Morning.

I woke up this morning at… well, 3:15.

I tried to go back to sleep, but by 3:45, I realized it was pointless, and I went ahead and woke up. One of my mentors has always maintained that we should assume that when we wake up, God wants us awake and we should respond accordingly.

They probably never saw me as a teenager when my parents tried to wake me up.

God may have wanted me awake, but that didn’t necessarily mean I had to be thrilled about it.

MOST of the time, in fact, I am able to stave off God, and you know what? He actually respects that. It’s as if He’s like a child: He pokes and prods me like a 5 year old on Christmas morning. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon get up, it’s happening! It’s here!” Except “It” is simply just another day, and not the once-a-year mad festival of gifts.

But the metaphor breaks down, because for me most of the time if I simply ignore him once or twice, he leaves me alone and I go back to sleep. If he was truly a child he’d bug me unceasingly until I woke up and got the coffee brewing. But as a spiritual master once said, “God is a perfect gentleman,” and so when he occasionally whispers, “Psssst. Hey: why don’t you wake up? I have some amazing things to talk to you about!” And I respond with disinterested grunts, and then roll over to squeeze another 45 minutes of time out of my night, he actually says (with really no disappointment, but with an amazing, unending disinterested love, “Okay… Maybe next time!”

That’s pretty much God. Always there. Always wanting to meet with me. Always willing. Never disappointed. Never shaming. Never quilting.

Just wants to know that he wants to meet with me. Pretty much any old time.

And then again, that’s pretty much me. Frumpy. Slightly lazy. REALLY, REALLY into what I’m doing at the moment, rather than looking up from my work (or my pillow) to see this bright-eyed child who just wants to sit with me, who really just wants me to know that, “Hey, I love you.”

An Open Letter+

It started with waking up to an alert on my phone:

“20 Dead in Orlando nightclub shooting.”

(I wake up to WAY too many of these alerts lately, but that’s the price of living in the States these days…)

I do my work on Sundays, trying to connect people with God, sometimes through music, words, or conversations. I plan and listen, situate and discern as best I can.

I get to work pretty early on Sundays—6:30AM if possible—and I usually put everything on “Do Not Disturb” so I can keep my head clear and my world quiet as long as possible before it’s no longer possible.

Sometime before the congregation arrived I checked my phone again, and my spirit darkened even more as I read, “Death toll in Orlando at 49…”

What is a pastor supposed to do in these cases?

I took a deep breath, and then I did the thing that, in retrospect, I now regret.

I went ahead with the plan of the day.

It was not malice, or callousness towards LBGTQ people, that caused me to “stick to the message” that day. I just literally neglected to pull my head up above the mire long enough to think about and *really process* what had happened.

I now regret that.

Maybe it’s just a sort of “numb-ness” to it all. A rather sad conviction that this is the world in which we now live. I don’t know.

But I know I think I should have said something.

And so I write this now. Maybe a day late and a dollar short. Who knows?

But here’s what I want anyone who reads this to know:

Any strain of religion—Christianity, Islam, or Judaism—that preaches hate and de-humanization—is really no religion at all, at least in the purest sense of the word. Religion is meant to pull things together (our souls, our communities), not destroy them. I don’t know whether or not the shooter was ultimately motivated by blind, irrational hatred of life in general, some demons that he sees in the West, or something specific in Gay and Lesbian people, but I do know that his targets that night were specifically gay, lesbian and transgender human beings that night. That makes the “Universe” (and in my world the Abrahamic God that is behind that universe) weep with abject sorrow and even bitterness at what is being done “in His name.”

Don’t bring my God into your violence.

Everyone deserves to have a beer, or to dance, or to worship, in safety.

We all deserve to be in a space where we will not be shot at or yelled at because of our lives. Jesus had this way of holding some pretty intense beliefs about God, *and yet not really getting in anyone’s way who wished to hang around him or his message.*

I am so sorry for this tragedy. I don’t know how much guns are to blame (surely a little?), an undiagnosed mental illness (perhaps?), an unreasonable perversion of faith, blind hatred of a people group?

I don’t know.

I just know it’s wrong.

I’m sorry I didn’t pray for the victims and their families. I’m sorry I didn’t cry out to God more for the brokenness of this world.

