—nosebleeds.
Several times each session, I will say something that they will not understand, or tell them something that might be misconstrued in an unintended way. I will share an example that in our context is quite normal, but for them, may be inappropriate. Or I will tell a joke that will simply bomb big-time. I feel a little embarrassed because I am so woefully mono-lingual, but they have been very gracious and kind and forgiving in our communication and interaction.
These are all typical issues in any cultural interchange. But I realize it is more than language. And so I am trying to learn, not just their culture and their ways, but trying to grasp how they think as well. Now I believe I have a leg up on most of the Americans who come to this part of the Philippines, because some of their ethnocultural values were passed on to me by my parents. But as I said, the more I am here, the more my “California-ness” pokes out.
The rain has paused briefly now. What remains is a cool damp air that sticks to the skin. The morning rush of traffic has slowed a bit, and I suddenly recognize the sound of clucking chickens somewhere in the neighborhood.
And then I suddenly think, maybe Debbie is making chicken for dinner.
• The class that I have taken on is a relatively new batch of BCCL students, so it is early in their two year cycle. (Students take a series of intensive classes over a two-year period resulting in a Graduate Certificate in Urban Ministries, or GCUM.) As a result, the students are not just getting to know me, some are still in the process of getting to know one another.
• This fact is for all my builder friends. There’s very little building lumber here. Unlike California, where most homes are built with doug fir stud frames overlayed with drywall and siding, almost all the buildings here are cinderblock with plaster over the top. Houses are sturdy, but they don’t wear well in this climate. Most of the forests in the Philippines have been stripped, so there’s a moratorium on hardwoods.
• Our last trip to the grocery store, I bought some ensaymada ube, which is a sweet pastry flavored with ube, a sweet purple paste made from a root of some kind. This was one of my Mom’s favorites, and she would buy it regularly at the Filipino Store in Salinas. It’s a pretty good substitute for apple fritters.
• Speaking of breakfast, Gregg made French toast yesterday, and purchased some “maple-flavored hotcake syrup” to go with it. Among the nutritional facts on the label, instead of the word “calories,” they use the word, “energy.” The first three main ingredients: glucose corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar. Yum.
[A collection of miscellaneous photos today. Top photo: A view of the Embarcadero in Legaspi City—Beautiful and upscale, but also empty. Second photo: Rufus Genovea and Gregg Evans at the church in Ligao City. Third photo: Part of the Worship Team at Jesus First Christian Ministries at their Sunday morning service. “Purihin ang Diyos!” Bottom photo: The nutritional label of our hotcake syrup.]
I find myself at the mid-point of my trip here—and it’s been a very full agenda so far. The Worship & Arts Class I’m teaching is half over, the all-day Worship Team Workshop was well attended, I’ve visited three different church services, and we also squeezed in a trip to Naga to visit a BCCL satellite location. I’ve also been able to experience a “pedi-cab” ride (basically an old Stingray-style bike with a hooded sidecar welded on), a “tricycle” ride (a small motorcycle with sidecar), and a whole host of Filipino dishes and desserts. Details below.
College Group Tonight, I was the guest speaker at the Fifth Anniversary Celebration of YHB (Yeshua Heart Beat), which is a relatively large college group associated with the Albay Bible Community Church. (My topic was “Abiding in God’s Love” From John 15.) There’s an explosion going on among the young people here. There are over 100 students regularly involved in the ABC youth ministry. Engineering, architecture, business, education, and medical students—and they are involved, aware, and alive in Christ. I see them as being among the next generation of Christian leaders here in the Philippines. Unfortunately, the Philippines economy can’t support all the grads coming out of their schools, and many of them are having to take lesser jobs outside of their fields of education. It was exciting being with them and sharing in their joy and passion and fun!
Filipino Worship This morning, I visited Jesus First Christian Ministries, where I experienced an entire worship service in Tagalog. Songs, Scripture, sermon, and even offering was given in Tagalog. Amazingly, I was able to follow along pretty well (due to the occasional word I could pick up, plus the PowerPoint that was in English), and I was even able to sing along with most songs. As we sang, I could picture my home church, Oak Hills, half-way across the world, worshiping as well. It was a very cool thought.
