Is Easter REALLY Our “Super Bowl”?

Is Easter Sunday REALLY the Super-Bowl?

Growing up in my faith tradition, it was common to hear Easter Sunday referred to as “The Super Bowl”. Since it is (was?) traditionally one of the most heavily attended Sundays of the year, there is always a tremendous amount of time and energy put into making an amazing Sunday experience—both for guests and for God.

We put together the best musicians we can find, we purchase thousands of dollars in Easter lillies, we polish the pews and the doors and we make extra room for people who will “check out faith” for perhaps the only time that year.

In short, we put our best foot forward.

Part of this effort is in recognition of the celebration of the resurrection: Easter really IS a special day in our faith, and we do our best to make our worship reflect the glory and joy of Jesus’ resurrection.

However, is calling it “The Super Bowl” really the best metaphor? I’m not sure.

(For starters, soccer is a much better metaphor for the spiritual life.)

The reason I’m rather uncomfortable with the Super Bowl image is that, well, it just puts too much of me in it. The Super Bowl depends on the players playing in it.

Christ’s resurrection does not.

Our best efforts on Easter are not so much to “make it happen” but to respond to something that has already happened.

Our Super Bowl really happened already. We are just basking in the victory now.

Furthermore, the Super Bowl metaphor (and yeah, I know: all metaphors break down eventually, but this is my rant, not yours) doesn’t really play out theologically: We play the Super Bowl; you (Who: guests? The Church?) watch us. 

I wonder if a different image might be a Feast: We are inviting people to “our house” where a great celebration is going to happen. We didn’t even cook the meal, but it’s going to be a night of rich food and deep celebration. We want you to come, but the success of the feast doesn’t really depend on our greatness, or the 6 (8? 10? 15?) hours of rehearsal…

It depends on the presence of the One whom we are celebrating.

We are participants, with you—the guests, the Church… everyone. 

We have come to the feast just like you. We are not separate.

So what if instead of “Playing the Super Bowl” this year, we “Went to the Feast” (and invited others to come as well)?

 

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Sunday Spine

I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit, and it’s really great: practical productive ideas on creating from a long-time practicer. She talks about the need for every creative work to have a “spine”, something which knits the whole work together. It answers the question, “What am I trying to say?” with ruthless clarity and conciseness.

What’s interesting to me is that the spine is not necessarily the same thing as what the audience/public/congregation sees or hears or experiences. That’s the story; the spine belongs to the creator or team of creators that orchestrate it.

For those of us who work on Sunday, I think we have the opportunity to think about spines as well. We already know our story (and it’s a good one); but we don’t always think about our particular spines. In my context, a spine may be anything that holds a set of songs together besides the obvious (a journey towards God). For better or for worse, this past Sunday my “spine” was a musical one: it was the concept of a power trio. Could I (a) have no acoustic guitar; (b) play slide in open tuning; (c) re-arrange some familiar songs to have a heavier, bluesier feel to them; and (d) do all of this without it becoming distracting or prideful?

In regards to the spine, “What am I trying to say?”

I am trying to say that worship music can be bluesy and soulful and still congregational. 

That was my thinking, but a spine can be just about anything: it may be a stylistic approach to the songs; it may be a progression of musical keys; it may be a subtle facet of spirituality—meditation or contemplation, say—that’s not overtly being discussed but that I’ve been working with.

Now, here’s the deal: First, in Sunday worship “business”, spines are not necessary. We’ve been handed a story to tell, and it’s up to us to tell it clearly and compellingly. In a sense, we don’t need spines.

(I hope I don’t need to tell you that spines should never detract or distract from the story. People shouldn’t notice that all your songs were in the key of A; they should notice this God that we believe in.)

But spines enrich our stories. They give us the opportunity to make our Sunday stories multi-layered and rich.

They also infuse our creative lives with fresh wind.

(I daresay they make it fun.)

