When I was a little kid, my Mom used to cut our hair. Once a month, one by one, we would sit at the kitchen table as Mom took the buzzer to me and my three brothers. The humming, bee-like sound of a hair trimmer around my ears still makes me flinch to this day. Overtly, it was one of her many ways of saving money. Covertly, I believe it was her way of making us sit still while she dished out a half hour of roll-your-eyes motherly advice.
Of course, no two haircuts were exactly alike. In fact, every haircut was a proof theorem in non-symmetrical geometry. I’m not exaggerating. Just look at my yearly school pictures.
I still remember one particularly bad haircut Mom gave to my younger brother, Marcel. Not only was it lopsided, it was way too short. In a fit of exasperation, he stormed off the kitchen chair crying, and locked himself in the bathroom. Of course, me being the peacekeeper, I knocked and knocked on the door until he reluctantly let me in. I still remember standing beside him, as he gazed blankly in the mirror, tears welling in his eyes. I kept trying to think of a compliment to tell him to make him feel better, but there just wasn’t a single compliment on his head. So I walked out. I figured, that haircut was really, really worth crying about.
By the time we were teenagers, my Dad had bridled my Mom’s enthusiasm for these monthly haircuts. In his opinion, if we wanted to keep our hair long, that was our choice. Which was quite an empowering thing to hear from your Dad. Of course, my Dad was bald, so I suppose he figured that, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. And so through the end of high school, I had kind of a semi-feathered David Cassidy look. My hair was so long I could reach under my arm and behind my back and touch my hair. I was like Samson—don’t mess with the hair.
These days, my hair is not such a big deal to me as it was when I was a teenager. It doesn’t matter so much now that my hair doesn’t look perfect, or it hangs a little weird. And I think the reason why is because I don’t see my hair as a reflection of me anymore. I’ve grown up beyond the teenage angst of appearance and image management.
I think this is the way with artists as well. So many artists (musicians, painters, writers, etc.) not only struggle with the making of their art (because making good art is hard), but they also struggle with attaching their identity to their art. In other words, they believe that the art they create is a reflection of who they are. And on one level, that is entirely true. But for the Christ-following artist, who we truly are is defined more by God than by us. Our identity is in Christ. And thus, our art is more a function of our ability to reflect who we are.
This is a subtle but profound paradigm. When you believe that your art is who you are, then you receive the accolades, indifference, and criticisms of your art as a very personal thing. They like my art, and therefore they like me. Or they hate my art, and therefore they hate me. And if you believe this, your motivations for your art can become—in convoluted and somewhat tormented ways—simply a way to please people.
But if you instead believe that your art is a process toward learning to express who you are, then you receive the accolades, indifference, and criticisms in a completely different way. To use the metaphor, we aren’t crushed by bad hair days. Because the condition of our hair is not indicative of the condition of our heart. We are free to take the compliments and complaints and learn from them or ignore them, free to take chances with our art, free to stretch the boundaries of our expression without feeling the sting of rejection.
It’s been my lifelong experience that it is only when I surrender a thing that I can truly receive it (Matthew 16:25, Psalm 27:4) . It has been true of my career, my marriage and family, my aspirations and dreams, and even my art. As artists, we must continually apply ourselves to the process of surrendering our art—or more specifically, disconnecting our identity from what it is we create. It is only then that you can experience the true freedom and joy that comes from creating art.
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It was the kind of snowfall that wisped and flitted, not as much a fall as a frolic, white flecks dancing sideways and disappearing as they hit the pavement. She grasped the fur of her collar stiffly and tugged it to her ears, then turned to check the lock, before heading out the door.
It wasn’t cold, not really, and this dusting of snow actually brought a welcome relief from the doleful rain that was November. But she did not have time now to enjoy the change of scenery. She turned the engine, put it in drive, and quickly sped off. Visiting hours began at nine, and she had promised to be there. And truth be told, it was the promise that drove her there on this morning, and not the desire of her heart.
Convalescent homes are not happy places. There are smells there, fetid and clinical, smells that made her want to hold her nose and wash her hands. And the sounds too were unnerving, a cacophony of random yells and murmurs and daytime television. The sounds bounced around on the tile floor, the hardwood walls, the long, white, antiseptic hallways. She braced herself as she reached for the entrance door, her briefcase of music clutched under her arm.
Sue was already there. Smiling, laughing, chatting with all the residents. She floated from wheelchair to wheelchair—touching each person on the shoulder, hugging some, encouraging others with a joke or a personal pleasantry. Her straight red hair fell lazily upon the white-haired residents, a red punctuation mark on a white page. Her presence was like a breath of spring thawing the long hard winter.
Sue caught a glimpse of her, and smiling warmly, she motioned her to the front. “Katie!” she exclaimed. “Over here. You’re right on time.” Returning the smile, Katie maneuvered her way to the front of the room, trying to not make eye contact with any of the residents. Attendants were gathering these seniors now, parking them in semi-circles around the makeshift stage, like a wagon train under attack. And subconsciously, Katie felt as if under attack from all of these people. Though she could not understand the feeling, she felt the need to be guarded and impersonal. “This is just a gig,” she thought to herself. “Just another way to make a buck this Christmas.”
“Hi Sue,” Katie said, not quite sure what to think of the situation. “So this is what you do with your Sunday mornings?”
“A couple of times a month,” Sue replied. And sensing her hesitancy, she added, “Don’t worry. They don’t bite. Some of them don’t even have teeth.”
Her comment was disarming, but Katie thought it better to focus on the business at hand. “Look,” she said setting her briefcase on the piano. “I brought some Christmas music, mostly just standards, but I also can do some Christmas carols. You know, ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘White Christmas.’ Will they sing along?”
Sue laughed out loud. “Oh, they’ll sing all right. The question is, will they be singing the same song.”
After the residents were gathered, Sue cheerily welcomed everyone and shared a humorous story about her week’s Christmas shopping. A sea of heads drifted left to right and up to the ceiling, some glaze-eyed, some distracted, some drifting off. Others seemed to be having quiet conversations with themselves. It was obvious that most of the residents were in various states of lucidity. One resident in particular, a blind woman with white, thinning hair and an equally thinning housecoat, caught her eye. Cora licked her lips occasionally, but otherwise sat straight away, apparently oblivious to Sue’s story, oblivious to the world.
Katie sat at the piano, silently becoming more and more querulous and irritated at the idea of having to play at this event. After all, she had a degree in music performance. She had played some major concerts. She had been somebody. And to think that she had actually practiced for this event. And now she sat behind this out-of-tune spinet, about to play a selection of music that probably wouldn’t even be heard.
‘Just like Grams,’ she thought to herself. Her mind spiraled back to a distant recollection—a young teenage girl playing Chopin in a convalescent home over a decade ago. Her mother had brought her there to play for her Grandma. There were the same smells and the same sounds then too. And the same glaze in her Grandma’s eyes. But when she had played for her, Grams smiled broadly.
Sue’s introduction was warm and generous, but was met with only a smattering of forced applause. With a deep breath, Katie began her concert, first with a selection from the Nutcracker Suite, then a classical rendition of “Carol of the Bells.” Both pieces received only modest response, mostly from the convalescent staff. Katie’s annoyed attitude quickly turned into panicked performance anxiety. She reached quickly for her stack of popular songs, and pulled “White Christmas,” hoping for any response, but expecting none.
And suddenly, half way into the second chorus, Cora began to sing.
It was off-key to be sure, but her voice was certain and sure. “Amazing Grace,” she began, “How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
“Shut up Cora,” yelled a voice from the back. “For crying out loud…!”