Worship Team Workshop The BCCL rented a large hall right in one of the provincial government buildings in Old Albay for this all-day event, which meant that we were worshiping at one of the seats of local government. (How weird is that!) During this workshop, I lectured briefly about the importance of the worship team, the roles of each of the instruments of the worship team, and then taught them a bunch of songs. Specifically, I took volunteers from the crowd to form a worship band, then taught them one of the newer worship songs. I did this about five times, with different groups each time. I think this was helpful, as they learned new songs to bring back to their congregations, and I was able to show them how I run a rehearsal and put the different elements of the band together. I also took the time to teach worship concepts in the midst of it all too.
The best thing about this workshop was when Mayette Ativo-Bueno (BCCL Director) told me during the break that the teams I was working with were formed with people that had never even met before. She was quick to jump on that, and before the end of the day, she had brought together the worship leaders from all the different churches and formed a twice-a-month gathering for them. Yeah!
Naga Friday, we took a field trip to the city of Naga, which is about two hours drive from Legaspi. BCCL does satellite classes there and has plans to put a facility in the city, to increase their visibility. It’s exciting to see BCCL extend their influence and continue to make a difference in this region.
• When I took the pedi-cab, it was raining like crazy. Mayette and I piled into the cab, and the driver, a man in his sixties wearing shorts and flip-flops, began pedaling us vigorously down the street. I felt like telling the man, “That’s okay, let me pedal for you.” Except that he was in better shape than I was. FYI, the cab drive cost us 20 pesos, or not quite fifty cents.
• It’s amazing what the musicians here are able to play and do with the equipment they have. Our drummers and guitarists would be appalled by the condition of the instruments and sound systems, which don’t age well in this humidity and heat (which is another way of saying that all of us instrumentalists need to be a lot more thankful for what we’ve got!). I have made a mental note to come back next time with a brick of drumsticks and a bag full of tuners and guitar strings.
• The Filipinos love their cameras—especially the young people. I am finding photos of me popping up all over Facebook!
• Today, I missed Justin’s birthday. So I miss him. And on Tuesday, I’ll be missing Valentine’s Day with Debbie and the girls. I’ll have to make it up to them somehow.
• I can’t let a blog go without talking about food somehow. One of the foods that I ate recently was lugaw, a soup made of rice and chicken with hint of ginger. I remember my Mom used to make it for us when we were sick (kind of like chicken soup). It tasted great, and brought back lots of memories, but I couldn’t get over the fact that here, this warm soup is considered a mid-meal snack. I’m also quite bummed that I can’t try one of the desserts of my childhood, halo-halo, because it is made from ice (which I’ve been warned to stay away from).
[Top photo: I lead and instruct different musicians at the Worship Team Workshop. That was a blast! Second photo: They start them young early here. The god son of Pastor Tony Bueno, of Jesus First Christian Ministries, can't keep from whacking away with the drumsticks. Third photo: Another photo of the crowd from the Worship Team Workshop. Fourth photo: I have a late lunch with BCCL Director, Mayette, along with her husband, Pastor Tony. Bottom photo: This is the "tricycle" ride I took back to the apartment. This was truly an adventure for me, as it splashed and splayed through an extremely rainy morning.]
The humid morning air hangs thick and a little sticky, and the pale gray sky is beginning to lighten like an opaque curtain hanging primly in a window. I can hear the sounds of Jeepneys and motorcycles honking at one another in the street below me, and a rooster crows steadily above the din of the traffic. Already a steady stream of padjak (for-hire bicycle taxis with sidecars), uniformed school children, and hospital workers are making their way past the apartment to their morning destinations.
A blanket of rain appears, and the street is suddenly dotted with brightly colored umbrellas. It first patters the corrugated rooftops, then bangs like a snare roll, and then yields to a gentle drizzle.
Eventually, these clouds will clear, and the magnificent Mayon volcano will appear, large and looming, filling our second-floor apartment view with a quiet, imposing beauty. It too, like everything I experience this Wednesday morning, is a reminder that I’m not in California.