What some of us need is a dose of creative energy, a breathe of fresh air to engage our thinking and give us the strength and focus to run another leg of the ministry race that we’re in. Ultimately, I think that spines are a useful tool to keep us engage over a period of time with the work we do.

(By the way, I also use the concept of a “spine” when I’m developing a sermon; it governs what stays in and what goes out. In this sense, sermon prep for me is like poetry. It’s about editing down to the essentials and trusting that what is left over after the process is sufficient and essential.)

What spine can you insert into your work this week? What would give you energy?

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“Bummer” Worship Songs, Casinos + the Church Calendar

In case you didn’t know, casinos don’t have windows. Typically, it’s really difficult to see outside in any way from the casino floor, and it’s fairly well-known that this is because they want you to exist entirely inside the reality of the casino while you’re there. Everything, including the patterns on the carpet, is tailored to pull you into a place where anything is possible: where you could win $1,000,000 on nickel slots; that cute blonde really does like you (and really isn’t a prostitute); where you really are a high-rolling consultant from NYC (and not a debt-strapped state employee from Wisconsin). They spend a lot of money to create this illusion, and they are pretty good at it: while you are there, you can believe anything, and it feels real.

But guess what: eventually you have to leave the casino.

And it’s 2pm.

And rather than being up $20,000, you’re down $450 and you have to make rent.

Reality sets in sooner or later…

I’ve been accused of leading “downer” worship sets. In fact, I was once officially reprimanded at a church for not putting enough “uplifting and joyful” songs into our weekly sets. What’s more, at my church we are in a season that has found us playing a lot of songs that dwell on pain and suffering (and yet choosing to still sing, no matter how tentatively). I’ve even made a concerted effort recently to pull us away from these songs, but it just seems like we are in a season of pain and struggle, and as musicians and pastors we simply need to speak to that. Lately, I think of it as “Gap Worship”, songs that stand in the gap between exhilarating hope and devastating despair, between joy and pain.

Reality sets in sooner or later…

I was having coffee with a good friend last week who is watching a loved one struggle severely with an undiagnosed devastating physical illness. Doctors cannot seem to figure out what’s going on, and the situation seems to be deteriorating. They were telling me about the latest news, and they said, “I just can’t seem to connect with church right now…”

I replied, “I imagine you walk into most churches and you think, ‘because of what I’m going through right now, there is nothing here that connects with my life.’” 

He began to tear up and simply muttered, “Yeah.”

So many times our churches can begin to resemble casinos, both physically and emotionally. We truly want to pull people into a reality that says “Hey everyone remember: Love wins! Just give your life to Jesus and save your soul! Get on board with God’s mission!” To that end, we do a lot to pull people into the reality we are trying to create.

(In fact, most of our modern churches go to great lengths to blot out natural, ambient light—windows—so that we can better employ our systems to tell the story we want to tell that week.)

And yet, we know that reality is going to set in…

People are going to walk back out and experience the devastating reality of their lives: debt, illness, loss, loneliness, anger, isolation.

I am absolutely not advocating abandoning hope.

I am advocating timeless, non-contextual worship experiences that don’t connect with reality. 

Let’s face it: even Jesus knew it wasn’t Easter all the time. 

One of the great (and under-utilized) tools for planning worship that doesn’t look like and feel a casino is the church calendar. Used creatively, the liturgical calendar (broadly, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and “Common Time”) can help us address the pain and doubt (as well as joy, hope, and anticipation) of the individuals we live and do ministry with.

Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation. It is a great time to talk about the meaning of Jesus’ coming, and the “gap” between the our world, and the vision of the world that He comes to inaugurate.

Christmas is joy and celebration, celebrating “God-with-us.” In the midst of the depth of winter (death), life springs up. Even in the absence of hope, God is working.

Lent walks us through our mortality and our frailty as we think about Jesus’ journey towards the cross. It’s a time to mourn and to sacrifice and abstain from comfort in order to shake loose sin’s hold on areas of our lives.

