“Give Me That Old Time Religion…” 

“Religion”, in and of itself is not a bad thing. Remember: the word itself can mean “re-connecting” (re-ligature), and don’t we all need some sense of that?

Reconnection with our heart, soul, mind, bodies?

Reconnection with a power that is greater than ourselves? Reconnection with each other?

I don’t know about you, but I know I sure do.

I stumbled across this video this week, and it’s a powerful reminder of what “religion”, in the form of ritual can do.

A teacher at a school for boys in New Zealand passed away tragically and unexpectedly. As a hearse bore his body to the school for tribute, hundreds of current and former students gathered and performed a traditional haka—a traditional Maori dance—to honor his influence on their lives. To be blunt, I found this video profoundly moving. I sat with tears in my eyes, wondering at the power of this gathering.

Watch it. Watch it all. 

Here’s what I noticed.

  • It is simultaneously aggressive and tender. The haka is associated with war and warriors (the New Zealand “All Blacks” rugby team use it to challenge their opponents). It is meant to intimidate an enemy or opponent, and many of the young men are making aggressive, angry faces. Yet, at the same time, some are obviously sad and weeping. Religion and ritual seems to have a way of “baptizing” our pain and even our aggression. It names something—our teacher has died—but it doesn’t leave us in our pain. It channels it.
  • It is simultaneously ancient and now. The tradition of the haka is pretty old, but it has been sustained in Maori and New Zealand culture. It strikes me that this video is not 20, 30 or 50 years old. By all accounts, these young men should be staring at cell phones and cutting up. But they have given themselves to this “old time” practice and the results are sobering and arresting. Silence. Attention. Gravity and gravitas.
  • It is simultaneously individual and communal. The moves are coordinated and synchronized, but you can see variation in expression. Each young man is processing the pain in his own way while at the same time he’s a part of a larger collective.
  • It is simultaneously tribal and multi-cultural. The haka is decidedly Maori, but the students transcend ethnicity. Though there are some controversies with how the haka has been used, the ritual is not limited to just Maori people. When it’s good, religion and ritual can transcend our tribal, ethnic and cultural captivity and help us express joy and pain in a collective way, as human beings.

Sometimes, I fear that in our quest to be relevant and conversational our North American churches have discarded way to much of our traditions and rituals, and in doing so, we may have cast aside our most powerful tools for “re-connecting” people with their souls and with each other. Many Christian “faith tribes” have whittled down the number of rituals and traditions to two (Baptism and Communion), when there are so many to still choose from. Corporate worship helps, but even that is occasionally being cast aside as “performance art” rather than collective ritual.

Practiced rightly, Christian “ritual” like communion can do all of the things listed above: it can gather us up in a collective but individual experience, simultaneously acknowledge pain, joy and hope, and transcend our ethic and cultural differences. It is certainly ancient and current (and even future, as it proclaims Jesus’ return).

And communion isn’t the only place this happens.

So a thought for you is this: how much ritual is in your life? In particular, how much religion and ritual do you participate in, and do you look at it as a way to give your life (especially your joy and pain) meaning?

Many of us discard ritual and religion, and treat them as disdainful things; things that we did “in that boring Church.” Many of us instead have embraced a conversational, casual faith that is pregnant with emotional engagement and spiritual mountaintops.

My response is, how is that working for you? 

If the main point of spirituality is change and transformation (and I believe it is), is your casual, conversational faith changing you into the likeness of Jesus Christ?

Are your mountaintop experiences accompanying you though the valley of the shadow?

Sometimes I think for a realistic, day-to-day faith and spirituality, we need the old stuff.

The vintage gear.

Not so that we can retreat back into 1950 or 1850 or 1500 or 150CE, but so we can move through today with faith and transcendence.

Words, Pt. 3: “Confess”

In a way, “confess” isn’t all that difficult to understand. At its heart, it simply means to agree with. 

Put into a spiritual (Christian) setting, it most often has to do with our brokenness, our limitations, our “sin.”

If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just an will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

On the surface, this all seems fairly straightforward.