But Cora continued softly, surely. “…I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind but now I see.”
Katie tried to regain her composure, but remained transfixed, dumbfounded. The voice of the mute, the voice of an angel. She only now noticed that her hands still lay on the keyboard. She took her hands off the keys, lifted her foot off the damper pedal. And still Cora continued.
“Twas grace that brought my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved…”
There was something in her voice that captured Katie. Something deep within. A conviction, a certitude. She was not just singing, she was declaring.
“…How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”
Other voices joined her now, two or three at first, but eventually the entire room. It was as if the song resided deep within each person’s psyche, and Cora had awakened it from its corporate slumber.
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”
Through the main windows, Katie could see the snow fall gently, slowly outside. It hushed the room in peaceful stillness. Like her heart, which beat now in quiet accord. Katie no longer smelled the smells nor heard the sounds that burdened her this morning. Instead, as she stared into the eyes of this sightless woman, she felt the smile of her Grandma upon her. She lifted her hands now, wiped the tears from her eyes, taking in the stillness of the moment.
Sue moved slowly toward Cora who still sat in her wheelchair, eyes still dead ahead. She put her arms around her, swept the white bangs from her forehead, and kissed her there. You know Cora,” she offered. “That’s my favorite Christmas song too.”
One of the best things about Christmas—and this is just my personal opinion—is being able to play the music of Vince Guaraldi. For those who don’t know, Guaraldi is the iconic jazz pianist and composer whose work flavors “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In fact, the music is so integral to the story that one cannot hear his music without thinking of Snoopy dancing his weird little happy dance.
Over the month of December, I’ve been sneaking in different Guaraldi interpretations into every gig—at the restaurant I play at, the corporate Christmas party I gigged last week with ML3, the recent TV appearance I did with Bob Kilpatrick, and even Christmas Eve services at my church. I love the quirky chord changes and sparse voicings and joyous feel to the music. And I also love how children’s faces light up when I begin the “Linus and Lucy” theme. His music has been covered by several notable artists, including George Winston, David Benoit, and my friend and jazz recording artist, Jim Martinez.
When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be Beethoven. I wanted to be Schroeder.
If you think about it, the use of a jazz trio to soundtrack a children’s Christmas special is peculiar, to say the least. The story of the making of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is apparently immersed in such anomalous decisions—foregoing a laugh track, using real children to voice the characters, the over-arching theme which rails against the commercialism of Christmas, and especially the climax of the film, which is Linus’ famous soliloquy of the King James version of the Gospel of Luke. But at the same time, one cannot deny that this award-winning special has become a part of the very fabric of our culture every December.
I think this is a good word for those of us who seek to have integrity with our faith and our art. In an era of Frosty and Rudolph and Santa, creator and cartoonist Charles Schulz was unwavering in his insistence that the story of Christmas be told. And he used the small, delightful world of Peanuts to point us back to the mystery and awe that is the Christmas story.
I encourage you to take about five minutes and view this last scene again. And as you do so, be in awe of the Truth that lay in the words of a blanket-dragging, philosophizing, cartoon character. Merry Christmas everyone.
[Note: "Schroeder's Piano" by Tom Everhart courtesy polizzifineart.com.]
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book a few years ago called, Outliers: The Story of Success, which is, in his words, about “men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.” In the book, he looks at a wide variety of people and occupations, from airline pilots to entrepreneurs to hockey players to software engineers, and identifies and examines the attributes of success. Beyond talent and intelligence and ability, many of the characteristics of success include things largely outside of our control, things like “culture and community and family and generation.”
I was fascinated by one startling point he makes. The uncommonly successful person has spent at least 10,000 hours honing one’s skills. He argues that the 10,000 Hour Rule applies universally—tennis prodigies, chess champions, scientists, classical musicians, and successful business entrepreneurs all share the trait.
Of course, it wasn’t long until I started doing the math of my own life. I started playing the piano when I was almost 5, and worked my way through a half dozen piano teachers until I was 13: ~1400 modest hours. Played clarinet in school bands and was introduced to student conducting, in addition to some amateur songwriting and playing piano and keyboards, so to age 16: ~3,500 hours. Played coffee houses and other gigs, began performing with bands, and learned the craft of studio recording, so to age 21: ~4,900 hours. Given I had a day job as an aerospace engineer, I still played steadily in bands (fusion, rock, church, originals), taught myself to play jazz piano bar, began recording independent projects in a demo studio, took classes and conferences and read books, and I did a whole mess of songwriting, so by age 29: ~9,600 hours. And if I were honest with myself, I still wasn’t all that good of a musician.
So I probably hit the 10,000 Hour Rule around age 30, the same time I entered into full-time vocational ministry. And in retrospect, that was the period of my life when I actually started to get pretty good at what I did. I was recording some of the best music of my life, was leading worship bands at church as well as my own band, was arranging and songwriting and gigging some big gigs. And also—probably not coincidentally—I think that was about the time in my life when I began to understand that I didn’t have to prove anything anymore.
Gladwell cites the Beatles who as a group honed their skill and sound by playing over 1,200 gigs in Hamburg nightclubs between 1960 and 1964. By the time they had been “discovered,” they had amassed over 10,000 hours focusing their talents, honing their skills, characterizing their unique sound, and forging their group identity—and the musical world was never the same.
I think about the many artists I know—musicians, painters, filmmakers, dancers, actors, writers—and the price they must pay in order to be good at what they are passionate about. I think about the aspiring 22 year old songwriter who just released his first CD, the young 24 year old aspiring filmmaker who is wondering whether he should quit his day job, the 30-something worship leader who just wrote his first book, the 18 year old vocalist who is trying to figure out whether to major in music, the 50 year old mom who fell in love with the cello and is seriously taking lessons. And while I believe Gladwell is right in asserting that much of success is beyond our control, one of the things that is in our control is dedication to our craft.
In a celebrity-driven world where auto-tune and Justin Beibers exist, work ethic seems a quaint notion at times. But we do have an obligation to steward that which God gives us. And that includes the talents given to us as artists. In other words: Do The Math.
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Luke 12:48 NIV
I mentioned in a previous blog about the pursuit of fame and fortune that drove me in my younger days. In what I now refer to as “my rock and roll dream,” the long-term plan was to work as an engineer by day and a musician by night, writing and recording my material while getting exposure and experience in the local club scene. It would only be a matter of time until I would record the killer demo, move down to LA, recruit some monster musicians, and launch my career. From there, it would simply be a short limo trip to fame and fortune.
Of course, that didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons—talent, marketability, maturity, circumstance, and the Small Still Voice that invited me into a better way of life.
I look back at the me who once was, and I see a guy who was driven by internal needs he was not in touch with—affirmation, acceptance, expression, love. So much of what I did then was to gain the favor of people. I wanted people to like me, accept me, approve of me, love me. And I mistakenly thought that fame would bring these things into my life.
I think this is normal, though ultimately unhealthy. I meet young people all the time whose desire to express the arts are aimed squarely at the unhealthy goal of fame and fortune. Often I find myself biting my tongue, wishing that they could understand now what only time and experience can teach them.
For myself, I gradually came to realize that there were really only a handful of people in the entire world for whom their opinion really mattered to me—my parents, my wife, my closest friends. The accolades of everyone else—especially those I didn’t know—could never replace the unconditional love of those who were already in my life, and who already had given me that love. So I was really striving for nothing.