For me, I share the perspective of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who writes that only in religion—true, uniting and life-affirming religion—can we ultimately break the cycle of violence and death in our world.

Economics won’t fix it.

Politics won’t fix it.

Science won’t fix it.

Only the best of faith can give what we all want most, at our deepest and most human levels: a deep sense of meaning and the sense that “every thing is going to be alright.”

Nights like last Saturday night challenge that. But I refuse to (a) give into the despair that would toss faith out with the bathwater, or (b) give into cynical hate that demands a strike back, or a cold shoulder.

I guess I’m opting for messiness, and to be honest, I don’t really need any more mess in my life. It’s not like I don’t have enough of that going on already.

But this is reality.

I’ll opt for hope. I’ll try to opt for love and compassion and acceptance.

You see, I really I have no other choice. I’ve signed on to follow this Jesus guy, because, like his disciples told him long ago, “Where else could we go? No one else has the words of life.”

So I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better next time.

Unfortunately for us in the US, I know there most likely will be a next time.

“Stuck Inside a Saturday Rain”

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Did you ever think that the resurrection could have gone down in an entirely different way?

In one sense, we didn’t really need Saturday… Jesus could have given up his spirit, then died, and then bounced back to life immediately. After all, God is not all that bound by time so he’s really capable of doing anything he wants in any timeframe that he wants…

But instead we have all of Friday and all of Saturday…

Which means we have doubt.

It’s simply not good enough or even accurate to maintain that the disciples were just sitting around on a Saturday biding their time until Sunday. The Biblical record would show that they were, well, freaked out. Devastated. Maybe they were left with a shred of hope, but overall what they have witnessed—the betrayal, the arrest, the torture, the beating, the execution—had shaken them to their core.

Saturday in Holy Week is a day of anticipation and hope, but it is also necessarily a day of faith and doubt.

Sometimes I think that Jesus left us with a Saturday (and a Friday for that matter) so that we would know that doubt is not only okay but is actually integral to the life of faith. For my part, while I wish I did not have periods of doubt, and that my faith was rock steady and consistent in the face of whatever life threw at me, I know otherwise.

My vision gets blurry. My hope fades sometimes. My trust waivers.

And all this from a pastor?

But here’s the deal: the disciples doubted. They lost hope, at least temporarily.
Sometimes, we fall into the trap that thinking that faith means never having doubts… we think that to believe means that the sun will always shine, and that will never be confused, and that we will never be afraid, that we will never look to the heavens and ask “why God?”

But that’s not really the definition, is it? There’s a distinction between faith and knowledge, and we are called to one and not so much the other.

(Hint: the answer rhymes with “faith”.)
Though the Gospels fairly consistently show that Jesus responds to radical faith, they also consistently show that he understands our human weakness. Somehow, someway doubt is a part of our legacy. Though we are not called to remain in it perpetually, neither are we called to pretend that it does not exist.
God allows for Saturday. Not just once, but over and over and over again.
Here’s to the doubters; Sunday’s coming.

A Blessing for Good Friday…

May you complete this journey fully…

May you face your sin and brokenness completely and unflinchingly…

May you realize what it cost Jesus of Nazareth to heal this broken world…

May you mourn deeply…

May your gratitude be deep and heartfelt …

May you anticipate Sunday… (But not just yet)

May you feel the sadness of the death of an innocent man…

May you shudder in the doubt of the tomb on holy Saturday…

May you walk these final steps with bravery and courage and faith…
May you realize that this death healed the world in a complete and powerful way… That it declares that the darkness will not win…

Amen

Confession

I’m supposed to like record players; I know this.

I’m supposed to like them because I’m a musician, and somehow I’m still slightly cool (at least, my 18-year old daughter still tells me that).

So just those two things alone are supposed to add up to me liking (and collecting) vinyl.

Oh, and then add into the fact that I’m white, and (somehow) middle-class.

This is a slam-dunk, people.

But here’s the deal:

I really don’t.

And it’s not like I haven’t tried: Just like I was supposed to, I retrieved my old records from my parents’ house years ago, in preparation for when I’d get my own turn table and begin to revel once again in that warm analog sound.

I prepared for this!

Then a year or two ago, I even talked my parents (in Virginia) out of their turntable, which was/is a decent Yamaha model from the 80s. When I got it home to Florida, it didn’t work right, but I figured, “Hey, I’ve got time to get this thing repaired, and then I’m gonna be just as cool as all of my hipster friends!”

