We’re here this Sunday morning in the lobby of What’s Happening Community Church, located in the suburbs of Caucasian Falls, USA. A couple new to the church has just exited the service and has approached the preaching pastor. Let’s listen in.
Pastor: Good morning! You’re new, right?
Joe: Hi. Yes, I’m Joe and this is my wife, Jill.
Pastor: Great to have you here this morning.
Jill: Yes, first time here. Really loved the service.
Pastor: Well, God bless you both.
Joe: Do you have a moment? We were just wondering if we could ask you a few questions.
Pastor: Sure. Fire away.
Joe: How many services do you have here?
Note: This is code for: “I like to sleep in late on Sundays.”
Pastor: Oh, we have three identical services. A Saturday night and two Sunday morning.
Joe: Great. I really liked the sermon this morning. It is so good to hear a sermon with meat, not the kind that’s, well, you know, milk.
Note: This is code for: “I listen to a lot of Christian talk radio, and I want my sermons to sound just like my favorite Christian radio personality.”
Pastor: Well, you’ll find that we just preach from “The Word” here.
Note: This is the typical response that pastors have to these kinds of questions. I think there’s a seminary class that coaches them on these answers.
Joe: Do your sermons always run that long though?
Note: This is code for: “It will be football season soon, and I don’t want the sermon to eat into the pre-game show.”
Pastor: Well, you’ll find that we just preach from “The Word” here.
Jill: I take it that you have a children’s ministry?
Pastor: Yes, we have an excellent children’s ministry. We have programs up to sixth grade on Sundays.
Note: Jill is secretly relieved at this statement, since she goes to church in part to get away from her kids.
Jill: Do they have an indoor jungle gym? Because First Baptist down the street has an indoor jungle gym and the kids just love it.
Pastor: No I’m sorry, we don’t have one.
Note: Wrong answer. The pastor makes a mental note to talk to the facilities director about installing that zip line and climbing wall next to the snack bar.
Jill: Oh. That’s really too bad. How about Junior High or high school? Is it very big? Do they play loud rock music there?
Note: At this point, the pastor must make a critical decision. On one hand, they could be the kind of couple who don’t want rock music influencing their teenage children. Or they could be a couple that have teenagers who desire a more cutting-edge program. It’s a coin toss, really.
Pastor: Uh, the answer is…Yes?
Joe: Oh good.
Pastor: Yeah! In your face, First Baptist!
Jill: Excuse me?
Pastor: Uh, I said, lovely place, First Baptist.
Pastor: Do you have any other questions?
Joe: No, I think that’s it. Thanks so much for your time.
Pastor: So, will we be seeing you next week?
Jill: Yes, we think so. Thanks so much.
Pastor: Well that’s great! Just wonderful! Make sure you visit our coffee bar on the way out. Tell them the mocha frappuccinos are on me!
Jill: Oh, golly. You know, Joe is lactose intolerant.
Joe: Yeah, well, I’m afraid we won’t be coming back after all.
Note: Joe and Jill leave, disappointed, but ready to go shopping again next Sunday. The pastor chases after them…
Pastor: But…but…did I tell you about our free gym membership?!
[Photo compliments of says-it.com.]
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.
Haiti. It is hard to imagine. Tucked in the somewhat artificial security of middle-class American suburbia, I found my mind continually drifting back to this tragedy, trying to make sense of it. The poverty of the area, the magnitude of the earthquake, the depth and breadth of the hardship and grief. Because even though I could offer some theological explanations for the existence of evil and adversity in the world, there is still the reality of the personal suffering and pain.
If you think about it, the large-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti could hit any of us. Especially for those of us living in northern California. So I live in this weird juxtaposition: I sip my latte and pray for Haiti.
Honestly, it paralyzed my blogging for a time. I felt that anything I had to say in terms of faith and the arts paled in comparison to the larger issues of life and death, tragedy and circumstance, God’s will and the brevity of human life.
There are bright spots. Worldwide, nations have responded to the crisis. Individually, men and women have demonstrated great generosity and acts of service. Internally, more people are—at least for a moment—considering the deeper things of life, and counting their blessings.