So far, I’ve taught two sessions on worship and the arts here at BCCL. Twenty enrolled students, as well as twenty-five additional audited students and BCCL staff, are attending my class, by far, the largest class given at BCCL to date. I was reminded that many of these people, both young students and older professionals and pastors, are coming each evening at great personal inconvenience, which is an indication of the great hunger that they have for teaching in worship. It makes me humble, diligent, and a little anxious for the class.
Understandably, the first session was a little hard for me to read. In cross-cultural exchanges, I’ve found it good to not lean on my own American sensibilities, and field director Gregg Evans has been extremely helpful in coaching me to communicate more effectively. After the first break of the first class, Gregg kindly encouraged me: “Don’t tell them you’re passionate about worship. Show them.” So we entered into a time of worship that was both sweet and unifying. The classroom time since then has been much more open and animated.
Teaching worship in this context begins with definitions. And the word, “worship” has many connotations. It is both a big word and a small one. It can mean the way that we live our lives in obedience to the Lord (Romans 12), and it can mean the singing portion of the Sunday morning service. So the first few sessions have been a series of deconstructions and theological reconstructions. But more than just shake up their ideas of worship, I’m trying to give them a bigger, grander understanding of who God is, and what our role is in helping His people enrich and deepen the transcendent dialogue.
I have found the students earnest, eager, and respectful. They love the Lord with passion and obedience. None of them are “full-time” pastors or ministers in the sense that we understand the term, and yet they fill their time with Bible studies, discipleship, and service. I find it refreshing—and somewhat humbling—to be with people for whom following Christ is so deeply integrated into their lives. In particular, there are many younger people (university students and others) involved in the leadership of these churches, particularly in worship teams. It’s great to see the movement of God in this cultural, inter-generational, and interdenominational context.
Please continue to pray for the class, particularly that God would impress upon all of us what He wants to form in our hearts regarding worship. Fifteen local churches are represented in the fifty or so people attending my class, so what we learn together has the capacity to affect many people. Once again, I thank you for the support and the opportunity to represent you here in Legaspi.
• I think Debbie would be appalled (but not surprised) by the amount of white rice I’m eating.
• The Super Bowl was pretty much non-existent here. Flipping through all the sports channels during the Super Bowl (it began about 7 AM Monday morning, by the way), I think we found soccer, rugby, and two basketball games (one US college and one NBA). They love their basketball!
• We are cooking on a hot plate in our apartment, so we’ve been to the grocery store a few times already. The grocery store is always a revealing cultural indicator of any society. Lots of things are different, from cookies to fruit to dish soap. Of greatest interest: the dairy section doesn’t have milk, butter, or cream. And the rice section is huge.
• At Gregg’s encouragement, I played Justin’s Asian-market toothpaste commercial for the class. They immediately recognized the commercial, and if he were to ever come here, he would be an immediate celebrity (especially among a few of the younger female students!).
• Some of you expressed concern to me about the recent earthquake. It was a large earthquake (I was told 6.9 on the Richter scale with aftershocks), but quite a ways away from Legaspi (near Cebu), so we didn’t feel it. Thanks for your concern.
[Top two photos: My second day of teaching at BCCL. Please pray for each of these people, and for the ministries they represent. Bottom photo: Some of the children at the Ligao City Bible Community pile into the main mode of transportation for many here, a motorcycle with roofed sidecar. I counted twelve adults and children on this one as it sped away.]
We arrived in Legaspi on Saturday morning, and settled in to a small apartment on site at BCCL. Gregg Evans showed me around the city, as he is an experienced driver, and the school has a car. So on this day, I experienced the local mall (where we purchased food and supplies for our stay), the upscale Embarcadero (a waterfront tourist attraction that seems too ambitious for this area), and the traffic (the main means of transportation seem to be modified low cc motorcycles with questionable sheet metal and tubing sidecars attached. With up to 6 people on one, it looks like a wild ride!).
The local economy is pretty stagnant, and the average person here makes very little money. Gregg informed me that many workers and field hands might make only 100-200 pesos per day (three to five dollars US). There is definitely a social hierarchy here, with the rich, the very rich, and the very poor, with only a small percentage in between. Gregg mentioned to me that one of the signs of improvement in a third world economy is the growth of a middle class. There is little of that here. My first impression of the urban town of Legaspi is that it is not unsimilar to Mexico or South America (outside of the resort areas).