I say this because some of you know that my son has begun a modeling career. He is signed with Wilhelmina Models, and is currently in Singapore modeling for a variety of customers. While his career is still in the fledgling stage, he’s already slated for the cover of Men’s Health Singapore, some runway work for Gucci, and he did a photo shoot with Lea Michele (Glee), among other sillier things (auditions for Old Navy, Target, etc.).
The other day, in a moment of introspection, he emailed me this observation: “I’m beginning to realize more and more that modeling, and even ‘celebrity-ism,’ are for those who have no real friends or loved ones.” And while that statement is a little too absolute, I think I understand what he’s trying to say, and beginning to understand. Our motivations for fame and fortune are driven by the deepest of our human needs—to simply be loved without condition.
Of course, as followers of Jesus Christ, we understand that this human need is only truly fulfilled through our relationship with our Triune God. We ultimately desire the affirmation and approval of our Abba Father, the friendship and Lordship of Jesus, and the intimacy of the Holy Spirit. We deeply need to be in community with others and with God. That’s just how God made us.
I’m truly proud of my son. Not just because he is finding success in the things he is striving for, but more so because of the person he is becoming in the process. And I think that’s the point.
[Note: Photo of me with Axl Rose compliments of faceinhole.com.]
Our twin girls, Rachel and Paige, just started Middle School, and in the course of this last summer, they seem to have transformed before our eyes. As one would expect, there is a sudden hyper-heightened awareness to the things of their age, like appearance, style, clothing, friendships, pop culture. And music.
It is one of our new family rituals now, that they would usurp control over the car radio during trips, commutes, and even errand running. Step one: Slip into the back seat, talking non-stop. Step 2: Flip from sports talk radio (my default setting) to the local pop station. Step 3: Turn up nine decibels. Rihanna, Shontelle, Pink, and Lady Gaga suddenly invade my Ford Explorer, and I find myself feeling really old, as I internally resist the urge to yell, “get off my lawn,” in a graveled raspy voice, and pop in a Steely Dan CD.
This is the way it has been for generations, I believe. We define ourselves, in part, by the music we listen to.
I remember discovering AM radio when I was a very young boy, and listening to the borrowed records my big brother smuggled home on the living room stereo. I remember my first day as a freshman in college, discovering the campus, listening to the amazing diversity of music emanating from each dorm room: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Bob Marley, Chick Corea, Fleetwood Mac, Toto, Zeppelin. Having grown up with a fairly mainstream musical vocabulary, experiencing this new smorgasbord of eclectic styles was mind-blowing. I remember getting a boom box for my birthday one year, and loading it up with as many cassettes as I could get my hands on.
And I remember welcoming these songs, making room for them in my cramped dorm room, ushering them into my life, as if they were old and trusted friends.
I placed these songs deep in my subconscious, next to the nursery rhymes I learned as a toddler and the classical music I practiced as a kid. And like you—I am sure—whenever I hear them again, they evoke a memory, an emotion, a psychoacoustic response. Such is the power of music.
Maybe it is more true to say that, for young people trying to sort out the essence of themselves, music becomes a canvas upon which they paint the lines and forms and colors of their portraits. Because in truth, I didn’t like all of these songs at first. I probably hated some of them. But they became a part of me, and my memories, nonetheless. The music we listen to becomes the soundtrack of the movie that is us.
Occasionally now, I’ll be driving the twins around town with one of their friends—radio blaring some diva-led, auto-tuned, drum-machine driven pop tune—and bopping in the back seat, all three of them will spontaneously start singing along. And in those moments, I will momentarily picture them in the future. They’re older of course, maybe in their thirties or forties, driving their children around town in an alternative-fuel powered flying car. And without warning, this same song will come on the radio.
And they’ll smile a big smile.
What song from your past elicits a memory, emotion, or other response? What songs have defined you? Please blog me back. I want to know…
Scenario 1: A married couple—he a gospel singer and she a talented painter—describe to me the shared frustration of having the man’s work regularly encouraged and applauded in their church while she has no place or artistic voice to express herself.
Scenario 2: I meet with a woman after a conference who confesses that she is a semi-professional jazz singer who won’t tell her pastor what she does on Saturday nights. She is fearful that letting her church leadership know what she does musically will disqualify her from her praise team.
Scenario 3: I receive an e-mail from a Christian artist frustrated and deeply hurt by the continual lack of support for his art throughout his life. From a father who deemed his painting as sissy to a home church that disallowed creative expressions outside of music, he carries both childhood scars and adult wounds for being an artist.
Scenario 4: A friend of mine is excited to bring an arts conference to a few churches he knows. But as he dreams and plans about the opportunity, he also shares his wariness over a particular denomination that is suspicious about anything having to do with visual arts or dance in the church.
Four hundred ninety three years after the dramatic beginning of the reformation, and the evangelical church still seems to have an underdeveloped understanding of the arts—and the artists. Outside of the narrowly defined genres of hymns and choruses, most musical styles are misunderstood. Dance is frowned upon, except under the guise of “worship movement.” The visual arts are often limited to iconic representations (e.g., doves and crosses), or as backgrounds behind the lyrics of songs. Drama is limited to Christmas and Easter, or demoted to children’s ministries. Other art forms, like poetry, sculpture and painting are noticeably absent in the expressions of our churches. Even a most basic aesthetic of beauty is being stripped from our sanctuaries, as we adopt a utilitarian approach to architecture and stagecraft.
The bigger issue may be how the arts are understood. There are a lot of artistically hip churches out there these days—with worship concerts, theatrical lighting, and moving abstract backgrounds on wide screens. But I suspect that many of these churches are driven by style, not driven from a Scripturally-based theology of the arts. The immediate danger of this is that we become flavor-of-the-month churches, grasping at the latest fashion or fad. The larger danger is that the arts become simply relegated to be a medium for a message, not primarily an expression of the Christ-following artist. In a crass sense, art becomes part of the show, not a reflection of the bride of Christ.
So. Can you resonate with any of this? If you are an artist, do you find that there is a place for you in your church to express yourself? Is the only venue for artistic expression the Sunday morning service—and you don’t fit into it? How does that make you feel? What can be done to change it? And what is the role of the church in unleashing the arts—and artists—in the church, to the world, and before God?
I have met a lot of frustrated artists lately, as well as with those whose job would be to lead them. I’d like to dialogue over these issues over the next few blogs, so I invite your comments. I want us to share our thoughts together, think through some theology, and maybe talk about some practical ways that the evangelical churches among us can begin to better unleash and uphold the Christ-following artist.
In my adventures, I get a chance to meet a lot of artists. Not just people who are amazingly talented and creative, but also people whose hearts are in the right place, fun and deeply-felt people, reflections of the image of God. And I find myself feeling thankful for the privilege of having crossed paths with these people.
So every once in awhile, I’ll use this blog to profile a few talented and God-breathed artists I know. I encourage you to check out their stuff, interact with their artistic expressions, and give me some feedback on them. Enjoy.
Judith Monroe is a very talented mixed-media artist based in Sacramento. She has had numerous showings throughout the area, and is based out of the Kennedy Gallery & Art Center, 1114 20th Street (near K St) in Sacramento. Her website is here where you can check out some of her art, bio, and vision. She also leads the Covenant Artists, a loose collective of Christ-following visual artists in the Sacramento area. [Note: Her mixed-media work above, is entitled, "Changing Light."]
Brandon Bee is a Seattle-area producer and songwriter who has finally released a few albums of his own: the edgy but polished, “This is The Revolution,” and a new worship EP, “Surrendered.” A pop/rocker influenced by Switchfoot, U2, Coldplay, and others, he has a guitar-driven sound I really ike a lot. Brandon was one of the guys who traveled with me on the Italy missions trip last May, and is as genuine as he is talented. To check out his music, check out his website here and his myspace page here. He is also available on iTunes.
