What Passes for Worship

Some musicians in my community were passing around this interview with John Mark McMillan. It’s an examination of his new record, and the questions he’s been asking about faith, spirituality and honesty (my paraphrase).

The article raised and stimulated a familiar discussion with my friends about “worship”. If I could paraphrase, it would be something like this: Where does honesty and complexity—particularly regarding doubt and struggle—fit in the paradigm of worship? (Particularly now that there is a whole industry and business model around “worship”.)?

Occasionally I have debates with people who similarly decry the sometimes over-simplistic approach to song lyrics in the songs we sing on Sunday. It’s not necessarily greater artistry they are looking for; instead they are frustrated with the lack of intellectual complexity and acknowledgement of doubt.

Where do these things fit in with our typical approach to Sunday ?

Sometimes, in some of my more grumpy, pragmatic moments I want to respond, “They don’t.”

But hear me for just a moment.

To “worship”—rather literally—is to attribute worth. It’s to tell someone (in my case, God) how great they are, how much you appreciate them, how much you love them.

It’s not the place for angst, doubt or intellectual parsing.

(If you’re married, try any of that with your spouse when a tender moment comes up; my hunch is that it won’t go all that well.)

My point is that we are throwing the word “worship” around a little carelessly, and then trying to shoehorn artists and songs into a bucket that doesn’t really need to hold them.

Maybe songs about doubt and deep theology are not only not worship, but they don’t have to be “worship.”

There is always room for doubt and uncertainty in my faith paradigm. Heck, I thrive on it. It drives me to search and know God more deeply. To me, that’s not worship. At least not directly. That’s me growing and learning.

But there’s also a discipline in my life when I shut off the search, and I express my gratitude, which often then grows into appreciation, love and praise for God’s goodness, faithfulness and grace.

That’s “worship”. 

Maybe we just need a new label for these other kinds of songs? 

Are some of JMM’s more complex, searching, self-honest songs worship? Probably not.

But are they acceptable in faith and church? Are they necessary? Even critical? 


Just don’t get hung up on trying to put them in a labeled bucket.




It’s too easy to proclaim Advent and hunger and desire.

The truth of the matter is that when Jesus shows up in my life he tends to challenge agendas and programs.

Most of all mine.

And the truth of the matter (if I’m honest—can I be honest?) is that sometimes this frustrates me.

The call to lay down my rights, take up my cross and follow Jesus means that in so many ways, I will lose (or at least appear to lose).

Some of my programs and agendas are deeply wrought, and they are like comfortable grooves that I ride in, like a vinyl record.

And then just like that Jesus scratches the record and the grooves don’t work any more.


The trees stand like guards of the Everlasting; the flowers like signposts of His goodness—only we have failed to be testimonies to his presence, tokens of His trust. How could we have lived in the shadow of greatness and defied it? (Rabbi  Abraham Joshua Heschel)

As usual, provocative words from the Rabbi.

This morning, I did not pray.

And there probably was just a little bit of defiance.

But the beauty of the spiritual life is that is training, practice in preparation for eternity.

So I can start anytime. I can set aside my defiance and anger, and I can sit an absorb and recognize and give thanks and embrace wonder and surrender and become silent.

When I do that, I can do what all of creation is doing: pointing away from itself to God.

My name is Eric: I’m trying to be a tree.


Thy Kingdom, My Kingdom

When people say, “Thy kingdom come” out of one side of their mouth, they need to also say, “My kingdom go!” out of the other side. (Richard Rohr)

How good is this? 

I always think about the gospels, when Jesus shows up in Jerusalem, and ends up judging and disrupting the Temple.

The Temple represents religion that had turned into idolatry, that had been manipulated into a nationalistic talisman, rather than a beacon of hope for the lost and the outside.

So Jesus shows up and shatters the misconceptions.

I’m forever building my own Temples and talismans and symbols that represent my kingdoms, my agendas, my programs for happiness.

What needs to go in my life?