The facilities at BCCL could be considered spartan by our standards, but impressive given what they’ve built over the last ten years. A large room functions as both classroom for BCCL and worship sanctuary for a number of ministries. They offer clerical help to other churches during the week, and have a relatively large Christian library as well. I already sat and observed a college group worship team that was playing a mix of current worship songs.
On Sunday morning, we visited Ligao City Bible Community, a barrio church led by Rufus and his wife Mirasol. Rufus is a good friend of Gregg, one of his first partners in church planting, and Mirasol is a local school teacher. (Some of you old Oak Hillians might remember Rufus from the “Pray for Rufus” bumper stickers we had about 15 years ago.) Together, they faithfully lead this small congregation of mostly young people. I was asked to share music with them, and shared a handful of songs during their service. Funny that I found myself worshiping with them and picturing Oak Hills worshiping at the same time—half a world away, but worshiping the same God. I will be visiting another church this evening which meets at the BCCL main facilities.
I’m grateful for your contributions that allowed me to purchase a portable but quality keyboard for this trip (sounds great and runs on batteries!). My task now is to do final preparations for the class tomorrow night. I’ve discussed my curriculum with Gregg Evans, and am more settled on how I will approach this first day of studies.
Fun facts: Whereas in Manila, where you would find a Starbucks next to a Seattle’s Best next to a doughnut shop, here in Legaspi, we are enjoying instant coffee with no cream (the dairy section of the grocery store did not stock milk, cream, or sour cream—only yogurt and eggs). I’ll never complain about Pastor Kent’s coffee ever again.
[Top photo: Touching down in Legaspi. Second photo: A view of our neighbors from the roof deck of our apartment building at BCCL. Third photo: Me sharing some music at Ligao City Community Bible. Bottom photo: I’m at the grocery store with Close-Up Fire and Ice toothpaste. (This is an inside joke—my model son, Justin, did a commercial for Close-Up which runs in this part of the world.)]
After the typically long plane flight to Manila, I’m happy to announce that in my first 24 hours, I’ve already had a few delicious Filipino meals and visited the local mega-mall twice. That doesn’t sound like much of a trip report, but the first order of business in any missions trip is simply to get one’s bearings. And it’s obvious that I’m not in Kansas anymore.
My hotel is deep in the heart of Manila, surrounded by high rises and towering construction cranes. The beautiful high-end mall stands in contrast to some of the more economically-disadvantaged people I’ve already met. The local newspaper announces the killing of top Al Quaida-linked terrorists by Philippine military forces, as well as the impeachment of a Filipino Chief Justice. The hotel cable shares Filipino music videos, local talk shows, Letterman, and Japanese Anime. Speaking with locals, as well as being briefed by field director Gregg Evans, I am reminded that the Philippines is a contrast of third world socio-economic issues and first world sensibilities and sophistication.
First thing tomorrow, Gregg and I will be catching a plane for Legaspi City, where the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL) is located. I’ll be making that home base as I visit a few churches on Sunday and begin teaching Monday for the following two weeks. I also have an all-day workshop scheduled the following Saturday, and I’ll probably be speaking at a few churches the following Sunday morning and evening. I’ve been encouraged to be flexible as I may be asked to speak or lead worship at other churches and venues as well.
[Top photo: The Manila skyline from our hotel rooftop deck. Bottom photo: Gregg Evans and I having breakfast. Yes, that is fried rice with eggs and pork tocino.]
When I was fourteen years old, my piano professor left me. After having bounced around from teacher to teacher over the course of seven years, my parents found a legitimate, classically-trained instructor to mentor me. Professor Kraus was a big German man with burly hands and a friendly accent who didn’t just teach me—He challenged me, focused me, inspired me, and taught me to love music. He was like Mr. Miyagi, and I was the Karate Kid. But after a few years of intense Bach Paint-The-Fence and Mozart Wax On-Wax Off, he left for a position in Germany. I no longer had someone to play to, play with, play for.
