“Movement of Jah People” … Exodus Week 1

So my bible study/growth group is going through the book of Exodus for the next… who knows? As long as it takes, I guess. It occurred to me that maybe I could post some thoughts here that I/we pull out of the text for any who miss the group meetings or for any who might be interested in what we’re learning…

General Thoughts

“Exodus” isn’t really “Exodus”, first of all. We derived that name from the Septuagint, the Greek version of Hebrew Scriptures. In Hebrew the book is called “Names”, from the first line of the book (roughly, “… and these are the names.”). It’s the second book of the Pentateuch, the books of Moses, and is central to Israel’s (and, I argue our) understanding of itself and YHWH. I once heard a scholar argue that you can understand the first five books of the bible as God’s People’s Birth, Childhood, Adolescence, and eventual Maturity. If that’s the case, then Exodus is the definite childhood, where their identity and God’s identity is cemented forever, in the same way that our own childhood can cement our self-perception as well as the understanding of who our parents are.

Chapter 1

The book opens up with Israel in Egypt, where Joseph (one of the Twelve sons of Jacob) had brought them to escape famine. In Genesis, God’s people is a family of creative and interesting characters: Abraham, the sly deal-maker; Jacob/Israel, who steals his brother’s birthright and “wears the stretchy pants” with God; Joseph, the upstanding (but sometimes arrogant with his brothers) dream-interpreter.

Before we go seven verses into Exodus, however, we enter a new territory. We are told that Jacob’s family has now “had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly that they became extremely powerful and filled the land.” Gone are the individual names of cousins, aunts and uncles. Now they have “multiplied” and “filled the land.” In a few short verses we learn that God has plans to turn this family from Genesis into something much more: a people. God is never after “just” individuals; He is always seeking a people (though still a family) to carry out His mission in the world. Eventually these seeds will bloom into the church that Paul talks so beautifully about in Ephesians 1 and 2. But Exodus is the birth—the sowing—of this seed.

Unfortunately, the population explosion of God’s people bring them into conflict with the political and military power of Egypt. In the face of this life bursting forth, Egypt becomes almost irrationally fearful and threatened. “Look,” Pharaoh says, “the people of Israel (see they’re now a people, ed) now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.”

It’s important to understand who Egypt is. Egypt is an empire. They are the big dogs. They rule with sociopolitical and military might. They have the power to sustain life, or to crush it.

Or so they think.

As they begin to feel threatened (which brings up a whole other host of questions, primarily, “Why does this empire feel threatened by a group of powerless slaves?“), Pharaoh (and thus Egypt) begin to take steps to crush Israel. But they can’t. The coming confrontation between YHWH and Egypt—between God’s people and empire—is the story of God’s undeniable, life-affirming, liberating “gospel” (yes, “good news” existed even back then!) opposing the earthly, worldly-but-life-negating empire of the Egyptians.

What we will see in Exodus is the character of God established, and it will remain consistent from Exodus to Isaiah, to Mark’s gospel story, to Paul’s re-imagining of Israel’s story in Romans, to Revelation.

  • With God, life cannot be denied. It bursts forth despite repeated attempts to crush it.
  • God is inclined to the powerless. Israel has no power compared to Egypt; yet God favors the broken and crushed.
  • Passing through the water—even when it symbolizes death—signifies salvation.
  • Good things can happen in the desert.
Get ready. This is going to be epic (even without Charlton Heston).
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“Gospel Artists”, pt 1

We have too many maps.

In general, maps do a great job of (a) telling you where you are, and (b) telling you where you need to go. Some of them even tell you the fastest route to get there. Maps are efficient and effective.

But what maps can not do, almost by definition, is how to discover something unexpected. They cannot tell you how to find that beautiful accident: a scenic highway, the fruit stand with amazing  peaches, the funky old barn right beyond the turn of the road.

It’s the job of maps to be accurate and efficient; that’s their nature.

But sometimes, I think we need to acknowledge that we need something “beyond” (or “short of”) a map.

As human beings, disciples, and ministers in the 21st century, I think we live in a time where “Gospel Maps” abound all around us. Books and conferences, CDs and Podcasts abound, all sharing the best ideas from around the world. We are inundated with information about how to find out what God is doing in the world, and then how to translate that into gospel activities.