The kingdom of God supersedes and far surpasses all kingdoms of self and society or personal reward. (Rohr again)

It’s All Grace.

A few weeks ago, I sat in my father’s garage with him and my brother-in-law. In lieu of a front porch, we sat on the concrete as the afternoon sun slowly descended, and we did what men do, which is mostly complain.

(PS When did I become a middle-aged man?)

My father suffered a massive stroke in 2004, and maybe a couple more since then, and at this point he’s rather limited physically. He stopped driving a year or two ago. My brother-in-law’s father was a racecar driver, and is also facing increased limitations, and may have to stop driving too.

We were talking about getting older, and not being able to do the things we used to do.

(Again, men complain quite well.)

Lift things, move, stay up late, etc., etc. Things change and get more difficult.

My dad made the remark, “Yeah but wait until you can’t drive anymore,” and we all nodded our heads and made a couple remarks about how awful that would be, and how it would really wreck us (just like it wrecked my dad, and just like it’s wrecking Tony’s dad).

Driving—at least for my generation and older—does seem to be linked to something essential and basic about life. The ability to move when one wants to. To leave, to have self-determination. To go.

When that gets taken from you, yeah, I guess that would be a real kick in the crotch (as Sting would put it).

But then I had a thought…

Losing like this is really hard. Releasing our grasp on our abilities is almost a crime, some kind of cruel joke that life plays on us.

(What will happen when I cannot play music anymore?)

It feels a crime and a travesty… Unless it’s all grace in the first place. 

If I never deserved it in the first place, what right do I have to rail and rage and complain when it goes away?

And isn’t this the essence of the Christian life? That actually everything is grace? That life is a gift? That I’m somehow sustained by the love of God that is in Christ? (In his letter to the Colossian church, St. Paul said that Christ holds everything together.)

If it really is all grace—and my spirit and beliefs compel me to agree with this—than the invitation is to learn to surrender everything as is necessary. As life comes to me, at me, through me, and then fades away in the distance, most likely I have been (and will continued to be) called to lay down…

  • the place/city I called “home”
  • my ability to play music all day and night
  • the time and space to create
  • my platform
  • my vocation

Eventually, this list will include things like guitar, friends, family… even driving. Even walking.

But if it was all a gift in the first place, then I never had a right to grasp it. It was never mine. Nothing. 

That’s pretty freeing. But pretty terrifying.


Wandering and Practicing.

Faith is practice, and practice is faith.

I crave results; I crave life change and restoration and healing. I pray; I worship; I try to serve.

I trust, and I believe.

And I wait. Wait for things (things meaning ME) to change.

But change is difficult, and seems to come ever so slowly, if at all.

I know in my head that it’s a practice of faith, that it’s training, and training is about learning and trying (even occasionally failing and falling).

But I am ready for the day that I see the transformation that I desire.

Hunger for it. Wait for it.

But even in that hunger, I betray another area of my life that is ripe for growth, because I forget how I got into this mess in the first place. I forget how long it took me to establish my patterns and habits of brokenness.

And therefore, I forget how long it may take me to build habits of humililty and submission to God’s Word and His Spirit.

As my mentor and spiritual guide says, “You didn’t walk into the forest overnight, you will NOT walk out overnight either.”

I can get disheartened by how long REAL change takes. I want it now, just like the rest of my microwave culture.

But for me even part of the essence of my growth is to release expectations and evaluations and to simply show up, to every day renew my faith and trust in this God who is guiding me around, through (and eventually out of) my own little desert.

Even to release those expectations and desire to evaluate is, I guess, some sign of maturity and growth.

Keep walking.


The Profound Powerless of Mondo Cozmo’s “Shine”

I’m still a sucker for a heart on its sleeve…

(and a good hook…)

I stumbled across this song a few months ago, back in the spring. I was listening to some Spotify “New Music” playlist, and all of a sudden I heard familiar-but-new sounds: echoes of The Verve and other Brit Pop bands that I’ve always loved.