Traditionally, I take the week off after Christmas. For a worship pastor like myself, this is a bit of a sacred time—to spend with family, physically and spiritually refuel from the long fall and Christmas schedule, and do a little reflecting on life. This last week, I also fired up my project recording studio, collected all the odd and unformed lyrics I have jotted down over the past six months, and gave my right brain an opportunity to play a little bit. (I also snuck onto my daughters’ new Wii a few times, but that may be irrelevant.)
Every songwriter works in their own way. Some like to start with a melody; others begin with a lick or a lyrical phrase or some chord changes. There are no rules, no procedures, no single formula for writing a song. There is only this inexplicable thing called inspiration—that seems like luck and works like magic and feels like madness.
The most gifted and hard working artists seem to be inspired all the time, but that is not true. When there is no inspiration, it is then that skill and gifting can carry you. A gifted songwriter can write a song whether or not they are inspired, simply because they understand the craft of songwriting. A gifted painter can create an amazing work of art simply because they have a canvas in front of them. And a gifted writer can write a great article simply because they are under a deadline. All of this begs the question: Is inspiration a requirement for creativity?
As artists, we are obligated to steward the gifts God gives us, through diligent discipline. Artists must be attentive to their craft. In other words, having talent is not an excuse for not working hard. Quite the opposite—the greater the giftedness, the greater the obligation to steward those gifts, to work and hone our craft. It is a matter of the parable of the talents, applied to our talents. And so, because I understand and practice the craft of songwriting, I can write songs that are creative. But I don’t always write songs that are good. In fact, I am really quite good at writing mediocre songs. So where does the inspiration come in?
Jeremy Begbie states that “art is…inherently dialogical.” And I believe that includes a vertical dialogue, a transcendent and spiritual component to our art. When we are inspired, it feels like we are tapping into this wholly other thing.
This last week, I was feeling inspired. And for me, this inspiration—that seems like luck and works like magic and feels like madness—took me somewhere I don’t think I could have gone by myself.
As a Christ-follower, I believe that all true inspiration ultimately comes from the Spirit of God. I also know that the Spirit of God is a much better songwriter than I am, so I am often reticent to give him credit for the stuff I write. But this week, I walked into my studio with a some unhurried time, a few scratched-out ideas, and an attentiveness to the Inspirer of things—and I walked out of my studio with three new songs. And so far, they still sound pretty good.
Time to challenge my daughter to a round of Wii bowling.
Typically, this blog waxes eloquent on the deeper theological points of faith and the arts. But today, I thought I would just be goofy and share a story about my wife about a dozen years ago. It is a reminder that we, as artists, should strive toward the greater art—and often, it comes with a price.
In our family, this story is folklore, the kind of tale that has been retold over the dinner table over the course of more than a dozen years. Or to paraphrase the words of Kung Fu Panda: “Legend tells of a legendary bread maker whose bread making skills were the stuff of legend…”
Day 1: My wife, Debbie, finds a book on baking bread in the bookstore. She buys it, thinking that she’ll save the family money in the long run. “After all,” she shares off-handedly, “after a few loaves, it should pay for itself.”
Day 4: Debbie calls up her friend and resident bread authority, Teresa, to tell her that she’s going to try to bake bread. “I’ll bring a loaf over when I’m done,” she remarks.
Day 7: Debbie has baked her twelfth loaf of bread, and they still haven’t turned out. Bread bricks, dark brown and heavy laden, line the kitchen counter top. Our two young boys, Eric and Justin, have been watching Disney videos for three straight days now, and are beginning to wonder why Mommy won’t come out of the kitchen.
Day 12: I walk in the door at the end of the day, remarking, “Another door stopper, honey?” I am greeted with a cold, silent stare from Debbie, who is in the kitchen, the telltale signs of wheat flour on her blouse. I notice that the boys have been wearing the same clothes for three days.
Day 17: Debbie calls me in tears. “I’ve tried everything,” she explains. “I need a bread making machine.” I try to console her, but she is late. “I have to go to Teresa’s to watch her bake bread. Don’t wait up for us tonight…”
Day 23: Debbie has resorted to bribing our sons with toys from the drugstore to get them to try samples of her bread. I have begun contemplating building an outdoor barbecue pit with the leftovers. The house is a shambles, and cobwebs are beginning to collect on the ceiling.
Day 24: Debbie calls me at work and announces proudly, “I got my bread to rise!” Unfortunately, she cannot remember what she did differently to make it so. I am now seriously considering seeking professional intervention.
Day 26: As I drive into the garage, I notice that the mile high pile of clothes on the washing machine has disappeared. Two adorable clean children greet me at the door. As I enter the house, it is obvious that the hallway is vacuumed and the kitchen is clean. “What’s for dinner?” I ask hesitantly. “Chili,” Debbie responds coyly. “And some homemade bread.”
I know very little about poetry. Except for the smattering of T. S. Elliot and Edgar Allan Poe in high school, the limericks I read as a kid on the elementary school restroom stalls, and the occasional forays into bad haiku, I really don’t know much about it.
There is a young lady at our church, a poet. In fact, she is such a good poet, she can actually call herself a poet and nobody seems to think that is odd in any way.
I asked her to explain poetry to me once, and her response was a little mind blowing. She patiently explained that the intent of the arts is to express ideas and emotions that cannot be expressed using words. The thing about poetry is that you have to use words to express that which cannot be expressed using words. So the poet employs forms and devices like rhythm, alliteration, metaphor, simile, and other stylistic elements to achieve their art.
In our discussion, our senior pastor, who is a fan of poetry (can you call people who enjoy poetry “fans”?), introduced me to Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate and one of the more accessible poets today. In fact, I encourage you to hit the link here to some fascinating videos of Billy Collins reading his poetry.
I share this because I was at another worship conference recently, teaching a workshop on faith and the arts. In my introductory remarks, I asked a question, “Are the arts an important value in your churches?” Sadly, there were just a handful of people who raised their hands.
During the workshop, I was trying to find an analogy for the church without the arts—and without the artist—and I came up with this one. Imagine the Bible without the book of Psalms, the Song of Solomon, most of the book of Isaiah, Revelation, all of Jesus’ parables, and a bunch of other stuff. The stuff that is poetic and picturesque and metaphorical and beautiful. The stuff that is…art.
The remaining Bible would be informative and factual. But it would lack soul. And much more, I think.
Here is the thing. The protestant church is still suffering from an arts hangover that can be traced all the way back to the Reformation. In our post-Gutenberg era, there is an unspoken suspicion—or maybe even a distrust—of the arts in the church. Even in this current age of drums, drama, and digital video, Sunday morning still centers around the idea that God primarily speaks to us through a person standing behind a pulpit, meticulously dissecting the Bible, like a surgeon looking for a tumor.
In one of his poems, “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins explains his motive: he wants the readers of his poetry to “water ski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.” But he laments that people only want to deconstruct his poetry, analyze it, and pull the soul out of it. “But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it.”
Why are poetry and other artistic literary elements such a large part of the Bible? Maybe because the message of the Bible is a mystery, something larger than mere words can explain. Maybe poetry and other prose can better express the Truth of the Bible, and the heart of God. Maybe it is through our artistic expressions that the fullness of the Gospel can be more fully expressed. And maybe because, I am led to believe, God is a big fan of poetry.
Of course, I’m still thinking this one through. Your dialogue is appreciated.