Easter bursts forth with celebration and new life. It screams at the world, “Whatever you think you know about life, there is a deeper reality than you think.” At the moment of great sadness and even evil, the victory is truly won.

Pentecost addresses the life that the Holy Spirit brings, and also the creation of the church. It can be a time of community and connection.

I’m certainly not an expert in the church calendar; my church only observes a couple of these seasons. However, I’m fairly convinced that these seasons holistically address the human experience, and avoid “Casino” worship.

For the time being, I’ll keep my downer worship songs. I can see outside, and it’s not always 75° and sunny.

Reality is going to set in when they leave your sanctuary, and we don’t worship a God who asks us to stick our head in the sand. We don’t deny death; we defiantly claim that life—actually resurrection life—comes out of death.

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Evangelism Training With Marvin

Part of this post appeared in a message I gave at my church in 2010. 

How do you view evangelism? How does your church view reaching out to the surrounding world to proclaim Jesus’ Lordship?

Ever thought of it as a song?

Ever thought of it as The National Anthem?

Here’s my thought process: Most of us live in a culture (USAmerica) where the gospel of Jesus is simultaneously so familiar that it can be ignored, and so unfamiliar that it can be confused and mocked (which is also probably our fault as the church, but that’s another post altogether).

The situation is not too different from the National Anthem: most of us have been hearing it since we were children, at countless sporting, graduations, and civic events. For the majority of us, it has lost its power. As the saying goes, “familiarity breads contempt.”

It’s not the song’s fault. It’s just that we’ve heard it so many times we’ve become almost immune to it, inoculated by uninspired and off-key versions.

Some of us would say the same thing about the gospel; we’ve heard it in so many uninspiring ways, so many bombastic and overblown ways, that we’ve begun to think, “What’s the point?”

I want to suggest three images—three songs, actually—of evangelism, and suggest that we have the ability to choose how we (and our churches) “sing” the gospel, to ourselves and to our friends. 

The Off-Key Gospel

(Note, there were a lot of candidates for this, including an iconic guitarist)

Sometimes we encounter people, churches and organizations that just miss the point entirely. If we look and listen hard enough, we may hear familiar words and notes, but they are so skewed and off that we can’t take the song seriously. Maybe the fruit of their lives—corporately or individually—betrays the message of the song. Maybe their utter lack of preparation says, “We don’t really care about singing to you.” Ultimately, they seem to lack sincerity. They sing because they know they’re supposed to, but their motives are suspect, even mocking what they are purportedly celebrating.

This is not about excellence. It’s about humility. It’s not that Rosanne didn’t have the capacity to sing (maybe she does; maybe she doesn’t; I don’t know); it’s that she didn’t care enough to prepare. The song of God doesn’t have to be sung perfectly, but it should be sung in a way that it’s understandable, and that says something about our willingness to prepare and bring our best.

The Beautiful, Bombastic Gospel

Demi can sing. Obviously. She sings loudly, skillfully, and forcefully. She’s obviously been trained and knows how to knock this out of the park. And let’s face it, she’s cute, a pop icon.

But for me at least, there’s a detachment in this performance. It lacks subtlety and dynamics, and most of all I don’t hear any vulnerability or humanity in it (which is ironic considering Demi’s journey after this).

There are so many churches that “sing this gospel” well—they are adept at phenomenal performances that know how to orchestrate just the right tones. But in the midst of the lights and sound and noise, a little humanity gets lost. The “beautiful gospel” can lose sight of the vulnerability and brokenness—the utter humanity—of Jesus and His work.

Our gospel song should not be addicted to triumphalism; it’s not “Easter All The Time.” The gospel embraces the full range of human emotion: from the struggle at Gethsemane to the mourning at the cross to the joy at the empty tomb.

Gospel “Soul”

Now we’re talking.

A few things stand out to me in Marvin Gaye’s version of the National Anthem.