And then the lyrics started:

Stick with me Jesus through the coming storm,
I’ve come to you in search of something I have lost
Shine down a light on me and show a path
I promise you I will return if you take me back…

Did he just say, “Jesus”? Okay, now I’m really interested…

I confess: I’m not above getting pretty excited whenever I hear someone flirting with the powerful intersection of art and faith. I get even more pumped when I hear someone drop Jesus’ name with some kind of sincerity.

So now I’m definitely hooked.

But then the chorus took me back a bit:

Let ’em get high, let ’em get stoned,
Everything will be alright if you let it go…


So now I’m not so sure.

But the verse lyrics! Still so sincere, so out there (and again with the Jesus!)

My friends are so alone and it breaks my heart
My friends don’t understand we are all lost
Shine down a light on them and show a path
I promise you they will return if you take ’em back

And finally, verse 3:

Come with me Mary through these modern lines
Stick with me Jesus til the end of time
Shine down a light on me and let me know
And take me in your arms and never let me go…

Seriously; what am I supposed to do with this?

When the record came out, I listened, and quickly got taken in. The whole thing really paid off the taste that was “Shine,” with more heart, and vulnerability and a lyrical/musical references and touchpoints that I could easily recognize and resonate with.

But, again… what is up with this tune?

Well, though I believe in lyrical mystery, and I affirm the rights of artists to hold their cards close to their chests, something hit me hard on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks back, and so I’m going offer up my interpretation of this tune.

I had preached that morning on “Powerlessness“, and what it meant to surrender our desire to control our environment and our lives.

And then I remembered that a huge part of our lives and our environment is people.

Spouses. Family. Children. Co-Workers.


Spouses, family members, children, co-workers, friends, etc. who might choose to “get high”, or who might choose to do any number of things that we really wish they wouldn’t do.

And we are powerless to stop them. (Human beings have this sticky way of eluding our efforts to control them.)

When we are confronted with this ultimate test of our desire to control, we really have to choose:

Am I willing to be powerless over the people who are (a) supremely important to me and yet (b) may make choices (in fact, they usually DO make choices) that at the very least I may disagree with, and at most may be harmful?

It sounds impossible but there is a way out, and here’s the deal:

It’s not simple, but it’s easy. 

We can choose to (a) love them, and (b) cling to our faith.

One of the most powerful ideas I cling to is that *God is infinitely more invested in my friends/family/co-workers/church than I am. *

God loves them more than I ever could.

And that means that I can surrender them. I can be powerless over them…

… And “let it go.”


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Peace and blessings…


“Give Us (Me) a King!”

The people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles. (1 Samuel Ch 8)

That’s a pretty key moment in the long narrative of the nation of Israel. Up until that moment, though they have been “ruled” by men and women called “Judges,” God—YHWH—has been their king.

But then they make a different choice. They look around, at the world around them, and ask the current judge, Samuel, to find them a king.

After all, everyone else has one.

Samuel tells God what they want, and God actually says to let them have one. He knows what this means…

He knows they are rejecting him as their king… 

When I think about this, it makes me pause: what kind of love and security does it take to accept a rejection from someone so dear?

(From my ongoing counseling, I know that these are some very, very healthy and strong boundaries.)

God can take the rejection (though it certainly hurts). What’s more, on top of the shock of knowing that God can allow His people to turn their back on Him, He is also capable of feeling that pain.

There’s a glimpse here, a hint of some deeper reality:

Maybe, rather than God being a distant far off deity who is eternal and unmovable and utterly unlike us…

Maybe, just maybe, God knows what it’s like to be rejected, AND He knows how to feel it. 


This little passage of scripture also says something powerful and poignant about us—or, let’s be honest: about me—and that is simply this:

Kings are always the easy way out. 

Samuel tells the people what a monarchy is going to bring: among other things, standing armies (institutionalized violence) and taxes (economic disparity).

But the people say, “Bring it on.”

And so do I.