My wife, Debbie, and I have talked about this. Faith should lead to action somehow, if the faith is real. So we have supported the relief efforts, as many of you have. But I also want my art to count for something too. Because if my art is an expression of my faith, then I want my art to have some tangible expression of walking my faith. So here’s what we came up with.
For the next month, if you purchase any of my CDs, we’ll give 100% of the money to the relief efforts. Just go to the CDBaby link below:
If you order any of my four albums (either in Compact Disc or MP3 download), we’ll give all of the money to the relief efforts. We’ll open this up for the next month and probably longer. If you haven’t yet gotten any of my music, now is the best time to do so. (You can also listen to it first, so you’ll know what you’re getting!)
We are giving through Compassion International, and we recommend this amazing organization to you as well. If you don’t want to buy my music, or if you simply want to give, then please hit this link:
Either way, we strongly urge you to give. Like I said, faith should lead to action somehow, if the faith is real.
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:14-16 TNIV
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.
David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their book Art & Fear, suggest that the artist needs two things from their audience: acceptance and approval. They assert, “acceptance means having your work counted as the real thing; approval means having people like it.” In other words, we crave the acceptance of our critics and peers and opinion leaders to validate our work. And we crave the approval of others to validate us.
I think this is normal for any artist, to seek not only approval but also acceptance. We ask ourselves the deep questions of being. Does what I do have merit? Am I touching people with my song, my book, my poem, my painting? Is there some significance to my work, beyond my own skewed self-perceptions? Is there some significance to me? These are all valid and deeply felt questions that strike at the very heart of who we are and what we do as artists.
A friend of mine recently wrote to me about a songwriting collaboration experience she had: “It is always cool to have someone else love your music and add their talents to it. I felt like a writer last night even though I write constantly. It was great to hear others say, ‘that is fantastic!’”
I have talked often about how art is a dialogue. On one level, there is an interchange between the artist through the art to the audience. And this interchange, though it may take many forms in different media, is dialogical. For performance artists like musicians or dancers, the audience is in front of you, and the interchange is immediate. For others, such as filmmakers or writers or painters, the interchange is not often as immediate though it is just as important. The dialogue also extends vertically, as God speaks to the artist and the audience through the art, and we as artists can put a smile on God’s face through our artistic expressions as well.
Imagine That has been out a few months now, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. There have been a number of very positive reviews from websites, worship forums, blogs, web radio, and even magazines like Worship Leader and Christian Musician. There have also been a good number of positive comments from readers, who have left their thoughts on my website, bookseller sites, and even in e-mails directed to me.
Both of these have been simultaneously uplifting and humbling. Uplifting in that it feels good to receive the validation of artists, peers, and critics. Humbling in that there are a great number of people out there who are trying to figure out—in deeply personal and specific ways—how to make sense of God’s enigmatic calling for them as artists. Some of these people have been deeply hurt by the church. Some have even thought about giving up on the church. It is humbling that I’ve been a catalyst for some things that God is doing in the hearts of artists I don’t even know.
What I am grappling with now is how I am affected by the response of peers and critics. And interestingly, I find that Christian musicians, authors, and other artists pretty much never talk about the elephant in the room: Their pride.
For me personally, the challenge is receiving the approval of the readers and the acceptance of the critics, without letting myself believe I’m all that and a bag of chips. Because mixed into all the very positive book reviews and affirmations is this dark and ugly feeding of my own ego. As artists, we have a predisposition to do this in positive and negative ways. But as artists who follow Christ, we are called to something better, deeper, higher. So we must all pay very close attention to such things, and expose them to the Light. This is the thing I am learning and re-learning now.
So far, I don’t think it has gone to my head. For one thing, I continue to try to be aware of my stuff, and hold myself accountable to others. And of course, I guess I’d have to actually make a profit before I can get too prideful. Most importantly, I continue to remind myself that ultimately true validation comes only from God and God alone.
As Christian artists, we must never forget that.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
from Luke 2:1-20 TNIV
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.]
Life is marked by milestones—rites of passage, life-changing events, moments of decision which punctuate the seasons of our lives. Our family just had one of these milestones recently, as our oldest son moved out of the house to begin a new chapter in his life—attending film school in southern California. He is a very gifted and aspiring filmmaker (in one Dad’s humble opinion), and I have high hopes for him as he throws himself into this adventure. Check out some of his films here.