Many of you know that my nineteen year old son, Justin, and I recently returned from a missions trip to Ecuador, guests of Compassion International. There is nothing like an overseas missions trip to give one a sense of perspective, and both of us have had our perceived worlds expanded through the experience. So it was with great appreciation that we accepted the offer from the twins (and their teacher, Mrs. Banks) to visit their fifth grade class and tell them about our trip.
I should have known something was up though, because Justin, who is my often outrageously fun-loving son, offered to “warm up the crowd” as we spoke. Sure enough, my cringe moment came when Justin faced the classroom of ten and eleven year olds and asked his ice breaker: “So how many of you know what ‘The Runs’ is?”
All kidding aside (and Justin was actually adolescently mesmerizing), I struggled a little with the whole idea of sharing our trip with these fifth graders. I was even having trouble simply sharing it with Rachel and Paige. We live in an upper middle class neighborhood, where the children play in soccer leagues with brand new matching uniforms, all own X-Box or Nintendo DS systems, are able to access hundreds of TV stations on their large flat screen TVs. The idea of real poverty–that a large portion of the world still does not have clean and drinkable water (much less plumbing), or has dirt floors in their small homes (if they have a home), or access to basic medical assistance or education–is difficult to express to these children. How do I help these children gain a compassion for people they don’t know? How do I help them gain an appreciation and thankfulness for the privileged lives they lead? How do I help them make their own perceived worlds bigger?
So Justin and I told them our story. Of how we took the long plane trip from Sacramento to Dallas to Miami to Quito. Of how we visited different project sites and met all of these beautiful children who have been given hope through the physical, emotional, and spiritual efforts of Compassion. Of how we encountered a group of people who were very different than us, but were very similar to us.
Mostly we talked about meeting eleven year old Jefferson and his family, and how we spent half a day with them. We told them about how Jefferson wanted to be a soccer player or a carpenter when he grows up. We told them how Jefferson is able to go to school (school not being a given) and how he and his unborn sibling are being taken care of by Compassion. We told them of walking the dirty, dusty streets of their town, of visiting their church, of picking strawberries in the field that his father leases. We told them how this is the only way that they make money, earn a living, feed the family.
There were good questions. Justin and I contrasted how much money an Ecuadoran earns per day (about $7 per day) versus how much they get in allowance (about $20 per month). We contrasted how many Ecuadoran people sleep in one room (an entire family) versus how they live (many children had their own bedrooms). We talked about buying Jefferson a soccer ball as a gift, and how grateful he was to have it (as he hardly had any toys at all).
In the end, I think they were starting to get it. Many of the children talked about being thankful for what they had and for the school they go to. And the biggest thrill for me was getting thank you hugs from Paige and Rachel at the end.
Later, as I thought through the events of the day, I had this picture in my mind of Jefferson. What if he were suddenly transplanted from his modest home in Otavalo, the one with no plumbing and two light bulbs and no floor, and dropped into Rachel’s and Paige’s classroom, with its high-tech multimedia system, Promethean interactive white board, row of computers, and children in designer clothes. What would he think of us? How would he act? And how would we respond? I would like to believe that he would be welcomed in and befriended by my children and their classmates. I would like to believe that he would soon be out on the playground, smiling, laughing, and kicking a soccer ball with his new friends in El Dorado Hills.
For as much as we were so warmly welcomed and invited into the lives of our Ecuadoran friends, I would hope the same of us.
NOTE: I strongly urge you to check out Compassion International and consider supporting their world-changing efforts through the sponsorship of children around the world—in the name of Jesus Christ. Check them out at Compassion.
Talk to anyone who is well-read on the concept of “free will” and you may find yourself discussing any number of heady things, from the five points of Calvinism to the four Spiritual Laws. In Christian thought, free will is typically associated with our ability to choose to follow or reject God and His grace. In this sense, it is associated with sin or where you go when you die. It is a heaven or hell thing.
But I think that one of the more under-explored aspects of free will is something that defines us as artists: Creativity.
What is creativity anyway? The word is synonymous with imagination, innovation, originality, individuality, artistry, inspiration. Creativity is a new way to tell a story, a different way to catch a mouse, the silhouette of a new car. Creativity is a song that makes you tap your foot, or a joke that makes you laugh, or a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Creativity is the photography of Ansel Adams, or the Wright brothers’ first powered airplane, or a new flavor of ice cream. Creativity is all of these things.
Human creativity is one aspect of what theologians call “the cultural mandate,” which is essentially our job description here on earth: “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” This cultural mandate includes the blessing to prosper and procreate, to be responsible for the care and stewarding of the earth, to develop societies and invent and explore, and also to create and express ourselves in the created universe. In this sense, creativity is a vibrant and essential part of our free will.
Creativity happens, in part, because all of us were created to be unique beings. We all see the world in our own special and distinct ways, and are able to express this view uniquely. Each of us sees the sunset differently. Each of us feels sadness differently. The smell of bacon and eggs in the morning is a distinctly different experience for each of us, because we each bring our senses, preferences, physicalities, and memories to the breakfast table.
Theologian Jeremy Begbie says in his book, Voicing Creations Praise, “I have argued that the Christian faith presents us with a vision of created existence possessing its own latent orderliness and meaning, and that a crucial part of human creativity is to be attentive to that inherent order, to discover it and bring it to light.” What I think he is implying is that the act of human creativity is in part the act of revelation, a revelation of God’s creation interpreted through humanity.
And this is my point: Creativity is one inherent aspect of being made in the image of God. Creativity is an act of the human soul, where our free will and our personality and our intellect converge. It is a gift from God, imbedded into all of humanity. And more than that, it is mandated as a part of our purpose here on earth.
And this makes sense—when we realize that our Creator God is the author of diversity and beauty and goodness. And we are made in His image.
The dialogue of faith and art is a misunderstood one, I have found. While many implicitly understand the coupling between the arts and spirituality, what people actually believe—or think they believe—can diverge significantly. Also, it is one thing to have feelings on a subject, no matter how deep—it is quite another to understand those feelings enough to articulate them intelligently, much less have a rational and Biblical basis for them. One thing that I have found to be universally and practically true is that there is just not enough dialogue.
We’re hoping to change that. On Saturday, August 22, from 8:30 AM – 2:00 PM, Oak Hills Church will be hosting what we hope to be a first annual mini-conference on faith and the arts. Entitled “Intersections,” we hope that this gathering will spur people toward an understanding in how one’s faith as Christ followers will impact how they express and interpret their art, and how the artist should interact with the audience, the church, the world, and God.
This conference will feature a variety of expressions including painting, poetry, dance, and music; teaching by Pastors Mike Lueken and Kent Carlson, a panel discussion by local experts; and a wonderfully catered lunch. All participants will receive my new book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist. Registration begins at 8:30 AM with our Common Grounds Cafe serving complimentary coffee. Cost for this event is $20 (includes lunch and book), with tickets at the door. Please RSVP to Oak Hills at email@example.com.
My son, Justin, has been working really hard lately, and Debbie and I are very proud of him. In addition to working part-time as a teller at a local bank, he’s been attending Folsom Lake College full-time. In the last two weeks, books and notes and his laptop have been permanent fixtures on the dining table, as he’s been pulling some really late nights preparing for finals. Yesterday was his last final, and as would be expected of a teenager, he wanted to blow off some steam. So his childhood buddy, Zach, came over—and they started playing with Legos.
Now if you have children, you probably understand the magical effect Legos can have. Cars, dinosaurs, space ships, castles, and even entire cities have mystically emerged from our family’s Lego bucket over the last 15 years. Although Justin spent countless hours with his Legos as a little boy, this is definitely not normative for him as a nineteen year old. But as of this morning, Justin and Zach—along with sisters Rachel and Paige, and a little help from Dad—have produced two large X-wing fighters, a horse ranch, three rescue boats, a race car and two trucks, and a small town of helmeted Lego men. (Yes, we have a lot of Legos!)