I recognize something of myself in Israel’s response, namely that it’s always easier to opt for systems and rules rather than the radical grace and love of God. 

It’s always easier for me to turn my back on God’s radical love and on the idea that everything is grace and instead embrace a subtle tit-for-tat existence with God:

… When I “behave” my life goes well; God makes good things happen.

… When I “sin” my life goes badly; God punishes me by “making me” lose my job, or my relationship, etc., etc.

Why do I do this? For the same reason Israel wants a king: because it’s always tempting to want to be like the world around me. 

The world works this way: when you do well, you’re rewarded; when you blow it, you’re punished.

But, just like in this story, God doesn’t work like the world does:

… When I “behave”, God loves me, but I’m not like a star pupil that gets to sit at the head of the heavenly class. God loves me because His essence is to love. He can’t help it.

… When I sin/stumble/fall/mis-behave/etc., God still loves me. He doesn’t punish me by withdrawing His love, or “making bad things happen” to me.

(This is not to say there aren’t human, real consequences to bad decisions: this is just to say you can’t attribute these things to some kind of heavenly system of justice and scales.)

By the way: this “being like other nations” comes out whenever we post something like, “Got a new car today #blessed.”

Because whether you got a new car today, or your car got re-possessed, you are still #blessed.

All of life is a blessing. We just don’t often see it.

Because that’s the way the world works.

And we want to be like all the other nations.

I woke up this morning to a #blessed reality.

My breath, right this very minute, is a blessing.

It’s all grace.


Maybe what you can do, right now, is to pause and acknowledge the ways that God is blessing you.

Your home or apartment? Blessing. 

Your friends? Blessing. 

Your job? Your school? … You got it: Blessing. 

Your life? This moment? 

Sure: the world might think you’re crazy to think this way. But guess what?

You don’t have to be like the world. 


Under the mercy,


As always: thanks for commenting, sharing, etc.


Paradox + 

A couple weeks ago in my faith community, I talked about how God is a god of “paradox”: there are so many things about YHWH, as He reveals Himself to Moses, that are apparently self-contradictory.

He is the creative Force behind the universe, and yet is also entirely willing to inhabit a humble piece of shrubbery in the backwoods of a place called Midian, far away from the centers of religious and spiritual power.

He has a specific name (“YHWH”), and yet that very name is a mystery. Indeed, one of the ongoing themes in the pages of the Bible is the tension between what we can know and see about this God, and what remains hidden and mysterious (you can read more about that here)

He is eternal and fierce—as one of my favorite theologians says, he is “ultimately free”— and yet He is intimately concerned about the suffering of humanity, so much so that he feels their suffering (and later, he even declares that he is capable of being hurt when His people abandon him).

I can go on and on, but I think we can see where this is all going: at the very least, God is not easily discerned or “nailed down.”

I would even go so far to say that the more comfortable we are with paradox, the more comfortable we will be in the life of faith.

However, as I was studying and preparing for the sermon, I stumbled across the idea of paradox in some additional ways that provoked my thinking, and I thought I would share a bit in this space.

In a TedTalk, psychologist Barry Schwartz started to examine something called the “paradox of choice.” Starting from the number of deodorant choices in a supermarket, Schwartz began to unpack the paradox of how, while psychology actually shows that choice actually causes us to feel anxious and even depressed, the culture in which many of us live (namely, the West) actually espouses freedom of choice as the highest ideal.

This is an odd thing: on the one hand, Christianity (at least as I see it and read it) is decidedly pro-human freedom and dignity. 

On the other hand—leaving dignity aside as a non-negotiable—Biblical freedom does not equal Western, 21st century freedom.

As I like to say it, Christian freedom is “freedom, but with rails”. 

As a 21st century, western Christian, I constantly bump against the boundary markers that YHWH (and even Jesus) established, whether I like them or not.

  • rails on how to spend my money (radical generosity)
  • rails on how to treat “the other” (radical hospitality)
  • rails on how to love God (with all my heart, soul, mind and strength)

And on and on and on.