However, if you delve just a little bit deeper into the human psyche and our spirituality, a deeper and fuller implication of “confess” begins to emerge.

For those of us who make some sort of practice of “confession”, it’s easy to keep things at a “just-me-and-Jesus” level. This form of spirituality means that confession remains largely in the realm of a personal, private, individualistic spirituality: we mess up, we confess to God, and then we go on with our lives, reminded that we are forgiven and loved.

The only problem with this approach is that it leaves our pride largely intact. 

More than ever, I think that pride is the thing that hamstrings us more than anything else. It’s the brokenness that keeps us from  admitting that we are not, in fact, “all that,” and that we actually need some help. 

When “confession” is relegated to the private sphere, the “stronghold” of pride is unchecked.

This form confession doesn’t really demand anything of us.

So what’s the alternative?

Simply put, consider inviting someone else into your confession, into your brokenness. 

Make your confession a three-way affair: you, God, and another human being: someone who is able to see you at your (almost?) worst, with warts and all.

In this way, “confession” becomes a powerful weapon in the war against our pride.

The various 12 Step traditions (AA, etc.) have long since understood how important it is for human beings to deal with their pride, and maybe it’s time for the church to recover some of what it has lost over time: namely the discipline of confession.

I’m not calling for the installation of confession booths in evangelical churches, but I think it would be worth it to see our pride dismantled and shattered as we bare our souls to each other.

(Note: Confession like this does not need to be shame-based. The point is never to shame someone into worshiping. Rather, the point of confession is to embrace humility, which is ultimately just being “right-sized” in the world: human beings are seldom the worst of the worst, but they are also not without brokenness. Confession is simply a way that we remind ourselves that we are ultimately human, and therefore imperfect. Or maybe even better: that we are imperfect, and therefore ultimately human.)

Bait, Switch. 

I am just coming off of a season where I’ve focused personally an awful lot on Jesus’ death and resurrection (technically, we’re still in the church season of Easter, but you get the point).

However, there’s this thing about Jesus: He’s always one step ahead of you, and just when you think that you have him figured out, there’s another aspect to him and his ministry, and you’re back at the start again, filled with wonder and shaking your head in humility and amazement (ideally, anyway).

Brennan Manning once wrote (more or less, anyway), “The signature of Jesus is the cross”, and I wholeheartedly believe this. It opens up heaven, defeats evil, frees all of us, and continually challenges and motivates me. Additionally, the resurrection breaks the power of death and sin, and unleashes a whole new power into the world (and, by definition, my life).

But Jesus says there’s still even more

If you take Jesus’ words seriously (and, well, I do), then you have to acknowledge the fact that repeatedly Jesus tell people that you have to pay attention to his teaching—the things he says and does during his minitry.

Over and over again, he flat out tells people, “Look the reason I have come is to teach and preach.” (Check Mark 1:38), John 8:31, and especially John 6:63 and 12:47-48.)

We have a tendancy to focus so much attention on the cross and empty tomb, and then his miracles that we can sometimes tend to lose sight or downplay his teaching agenda.

And he taught a lot: 

  • In “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7, Luke 6) he lays out a vision for life that far transcends any “normal” human life (and I fully believe he expects us to be able to live it).
  • In John’s gospel Jesus says things like, “The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life“ (John 4). He also refers to the fact that “Whoever wants to do God’s will can tell whenter my teaching is from God or whether I speak on my own” (7:17).

These are challenging teachings because (a) they often don’t fit into the neat little boxes we draw for ourselves regarding faith and (b) they actually challenge the way most of us look at and live in the world.

I think it’s pretty odd that we ignore Jesus’ own words to focus on his teachings.

Sometimes I think it’s because—as crazy as it seems—we get uncomfortable because his teachings expect too much of us. For those of us who grew up in church, it’s sometimes actually “easy” to focus on Good Friday and Easter, possibly because of the “paid for” and “finished” aspect to them (and I believe that).

But when you look at what Jesus taught, you realize that he actually expects more of you.