I had a lot of time to reflect on this as I drove the U-Haul down to Ventura. My sons and daughters have all displayed flashes of artistic giftedness, something that my wife and I were purposeful never to push but always encourage. With my sons, encouragement included the telling of many interactive bedtime stories, teaching them how to draw super heroes, sitting with them for hours with their Legos or Kinex sets, purchasing guitars and drums and getting them lessons when they were older and showed an interest, watching and discussing the plots and cinematography of different movies with them, and even taking them to gigs to see Dad. There were spontaneous jam sessions at home, home movie experiments in the garage, lots of afternoons doing crafts with mom, and showing them how to use computer programs like Logic and iMovie.
There were hundreds of small acts where the value of the arts—and their value as artists, made in the image of God—was quietly encouraged.
It was in the spring of 1978, my first year at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, that my parents came to visit me. It was Poly Royal, an annual event where the campus threw an open house for the public. I was in my first year of engineering school, and I was quite proud to show my parents around the campus and SLO town.
During our campus tour, I had casually mentioned to them that I would typically spend time in the music building to play the student pianos in one of the practice rooms. It was the closest piano to my dorm, which didn’t have a piano. Later in the day, we were passing the local music store, and my parents asked me if I wanted to go and take a look.
That’s when it happened. An act of extreme extravagance.
I was playing a couple of the electric pianos in the showroom, and my dad began asking about the price. The salesman was quick to point out that an electric piano couldn’t play without an amp, and I would also need a drum throne to sit on. Before I realized what was happening, my dad and mom had arranged to purchase a brand new Yamaha CP-30 electric piano for me, with a good-sized Polytone amp and seat. I was still in shock as I helped the salesman carry the piano to the car. The cost was over $1500, which was no small amount in those days. And we certainly weren’t rich people. Which made it all the more incredible to me.
I ended up gigging with that electric piano all through college and into my first successful band. It kept me company through some lonely days in San Luis Obispo and especially when I was stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, where I had only my music to keep me company. I played it on my first important gig in college, opening for jazz flutist, Tim Weisberg. I played it regularly at the local coffee house, most notably one night when I headlined along with a very young Weird Al Yankovic on accordion. (By the way, he was great; my band sucked.)
Thirty years later, I am still grateful to my parents for understanding the importance of music to me, especially in that critical time in my life. Though my head was in engineering, my heart was in music. And I think my parents understood that in some way. Their act of extreme extravagance was their way of acknowledging and encouraging this part of me. They believed in me, and for that I will forever be grateful.
So I think about my oldest son and the challenging and difficult road he has decided to take. We pray for him, encourage him, believe in him. And I hope that he knows that his mom and I believe in him too.
This brisk early morning was already beginning to warm, as the hopeful Italian sun began to pour through the windows. Slowly, deliberately, I passed the thousands of iconic sculptures and paintings which caught my eye. So much so, that the beauty of each artwork was overshadowed by its context. This was, after all, Papal bling-bling, the center of the Roman Catholic universe: The Vatican.
We quietly shuffled along the corridors, murmurs of hushed conversations coming from the tourists, the pilgrims, the curious. I had one goal this morning—to see Capella Sistina, the Sistine Chapel. This was the one luxury I really wanted out of this missions trip, and I was not to be deterred. Following unobtrusive signage, we entered a non-descript hallway and climbed the short staircase.
A quick caveat. Initially, I thought about simply bypassing the Vatican tour during my time in Italy, to avoid the Catholic-ness of the culture and those going on that pilgrimage. I remember my relatives going to the Vatican when I was a kid, and bringing back silly souvenirs of the Pope. But then I realized that I was, in a sense, on a pilgrimage of my own, to come face-to-face with what is arguably the most iconic symbol of Christian art. And so I went.
Suddenly I was there. I felt like I had walked into a painting. And in a very real way, I had. From floor to ceiling, 500 year old frescoes fill the room with motion and color and history. Of course, the highlight is the celiing, painted by Michelangelo in 1508-1511 and commissioned by Pope Julius II. I had always pictured the main painting to be the Creation of Adam, the famous image of Adam reaching out to God in the clouds. But this was only one of nine magnificent paintings on the ceiling depicting God’s creation (including the creation of Eve), God’s relationship with man, and man’s fall from grace.