This was a great period of self-discovery for me, as it would be for any teenager. I had to learn to love music on my own, apart from the challenge of learning a curriculum or impressing people. And I also began composing music on my own, which in itself was an expression of my self-discovery.
After a few more years of this, my parents decided it was time I cashed in on my talents, so they encouraged me to begin teaching. They put the word out to several people, and before I knew it, I had a half a dozen five and six year old piano students. At the age of sixteen, I had become a piano teacher. And I took it seriously.
I studied the piano books and learned—beyond playing—how to communicate the language of music. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Basic concepts like quarter notes and measures can be difficult for children who don’t yet understand the concept of fractions or subdividing. And try teaching the concept of a “rest” to a five year old!
Two things. It gave me a great appreciation for those whose vocation is teaching. And it also forced me to understand music theory in ways I couldn’t have gotten any other way.
In a few weeks, I’ll be leaving for a trip to the Philippines to teach a two-week intensive on worship and the arts. I’ll be teaching at the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL), a bible school supported by our denomination, the North American Baptist Conference. So over the last month, I’ve been developing the curriculum for eight 3 hour sessions. And I find myself back again—like I was sixteen—relearning the things I’ve learned, so I can teach the things I do.
Trinitarian worship, dialogical worship, Levitical worship, sacramental worship, defining and designing worship, lifestyle worship—I find myself diving into the deep end of the concepts that have molded me over the last 21 years of ministry. Because I need to know it well enough to communicate it to people who haven’t ever received any formal teaching in worship theology. And I’m finding myself being refreshed and re-ignited in the coolness of these deep waters.
So in two weeks, I’ll be setting up a little worship dojo, teaching to worship deeply with both passion and theological understanding. In the words of Mr. Miyagi, “Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good, everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home.” I’ll be blogging while I’m there, so stay tuned. And if you’d like to support my trip, please contact me.
One of the Christmas time traditions my wife and I established with our children when they were young was looking at the Christmas lights around our community. Bundled up under blankets in our mini van (the twenty first century version of the horse-drawn sleigh) , the entire family would drive down one street and up another, seeing all the decorated houses in our neighborhood.
And people would go all out. Life-sized reindeer. Nativity scenes. Santas coming down chimneys. Snowmen with top hats and pipes. Candy canes lining people’s driveways. And lights. Lots and lots of lights. The more the lights, the more we’d “ooh” and “aah.” Then we’d drive back to our house and have hot cocoa.
It was in their third Christmas that my twins, Rachel and Paige, were old enough to really appreciate the event. And that they did. Through their little three year old eyes, our neighborhood was a magical and amazing place. Every house glowed like fresh baked gingerbread. Trees glistened like the moonlight on fresh-fallen snow. And everywhere there were lights, Rachel and Paige announced excitedly, “Ommagosh, it’s bootiful.”
It was extremely entertaining listening to them. They must have said it two hundred times. And every time they made this startling declaration, they really, really meant it. “Ommagosh, it’s bootiful.” “Ommagosh, it’s bootiful.” “Ommagosh! It’s bootiful!!!” I never got tired of hearing them say it. It was as if each street was a new adventure in awe and wonder.
I think we’ve forgotten what real awe is. Our high-tech, computer-generated, virtual-reality, angst-ridden dysfunctional world has taken much of the mystery and wonder out of life. Kids don’t look up at the clouds anymore and imagine bunnies and minnows; after all, they studied precipitation in third grade. They don’t take much time imagining dinosaurs; there are any number of movies out there that have imagined them for you already. Science—which teaches theory as fact and conjecture as theory—has erased all of the mysteries. Just ask any kid and they’ll tell you: the very mysteries of the universe are carefully and regularly explained in half hour segments on the Discovery Channel.
My sons aren’t nearly as impressed by the sight of a rainbow as I used to be when I was their age. Or as I am still.
Things I used to be in awe of when I was a little kid: Purple mountains. Big telescopes. Airplanes. Thunder. Pretty girls. Lighthouses. Big bass drums. Red fire trucks. Stoplights. Crossword puzzles. Our first color television. Walking on the moon. Snow. The doctor’s office. Police men. Sousaphones. The pyramids. Rockets. Big cities. The redwoods. The stars on a cloudless night sky.