Then my family got me both a new turntable and a vinyl copy of Funeral by Arcade Fire.

Folks, it doesn’t get any more hip than that.

So I played the Arcade Fire (starting with, what else, “Wake Up”), and then started to cycle through my old records, and in about 5 minutes I remembered something about vinyl that I’d long since forgot:

Vinyl scratches really easily.

I remember being 13 or 14 and sitting down to listen to my favorite “LP” or “45” and being shocked and devastated when a skip or a scratch appeared. I remember delicately handling the records only to have mysterious clicks and skips appear no matter what I did.

My memory wasn’t that rosy.

What’s more, I discovered that I really enjoyed having my entire catalog of music available on my iPhone, my desktop, my laptop, my iPad (as long as there is WIFI, of course), and my AppleTV.

It like the convenience.

And as far as the tone goes, I get that I am losing sound in the compression (as good as it gets), and let’s face it analog warmth does trump (ugh) digital clarity sometimes.

But here’s the thing: 1) To a certain degree, I can EQ for warmth. I roll off some highs, and bring up some some low-midrange, and revel in the color of a nice low end. Also, 2) being a musician, I already hear a lot of what many people miss. I don’t have “Golden Ears”; they’ve never made hit records, but I’m aware of the fact that I’m probably hearing probably 20% more of what the average listener hears, even with the data loss.

Okay. So what’s the point?

The point is, I know all of these things. I love the fact that my family bought me a turntable, but for now in my life, I will focus on digital music, if for no other reason than I don’t need any more stuff in my house. I already have an acquisition problem, and I am practically ashamed of how much I have. Some of this I can justify as “ministry tools” (guitars and books), but other things… like records. I just can’t, at least for now.

But then we went to St. Petersburg for vacation. As we were walking up and down the cool downtown streets, my daughter saw a record store that she wanted to go in, and so we all followed her.

I have to admit: it was very nostalgic to walk around the aisles filled with all of those discs. It felt like 1982 all over again.

My wife casually said to me, “You know, you should buy a record. Don’t you like Wilco? It can be your souvenir.”

She said this to me with all innocence.

But the most amazing thing happened to me when she said it…

Despite the fact that I have no room for vinyl in my house…

… Despite the fact that I know that I prefer to listen to my stuff through iTunes or Spotify…

… Despite the fact that I am crystal clear on the fact that I did not want a record…

… Despite all of that I said, “Yeah… I love Summerteeth; I’ll get it.”

And so I did.

And then I felt awful.

You might say, “What’s the big deal, Eric? It’s just a record?!?!?”

But in my spirit, I was crushed.

Why couldn’t I say no?

How does one’s life get to the point where there is something inside you that drives you to just *acquire* things that you know you neither need nor want?

It was/is a sobering reminder: I am wired up for appetite; for desire; for selfish acquisition.

I desperately need someone or something to heal this sickness inside of me; I don’t want to be a person who mindlessly buys and consumes things simply because I can. Nonetheless, in this minute I utterly failed the test that life gave me.

So this day: this Holy Thursday. The day before Friday of the Cross, I am reminded that the “SELF” inside of me still has an agenda that is opposed to a life of simplicity. My self remains centered on ego and an agenda that would have me consumed with acquisition and consumerism, with control and domination of anything and anyone that gets in my way.

I’m thankful that the Cross not only broke the power of evil in the world, but decisively shows us all the way to exist in a way that transcends the world’s power.

It’s by dying that we truly live.

It’s not easy. I’ll always be drawn to “Glittering Images”, to the “impossible cool” of the world, but fortunately I’ll always have that stronger vision of the Christ on the Cross that reminds me that I don’t have to live like this anymore.

…..

 

Maybe Jesus Wants Me on the Bench for the “Super Bowl”

(Note: I published a slightly different version of this for my church last week.)

If you hang around churches long enough, chances are you’ll hear Easter referred to as “The Super Bowl.” It’s the time when everyone rolls out the “red carpet” for people who may only come to church once or twice a year. Along with Christmas, it’s a Sunday when you’re as likely to find some kind of livestock in a worship space as a preacher.

