Soul Music

I was 9 or 10 when my maternal grandfather died. We made the trip from Texas to North Carolina to celebrate his life and to lay him to rest. I knew him as a kind, soft-spoken southern gentleman (my mother has different memories, as usual).

I’m not sure how a 10 year old interprets “death”. Though I had visited him and spent a little time with him, we grew up in Pennsylvania before Texas, and so I didn’t have the connection I had with my dad’s parents, who grew up two houses down the road (my uncle lived in between us). My mom was pretty devastated, and it hurt to see her so torn up, but we did our best to keep it together and to mourn in a healthy way. Meals were brought; hugs were given and received; stories were through moist eyes and shaking voices.

There was a viewing; I’d never been to one before (my maternal grandmother died when I was probably 4 or 5, and I don’t remember anything about that except hearing my mother receive the phone call and knowing instantly as I heard her cry, “What?!?!?!” that something was seriously wrong. (Is there a word for that tone of voice? The tone where the unthinkable has happened? It’s not “sad”; it’s not just “shocked”; it’s something from beyond. Beyond the pale of normal, “safe” human interaction.)

Anyway, the viewing. To say it disturbed me is to understate things. The casket was open, but I was, well, horrified, as I realized what I was supposed to do: walk up and look and “pay my respects”. Shamefully, my parents had to virtually drag me up to the casket; I’m sure my mom was so embarassed, but something irrational had captured me, and I couldn’t get past it.

Somehow we got through that night. The next day was the funeral proper. I remember a typical rural southern church: white wooden walls, vaulted ceilings, pews with cushions, everything very clean and arranged. I sat down next to my mother and the service began. Everything was fine until…

… They started playing, “How Great Thou Art,” an old hymn. I don’t know if it was one of my grandfather’s favorite hymns; I don’t know if it was an afterthought: “Hey everyone knows this one!” All I know is that as the music began and people started singing, I lost it.

I mean, lost it. 

I mean, not like you get the, “Fa-fa-fas” or the tears stream silently down your face. I mean irrational, super ugly, uncontrollable wailing. 

Even to this day my mom says, “We didn’t know what was happening! It was just beyond the normal level of human weeping; you were unconsolable!”

I couldn’t tell you what had happened, except that in that moment, I realized the power of music. I was experiencing something that was communicating to me beyond words, beyond speech, beyond even a human embrace. There was something in the combination of melody, rhythm and words that drilled its way so far beyond my defenses that I was devastated before I even knew what was happening.

It was like being attacted by emotional/spiritual ninjas.

That, my friends, is “soul music.”

Believe it or not, I think in that moment I was captured by music: its power and its ability to break down walls and defenses; to speak the unspeakable and express the unexpressable.

Once you touch a moment like that (theologians might call it numinous or transcendent) you really can’t go back. It changes you; lets you know what’s truly possible, beyond this world that we can see and touch. There was something beyond all of that, and I wanted it. Not only did I want to experience it again, I wanted to be a part of creating it for others.

It’s been a long road since then, but a few days ago I stood up in a small chapel—only 45 people or so—where family and a few friends had gathered to remember “Grandma Alice.” Alice passed away at 94, the grandmother of some friends of mine from my community. Amazingly, I was also Grandma Alice’s worship pastor. Somehow, this woman in her 80s (at the time) worshiped under the leaership of a rock and rolling, guitar playing, melancholic and introspective pastor (that’s me). She was great at giving hugs and giving encouraging words, and I was honored to be a part of remembering her.

The family chose two songs for the service. I don’t know if she had a part of picking them or not. The last song in the service was “I’ll Fly Away.”

Any guess as to what the first one was? IMG_4153

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Fundamental Heretics

It’s time for a church history lesson.

In the first few hundred years of the church, the leaders were constantly figuring out what it believed. All of these doctrines and teachings that we take for granted had to be hammered out in the context of real disagreements between real people. (BTW, some of these arguments are hilarious: people who have been canonized as saints writing back and forth with arguments that are the ancient equivalent of “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny,” and “I know you are but what am I.”)

There were a few different strands that diverged off of the “normal” beliefs of the church: gnosticism, docetism, monarchianism, etc.

Fascinating, I know …

One interesting heresy (?) is “arianism”, founded by Arius in the 4th century. Arius essentially denied the true divinity of Jesus, instead holding that Jesus was a “created being” (Orthodox belief would hold that Jesus existed eternally with God before entering our world, as per John 1:1-10). Arianism was declared a heresy, and Arius was excommunicated in the late 300s.

All that is fine and dandy, but what is truly interesting about this story is the actual substance of the debates. You see, when the Arians were defending their position, they submitted to the church authorities a very long list of scriptures (that is, from the Bible) that more than adequately (at least in their eyes) defended their position.