But they are all maps. And maps inhibit discovery; they inhibit serendipity; they give us the easy way to get from Point A to Point B.

And I’m not sure that “efficiency”, and even “accuracy” is the point of living the Gospel Life.

What if the point is “creativity”, “innovation”, and “love”.

Maps can’t really tell you how to ultimately do that.

In Linchpins, Seth Godin writes, “The reason that art is valuable is precisely why I can’t tell you how to do it. If there were a map, there’d be no art, because art is the act of navigating without a map.”

From 1997–2001, I was a part of a ministry that was attempting to connect with a new generation of believers that saw the world slightly differently than their parents and grandparents. In the early years of Axis, finding any other “partners” in ministry was difficult. In fact, we only knew of two other ministries in the entire U.S. that seemed to be speaking our language.

In other words, there were no maps.

There were no conferences to go to.

There were no minor ministry celebrities to follow on Twitter.

There were only three widely-released CDs of worship music that sounded like “us”.

Let me say that again: there were only three widely-released worship CDs that resonated with what we were doing. 

No maps.

We had no choice, but to try and innovate. We looked at each other, and called out the best of our creativity and imagination and will. We experimented, we implemented, we corrected, focused and re-focused.

I think that our history as believers is chock full of innovators, people who found themselves in places where there either were no maps, or the maps they thought they had were incorrect:

Brennan Manning…

Henri Nouwen…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer…

Karl Barth…

Thomas á Kempis…

Martin Luther…

Augustine…

Paul of Tarsus…

John The Beloved Disciple…

James the Just…

… and, of course, Jesus Christ.

All of these artists innovated fearlessly and creatively. Their imaginations were fully engaged, and though (save Jesus) they made mistakes (yup, they made mistakes) they kept forging ahead rather than retreat to the map.

Today, maps surround us. You can follow any number of ministry blue prints and worship styles. Hundreds of “new” ideas/maps are thrown at us—daily—through Amazon, Lifeway, Catalyst, Passion, Willow, Hillsong, Twitter, etc. etc.

But is this your best? Is this the best imagination that you can bring to the table?

Understandably, sometimes we need a map. Sometimes we need to get from Chicago to Richmond quickly and efficiently. But if we never got off the major interstates, would we ever discover the farmer’s market outside of Winchester? (The most amazing apple pie, ever, btw.)

I think our Gospel—our Good News—deserves more than a map. It deserves all of our imagination and effort.

Where are you relying too much on Gospel Maps?

Where do you need to learn—or what do you need to throw away—in order to become a Gospel Artist? 

Wrong Question

Clarity.

I’ve been seeking it, praying for it, for months now. Years.

What’s next? Where should I be pouring my heart, my soul?

What am I waiting for? 

Sometimes “clarity” comes in hints, like the first hints of springtime warmth through March clouds, but oftentimes it evaporates just as quickly (if you live in Chicago in particular, you know how fast “springtime warmth” disappears in March). At any rate, I’ve hungered for it so much. I want my next steps to be clear, to be paving-stone solid in front of me.

All of that disappeared in the rumpled-up paper of a Brennan Manning book (water-logged by a friend, but it was a sacrifice that was well worth it)…

“Craving clarity,” he writes, “we attempt to eliminate the risk of trusting God.”

Ouch.

At what point does “clarity” begin to war against “faith”? At what point does our desire for certainty undermine our need for trust and obedience?

I think I need to revise my prayers…

Why I Wrestle…

There’s a wonderful scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Miranda Priestly, played by the amazing Meryl Streep addresses her new assistant’s (played by Anne Hathaway) indifference — even disdain — for the world of high fashion that the fictional Runway magazine reports on. (watch the scene here; I’ll wait.)

I was thinking about this recently while wrestling through a book on the relationship between Paul and 1st century rabbinic Judaism (fascinating, I know). Streep’s character points out the relationship between the frontiers of “high fashion” and the seemingly mindless, instinctive choices that Hathaway’s character makes in shopping and picking out clothes each day.