There is a cost to all of this, of course. I’ve stepped on Legos with my bare feet a number of times now (a painful technique I’m sure they used during the Spanish Inquisition). There are Lego pieces all over the house, imbedded in the shag carpet and floating in people’s salads. I’m sure we’ll be hearing the tell-tale “ka-zing!” as we run the vacuum cleaner.
I think there is something spiritually healthy and formative in moments like these. When busy hands snap Lego pieces together with increasing complexity, it is a little like God building the universe, from strings to electrons to atoms to molecules, and finally to stars and galaxies and universes. Legos allow us to re-enact the first Chapter of Genesis in some small way. We create. We sit back. And we declare that it is good.
Of course, not everyone plays with Legos. That’s not the point. But we all have—or should have—Lego moments in our lives, times where we allow our souls to be inspired and create and declare the greatness of God through the act of creation. For some of us it might be cooking or scrapbooking, woodworking or welding, gardening or photography. For some, there is a guitar in the closet collecting dust, or a sewing machine that could use some use, or a half-finished crocheted afghan folded away somewhere, or a garage project that needs to be finished.
The act of creativity is intended to be a soul-filling activity, one that reminds us that we are a part of God’s great act of creation. And as we roll into summer, I encourage you to grab your Lego bucket and spill it on your living room rug. And then see what happens.
I’ve been pretty busy with a lot of stuff—finishing my book, completing an album project for a friend, launching a new website for my church, focusing on my upcoming Italy missions trip, and even refinishing furniture in my home.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike me.
Let me explain. Having so much on my plate—and especially the book—kind of saps all of my creative energies. Sometimes I just have to wait for the creative muse in me to replenish and breathe. Creativity is like being on a boat. I can turn on the motor and force creativity to happen (which is often what I do vocationally), or I can let the sails out and wait for the wind to catch me (which is more fun and ultimately more satisfying).
So I’m playing with some lyrics. Reading some books. Fooling with some Bill Evans transcriptions. And just waiting for creativity to kick in. Meanwhile, I thought I would share with you some quotes from artists that have served to be sources of inspiration, humor, and contemplation. Maybe it will help to inspire your soul as well. Do you have a quote to share? I’d love to hear it.
“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
“As a rock star, I have two instincts, I want to have fun, and I want to change the world. I have a chance to do both.”
“I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
Vincent van Gogh
“Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”
“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”
“Do be do be do.”
“It takes a pretty good drummer to be better than no drummer at all.”
“I’ve suffered for my art…now it’s your turn.”
“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
Johann Sebastian Bach
One of the gifts we bought our girls this Christmas this year was the DVD of “Kung Fu Panda.” Of course, by now we’ve already seen it about a dozen times, so we are beginning to quote large portions of it to one another. One of the quotes I love is by Oogway, the wise, Yoda-like turtle who bestows Kung Fu wisdom to Master Shifu and the Furious Five. In a somewhat formulaic but otherwise touching moment, he encourages Po, the hapless and reluctant hero: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift. That is why they call it the present.”
With that in mind, I want to take this New Year’s Day to take a look back at the adventure that was 2008 and prognosticate upon what might be 2009.
2008: YESTERDAY IS HISTORY.
Last year was certainly a memorable one artistically. I don’t think I’ve experienced this amount of diversity in artistic expression. In the past year:
:: ML3 played at a prison, various local coffee cafes and concert venues, and three fundraisers (Playmakers, Twin Lakes Food Bank, and Proclaim! International).
:: Led worship at 119 worship services at my church.
:: Played at 42 different gigs locally.
:: In May, went on a missions trip to Italy with Bob Kilpatrick Ministries, presenting two worship conferences in Rome and Italy. (Thank you once again to all of you who generously supported this missions trip!)
:: Worked on two major album projects (Monica Stahl and Jim Heinze), and produced the sound design for a local play presented by Imprint Theatre.
:: Signed to one book deal with Moody Publishers (!).
2009: TOMORROW IS A MYSTERY.
More than likely, 2009 will build on things that began in 2008.
:: I may join Bob Kilpatrick again on another of his Italy adventures, as we have built some good relationships with the people there, and we have been invited back.
:: My book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist, will be released by Moody in July, and I expect that it will create some opportunities for me and hopefully for my church as well.
:: I’ve been playing around with the idea of doing a semi-live album of my material with ML3. I admit I’m somewhat motivated by the fact that our drummer, Steve Liberti, will be leaving for an overseas missions position. And although I am happy for the Liberti family, I know I’ll miss him and his drumming.
:: Of course, I will continue to serve at my church, and continue to learn what is this thing called worship.
But I’m not trying to make too many plans, as I am learning that my plans aren’t anywhere near as important—or as fun—as God’s plans for me.
In some ways, I feel like Po—a little bit overwhelmed by the prospects before me, but also excited for them as well. One of the things that I’m beginning to learn and practice about being present in the present is to enjoy the journey more.
May you all have a blessed 2009. And thanks for your friendship and support.
As we do traditionally in our family, the entire clan piled into the minivan and went searching for our Christmas tree last weekend. Rachel and Paige, our twin girls, are of course the most excited about it, although there is always a bit of a magical aura about this for all of us. For our family, this event is really the kick-off for the entire Christmas season.
This year is a bit different, however. Way back in early November, we had a series of conversations and family meetings about the gift portion of Christmas. We talked about the economy, about how other people lived in comparison to us, and how we really receive gifts that we may want but really don’t need. We had been talking about the message series we were in at our church entitled, “The World According to God,” where we discussed the global implications of really living as a Christ follower—including justice, hope, redemption, and our incarnational calling. Through it, we had some encouraging talks with our kids about how God really sees the world and how we could reorient our lifestyle and thinking in a more big-picture way.
Quite apart from our series, Debbie and I were already talking about how we might be able to afford to help purchase a water well in a third world nation, where clean and available water is often the difference between life and death. And we talked about limiting our gifts to one or two each, and encouraging the girls to make presents for everyone. In short, we were preparing our family to celebrate an Advent Conspiracy Christmas.
So when we hit the tree lot, the family already knew we weren’t getting the traditional sized one. We were going after a Charlie Brown tree. And we ended up in the $19.99 end of the lot, sifting through what looked more like bushes. Suddenly Justin, who has 18 years of experience finding just the right tree, propped up a short, fat bushy one and exclaimed, “how about this one?” The girls swarmed around it, adopted it into the family, and quickly named it “Joe.” (Paige named last year’s Christmas tree “Bob.”) And after we took it home, smoothed out its bad haircut, and threw on the lights and ornaments—it was the perfect tree. And we had a perfect time making it so.
I think there’s a lesson here for us. (And frankly, it is NOT about how our Christmas isn’t about the size of the tree or the number of presents. Because that’s a lesson that us Christians are supposed to already know, right?) The lesson is that we as families and individuals really have to work hard at remembering what Christmas is about, and make it a meaningful and selfless celebration of the Christ child. I admit that we as a family have a hard time remembering that Christmas is about God giving Himself to us, and then calling us to give ourselves to others. Frankly, it is hard to be counter-cultural in the way of Jesus—to be generous and other-centered, and to keep God as the King of our hearts. Because when we are honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that we are just as egocentric as the rest of the world. And it is actually quite ironic and shameful when we use Christmas to celebrate our me-centered tendencies.