  • It is familiar. Though there’s an unexpected drum groove underneath, Marvin keeps the melody the same, and it’s easily to recognize.
  • It is decidedly Marvin. He’s decided to approach the song with some originality and creativity. He puts something of himself into the song.
  • It’s soulful, but subtle. Marvin was a master, one of the icons of R&B. But he pretty much gets up there and sings the song. No crazy runs. No extended improvisations. His humanity and his feeling comes through.

To me, this is the way the church needs to approach evangelism—and the gospel—in our culture. Infused with humility and restraint, but individual (and organizational) creativity and inventiveness. Unafraid to be ourselves, but faithful to the message and melody of the gospel of Jesus.

What evangelism song are you—or your church—singing to your community?

One Day in 1999…

I was driving in northwest suburban Chicago, listening to the radio. I stumbled across this crazy radio show that was … just … stories. Just people talking and telling the stories of their quirky lives.

I couldn’t turn it off.

Next week, I went back to the team of folks I used to work with, and said, “I found this weird show, called This American Life. It’s amazing, and here’s the thing: if you’re a preacher/teacher in the church, you really need to listen to this, because it’s gonna be huge. What’s more, I think that this show tells us about the power of story in the church.”

Whether or not they listened or not, I stand by that statement. If you teach/preach in the church, I hope that (a) you realize that we’re entrusted with the best story out there; the most powerful, effecting narrative in existence, and furthermore, (b) you’re learning how to tell it in the best, most creative, most memorable way possible.

Start by watching these (in particular part 3)…

 

There’s no reason we shouldn’t try to be as creative and extraordinary as the Story that we’re trying to tell, is there?

Making a New Refrigerator

“…(E)ven if there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as private interpretation of scripture, the illusion of private interpretation leads to much mischief. It encourages individuals to forget that every text has an original, and so appropriate, context. To remove a refrigerator repair manual from its original context–the world of refrigerator selling and repair–is to render it useless.” – Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People (emphasis added)

I am very much enjoying reading Rodney Clapp’s unpacking of the Kingdom and the Church. The writing is confrontational, informed, and thoughtful. To be blunt, I think he’s right on the money. But I think in this quote, he doesn’t go far enough. As I’ve seen it, his “refrigerator repair manual” metaphor is only partly true; I think the whole truth of the situation for the church is that as we’ve read the scriptures individualistically (narcissistically?) and out of their original context, we’ve done more that just render the “manual” useless.

I wonder if we’ve decided to just dream up a new refrigerator to match our remade manuals.

The refrigerator surely resembles the original–things like grace, sin, love, and Messiah are used with great passion and intensity–but when return the manual to its original intent (or as close as one can get to the mind of the original writer and audience), we find that machine was supposed to look and feel a bit different. The same terms are there, but somehow have different meanings.

I think this is troublesome trend in the Church: that we aren’t content just to puzzle over the difficulty of reading a 2,000 year old repair manual. Do we simply invent a new device that matches what we think the manual was telling us to build? That seems to fit our understanding of YHWH, our 21st century culture, and our own felt needs?

Wanted: Pastor of Wisdom

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine. He was the lead pastor of a church we started together up in Chicago, however he left a couple of years ago just to take some time off and consider some possible new directions for himself in ministry.

Unfortunately, the economy dropped into the pooper, and church budgets are definitely hurting; finding potential jobs in ministry (or anywhere, for that matter) has been difficult. Not only that, but my buddy definitely doesn’t fit the mold of a “typical” evangelical pastor, personality-wise. Quite like me, he’s not really a “Type A” personality. He’s contemplative, quiet. He’s content to not dominate a room when he walks into it.

We were reflecting on the culture of pastoring nowadays: even though he’s successfully planted and sustained a church (which is more than a lot of pastors can claim), he’s readily passed over due to his relatively mild personality and also, his gift mix.