The small room (apparently given the same dimensions as the Temple of Solomon) was thankfully not very full that morning, and I had a chance to sit at each of the benches located at the periphery, rest my head back, and take in the beauty of the ceiling for an extended time.
I imagined myself to be one of the illiterate laity, listening to the mass in Latin, not able to own a Bible much less read it. But here was the Bible illustrated, the story of God and man—glorious, passionate, vibrant—here for me to see. These walls was the Word of God for many, I surmised.
I know that the paintings are highly stylized, romanticized, Catholicized. I know that the artists of that day depicted their subjects in the culture of that day, with contemporary dress, mannerisms, and even furniture and architecture. But there was still this overwhelming power I felt in those moments, as if the story of God was bigger than I had imagined, that the story of God’s love for us, His pursuit of us, His relationship with us, was much too much to take in at once. I felt a bit overwhelmed by the experience of the art, as well as what it said to me. And I felt a bit small afterwards.
And I think, appropriately so.
Note: For more photos, please hit this site: Italy Mission Photos.
It is the plane trip home. My itinerary says that the plane trip back, including a lay-over in DC, will be 18 hours. I asked for an aisle but am assigned the middle seat of a five-seat row. I suspect that the coffee I’m drinking will not make me popular with my neighbors.
I mentioned that after the concert, we had a late night (or maybe early morning) briefing at the apartment. Eleven of us sat and talked and marveled at the God Thing we were a part of. One thing I didn’t mention was that while my team was in Naples, the Rome team under Bob did a piazza outreach concert. There were an estimated 1000 people listening from their apartments as well as on the piazza itself, and at the end, maybe 200 people came forward for prayer. We don’t know what that means exactly, but it is pretty much unheard of here in Italy. What is even more amazing is that three of the city councilmen were present at the concert, and they came forward too. As we gathered together in the small dining room of the apartment, I felt a little like the disciples the night after Pentacost. “Hey Peter, did you see that guy with the beard who had tongues of fire on his head?”
One of the things we talked about was the idea that we were a catalyst for bringing these different Italian churches together. I mentioned in an earlier blog that the local churches have a hard time working together, for theological, stylistic, and other reasons. The fact that there were eleven Americans from eight different churches and denominations that flew to help them was a statement of unity far beyond the workshops and sermons we presented. It was like a revelation to them, as if to say, “If they can come together, why can’t we?”
Everyone seemed to speak of coming back again next year, with the intention of being better prepared to meet the needs of the evangelical Italian community. We hope to help them with finances, resources, training, and encouragement. We hope to be a catalyst which brings all of these churches back again. We hope to come back again, and be used by God again.
I miss my Deb and the kids and look forward to rejoining them soon. I want to thank you all so very much for your generous support and prayers which allowed this to be possible. Grazie. Grazie tanto.
Food Scorecard: In the last week, I think I’ve eaten my weight in pasta and pizza. The Italians take at least two hours to have lunch, their main meal of the day, so I’ve been trying to fill up with salad the last few days, and skipping breakfast. Oh, but I will certainly miss the coffee.
The culmination of this trip was a big tent concert featuring Randy Stonehill, Mike Pachelli, Bob Kilpatrick, and Steve Puleo. So after Sunday service and a quick lunch (only 75 minutes), we took the train back to Rome (van broke down).
With practically no rehearsal, we put on an hour and a half concert and worship celebration, bringing together many of the discrete evangelical churches in the area. I was the keyboard sideman for the concert, pretty much sight-reading charts and smiling a lot. I also got to rip off a few impromptu solos (“Manuel, take one!”), which was fun, albeit unexpected.
At the end, everyone seemed blessed, not just by the music of these guys, but to a greater degree, just the fact that all the churches got together. Which I think may be the most significant part of the trip. We went out to pizza afterwards with our hosts, then went back to the apartment to debrief. I went to bed at about a quarter to three, and had to get up at six to catch my flight. Such is the life of a rock and roller, I guess.