However, they’d missed the forest for the trees. They did a great job at using the Bible—at face value—to defend their position. Interestingly, the Orthodox priests and scholars couldn’t supply nearly as long a list of scriptures supporting their position (this exercise is still repeated in seminaries today, by the way).

But what the Orthodox did have on their side was common sense. To the list of scriptures, they basically replied, “Sure, you have all these scripture references, but you’ve neglected to use your brain to think through the nature of Jesus from an intellectual and theological point of view.

The heretics had all their Bible verses in line, but they were still missing the point. Badly.

They had landed on the “truth” (as they perceived it), but they had missed the essence.

My personal takeaway from this is twofold:

(a) It’s not enough to simply line up proof-texts and say, “See, X is right/Godly/holy/etc.” Often (maybe not always), we need to take a step back and go, “Okay, I know that these scriptures indicate X, but maybe God is asking us also to examine whether or not these square with what we know about His character (especially as revealed by the Gospels).” If you neglect to think theologically (and intellectually), you can easily be a fundamentalist, and still be heretic.

(b) I think it’s a wonderful thing that God asks us to use our brain. Read the Bible. No, seriously, read it. It’s a complicated book (but a very simple story, ironically). There are awkward (and even very uncomfortable) texts (slavery, prostitution, incest, genocide anybody?), and even some apparent contradictions and “tensions” that we need to manage. Origen, one of the church Fathers who was alive during many of these heresies, maintained that God allowed the tensions that we find in the Bible to remain there so that… get ready for it… we could exercise our intellect. 

The solution to a complex world is to not adopt a simplified, fundamentalist reading of our Bible. solution (for there has to be many) is to balance our sacred text(s) with an understanding of the traditions of the family of faith, our God-given intellect, and our experience of God in this world.

If only there was a name for this… #wesleyan_quadrilaterial #can’tbelieveIjustdidthat

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Monastery Reflections: Tunnel Vision

IMG_4151As I continue to reflect on my personal retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, I was thinking the other day about a short passage I read in a booklet at the retreat house. The Cistercian Life is a short book written by Thomas Merton (PS, If you are ever curious about how deep the spiritual life can actually go, I’d encourage you to read some Merton. A great place to start is New Seeds of Contemplation.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;)).

Anyway, there was a free copy in my room at the retreat house, and so I picked it up to
read during my stay. It was a really great, concise examination of the monastic life, but one statement in particular has remained with me.

The truly silent monk is not totally unconcerned with others, for that, too, would be a kind of illness. But he is not worried about being left out of things. He knows what is necessary will be communicated to him. If there is news in the world that he ought to know, God and his superiors will make sure that he knows it. He does not have to go seeking information and communicating his own ideas to others except in so far as this may be demanded by necessity (Emphasis mine).

My tensions with the pervasiveness of social media are fairly well-documented, and I am continually trying to grow in the way I use media (in particular, I try to make sure that there’s a balance between how use social media and how media uses me). Personally, my governing word is “thoughtfulness”: I try to take a moment or two before I mindlessly engage in any technology and ask myself, “Is this the tool I need for what I’m trying to accomplish?”

I love good design, and in particular I like objects that are well-designed for specific uses. However, it seems as if sometimes our culture seems pre-occupied with turning one tool (most often our cell phones) into a “one-size-fits-all” device for consuming media, connecting with friends and family, staying engaged with the world around us…

… and occasionally making a phone call.

Instead of this approach, I am trying to learn to consider what will help me most in accomplishing my goal at the time:

  • is it reading? (“turn off cell phone and computer notifications)
  • is it a serious work project? (same as above)
  • is it songwriting? (notebook, pen and guitar, no notifications)
  • is it writing exercises? (computer, no notifications)
  • is it prayer and meditation? (no lights, no electronics)

… You get the picture. I love my (always Apple) computers. But they are not a Leatherman multi-tool. I look at them as specialized devices for doing specific activities that they happen to be really good at (recording ideas, typing, finding out obscure information quickly, etc.)

But obviously this quote gets an even deeper strand of thinking, namely, what do I truly need to know about the world? 

As a good friend has told me recently, “FOMO” (“Fear-Of-Missing-Out”) is a thing, and in our hyper-connected (and decidedly UN monastic) existence, FOMO becomes an almost 24-hour-a-day possibility, whether it’s being aware of a party 800 miles away, or a news event 8,000 miles away.

But Merton’s statement is a challenge to FOMO. For me, I sat with that quote for a while, asking, “Why is it so important for me to know, well, everything? What is it inside me that demands that I’m up-to-date on issues that debatedly have absolutely no relevance to my day-to-day existence?”