“You think this has nothing to do with you,” she says. “What you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s cerulean. And you’re also unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns … and then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers; and then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down to some tragic casual corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance rack … It’s sort of comical how think you’ve made a choice that somehow exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”

Chilly elitism aside, I think this is important. Theology — thoughts and study about God – is always growing and changing. Archaeology is revealing more about Jesus and Paul and their context. It’s easy to think that theology is irrelevant to our daily lives, but I think that wrestling with “deep things” is like high fashion – as folks think through the really big issues, it will work its way through the seminaries, colleges and churches and eventually into our daily lives. The problem is that I’m afraid many of us are wrestling with the equivalent of acid washed jeans and polyester shirts. The truth is, God is doing new things, always. Are we (as pastors and leaders) willing to wrestle with the “high fashion” theological questions — not so we can be faddish or “cool” but so we can keep in step with what we are coming to know about God, Jesus, and their message and mission for the world?

I believe we will walk out our theology; we will speak it into others’ lives; we will proclaim it from the platform.

I want to know why we pick the Cerulean sweater.

What I Learned in 2010…

Last year was a pretty cool year, all in all. I preached a lot, served as the interim pastor at my church, recorded a pretty amazing record (just you wait!), and feel like I grew a ton, albeit in ways that few people may actually see. Boiling the year down to some key learnings, it looks a bit like this…

  1. Musically, I am an “outlier”. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell does an extended examination of what it takes to master a craft or skill. Using examples of Mozart, Bill Gates and the Beatles (among others), he concludes that, rather than some kind of strange, random “anointing”, expertise actually comes from hard work and time spent learning a craft, skill, or instrument. As I prepared for a message this year, I realized (some shockingly) that I had probably put my “10,000 Hours” in on guitar around 2003/2004. While it may sound arrogant, it was liberating to me to realize that I could probably claim some level of “mastery” of guitar. (Let me clear: this does not mean that I’m somehow the best guitar player in the world — or even on my block. What it does mean that I have little trouble making wood, metal, and electricity do and say exactly what I want it to.)

    The results of this revelation has freed me to actually look at music as something that I can give to others, rather than something I consume all the time.

  2. “The success of my organization is my success”. I wrote this in my journal sometime in 2010, and it really impacted me. Sometimes, the organization you are in — work, church, etc. — makes choices that you may not agree with personally. At that point, it’s easy to choose to rebel or withdraw because there appears to be a less than 100% “alignment” with your personal values and goals. However, rebellion and withdrawal is not a productive “strategy”. Furthermore, believing that an organization’s goals and values somehow limit your own is thinking that is governed by scarcity. You are not reduced by your organization’s success. By contributing to your job’s success, you have the opportunity to grow more, live more, understand more.
  3. Growth is always an option. In 2010 I turned 42. I’ve struggled all my life with fear, frustration, and — to a certain degree — resentment. And yet, I saw more growth in these areas in my life last year than probably in the previous 5. No matter where you are in life; no matter how “old” (or young) you are, you can always choose to grow, and it’s always an option.

    Relatedly…

  4. God’s power is limitless. That’s the only way I can put it, really. We may know this God as someone who does these physically impossible miracles (dead back to life, seas being parted, walking on water, etc., etc.), but the daily miracles — someone receiving peace when they usually get angry; of someone being able to experience emotional maturity after decades of stunted growth – are just as earth-shaking. His power is always available to help us follow Him, to mature us into fruit-bearing trees.

    Relatedly…

  5. To access that power, you have to make yourself available. The thing that changed in 2010 was my commitment to private practices of prayer, solitude and study. To date, my prayers have been sporadic and reactionary, offered up after “Prayer Requests” or before some special event (or when I felt especially guilty). As I began to regularly practice a form of prayer, I can definitely say that God’s Spirit-inside-of-me began to dwell more actively, and my life began to change.

    To often, we live our lives with the expectation that God will “just do” something supernatural when He wants to, and we are largely the passive recipients in this life.  While He is always the prime–as well as the primary–mover and actor, we are meant to be co-participants with Him in this life. Most of us sit around hoping that God will heal us or change us. History tells us otherwise: that men and women who have seen God’s power move in their lives have been devoted to prayer and other disciplines in order to “make room” for the Spirit of God to move in our lives.