“You know,” he said, “when I took my spiritual gifts inventory years ago, I was told that I have the spiritual gift of wisdom, and I totally resonate with that, but you know what? Today’s church seems to not need wisdom.”

We laughed, but it’s a bit scary. The gifts that seems to be sought after by the church nowadays are definitely leadership, apostleship, and creativity (in the form of communicating or playing music). Combine any of these with a hard-charging personality and any obvious skill or ability in your chosen ministry field, and you can pretty much guarantee yourself a job on staff somewhere.

But my buddy and I also have been reading the Book of the Acts lately (that’s right, I said the “Book of The Acts”: it’s a more accurate title), and we were struck by Acts 6:

2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…

Wow. So the first criteria to run a “food pantry” for the early church was not a passion for the homeless and/or the gift of administration. It was that you be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.”

I repeatedly encounter church staff that are incredibly skilled individuals, but not as many that could be considered “wise.” Maybe it’s just me, but I connect “wisdom” with a depth of knowledge, and a quiet willingness to apply that knowledge to life in a gentle, practical way.

I wonder how different our churches would appear if the staff that they sought out were wise before they were skillful. If they were encouraged to develop the work of the Spirit in their lives rather than to merely “get things done.” If you are blessed to serve on a church staff already, are you leading out of a depth of wisdom, or merely dispensing your duties? Are you seeking to engage in discussions that develop the deep places of your life, or merely interested in “playing that guitar, monkey boy?!?”

The Disruptive Gospel

As the 20th century drew to a close, a German scientist named Karlheinz Brandenburg was working on a logarithm that would help reduce the size of certain types of computer files; specifically music files. Eventually, he landed on a formula that helped him shrink the size of a standard music composition by about a factor of 10.

Because the file format was designed for a group of scientists known as the Moving Picture Experts Group, it took on an abbreviated version of their name, “mp3.” Aided by the explosion of Napster and websites like mp3.com, the phenomenon of music-as-digital-files exploded.

Music would never be the same.

“Disruptive technology” is technology that enters a given market and, because of its price and or innovation, not only competes in that market, it actually redefines the market entirely. To be concise, it renders “competition” irrelevant, and redefines consumer behavior – it becomes the new standard, the new paradigm.

Whether you officially consider mp3 file compression disruptive technology or not, it’s difficult to argue that the innovation significantly changed the entire paradigm of music consumption. It changed forever our thinking about music (music should be portable, free, and easily shared), as well as our behavior (we either download our music illegally, or pay .99 for a single through iTunes, rather than buying a physical disc or tape from a store).

Mp3 technology had a major part in rendering irrelevant everything else in the “market” of music – CDs, cassette tapes, etc. – and eventually contributed to the entire dismantling of the record industry as we know it.

Now here’s the deal: The Gospel is disruptive technology.

Allow the Gospel to enter into your life, and it has the potential — if we let it — to  realign and redefine our values, thoughts, and behaviors. It renders our old ways of behaving — of our need to control, dominate, and/or manipulate — irrelevant. Hang around long enough, submit to it, and it becomes the new standard of our life, not just something that is an “add on” or a part.

No One Stands Alone

“No One Stands Alone”

The church where my faith initially took root and began to grow legs had a motto, “No One Stands Alone.” I wasn’t a part of its development; I don’t know who came up with it, or what debates may have surrounded its selection. What I do know, however, is that it spoke to a deep need of me and my friends: to know and to be known. That slogan has remained with me as sort of a DNA-like implant on my soul: a church should be a place where no one stands alone, whether at a party or in the darkest hour of need.

Yet, still, this is much more easily said then done. We naturally gravitate towards folks we know, folks who have common passions, interests, and hobbies. In isolation, there’s really nothing wrong with this. But the people of God should somehow be different; there should be a constant “intentionality”, or focus, to practically everything we do. Whenever we gather, the radical expression of hospitality should be right there with us as a subtext. There is always an opportunity to be the voice of welcome, the face of hospitality: all you have to do is too look for those who are standing—or sitting—alone. Welcome them into your conversations; find out what their story is, and tell your own.