I want to share about a particular ministry here called “Cristo e La Risposta” or “Jesus Is The Answer.” Basically, they are a nomadic group of American and Italian Christians who trace themselves back to the Jesus movement of the seventies. They live in small trailers set up like a compound, with the main building being a large blue and white circus tent which is their main meeting space, church building, and concert hall. Currently, there is a small, tight community of about 100 people (75 adults and 25 home-schooled children), which has existed in this way for the past 30+ years. They will find a large piece of acreage and, with the proper approvals, simply move onto the property. They have been in Sicily, Naples, Rome, and other areas of Italy. They have a communal worldview, sharing a lot of the chores, money, and labor, and obviously, they live an economically spartan lifestyle.
One of the leaders of this ministry, Dave, is originally from Connecticut, and has been with the ministry for decades. He and his wife and two young daughters live in a trailer that is 8 X 8 X 16, smaller than my living room. He modeled a servant’s heart to us throughout the trip, shuttling us around, showing us the sights, ordering our food for us, negotiating the purchase of music equipment at the local music store, and mixing our concerts for us. They are amazing people.
The thing about it is that they are among the most well-adjusted and satisfied people I have met. They shuttled us around, they helped us with interpreting, they ran our tent concert, and they basically served us selflessly during our stay. One young man I met, Jesse, is 23 years old and was born into the ministry. He was helpful, well-mannered, socially adept, unpretentious, and loved God deeply. He was normal. It was amazing.
I continue to reflect on the life I live, in contrast to the life of these folks. The master bedroom of my house is larger than the typical living area for a family of 5 or 6. They don’t have much but lack for little. Praising God is a lifestyle in a very organic and natural way to them. As much as they were thankful for our presence and ministry, I was humbled by the example of their attitudes and heart for God.
This Sunday morning, we led worship at the Church in Casorio. It was a truly sweet time. I led worship with the three new songs that I taught them, with Rick Dupea sitting in on bass and Kirk Allen on percussion, along with their worship team (7 vocalists, guitar, keys, and drums). They also shared some of their worship songs, and Rick Ensloe, who arrived the night before with his wife Marvalee, gave a fully-connecting sermon on trusting God. (By the way, Rick, who is Bob’s best friend, is a total cross between Jim Belushi and Tom Arnold.)
We presented our gifts to the congregation and worship team (the electric and acoustic guitars, guitar amp, and Kurzweil keyboard), and they were blown away by our generosity. As a final send-off, amidst the singing, Rick, myself, and senior pastor Doug Valenzuela handed out roses to each of the mothers in the congregation.
This congregation sings a lot, and they love to sing. Their programming was thoughtful yet uncomplicated, their platform people competent and not prideful. After the service, we were sent off with about a hundred people giving us the Italian cheek-to-cheek kiss again. (If you have personal space issues, this is definitely not the place to travel!) There were a few tears as well. It was an honor and a thrill to be with them.
On the train, I had a little time to reflect on the experience. Here are normal people, living in an economically depressed area, many of them formerly living on the street, on drugs or in the bars, or unemployed, or just very far away from God. And Christ has literally been their Savior, not just spiritually (although this is where it begins), but in the way they have turned their lives around. They have turned their work ethic around, turned their behaviors around, turned away from the sins and addictions which trap them—and joined together to be this local church to one another. They live with meager means, driving tiny little cars that are parked amongst heaps of garbage. They live in small apartments with bars on the windows and high cement walls around their patios, trying to raise families with sweet, beautiful children.
When they sang in worship, their corporate voice had meaning in ways that I believe our upscale California church experience misses out on. We sing, “I’m desperate for you,” just having driven to church in our late model SUV with a latte in our hand. When I taught them this song, and they sang, “E sempre di più, desidero te,” they really meant it.
Later, I asked Douglas how much it cost to buy the roses. He shrugged, “One euro each. But some of these women have never had a flower given to them in their lives.”
Happy Mother’s Day.