It’s like—if we were to actually take him at his word(s)—he actually expects transformation.

And that makes us uncomfortable.

We want to go to heaven, but often we don’t want to actually change beforehand. We are just as content to remain angry, pride-filled, self-focused, and addicted and compulsive.

I think Jesus’ ministry was a continual call to transformation that culminated in the cross and then the resurrection, but it’s not like that call ended with the four gospels.

The call is still going on.

What do you need to change?

I’m All About That Bass (But Not Like THAT)…

There was a season of my life that I was fortunate enough to spend a fair amount of time in recording studios (and get paid—at least a little bit—for it). My typical method of recording songs was to build a track from the ground up: get the drums and bass happening, then add rhythm instruments, guitar solos and “ornamentation”, then end with vocals.

However, once I found myself working with an engineer who was also going to play bass in the session. We worked together to build the tracks, but at some point the tracks were practically complete—even the lead vocals…

… except for the bass.

When I asked him about it, he said, “I like to leave bass to the last; that way I can craft my bass line around what is still missing from the track.”

Personally, I suspected that it was only because he was a bass player, and he wanted more important of a role than what most bass players have (it’s a prejudice I have, I know).

However, I was reading something recently, and the writer was remarking how he liked bassists and bass lines, how the bass moves the song along and unifies it. 

I thought: “My oh my—how profoundly spiritual.”

The simple question is this: What moves your life along? What unifies it? 

Our spirituality should be more than just a vague set of beliefs or events that we go to. Our spiritual practices (and I suggest you get some if you don’t have any) should do the same thing a good bass line does: it should bring unity and understanding to your life, and it should propel it forward. 

So there’s this:

But better yet, there’s this: 

Just Something…

There was a a news piece today: roughly 140 children were murdered by the Taliban in Pakistan.

One hundred-forty lives robbed. In the name of religion.

I honestly don’t know what to do with this information: I can’t pretend empathy or remote understanding.

But I want to just say something briefly:

Largely because of violence of ISIS/ISIL, I’ve been doing some reading on Islam lately (I even bought a copy of the Qur’an). I’ve also been doing some reflecting on my own religous tradition (Christianity), and I think I just want to put this out there:

God does not want your (or our) fanaticism.

Whatever revelation you claim—Judaism, Islam, or Christian—the God of Abraham does not want your violence, or your extremism.

I think there is just plenty of evidence that what God offers us—when we really LISTEN and are willing to be humble before Him and His people—is TRANSFORMATION, not fanaticism.

Love, not hate.

Understanding, not close-mindedness.

Love, by nature, EXPANDS, not contracts.

We should be bigger people, not smaller.

Whether your fundamentalism comes in Jewish, Muslim, or Christian forms, it only causes destruction. And I just don’t think God is a god of destruction. He comes to give life and shalom. 

From my own tradition, this—I believe, is why Jesus came—to call us into this wide-open kingdom of grace.

(But then again, they killed him, didn’t they?)

This Just In: I’m Not Perfect

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s already been an interesting Thanksgiving/Advent season. I’ve experienced two losses in my world: one in my extended family and one in my community here in Tallahassee. Maybe I’ll write more on that later, but suffice it to say for now that my journey towards Christmas 2014 is, for now, marked with a certain sobriety and even somber-ness.

My family spent the holiday weekend in Memphis; on Saturday night we decided to go to church together (since, because of my vocation, we rarely get to sit in a whole gathering as a family).

So we jumped in our car and drove to a United Methodist Church in Memphis that had a Saturday evening gathering. Because it was (a) the south, and (b) rivalry weekend (the gathering was pretty much overlapping the end of the Florida/Florida State game and the beginning of Auburn/Alabama) there really weren’t many people there.

The worship team did their job (sort of, but more on that later), and the preacher got up to speak.

Frankly, I heard some pretty profound things, but it really didn’t have much to do with him.

At one point, the preacher read from one of my all-time most influential authors, Brennan Manning. Here’s what he read:

“I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.

‘But how?’ we ask.

Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’

There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.” (Ragamuffin Gospel)

In that quote, something got triggered inside of me, particularly in the “insecure clergyman addicted to being liked” part.

Because, in so many ways, that’s me.

I am addicted to being liked, and to being perfect (at least in my own mind), and that addiction—and the fear behind it—has been holding me back. 

It’s been holding me back from things that God wants to do in me and, I believe, through me. 

In that moment, I sensed God saying to me, “You’ll never be perfect, Eric, and I don’t expect you to. In fact, I have never expected you to be perfect; that’s something from inside you, not me. Set yourself free from this expectation, and just move forward with the realization that you will be simply who you will be. Imperfect and broken, but trying; it will be okay.” 

Now, lightning didn’t strike or anything, but this was pretty profound, and it happened in an instant. It was certainly food for thought, and I am still working out the implications.

But that’s a good thing to hear, and also a good thing for all of us to remember: God is not surprised by our imperfections or our brokenness. We can/will never be perfect parents,

or children,

or pastors,

or spouses,

or friends,

or Christians.

I guess that just means we are left with being human: which is the beginning of something pretty special.


Noticed in November, Pt 7 :: “I Don’t Wanna”

Hear all the songs here.

So… I started playing guitar probably in 1982 or 1983; this means that I am, more or less, a musical child of the 80s. This means a couple of things: first, I definitely know how to play guitar solos. It was like essential musical knowledge for us. A lot of that changed literally after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but before that, the notes and the fingers were a-flyin. 

Secondly, I’m influenced by the way music was played in the 80s. To make a long story very short, the 80s were a study of musical contrasts. On the one hand, some bands were very distant and style-conscious. Music could be very cold and precise. On the other hand, there were a handful of artists that rebelled against that detachment and chose to wear their hearts boldly on their sleeves. In a documentary on the making of U2’s The Joshua Tree, Brian Eno said that U2 recognized that “being cool was a sort of detachment from yourself,” and they decided to reject that. Their music is full of vulnerability and “grand-ness.”

But they weren’t alone.

There were other bands who leaned into this engagement. They decided to make music that was big and emotive. In ways it was very un-pretentious, and it lacked self-awareness. It just… was. People jumped around on stage; there was no shame in “being into” the music. Enthusiasm was welcomed.

The other two bands that most readily come to mind that made this kind of music were The Alarm (from Wales) and a band from America called The Call. (If you listen to The Call’s, “What Happened to You“, you can actually hear a young singer from Dublin who named himself Bono singing backup.)

Neither of these bands achieved anywhere close to the longevity of U2, but for those of us who were there, we realized that bands like these were touching something inside us that was innocent and excited to be alive.

Sometimes I wonder where music like that is now; it seems like bands—and music in general—exist in this calculated, “always on” zone where “being cool” is always necessary. At its extreme, it can feign humility and flirt with some kind of false embarrassment about being in a band, like enjoying art is some kind of crime.

The Call’s “I Don’t Wanna” is about as simple of a song as they come: it’s two chords, for crying out loud. Over a tribal drum beat, singer Michael Been sings tortured lines to someone or something. 

Truth be told, I don’t know the exact story behind the lyrics, but they are powerful to me, particularly these:

I ain’t here to tell you what you need
I ain’t gonna take a noble stand
I ain’t here to look you in the eye
Or beg for you to understand
I can only tell you what I’ve seen
I can only tell you how it felt
When my heart was crushed so bad inside
Till I felt the hatred slowly melt

I need this, have felt it once or twice, that moment when something presses down on you so heavily that all of a sudden the walls come down and you feel something break and release inside you.

It’s sort of what it means to be alive, I think.


The video below is their first single, “The Walls Came Down”. (The studio track surprisingly featured Garth Hudson from The Band on keyboards, whom I wasn’t to discover for another decade.)

*Postscript: Singer Michael Been tragically passed away just a few years ago at the age of 60. However, his son was in one of my other favorite bands from the early 2000s: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. He did some shows fronting the Call in a tribute to his father. Legit.