Things I used to think were mysterious: The Teacher’s Lounge. Solar eclipses. Driving a car. The ocean. The adult section of the public library. Sharks. My big brother’s View Master slide viewer. Electricity. Slide rulers. Dinosaurs. Ships in bottles. Car engines. Women’s anatomy.
Make up your own list. Then ask your child to make up one. You’ll see what I mean. There is a reason why the song, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is a toddler favorite. Because wrapped up in six short lines is the awe and wonder of the universe.
I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. And although I am a little more aligned with evangelicalism now, I have great respect for and warm recollections of my Catholic heritage. There was something about being in my church as a child. Sitting in the pew, being painted by the colored beams of light streaming through the stained glass. Watching the rows of lit candles dance. Kneeling on the cold white marble as I took communion, the kinesthetic symbolism of that white wafer melting on my tongue. These were powerful moments for me as a child, moments when I understood God in a visceral, unspeakable way. Somehow that seems lacking in the stripped down modern Christian tradition often experienced today. There is a lack of mystery, a lack of beauty, a lack of something, as if I were watching TV with the sound off, or eating a steak with a stuffy nose. The language of visual art and beauty are missing, or at least somewhat askew.
I remember there was a life-sized crucifix that hung center stage high above the altar. A statue of Jesus hung on that enormous cross. Eyes closed, his lean body limp and worn, a crown of thorns on His head, the pain and suffering and love pouring from his face, the statue was a longtime fixture in that church. And as such, it went largely ignored by the congregation. But it was there at the front of the church, upon marble steps, that I would kneel and stare up at this statue. And be in awe.
There in my little place, I would ponder God and the mystery of His grace. I would feel it, imagine it, sense it. As I saw the nails in His hands, I could almost hear the sound of the hammer. As I reflected on the crown of thorns, I could imagine the whips on His back. I pictured Jesus, placing Himself on the cross, opening His hands to accept the nails, fulfilling the promise. It was very surreal. And there was a real spiritual mystery to it too, that God the Son would do such a thing. How did He become man? Why would He choose to die like that? When will He return?
I remember I would pray, and my little prayers would just naturally stop, as my eyes continued to be drawn upward, to be in awe at the sight of Jesus on that cross.
Now I don’t bring this up in order to entertain a theological debate about statues and icons. But I think there is a truth here, and it is this: We humans were created to grapple with the mysteries of the universe, and to be in awe and wonder at the sight of them. There are places in our heart for feelings like this. We need to feel it, imagine it, sense it. About God. About His creation. Because the act of awe is inherent to the act of worship.
We need to put away our jaded glasses, our sour dispositions, our worldly pessimisms, and put ourselves in places where we can genuinely say, “Ommagosh, it’s bootiful.” We need to find the place in our hearts where we can be in awe. Because it fills our souls. It gives us hope. It reminds us of our place in the world. And it’s good practice. For those of us who declare that heaven is our real home, awe and wonder and mystery will be a regular part of life.
Things I am in awe of now: The stars. Art and music. The ocean. God’s grace.
[Originally a blog entry on this site, this is an excerpt from my book, Imagine That. I thought it would be appropriate to share it during this Christmas season.]
One of the cool side benefits of being in arts ministry is that one gets to meet some amazing people. The talented, the anointed, the offbeat, the heartfelt, the deeply thoughtful, the highly creative—I’ve been blessed to meet so many of these people through the years. And blessed also to be able to call so many of these people my friends.
Cate Morris is one of those creatives that fits all of these categories. A worship leader, songwriter, recording artist, and speaker, I met Cate during my second missions trip to Italy, and we’ve been close friends ever since. Living in Alaska with husband, four children, and assorted pets (I think one of them is a moose), Cate teaches and leads worship for churches and conferences nationally and internationally. In particular, she is a passionate and engaging worship leader with a heart for women, international missions, and the spiritual growth of children, as well as a love for the church through worship.
Cate is now releasing her second album, Red Sky, and I’m very excited about it. A follow up to her previous album, From Here, the album takes it’s name from the sailor’s saying, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” (Cate’s husband is an Alaskan commercial fisherman. Yeah, like one of those “Deadliest Catch” guys.) Her songs reflect on the journey through the storms of life, “a prayer for help and a promise of comfort.” I think you’ll love it.
