What You Give is Who You Are

I spent this weekend with some friends in Texas; they’ve been inviting me to come play music at their church for about 10 years now, so every 18 months or so I make the quick trip (Sat-Sun) to the Lone Star state and worship together.

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting them (aside from the relationship) is the fact that their lead pastor is a fairly unabashed fan of electric guitar, and the blues in particular. In fact, there have been times that he has flat told me to “play more.” He likes it when I let go, and I think from his perspective it blesses the church, so he encourages it.

On Saturday night a group of us went out to dinner, and I spent some time chatting with some gifted worship leaders who were also serving. Over the course of the conversation we got into a conversation that I (unfortunately) have had over and over again with “church musicians”: it’s the conversation about “freedom” and “expression” in the church.

When is too much?

When are we being distracting?

Should we close open our eyes?

Should we close our eyes?

I have been playing music in churches now for 18 years. When I was being interviewed for my first job, one of my interviewers asked me pointedly, “Do you own an acoustic guitar?” (I did not; I am primarily an electric guitar player.)

His point was that church culture pointed to the idea of a worship leader who plays acoustic guitar and sings.

So I bought an acoustic guitar, and though I led primarily from electric in the first few years, I told myself that when I “grew up” I would play acoustic for worship, since that’s what all the “real worship leaders” did. Eventually I tried it, and kept it up off and on for a few years, butI put the acoustic down (on Sundays, anyway) about 5 years ago, when I came to the conclusion that i am an electric guitar player.

I feel most natural, and most “at home” this way. For the most part, this “at home-ness” translates to people. As far as I can tell, when I’m playing electric–even if I’m playing “authoritatively” or even an intense solo–what people experience is me being quite natural.

This was not the case with acoustic guitar. I felt uncomfortable. Limited. Odd.

In my experience, the issue with worship leaders is not so much what instrument (if any) they play or HOW they play it (as long as it’s somewhat proficiently): rather, the issue is

“Where are you the most at home?”

I don’t frame this as a selfish question. In a way, a worship gathering is like a 3-way dialogue between the worship leader(s), the congregation and God.

If the worship leader isn’t at home in his/her own skin, how can they have a natural, engaged dialogue with the congregation? Or even God?

This isn’t an advocacy for the “worship guitar solo”. It’s not a call to put all worship leaders behind acoustic guitars or pianos.

It’s a call–or more preferably an invitation–for worship leaders to go on a journey of musical (and spiritual self-discovery and to know very deeply who they are, and where they are at home. It’s actually more important than you think, because ultimately you can only bring who you are–acoustic, electric, vocalist, etc–to the community. You cannot bring someone else to this event, this conversation.

People don’t need to hear from who you think they need to hear from. They need to hear from you; the deepest, truest part of you. You owe to them, and to yourself to learn and know who that is, so you can bring that gift.

Relatedly, it’s also a call for lead pastors and churches to be a part of this journey as well, and recognize both when a musician is “not at home and when they are. Rather than just assume, “Worship leaders in our church lead from acoustic (or whatever)”, watch for when things just seem to “click”, and the dialogue between the leader, the congregation, and God comes alive.

(And then listen for the guitar solo…)

BTW, I’m not sure this counts as someone who feels “at home” (2:10):

 

+e

Twitter: @ericcase

About these ads

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)?

 

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?

++++++++++++++++++++++>

“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.

*e

=============================

 

 

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?