This year, we intend to gather as a family to celebrate around our little Christmas bush. We will open fewer gifts, but we will remind one another that it doesn’t really matter. Instead, we will celebrate the fact that somewhere in the world, we helped bring clean water to families who have lived without. And we will celebrate the God who became a baby, and revel in the mystery of His love for us.
For more information, on the Advent Conspiracy, slam it here.
Recently, ML3 played at a fundraiser dinner/auction for the local Twin Lakes Food Bank. The Food Bank quietly serves about 1,800 adults and children every month in Folsom, Orangevale, and the surrounding areas. We were excited to volunteer for this event, where we shared a jazz/vocal set during the silent auction, and a set of our original tunes during dinner prior to the live auction. This is the stuff we like to pull out when no one expects us to be anything: Norah Jones, Stevie Wonder, John Mayer, Steely Dan. Stuff we not only like to play, but like to listen to as well.
The running gag for the evening was provided by Matt Sawhill (basses), who kept wanting to play “Roxanne” by the Police. Now, before you get too confused, we do a moody, piano-driven version of this eighties anthem that was inspired by Sting himself. (I once saw him sing “Roxanne” accompanied only by jazz piano, and it was one of the hippest things I’d ever heard.) So we incorporated it into our song list, and pull it out on appropriate occasions. The trick is figuring out when appropriate is. So between every song (and knowing how inappropriate it would be), Matt would yell out, “Roxanne!” to Steve Liberti (drums) and me.
The first time we played it, it was at the Bayside Café, a coffee venue located on campus at Bayside Church in the Sacramento area. It is a relatively small venue, with less than a dozen people in the café. We were being politely applauded throughout the set when we played the song. But the silence after “Roxanne” was deafening. Crickets. Crickets and the uncomfortable sound of throats clearing.
The very next evening, we played at Jericho Coffee Café, another coffee venue in Sacramento. Same song, same small venue, same number of people in the audience. But this time, it was extremely well received. Lesson learned: You gotta know your audience.
There’s a reason why we decided to add “Roxanne” to our set list. We talked about how it can be an allegory for the woman caught in adultery, found in the book of John, chapter 8. In this episode of Jesus’ life, the religious leaders try to trap him by bringing him a woman whose offense is punishable by stoning. Jesus sees not only through the guise of the pharisees, he sees into the heart of this woman. Deliberately, patiently, as if to allow the fullness of that moment, Jesus bends down to the ground, and traces in the sand.
Then he stands. And honoring the law, he gently offers, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” His simple retort exposes us all for what we are—sinners in need of forgiveness.
“Roxanne” is a song that brings this to mind. It refers to a different kind of love, not one based on sex and appearance, that which is bound by conditions, but one based on grace and forgiveness. In essence, it is a song about unconditional love.
Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light
Those days are over
You don’t have to sell your body to the night
Roxanne, you don’t have to wear that dress tonight
Walk the streets for money
You don’t care if it’s wrong or right
I loved you since I knew you, wouldn’t talk down to you
I have to tell you how I feel, I wouldn’t want to share you
I know my mind is made up, so put away your makeup
Told you once, won’t tell you again, it’s a bad way
Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light…
Instead of condemnation, Jesus responds with an act of extravagant forgiveness. In this act, he saves the woman from being stoned to death, frees her from the burden of condemnation, helps her see herself beyond her own self-made prison. And then, in his final response, he offers an invitation: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” It is a beautiful portrait of the personal, active, grace-filled God, who meets us where we are and invites us to live a better life—a life of grace.
Postscript: Driving home afterwards, I was reminded of how blessed I am, to be able to play with Steve and Matt. Not only are they accomplished musicians and its always a fun hang, but they have good hearts too. When I heard about the opportunity to support the Food Bank, I didn’t have to pitch the idea to them. They knew it was for a good cause, and neither of them hesitated. In this last year, we’ve played for a correctional facility (Sierra Conservation Center), a fundraiser for a youth-centered non-profit organization (Playmakers), and a fundraiser for a missions organization (Proclaim! International), in addition to the Food Bank. It is a unique situation, to have a band that is on the same page, personally, musically, and spiritually. And in the spirit of the season, I am very thankful for it.
Some of you may know that we recently played for a promotional event for Proclaim! International, in support of Steve and Dawn Liberti. (Steve is the drummer for the Manuel Luz Trio, among other things.) The event was a dinner concert, and ML3 was invited to back up Proclaim! artists in a mini-concert. I was excited to be able to play with John Bowers, Proclaim! Co-Director and bluesy guitarist, as well as Proclaim! staffers, Kim (saxophone extraordinaire) and Jeanne Peterson, all of whom flew in from Jacksonville, Florida.
The purpose of the event was to raise awareness for this missions organization and raise support for the Liberti family, as they have felt the call to move to Europe and be full-time missionaries, sharing the good news through their art and their lives.
Proclaim! is a unique missions organization in that they are staffed by artists (musicians, actors, visual artists, video producers, and technical artists) who support local churches around the world to provide high-quality outreach opportunities. Rather than bring in a musical artist, they will research a given area of outreach, then tailor a musical/video/artistic experience that would appeal to that particular culture.
The music we played was a variety of funk, blues, and Latin (According to John Bowers, Latin music is very popular in Muslim countries due to the fact that Spain influenced both Latin America and Muslim geography.) Man, it was a blast! The meal and dessert were excellent, the attendance was beyond expectations, and the program was both fun and soul-stirring. Justin, my eighteen year old son, used the words “eye-opening” and “moving” to describe the experience.
Certainly, the idea that Steve and Dawn are going to sell all they own, bundle their two little girls, and move to a post-Christian, non-English speaking culture, because they felt a leading from God, is not normative. Certainly not normative in the secular sense. And probably not normative even for those who call themselves “Christian.” Why would someone do something like that? It doesn’t make any sense economically. What’s in it for them?
And I think that is part of the point. God’s economy—both financial and spiritual—is not the same as the world’s economy. Jesus speaks of things like “love your enemy” and “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” and “the meek shall inherit the earth” and “whoever wants to find their life must first lose it.” His economy is upside down. Backwards.
Theologian and philosopher, Dallas Willard, uses the analogy of the airplane pilot who was lost in the clouds. Without his instrumentation working, he lost his bearings and did not realize that he was flying upside down. Trying to gain altitude, he flew into the ground.
And this is the way of the world. We find ourselves caught up in the anxiety of our economy because we have put our faith in money. We find ourselves lost in our pursuit of happiness because we think happiness is about the pursuit of “me.” We believe that life is about seeking wealth, fame, and pleasure instead of more noble things like the development of character, the pursuit of selflessness, the living out of kindness and justice and grace. Many of those who profess to be Christian are also confused. We forget that our lives are not our own, but have been bought with a price. And that includes our finances, our possessions, our families, our comfort, even our will.
It is refreshing to be a part of Steve’s and Dawn’s lives, as they share the long process of learning to live in God’s economy. They are learning in greater degree what it is to follow God, love the world, and live in grace. They are learning to live freely and in God’s economy. They are gaining altitude. And I am learning through them.
[NOTE: If you are an artist interested in learning how to find your life by losing it, consider a short-term missions trip with Proclaim! International. Here is their website. If you want to know more about the Liberti's or how to support them, bang it here.]
I know. I don’t typically do this kind of blog. Usually I am trying to tackle issues of theology and the arts, or sharing some insightful life lesson that I’ve happened upon, or summarizing a recent gig or artistic adventure. If you’re looking for that today, this ain’t it.