Today we are in the church in Casorio, near Naples, and had a full and non-stop day of ministry with the folks here. Randy Stonehill and Mike Pachelli did another short mini-concert in the morning (they were awesome) followed by a question and answer session with the locals. After that, I spoke for a second time, then we taught them some new songs. The Italian evangelical church is starved for new material, so this was greatly appreciated. The afternoon was spent in workshops. Kirk Allen worked with the rhythm sections and I spoke specifically to the worship leaders and vocalists.
• First, I had mentioned to you the financially depressed state of this part of the country. It is complicated, having to do with many factors, including the politics, the mafia, the general work ethic, and to some degree, their cultural nuances. It is sad to see so many people living this way. Italy is not a third world country, but in places like Casorio, it really looks like it.
• Only half of one percent of the population considers themselves to be evangelical Christian. It is a very difficult area to evangelize, particularly because most people consider Christians to be cults. Of course, while the general population considers themselves Catholic, it is a cultural faith, not a practiced one.
• As a result of the economic conditions, there is a lot of crime here. Everyone was saying to me to beware of the Napoli gypsies, who will pickpocket you and scam you. All four of our host churches’ shuttle vans have been stolen. There are bars on the windows of all the windows, and you can’t leave anything in any of the cars. It is in stark contrast to the warmth and friendliness of the people.
• In addition, it is hard for the various churches to work together. They have some inbred suspicions of one another, from Brethren to Assembly of God to Baptist. It is sad also that they have trouble cooperating over things because of theology, legalistic practices (like women wearing head covering), and worship style.
• One other thing that keeps it hard for churches to work together is that they can’t (or won’t) agree with translations of worship choruses. (Yes, I am teaching worship songs in Italian.) I had to subvert a possible uprising during one of my sessions because there was some controversy about whose translation to use for “Open the Eyes of My Heart.” I had brought a version written by Rocco Silvestri from Oak Hills (who speaks fluent Italian). Then our church in Rome provided me with one that was in common use. When I began to use this, another church insisted on using their own version. Once again, this is complicated. There are issues of translation, issues of musical integrity, and theological issues. For example, when we sing “This is the air I breathe,” the Pentacostals take it one way and the Baptists take it another. Historically, the hymnal has been one of the main ways that we as churches maintain our commonality in Christ. Without a standard for worship lyrics, the churches lack the common worship voice. Mama Mia!
• At the end of the day today, everyone came away from the teaching in a positive way, and we all gathered together and sang the songs in a spirit of cooperation. That it came together like that was fun and rewarding, and I thank God for the opportunity to meet so many folks.
• By the way, it is common to greet one another by “kissing” cheek to cheek, both with women and with other men. I am appreciating to a greater degree those who shave every day. I even had a lady give me one of those Italian pinches on the cheek.
Here’s a Photo Page Link from Rick Dupea that you’re welcome to peruse. First photo is me with Randy and Mike.
Food Scorecard: More pizza, some deep fried potato stuff I didn’t recognize, my first glass of Italian table wine, and a handful of varieties of bruschetta. Yum.
Today, part of our team drove down to Naples to participate in a parallel worship conference. Riding into Casorio, just outside of Napli, we spotted the mounds and mounds of garbage littering the streets and piling up everywhere. The church we are ministering at is a little gem tucked inside a financially challenged area. High unemployment, a weak euro for Italians, and other factors (including the mafia) give rise to a difficult situation. Amongst all of this, the church struggles to thrive.
Pastor Douglas Valenzuela is a Watts-born American who was drawn to Christ and Italy in the seventies. He has been ministering here for a long time, and has a vibrant ministry here in Casorio. He describes his church of a couple hundred or more as a “megachurch” for this area and culture.
In the first conference session, I spoke on the nature of worship, and Randy and Mike did a little concert. It was well-received, but I could tell that I was speaking over the heads of many of the people here. Of course, everything is translated, so there is a bit of a labored effort to communicate.
We have brought with us the new keyboard that I purchased with your generous donations as a gift to this Naples church. We have also brought an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar to give as well.
I love Italian coffee! It is dark and thick and smooth, like used motor oil, but goes down like a Guiness Stout. They serve it with steamed milk on the side, and I drank mine with a croissant. We decided to get up early and beat the lines to the Vatican. Something in me told me that I needed to see the Sistine Chapel.