Now, I’m not saying that God is a god of infinite rules. He’s not nit-picky, or waiting around a corner to catch me making a mistake.

That’s not the point…

I guess the potentially mind-blowing point is that God actually knows what’s good for me, not so much specifically, but in a broader sense. Maybe He knows that infinite choice actually produces a melancholy and a sadness in me; that the idea that I can choose everything and anything in my world actually might make me less happy as a human being.

Maybe God knows that human beings don’t do so well with infinite choice. 

And yet, we that’s exactly what our world seems to aspire to. It’s also what we sell to the rest of the world.

One of my favorite teachers/writers/spiritual pilgrims is Richard Rohr. On an episode of On Being With Krista Tippit called “Living in Deep Time”, he referenced how the pattern of the universe is one of “order, to disorder, to re-order.”

This resonated deeply with me, and I have seen it play itself out in my own life. Biblically, it is “life, death and resurrection.” Personally, it resembles the person who does all the right things, believes all the “right things”, goes to the right church, only to see it all collapse in the faith of a health crisis, an addiction, or the loss of a job. These are the moments of disorder, where many of our “false idols”—of success, eternal youth, security, etc.—are cast down. If we can stay faithful to the journey through the crisis (disorder), we begin to turn from those idols to the gift of a resurrected Jesus and a resurrected life.

But Rohr then went a step further, and he declared that anyone born after the late 60s (I was born in 1968, right on the demographic borderland) has never known order. Basically, he was saying that by the time “Generation X” was in full swing (not to mention the generations that followed) so many of our social structures had disintegrated and lost their influence that functionally most of us have never known anything like “order.” 

We’ve grown up in the middle of disorder, and the thing about the pattern of life is that you cannot really jump into the middle.

The pattern only really “works” (in the sense of producing transformed, enlightened, Christ-like people) when you follow it in sequence. It’s almost scarily simplistic: like learning a craft or an instrument:

Learn the basics, break the rules to chaotic results, then learn to assemble them in a new and masterful way. 

So it struck me how much the vision of “disorder” connected with the idea of “infinite choice”.

It’s the supermarket full of a whole row of a selection of toilet paper, and wondering what the basis is for making a choice… 

It’s picking up a guitar for the first time and being overwhelmed at how you’re supposed to move two hands simultaneously—and independently—in order to make some kind of noise…

It’s taking your first drive as a student driver on the 5 lanes of the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago…

It’s not the way we do life; we start off with structure, with rails, with Rohr’s “Order”. But in so many ways, our modern culture throws all of us into the lake of “Disorder”, and then celebrates it as the ideal.

We may know that “Order” is not the destination, but we acknowledge it as a stage to go through, because maybe, just maybe, it’s the way to cultivate an emotionally/psychologically/spiritually healthy life. 

(To state it in the negative, to just jump in to “Disorder” and to declare that “infinite choice” is my right and my destiny as a citizen of the west just may be a short cut to anxiety and depression.)

So we acknowledge “Order” for a while. We know that eventually we will be called out beyond it (because our culture surely has enough of people who have never moved beyond the rules-oriented, black and white world of “Order”), but we accept that maybe it’s not an awful thing if we “learn the rules” (Just how DO I pick just one brand of toilet paper?). 

Maybe “Freedom” is ultimately about moving holistically and healthily through the stages of life, and then turning around in self-extending, compassionate love to help others do the same thing.





The Theology Left in the Sponge


Now that my daughter is away at college, it’s just my wife, my son and myself in our house.

And, according to Shana, somebody in the house is really bad about rinsing out the kitchen sponge.

About once a month, Levi and I stare warily at each other, each wondering exactly who is responsible for leaving a damp sponge sitting in the bottom of the sink, rather than drying out on the counter.

(I’m pretty sure I know who I’m suspecting.) 

A sponge is a funny thing: on the surface, it may look dry and clean, but when you put pressure on it, well, you see what is really going on.