I’ve had the tremendous opportunity to produce this album for her, and it features some other musical partners in crime, including Kent Peterson and Steven Randal.
I highly recommend you purchase both of her CDs at cdbaby.com, and you can download her songs there as well. I also have a handful of CDs that I can get to you directly, if you ask. I also recommend her thoughtful and inspiring blog, Learning to be Present with an Everpresent God.
[PS: Interested in having me produce an album for you? Let's talk.]
It happens to everyone, at an early age. At some point in our wonder-filled Kindergarten experience, we were all handed a piece of paper smothered in dots. And we were all instructed to carefully draw lines from one dot to another, following the numerical sequence, with the promise that an image would appear. Thick crayons scrunched in our tiny hands, we all learned how to “connect the dots” and find the hidden pirate or giraffe or pumpkin. It was like magic.
The ancients knew how to connect the dots too. The Greeks, the Romans, the Babylonians, the Chinese—they all pondered the night sky and grouped the stars into constellations upon which they tried to derive greater purpose and ultimate significance. There were figures in the stars that pointed to something greater than themselves—ancient mythos, creation stories, immutable fates and foreboding omens—and although this was more related to superstition than truth, they all understood the concept that they were a part of something larger than themselves.
The ancient Hebrews also saw themselves as part of a greater story. Quite unlike modern twenty-first century man, the Hebrews defined themselves not primarily as individuals but foremost as a part of the nation Israel. Although they still had a sense of the personal nature of their relationship with God, they also understood that the Eternal God had a corporate relationship with His people, of which each individual played a part. Their identity came from God first, and each person saw oneself as an expression of the people of God. Thus, they were each a part of a larger picture, a greater story.
In contrast we see ourselves as fiercely independent dots on the page. We are disparate, unconnected, alone. The Hebrew saw himself as a dot in a numerical sequence, and the lines that connected their dots defined the greater picture that was their identity, their calling, their promise.
King David, poet warrior and beloved of God, saw the connection of these dots. In Psalm 8, he gazes deeply into the night sky and sees God’s eternal and infinite glory, and our place before Him in creation:
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Psalm 8:3-9 NIV
David did not see the stars as merely points of light. He saw as it truly was—a beautiful, vast, constant reminder of who the Creator was, and by extension, who we are as His people.
In the Christian meta-narrative, God connects the dots of our lives through His patterns of redemptive activity. My story of His saving grace is connected to other people’s stories through this amazing thing called life. These connections interact with one another, through action, through prayer, through acts of kindness, through evangelism, through movements of the Kingdom of God. And these connections can be traced sequentially, from one dot to another, all the way back through the person who first told you about God’s grace, and through the person who told him, through the great Reformers, through the saints and missionaries, through the first-century martyrs, through Paul and Peter and the disciples, and all the way to Christ on the cross.
Consider what it is that we intend to do in our Sunday worship services. Robert Webber asserts that “worship is a rehearsal of the saving deeds of God in history.” If you look at worship in the Old Testament—the feasts, Passover, and even regular gatherings in the synagogue—you see that worship is centered on the re-telling of God’s story of redemption. Corporate worship is then a recurring dialogue of revelation and response—God revealing himself through His Word, His mighty acts, His Spirit, His creation, and our response of humility, gratitude, love, and obedience. More than an encounter with God, we encounter the Truth of God—who He is, what He has done, and what He continues to do. We are reminded that God is still in the business of enfolding our redemption stories into His redemptive meta-narrative. Truly, this is one of the most personal definitions of the Church—when we can look at one another in the eyes, and I know your story and you know mine, and our corporate worship pours from the shared story that is between us and the Triune God.
So it is with art. Art is also a dialogue, one shared between the artist and the audience. For we artists cannot fully realize the expression of our art without an audience to interact with. For some of us, it is the audience in the recital hall, or in the art gallery, or in the darkened theater. But the dialogue of art cannot be consummated without art’s revelation and the audience’s response.