I resisted going at first, mostly because of the religious implications of it. I did not want to intrude on the pilgrimages of others. But then I came to the conclusion that I was going on my own pilgrimage of sorts, to meet “The Creation of Adam,” which for all the cliche-ness of it all, is still a powerful and inspired work of art.
The Vatican is amazing. Past the endless array of museums, past the hundreds of thousands of square feet of paintings and murals and tapestries, we enter a small set of steps and through a narrow door marked “Capella Sistina.” Instantly a hush came over me, as I found myself surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling masterpiece.
More than just “The Creation of Adam,” there are at least a dozen scenes of God’s interaction with man up on the ceiling, e.g., the creation of Eve, the temptation of the snake, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, etc. Below this ceiling mural and surrounding the room is a series highlighting Jesus’ earthly ministry, e.g., healing the paralytic, overturning the moneychanger tables in the Temple, etc. Below that layer sits the Old Testament prophets on thrones, and below that sit a series of dead popes on chairs. Finally, faux curtains hang on the wall to the floor. Cherubim and seraphim float around whimsically all about the place. And at the front of the chapel is a disturbing yet compelling vision of the judgment day, more inspired by Dante than by Revelation.
I sit and slowly drink it in. There is simply too much to see. Although he obviously didn’t get a lot right when compared to the Bible, he paints a view of the majesty of God’s unmistakably active movement in the universe. To the illiterate laity of its day, this was pretty much the entire Bible illustrated to them every week.
The rest of the day was logistics. Moving from the hotel to the apartment, getting our equipment to the site, purchasing additional equipment from a local music store here, getting everyone together, paying for it all. Bob had asked me to mind the logistics of the hotel room, so I was kinda busy for a bit. I met a young man named Danillo. He is an aspiring musician who traveled here from Sicily to help with the concert. He tells me the sad state of affairs for music in Italy (e.g., 18 euros for a CD, no one writing for the Italian market, lack of new music and ways to get it). I gave him my three albums and he was very grateful. I also get a chance to have dinner with Willie and Melissa Saulnier, who are publishers of a Christian magazine in Anchorage. They are the ones who published the magazine that we will distribute during our concerts. Steve and Karen Puleo also have also joined the group.
By 11:30 PM, we’re all settled into our apartment and we gathered and prayed with one another and with Pastor Valerio Mungie. I drop into bed and sleep like a baby.
Food Scorecard: I had my first authentic Italian pizza, which has a very thin crust with simple sauce and cheese. Unpretentious, unambitious, but really quite tasty. Also had some real Italian lasagna for dinner and an Italian beer. Life is good.
I made it to the Rome Airport and was greeted late by my driver, a nasty looking man in a black leather jacket who looked like an amalgam of every unnamed James Bond assassin. After a white-knuckle ride through the back streets of Rome, literally inches from slapping side mirrors with hundreds of cars, I made it to my hotel room in the heart of Rome. I hooked up with a couple of great guys, Rick Dupea and Kirk Allen, who are also my roommates for this first evening. (Note: Kirk snores. Thanks for reminding me to bring the earplugs honey!)
We decided to take in some of the sites in closer proximity to us: the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and innumerable other monuments and statues. There is art everywhere you turn. Make no mistake: This is one beautiful city, one brimming with beauty and richness of history and warm people and really short-tempered drivers. And the weather now is perfect too, bright and sunny, exactly between chilly and hot.
We were joined by Randy Stonehill and Mike Pachelli for dinner. More tales of lost luggage and short sleep cycles. More of a sense of God’s hand in all of this. We sit at an outdoor bistro and eat pasta and talk about music and ministry and life, like overly-hip Christian Bohemians. Mike has played with everyone, and related a story of how he once sat with Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Count Basie and talked for hours about baseball. Kirk was a touring drummer who now produces jingles and stuff. Rick is a commercial videographer who described a project he once did for National Geographic. And of course, Randy is a Christian folk rock icon. I think to myself, I’m the only normal one here. Depending on your definition of normal.
Food scorecard: I know it sounds weird, but a specialty here is spaghetti with eggs and bacon (“spaghetti carbonnera” I think). It was awesome! Also, some caramel gelato from a shop near the Pantheon (thanks for the tip, Steph!).