I am a self-confessed introvert; one of my favorite off-handed comments is basically, “Yeah, but everyone knows that I don’t like people.” This is obviously meant to be humorous, but I know that this is brokenness and sin in my life — I intensely guard “my time”, and am reluctant to engage “the stranger” in hospitality. At the same time, I burn with indignation and conviction when I see people standing alone, staring at the backs of groups of strangers who are engaging in the well-practiced art of exclusion. The church has become much to adept at this, and we need to stop.

In the same spirit of John’s 1st letter (“We love because he first loved us”), we should welcome others because we were first welcomed by God. We have come from being radical outsiders to the very people of God, and now it’s our turn to look with the eyes of the welcoming Savior to find those who are waiting to know us, and to be also known. What if the next time you attended a worship gathering or event at “church”, you took a moment to pray to God, asking him to give you eyes that would recognize the outsider, the lonely? What if you invited those who were sitting by themselves to join your friends? Your family? I think it would start a quiet, radical revolution of love and invitation in our communities.

Billy

This morning I stumbled across Billy Corgan’s “faith” blog (Twitter is a wonderful thing).

Being an artistic “child” of the 90s, I have a certain soft spot for Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins. They’re responsible for some amazing musical/emotional moments, some of which will always be hardwired into my soul.

It’s also been refreshing to watch, from a distance, Billy Corgan’s journey through faith and spirituality, which really seemed to break through with his brief project of 2002 – 2003, “Zwan“. Billy is just one of those interesting guys in rock and roll, equal parts pretense and honesty, brashness and vulnerability (not to mention he was a neighborhood “homey” from Wrigleyville). For all his faults, he wasn’t afraid to put his search out there for people to see, and that means a lot to me as a fellow “pilgrim” and musician.

So I was glad to find his blog. I make no claims to know exactly where Billy is, faith-wise. There certainly seems to be an acknowledge of the “One God” (and I assume Billy agrees his name is Yahweh), and occasionally Jesus gets thrown in for some extra good measure, but there’s also a lot of “everything else” in there as well: Native American/First People spirituality, some pan-Eastern approaches. It’s definitely a bit “Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink”.

At one point he says this: “Jesus Christ never said to build a church, so enough said about the God system. The real God machine is you. God made you to know to understand, to feel, to grow, to enjoy, to remember. He did not make you to grovel at the feet of another human… Man is lost.”

I had two immediate reactions. First, from a Christian worldview, Billy, you are so close! Yes, God made us to know and understand and feel and grow and enjoy and remember. A thousand times yes! I believe that God’s message to us (through Christ) is one of deep affirmation and love of who we are at our most basic level. It is an affirmation of our humanity (as part of redeemed creation).

But I have to push back (Billy, are you listening? Ha.) on his second point, specifically that Jesus Christ never said to build a church. Yes, in a sense Christ never said to  build a church, and if you read the gospels from an ahistorical, non-contextualized point of view, you can throw all kinds of things into Jesus’ mouth (a lot Christians are experts at this, by the way). Because, even though Jesus never said to build a church, the assumption throughout the entire bible–and the context that Jesus was speaking in–was that God would always have a people for himself to help bring about the redemption of the creation. Jesus never said to build a “church” (how about the definition of church as “Called-Out-Ones”) because, um, he was speaking to the original “church” (called the nation of Israel!).

Simply put, rejecting “church” is like rejecting Jesus. You can’t divorce one from the other. Now, the expression of “church” is another topic altogether, and much more fluid and creative. But unfortunately, Christianity can never, ever be reduced to a hyper-individualized, atomized faith experience. It’s simply another consumer product of the west, masked in a bunch of new age Eastern pop mysticism. You have to have others. You have to participate in the body. You have to be part of the “Called-Out-Ones.”