People book convention centers, outdoor amphitheaters and all manner of large venues in order to make a big splash and “do it up right” for Jesus’ resurrection.

As best as I can tell, the goal is two-fold:

1. Show visitors that we can put a great celebration, and
2. Celebrate the earth-shaking, cosmic-changing event that is the resurrection.

Best bands. Skinniest jeans. Brightest colors. Most vivid tech. Most flowers. (Cue allergies.)

The superlatives go on and on, and in a way there’s nothing wrong with any of it. We are called to proclaim this message to the world (whether they want to hear it or not), and we are called to celebrate our risen Lord.

But I’d like to challenge you to think about a couple other aspects of this week:

  1. Sometimes, we get so focused on the “Super Bowl” that we undermine our communities’ abilities to be present for it. Instead, we find exhausted volunteers, hyper-focused musicians and technical artists who are playing the heck out of a song but are spiritually worn out from the hours and hours of rehearsals.

    Relatedly, we also find communities that load down Easter with the entire Holy Week journey, so that people are talking about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the atonement as well as the significance of resurrection life all on the same morning. Now, those things are intrinsically related, but they are so cataclysmically huge that the journey becomes to large to take, and most preachers just lean on “the Blood,” which in and of itself isn’t too bad, but it also isn’t really Easter.

    Year ago, I started looking for ways to both slow down during Holy Week as well as lean in to the journey towards the Cross. What I found is that Easter needs the context of Holy Week in order to find its true significance as well as to give volunteers the necessary break during a busy season. Simply put, when you journey into mourning and sorrow, joy and celebration becomes much easier.

  2. Even if your community still chooses to celebrate the “Super Bowl”, it’s up to you to tend to your own soul. Out of all the weeks of the year, this is the week when you should be most connected to God’s presence in your life. So take the time this week to pray, to meditate even in the midst of rehearsals and soundchecks and call times.

    Realize that you actually aren’t playing in the Super Bowl. God did that (and won). You’re just telling people the story of the Super Bowl, and guess what: you’re a part of that story. So don’t zone out during it.

40 Words: Failure.

“Failure” is not a pleasant word; not even close to something like, “Illustrious” (which was my favorite word as a 9th grade English student), or “Sublime” (not so much the band, but the adjective), or “Craftsman” (one of my former bandmates called me that referring to my approach to music, and it remains one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received… or could give).

Nope, “Failure” is a word we like to avoid.

It’s the “DNF” in the race (Did Not Finish).

I’m probably more familiar with failure than I’d like to admit.

It’s easy for me to focus on my “wins” and my achievements, especially over the last 12 months or so:

  • Graduating Seminary (with a 3.8 GPA, even!)
  • Running my first half-marathon
  • Raising two pretty decent kids
  • Becoming a better husband
  • Wrestling with some long-time demons, and achieving some semblance of sanity for the maybe the first time ever
  • Mentoring and teaching a variety of people in my community

Those things are all important, and I’m proud and grateful to have completed them, but I also have to admit that I have a pretty significant history of being someone who struggles to “finish.”

I’m great at starting.

But it’s that middle that tears me up.

I committed to blogging Lent. I did. I can’t take that back. I put it out there for all of the internets to see…

And then I failed.

I lasted what, two or three weeks?

I don’t even know. I don’t want to know, to tell you the truth.

And so the tapes begin:

“You see… you never finish anything

… You quit. You’re a quitter.

… You bail out as soon as things get hard.

… You don’t have enough grit.”

Those are some tapes that play in my head. Lovely, isn’t it? We all seem to have them—little quotes and sayings that invade our headspace whether we want them there or not, and remind us off all the bad things we are and all the good things we are not.

But I also know that’s not the whole story.

It seems to me that there comes a point where you have to make a choice about what it means to be human: are we the sum of our actions and deeds? Are we “sowing a destiny,” so to speak?

OR…

Or are we far more complex than that? Am I more than a failure, even when I fail?

I’d like to think that I am, and I’d like to think that God thinks so too.

So yeah, I failed. I started, and didn’t finish. I had the best of intentions, and they didn’t pay off.

But here I am: Holy Wednesday. I will walk towards that Cross on Friday, and I know that Jesus died for this “failure”, mostly because He knows that being human means not getting it right sometimes (most of the time?), and that we all need a little help.