    Relatedly…

  6. The “slower frequencies” have the most impact. I’m still unpacking this metaphor for myself, but it works like this: in music, the bass (lowest frequency) drum hits less frequently than the high hat (highest frequency), but sonically it carries the longest and furthest (ever heard a car drive by with some really massive speakers? you get the point).

    Our culture lives life in the high frequencies — statuses and technology pulling us into ever tighter spirals of interaction. Update after update, conversation after conversation. Life lived in moments. While these “high frequency” moments are necessary and even fun, the slow, low frequency of prayer and meditation can have the longest and deepest impact. The “unsexy” traditions of sitting before God in prayer, devotion and meditation are like ripples that spread out through the day of a believer (like me), and they allow you to move through the high frequency interactions of our day with a stillness and peace that is necessary to have a deep life.

  7. Scripture is endlessly fascinating. We are a “people of the book” (along with our Muslims and Jewish cousins), and so we must constantly wrestle with what scripture is and what God is trying to tell us. I find that a lot of what I’ve been taught scripturally isn’t quite correct, or that it’s only skimmed the surface of what God was trying to get through. There are so many resources, so many threads to follow. Jesus was ten times more radical and provocative than you’d ever think, but so much of that has been lost due to the emphasis on faith (and therefore, the Bible) as being all about getting you, as an individual, into Heaven. As deep and amazing as that is, it’s just the surface. Jesus’ (and God’s) agenda is so much bigger than that. It was (and is) “creation-sized.”

 

So that’s really it. That was my 2010. It was an amazing year, all told. Saw God move in pretty amazing ways. Saw “miracles” of the every day variety. Saw a little boy cling to life for weeks in July. Saw faith spring up in people who didn’t expect it. Saw people embrace new calls on their life, to wake up to new visions of their lives. Experienced contentment, peace, and a little freedom.

Let’s see what happens in 2011.

Creativity in Worship (v2010) + Collaborative Leadership

Twice — I think in 2000 and 2001 — I was privileged to teach a seminar at the Willow Creek Arts Conference called something like “Towards Spontaneity in Worship.” The seminar was designed to help worship leaders safely navigate being able to have some “unplanned creativity” in worship: extended outros, “Holy Spirit” moments where the worship leader can just open up some space to respond to something that God made may be doing.

In my estimation, the seminars weren’t all that good; I’m not that great at unpacking things that I do intuitively (just ask me to try and give you a guitar lesson!). But last night I was thinking about it, after a couple of “unplanned musical moments” in our worship set yesterday, and realized that I had something to add to the topic. So here you go:

In order to experience some kind of spontaneity in worship (or in any creative enterprise), a leader must be willing to acknowledge that what others might be offering — in terms of notes, ideas, or melodies — may be better than what that leader had in mind.

If you can’t start here, I’m not sure that it’s possible to experience much in the way of spontaneity. Why? Because you’ll control it. And as long as it’s only you controlling it, you won’t encounter much of anything that you haven’t already thought of or discovered. To use a metaphor, I think that most leaders look at a task (or a song) much like a musical equation that they have come up with: A + B = C. A collaborative leader is willing to introduce an unknown or two: A + B + __ = __. The end result might be “C”, but it also might be C*.

Adopt the mindset that everyone on your team — everyone in the room or at the table — has something potentially amazing to give to the experience, and the possibilities become endless! Release control that the song is supposed to end the way you wanted it to; that the chorus is supposed to be quiet rather than loud; that a ministry should have one strategy versus another.

You are still “the leader”; you still have the right to say, “No thanks.” But in the meantime, entertaining the idea that there is something better residing in the hearts and minds of your musicians and/or team makes introduces the concept that something new, unplanned and unexpected can be created out of your collective efforts.

… And that’s fun!

What can you release control of?

I Know Where She Is…

Meet my sister. She’s five years older than me, and mostly amazing.

She’s been inspiring and challenging me for decades now (I’m excluding the first 12 or so years, because then she mostly just picked on me…), and now she’s moving gently but firmly into a new arena of life and ministry.

Please take 30 minutes and listen to her teach. Her message is about what you do when you find out that you’re not where you think you are in life. When expectations aren’t matching up with reality.

I know where she is… she’s following close behind a rabbi.