When I think about it, most of the information I take in has much more potential to cause anxiety than to produce anything positive or spiritual in my life.

In fact, the issue can go much, much deeper. Theology Professor Marva J. Dawn’s book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time had a profound impact on my approach to worship and the church (though I ardently disagreed with a few of her statements). In it, she examines the influence of Neil Postman’s concept of “Impact-Action-Ratio” in the worship of the church. “Impact-Action-Ratio” is a ratio of how much the impact of an image or images affects our ability to act. 

Essentially, Dawn suggests that as the church relies more and more on (often de-contextualized) images in worship, whether through pictures of poverty or evocative images over lyrics in songs, we are actually training ourselves to a mode of inaction.

No matter how powerfully or emotionally an image may strike us, most of the time we are unable to actively address or remedy that situation. Over time, we get “used to” the idea of not responding. 

And so we get inoculated against tragedy and suffering, even as we are exposed to it now more than ever. 

All of this goes to say that I try to think twice about how “plugged in” I am to the pervasive, 24-hour news cycle. I don’t want to be inoculated against suffering, and more than that where I encounter suffering, I want to be able to do something about it.

I am not a monk. I do not have a “superior” who will tell me the things I need to know about the world. But I do have trusted friends, and people who are more engaged than I am. More and more, I seek to trust them with what I need to know, and concentrate more diligently on my life of prayer, meditation, teaching and trying to reduce the suffering of the world around me.

 

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Monastery Reflections: Molehills Out of Mountains

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Two-and-a-half days in a monastery. No media. No work. Silence. About as simple and stripped-down of a life as you could get. That’s what I went to embrace. I went to hear the voice of God, my Father, and to just rest. On the one hand, I had no expectations: just to go and “be.” On the other hand, let’s be honest: silence? solitude? hours of prayer? MONKS, for crying out loud?

Surely, this is the place where God is going to speak, to say something profound.

Either way, I was ready.IMG_4094

When I came back home, a few people were prompting me about the experience. By and large, however, my experience was pretty subtle. God surely spoke, and I wrote some things down; things that will have (hopefully) long-term positive effects in my soul and my life…

But this was no “mountaintop.”

This was stretching, but it wasn’t a shock to my system. These days were an extension of practices I’ve already tried to put in place in my “every day” life.

So there was no great upheaval.

… And I loved it.

I think that somehow we’re predisposed to seek the mountaintop. We expect to soar high and then drift back to earth.

But that makes for a pretty up-and-down, almost schizophrenic spirituality. We binge and purge, so to speak, rather than dine regularly on healthy spiritual disciplines.

IMG_4113For the past few years, I have tried to cultivate an attitude of peace in my daily life. I build practices in order to help me maintain that peace, clarity and centeredness. On a retreat, those practices are enhanced and extended (hopefully), but not necessarily, introduced.

Alan Watts says that the only zen you find on a mountaintop is the zen you carry up with you.

For those who may be uncomfortable with that language, you could just as easily say it this way: “They only spiritual peace you find on a mountaintop (or in a monastery) is the spiritual peace you carry up (in) with you.”

love retreats: I’m planning on going back in a few months for an even longer stay.

But I’m planning on carrying in a lot of peace with me then as well, if for no other reason than I can’t stay in a monastery forever.

My life is not lived on the mountain. It’s lived in the swamp (almost literally?). It involves cranky kids and bad jokes; taking out the trash and washing the dishes; waking up early and sometimes staying up too late.

All of that can be just as beautiful as a mountaintop (or just as hellish, depending on how I’m doing on a given day).

My hope is that more of us stop running after mountains, and start cultivating that interior, detached peace that is offered to all of us, regardless of our geography.

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Grace

Lately, I’ve been saying repeatedly, “Grace isn’t about getting us into heaven; it’s everything.” 

I think most of us “Jesus people” are guilty at one point or another of reducing grace into some kind of holy club (that most people wouldn’t want to visit). We reduce it and turn it into “who is going to heaven” (again, a group that most people wouldn’t want to go with).

In doing that, we turn it into something exclusive. Something that is about figuring out who is in and who is out.

Do they have the secret handshake?

Have they passed the Jesus quiz? (psssst for Jesus, the answer is always “all of the above”).

Do they have the right credentials?

But grace is simply (and infinitely more explosively) “define favor”. It is everything: our gifts, our talents, our resources, our friends, our family.

“Grace” says that everything we have is a gift.

It’s not about a club. It’s about a gift, a resource for dealing with life.

One of my favorite quotes on grace (and faith and Christianity) comes from theologian Bob Tuttle. He says,

I’m into Jesus Christ for one reason and one reason alone: faith and trust in Jesus is the only way I know how to access the power of the Holy Spirit that enables me to overcome the things that would attempt to swallow me whole.