It’s only when you squeeze it that you see what’s really inside. 

Kind of like theology.

I think our practical theology—the things that we really believe about God—emerges when we get squeezed.  “Squeezing” happens in so many ways in life…

It happens when the unexpected and/or unthinkable happens; when the phone call from the doctor includes the words you’d never thought you’d hear.

It happens when the ground shifts, and we go from solid ground to shifting sand in an instant; when a relationship or job or career that we thought was solid and reliable evaporates. 

It happens when the pressure is on, when the stakes are high and we are acutely aware that people, maybe a lot of people, are relying on us. 

It can also happen when we our guards are down, and we react instinctively to a situation. 

We can get “squeezed” in big ways and small, in really heavy and not-so-heavy situations, and when we do we tend to display or maybe betray what we really believe about God and life.

For years, I have been processing the idea that we are “saved”, not only by Jesus death and resurrection, but also by his life. He came to show us what life really could be like (or, even more to the point, what life really IS, when we choose to embrace and live into that Kingdom of God reality).

But also, for years, when I would get squeezed, for one reason or another, I found my language constantly retreating to the theological waters I had swum in for years, but had vowed to leave behind, waters that focused solely on the Cross as the act that saves us, that neglected the richness and spiritual/theological reality of the incarnation as the beginning (and beginnings of stories are no less important than middles and ends) of the great saving act of God.

So my prayers might be reduced to things like, “God thank you for the Cross. Thank you for saving us through the death of Jesus…”

And on and on.

Sometimes, however, the squeezing was more intense, and my thoughts were much more personal. Some darkness would fall, and I would find myself thinking things like…

“What have I done to deserve this?”

“I should have prayed more.” 

“I think I’m being punished.” 

In my heart of hearts I “knew” that God was a god of infinite love and mercy, and that to introduce a sort of “tit-for-tat” mentality into my relationship with Him was to negate the radical grace that characterizes His essence. But still I was tempted to do it.

What about you? What thoughts do you think about God when you are squeezed? What statements do you ask? What prayers do you pray, what questions do you ask when you are squeezed?

If they align with your deepest thoughts and hopes and dreams about God, it just might mean that (like me) you have a little more work to do, a little more to discover about yourself as well as God.

If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, I’d encourage you to do a few simple things:

  • Reflect and review. Be aware of your words and your thoughts about God. Now, this may not always be possible while the pressure is on and you are in the midst of “the squeezing.” But eventually, when you can breathe again, take some time and evaluate what your words actually said about the spiritual life, and ask yourself if that’s the reality you truly seeking.
  • Explore. Again, life is pretty much a “classroom” for us to learn more about ourselves and God, and when the pressure is on, we get an opportunity to see what’s really going on inside of us. In turn, we then get to react by exploring more deeply and thoughtfully: Why did my thoughts go to this place? What do I need to learn or experience in order to make my bedrock/core beliefs about God more of a reality? Ask a mentor to help unpack or explore more about God. Read a book. Pray.
  • Be Grateful. In general, nobody likes to be squeezed. Life sometimes happens in such a way that feels like we are being robbed of something. But there are also countless opportunities for us to be grateful for the pressure, for the curveballs, for the bumps in the road. They give us opportunities to learn more about what is actually capable in this life with God.

One more thought: it’s important to note that beliefs about God are not merely abstract thoughts that have no outward expression. Somehow, our core ideas about God and the universe have a way of finding their way outward, and affecting the way we live our lives.

Believe in a punishing God and you will respond in fear.

Believe in a tit-for-tat, reciprocal equation to God and the universe and you will try desperately to keep the math equation “zeroed out”, so that nothing bad will happen to you.

But what if God is a god of infinite love, who will never abandon you? 

What if God is as close to you in your suffering—when you are being squeezed—as He is when you are in the safest, most loved environment you can imagine? 

What if God just gives, no matter what or where we are? 


Just some thoughts. Blessings.