Great art—if one can put a label on the term, is a dialogue of revelation and response as well. As Christian artists, we have the capacity to tell a story through our paintings, motion pictures, choreography, compositions. And that story—in some small way—should reveal God’s story that the world is somehow broken, and motivated by a great encompassing love, He is in the process of rescuing and redeeming it. And not only that—our art should then provoke a response from our audience, some meaningful reaction to the story from the person who experiences our art. In one small way or another, our art should be a catalyst for the dialogue that somehow reveals the worldview of the Christian meta-narrative.
Thus, one of our roles as artists is to be a Story Teller of the meta-narrative. Through our art, we render the points of light in the sky that declare God’s glory. Our creations should tell the story of God’s glory in creation, the reality of brokenness of our world, and the grace-filled promise of redemption and renewal.
The northern skies feature a small constellation of seven stars, known by many names: the Plough, the Butcher’s Cleaver, the Big Bear, the Seven Sages, the Big Dipper. It is significant, in part because it is a point of reference to Polaris, the North Star or Pole Star, one of the brightest stars in the sky and the one star that seemed never to move. Sailors would use this constellation in navigation, to determine latitude and direction. Runaway slaves would “follow the drinking Gourd” to the north and to freedom. According to an Old English Rune poem, the Pole Star “keeps faith well.”
As artists, we must understand that part of our calling is to help people connect the dots of our lives. We must tell the grand story of creation, fall, and redemption. And we must shine our points of light, and be a part of the constellation that tells God’s Story. Because without understanding the big picture—and the Hand that draws it—we are doomed to lose our way.
I have an amazing ministry opportunity set before me right now, one years in the making. And I’d like to have your support to make this happen. I’ve been asked by our denomination, the North American Baptist Conference (NAB), to commit to a multi-year ministry to teach worship and the arts at our Bible training center in the Philippines. Here is what Director Gregg Evans has to say about it:
“NAB’s flagship ministry in the Philippines—the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL)—has been providing theological, Biblical and pastoral training for pastors, evangelists and church planters in the least-churched non-Muslim region of the Philippines for ten years now. The students are a mix of full-time Christian workers, active church members and college students from a dozen different churches, most getting their first systematic instruction in theology and Biblical studies. With a growing reputation for solid Bible teaching, the Center is quickly becoming the hub of Evangelical Christianity in Albay Province, and what it is doing in Albay is spreading to other provinces. BCCL has the potential to become the single most influential Christian institution in the region in the years ahead, impacting hundreds, and eventually thousands, of pastors, evangelists, church planters and rank-and-file members. Amid BCCL’s success in the area of theological and Biblical instruction, what has been lacking, and desperately needed, is an arts emphasis—a theology of the arts—and guidance in worship and music. In 2012, we want to start changing that, and we’d like for Manuel Luz to come out for a couple weeks to get the ball rolling. Manuel’s passion and expertise are exactly what are needed at BCCL right now. Please participate in the improvement of BCCL by supporting Manuel in this endeavor.”
I’m obviously excited about this opportunity for a variety of reasons. One, the Filipinos of the Albay Province are passionate and talented, but are under-resourced and need training. I have the opportunity to provide theologically-intensive teaching and musical training that has the potential to profoundly influence the tenor of the entire region. Two, BCCL has been an important catalyst in bringing together the many disparate area churches in an uncharacteristic spirit of cooperation and unity. I hope to increase this sense of unity through worship (the most moving kind of unity!) and eventually through outreach using the arts. Third, one of my main goals will be to establish long-term relationships with the many dedicated but under-resourced people there, and provide pastoral direction and personal encouragement to them.
My first trip will be for almost three weeks in February 2012. And to maximize my ministry potential, I am committed to making this an annual trip if it works out, hopefully bringing teams of people over the next few years. Oak Hills Church is firmly behind this trip and is the sending organization. But I will need to raise financial and prayer support.
From a personal standpoint, I feel like I may be uniquely qualified to answer this calling. I’ve never been to the Philippines, although I’ve wanted to go my entire adult life. To be able to explore some of my heritage and connect with it would be amazing to me. Please stay tuned to this blog, and I’ll give you more info as this unfolds. And if you are interested in supporting me, please let me know. Thanks!