In this sense, “grace” is synonymous with the Holy Spirit.

This is a “real-world” spirituality. It’s not about a club (unless it’s a club of the broken-hearted); it’s about growth and transformation.

Sign me up for that.

 

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Room With a View

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Some of you know that, for my graduation, I was given a retreat to a monastery by some friends and family. I went up to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve been there once before, but only stayed one night; this trip would be two days and two nights of silence and solitude (for me, this is a good thing).

When I checked into my modest room, I quickly went to the window and looked out. This IMG_4093was the scene that greeted me: the graves of the monks who have died in the monastery since its founding in the 1940s.

A room with a view, indeed.

I don’t know how this strikes you. Morbid? Disturbing?

For me, it was amazingly clarifying.

In Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr suggests that one of the key facts that a man must come to terms with is the fact that he (I) will die.

Two days of looking out a window at gravestones helps with this perspective.

Rohr does not suggest this to threaten us with judgment, or to insinuate that we all “get busy.” Rather, it’s meant to plant the seed that everything has the same end, and that part of my journey as a man (or human?) is to learn to release: my stuff, my agenda, my dreams, my family, my control, my ego.

I do believe in the resurrection, but I also know that the mortality rate is still right about 100%, and that, as best I can tell, you still can’t take it with you. It seems to me that we try as hard as we can to convince ourselves otherwise, but I wonder what it costs us. We think that we can maintain control and accumulate more and more and more and that we will never need to release.

And yet those gravestones point to a different reality.

In fact, so much of our spirituality has evolved to keep death as separate from us as possible. Last Christmas I was visiting my parent’s (psuedo) country church up in Virginia, and I was struck by the fact that there was a graveyard beside it.

Graveyards are no longer in the design plans of our safe suburban churches.

But what have we lost?

Have churches bought into the cultural message that promises eternal life, if not youth, and encourage us to attach, attach, attach to everything around us?

I am coming to believe that at some point much of life needs to be about surrender. Knowing that someday I will need to make the ultimate surrender helps just a little bit with that.

I’ll take the room with graveyard view, please.

 

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Trump vs. St. Paul, Round 1

trump-make-america-great-again

It’s election year in United States, and the other day I was having a conversation with my spiritual mentor about the current state of politics in our country. Quite frankly, it’s difficult for me to listen to any of the candidates talk because nobody seems to be interested in talking about any policies or worldviews that are not short cited, or too simplistic and nationalistic solutions to complex into related problems. I don’t feel like anyone speaks for me or to me., And that’s just the reality. Parentheses on a more positive note, I was listening to a the Ted Radio Hour recently that advocated looking at the municipal level-mayors, council people, etc.-to see a place where politics is still working in United States. If you’re interested check it out Ted Radio Hour).

Donald Trump is a decidedly disturbing presidential candidate to me. To be quite honest, with his nationalistic and practically fascist statements he reminds me of the rise of Hitler. However, I was thinking recently about his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and it struck me how odd the slogan is. It’s easy to say “let’s make America great again”, but it’s also just as easy to ask, when was America great? Were we great in the 1950s and 60s when we were oppressing people of color in our country? Were we great in the 1980s, when we were struggling to keep up with the environmental damage done by unregulated factories? I’m not saying our country isn’t great. I love the United States, and still cry profusely whenever I sing the national anthem. I am blessed and grateful to have grown up here. But life isn’t about making America great. Life is about simply being the best citizens we can be and trying to make this world a better place. But there’s something at stake that’s even more significant, and that is the question of where we put our ultimate trust. America doesn’t need to be great for me to have a great life. My trust is placed somewhere else. This is not a new thing.

In Paul’s firsts letter to the church at Thessaloniki, he makes a decided dig against the nationalistic leanings of the Roman empire. He makes a remark about people claiming peace and safety when there is none and then a change will come instantly. Though it’s easy to assume that this is somehow about the end of times, it’s enlightening to realize that peace and security was actually a political slogan of the Roman empire, and what Paul is actually doing here is confronting people with the question of where they put their faith. If you decide to put your faith in the Roman empire  (or the United States) you will be decidedly shocked and disappointed when that empire is incapable of really protecting you. The only Kingdom where we have actual security is the Kingdom of God. Granted, that security isn’t always tangible or evident, but ultimately God is calling us to a deeper security, based in eternity.  Regardless, it’s a great reminder that neither our trust nor our security comes from any earthly “greatness”. America can be great (if it decides to take care of the least of these and the outcasts) or it can be not great. Either way, I am called to live my life wisely, to do my best to provide for my family, but most of all to place my trust in a King and Lord whose name is not Cesar nor Trump nor Mr. President.

Please get here soon election day; let’s get this over with.
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