But I stumbled upon a an internet video of one of my favorite scenes, and it got me thinking about the movies us musicians quote, especially before, between, or after a gig. We’re a bit of a weird breed of cat, and the things that make us laugh are often left of center. So here’s a really short list, in no particular order, of movies that rock, blues, and jazz musicians I play with refer to in their speech. And if you want to add to it, please let me hear from you. Click the Link to go to the video…
This simple one-off scene by Saturday Night Live—a parody of MTV’s Behind the Music—has allowed a whole generation the opportunity to experience Blue Oyster Cult in a brand new and completely unintended way. It has spawned T-shirts, websites, and—I suspect—clandestine societies of frustrated drummers who are secretly plotting to take over the world. This quote is often used when the band doesn’t quite have the groove down…which is often.
Probably the most quoted scene in the rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, which is one of the most quotable movies in rock history. Amidst the spontaneously combusting drummers, the internal feuding, and the scale model of Stonehenge, Nigel Tufnel shares his guitar collection with director Marti DiBergi. (Note: I don’t actually recommend that you watch this movie as it has some very inappropriate scenes, but that is, in part, why it is so popular with musicians—because it parodies real life.) By the way, if you’re ever at Universal City in southern California, check out the large neon guitar signage in front of the Hard Rock Cafe—it goes to 11.
Not so much a quote as a scene from gig hell. Jake and Elwood Blues, The Blues Brothers, are stuck in a country western bar, complete with sawdust on the floor and chicken wire surrounding the stage. After several failed attempts at connecting with their audience, they resort to an exaggerated version of “Rawhide.” The Blues Brothers has tons of quotable quotes including, “We’re on a mission from God.” I used to play at a bar in Coloma, California, that was not unsimilar to this one. I never got in a fight, but it did get awfully wild sometimes. I remember the bartender had a super-soaker behind the bar and she would shoot at people that got out of hand. She shot at us too—when she didn’t like the song we were performing. When we felt like we weren’t connecting with our audience, we would pull out the lowest common denominator: something like “Louie Louie” or “Johnny B. Goode.” Speaking of which…
Marty McFly apparently makes history (in the literal sense) in the first movie of the trilogy, Back To The Future, when he befriends a rhythm and blues band playing for the prom, and announces in typical Michael J. Fox cockiness, “Blues in B. Watch me for the changes…and try to keep up.” More inspired by Van Halen than Chuck Barry, his guitar hero shredding is met with gape-mouthed silence. Any gig where you seem “too hip for the room” is appropriate for this quote. Trivial pursuit: Huey Lewis, who performs the theme song to the movie, plays the head of the commitee which picks the prom band.
Okay, I admit this one is a stretch. I think I’m the only guy I know that uses this quote from the movie, The School of Rock. But I think I can safely say that all musicians know the quote. Jack Black pulls off a semi-credible but completely entertaining performance as a somewhat pathetic rock & roll flunkie in this feel-good movie. I’ve actually used the clip of Black introducing the instruments in a rock band to his students for my church’s annual children’s Arts Camp.
By the way, that pudgy, classically-trained Asian kid playing the Keith Emerson licks on the keyboards—that was me when I was twelve.
Altogether, this has been one of the most casual summers I’ve had in recent memory. I didn’t have any major church events going on, ML3 had only a few gigs lined up, and I tried my best to not take on any more projects. (Please see the new PHOTOS link above for some pics, including the photo to the left of ML3 performing at the Town Center Amphitheater.)
On the other hand, I witnessed the high school graduation of my second son, helped move my eldest son down to southern California to attend college, worked on a few albums, and celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary with my wife, so while it was a little slow, it was not uneventful.
The other big news of the summer is that I have been offered a book deal with Moody Publishers. Through a fairly remarkable set of circumstances, they will be publishing a version of Adventures in Faith and Art in book form, targeting those who are interested in knowing how their faith in God and the act of creativity are related. It is my hope that the book will affect the way artists of all kinds see themselves, the world, and their God, and encourage them toward the freedoms and responsibilities that He gives us. (As a result, I have had to take down a few years’ worth of posts from this website, as these posts provide the basis for the first few chapters in the book.) I do feel that this is a God-ordained honor, and I feel excited, humbled, and a little terrified by the possibility. So I have spent some time this summer with the manuscript.
The process of preparing a book for publication is in itself a humbling one. I have discovered that I don’t always express myself in my writing as gooder as I could (or is that better than I ought?). The process of creating a cohesively engaging dialogue with the reader over the course of a couple hundred pages is a skill I’m still learning.
The other thing I have discovered is that I now feel the weightiness of my words. I am coming to grips with the idea that this book I am writing (or more specifically, re-writing) will have a life of its own, meeting and conversing and interacting with people I will never meet. Do I really believe the words I am writing, the concepts I am thinking? Will I still believe them—with any sense of conviction—ten years from now, when the book is sitting on the shelf? The process has forced me to rethink every concept I have written, every paragraph, every turn of the phrase, to taste the words in my mouth and see if they are properly seasoned and nuanced.
The good news is that I still have convictions—still have strong feelings and occasionally deep thoughts about this mysterious thing called art. And I still feel the calling that is associated with it.
It is healthy to question one’s own beliefs periodically. And it is reassuring to have security in the belief of one’s own beliefs. But for now I need to come up with a catchy title. Hmmmm.
Steve Liberti, the drummer for ML3 and a Proclaim! International artist/missionary, calls me on the cell phone. “Hey, I’ve got a quick question,” he begins, “and I don’t want you to think too hard on it.”
That’s usually a clue that the question is complex and profound and I’d better think a whole lot before I answer.
“Why did God give us the Psalms?” he asked.
The Book of Psalms is my favorite book of the Bible. Unlike most other books of the Bible, the Psalms are songs, written to be played and sung, lyrical and poetic in their form and expression. It is Truth that comes as much from the heart as from the head. And the Psalms speak of the depth and breadth of the human condition, from exuberant celebration to heartbroken despair. There is anger, longing, repentance, submission, joy. The authors know of the sweetness of intimacy with God as well as the dark night of the soul, when one feels the hopelessness that comes from being far removed from Him. Written by artists, the Psalms naturally speak to the artist in me.
All of these thoughts started rushing through my mind in the few seconds between Steve’s question and my answer. Truthfully, I’m not sure precisely what I said, but I said something like this:
“The Psalms are an artistic expression of the human condition, and provides a picture of what is possible in intimacy with God.”
While I think that answer is fairly adequate, the deeper truth in that answer is better portrayed by the Psalms themselves.
In the depths of desperation, Psalm 63 says, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you.” Psalm 77 says, “When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.” And Psalm 13 says, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”
In the depths of intimacy, Psalm 139 says, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” Psalm 131 says, “I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.”
In the act of joy and celebration, Psalm 92 says, “It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night.” Psalm 146 says, “Praise the Lord, O my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.” And Psalm 47 says, “Clap your hands all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy!”
In the experience of God’s Shalom, His peace, Psalm 116 says, “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” Psalm 16 says, “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” And in Psalm 23, he reminds us, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green astures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”
God meets us in celebration and in desperation, in silence and in exuberance, and in any context where we dare pour our hearts out to Him. As an artist who tries to express my relationship with God through my art, the language of the Psalms is like my native tongue.
The Bible describes David, the poet warrior king who penned many if not most of the Psalms, as a man who followed after God’s heart. So I find the Psalmist speaking words that my soul feels, and singing the songs that my heart sings. In a very real sense, it is the true and heartfelt expression of the artist to The Artist.
[Note: Photo courtesy of Keith Elliott.]