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.

Monastery Reflections: Tunnel Vision

IMG_4151As I continue to reflect on my personal retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, I was thinking the other day about a short passage I read in a booklet at the retreat house. The Cistercian Life is a short book written by Thomas Merton (PS, If you are ever curious about how deep the spiritual life can actually go, I’d encourage you to read some Merton. A great place to start is New Seeds of Contemplation.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;)).

Anyway, there was a free copy in my room at the retreat house, and so I picked it up to
read during my stay. It was a really great, concise examination of the monastic life, but one statement in particular has remained with me.

The truly silent monk is not totally unconcerned with others, for that, too, would be a kind of illness. But he is not worried about being left out of things. He knows what is necessary will be communicated to him. If there is news in the world that he ought to know, God and his superiors will make sure that he knows it. He does not have to go seeking information and communicating his own ideas to others except in so far as this may be demanded by necessity (Emphasis mine).

My tensions with the pervasiveness of social media are fairly well-documented, and I am continually trying to grow in the way I use media (in particular, I try to make sure that there’s a balance between how use social media and how media uses me). Personally, my governing word is “thoughtfulness”: I try to take a moment or two before I mindlessly engage in any technology and ask myself, “Is this the tool I need for what I’m trying to accomplish?”

I love good design, and in particular I like objects that are well-designed for specific uses. However, it seems as if sometimes our culture seems pre-occupied with turning one tool (most often our cell phones) into a “one-size-fits-all” device for consuming media, connecting with friends and family, staying engaged with the world around us…

… and occasionally making a phone call.

Instead of this approach, I am trying to learn to consider what will help me most in accomplishing my goal at the time:

  • is it reading? (“turn off cell phone and computer notifications)
  • is it a serious work project? (same as above)
  • is it songwriting? (notebook, pen and guitar, no notifications)
  • is it writing exercises? (computer, no notifications)
  • is it prayer and meditation? (no lights, no electronics)

… You get the picture. I love my (always Apple) computers. But they are not a Leatherman multi-tool. I look at them as specialized devices for doing specific activities that they happen to be really good at (recording ideas, typing, finding out obscure information quickly, etc.)

But obviously this quote gets an even deeper strand of thinking, namely, what do I truly need to know about the world? 

As a good friend has told me recently, “FOMO” (“Fear-Of-Missing-Out”) is a thing, and in our hyper-connected (and decidedly UN monastic) existence, FOMO becomes an almost 24-hour-a-day possibility, whether it’s being aware of a party 800 miles away, or a news event 8,000 miles away.

But Merton’s statement is a challenge to FOMO. For me, I sat with that quote for a while, asking, “Why is it so important for me to know, well, everything? What is it inside me that demands that I’m up-to-date on issues that debatedly have absolutely no relevance to my day-to-day existence?”

When I think about it, most of the information I take in has much more potential to cause anxiety than to produce anything positive or spiritual in my life.

In fact, the issue can go much, much deeper. Theology Professor Marva J. Dawn’s book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time had a profound impact on my approach to worship and the church (though I ardently disagreed with a few of her statements). In it, she examines the influence of Neil Postman’s concept of “Impact-Action-Ratio” in the worship of the church. “Impact-Action-Ratio” is a ratio of how much the impact of an image or images affects our ability to act. 

Essentially, Dawn suggests that as the church relies more and more on (often de-contextualized) images in worship, whether through pictures of poverty or evocative images over lyrics in songs, we are actually training ourselves to a mode of inaction.

No matter how powerfully or emotionally an image may strike us, most of the time we are unable to actively address or remedy that situation. Over time, we get “used to” the idea of not responding. 

And so we get inoculated against tragedy and suffering, even as we are exposed to it now more than ever. 

All of this goes to say that I try to think twice about how “plugged in” I am to the pervasive, 24-hour news cycle. I don’t want to be inoculated against suffering, and more than that where I encounter suffering, I want to be able to do something about it.

I am not a monk. I do not have a “superior” who will tell me the things I need to know about the world. But I do have trusted friends, and people who are more engaged than I am. More and more, I seek to trust them with what I need to know, and concentrate more diligently on my life of prayer, meditation, teaching and trying to reduce the suffering of the world around me.

 

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Architecture Teaching Theology (Lessons My Mother Taught Me)

In his excellent historical examination of church worship, Robert Webber points out how the architecture of Christian worship spaces changed as the theology of worship (particularly around the eucharist) changed.

To sum up a very long argument, Webber points out that when the Eucharist was highly participatory, churches tended to meet in informal, interactive spaces, at times almost in the round. As theology of the Eucharist became more and more “elevated,” and as the Eucharist became more and more sacred and separated, worship (and the interaction with the body and blood of Christ became more and more something “that the priests did,” while the congregation observed. Architecture responded accordingly, with higher and higher altars that were more and distinct and separate from the congregation. The areas for

Amiens cathedral floorplan

Amiens cathedral floorplan

priests/“holy people” and the “normal folks” became more and more delineated. Worship threatened to become something that the congregation watched, accept for the moment that the wafer went on the tongue and the wine hit the mouth.

Nowadays, we have stages and platforms, and our worship (at least in most evangelical contexts) is really limited to “song time.” However, most worship leaders of quality do their best to get people involved, and build in times of congregational singing (the singers don’t just sing at the congregation, they sing with them).

However, a friend of mine just recently started attending a mega-church. He’s a musician, and has begun volunteering in their music ministry (needless to say, the musicians are all excellent). One day, we were talking and he remarked that while the musicians were amazing, and the church placed a high value on ministry, nobody seemed to care too much whether anyone was actually participating in worship From his perspective, the band was there to be amazing and inspiring, but there was seldom (if ever?) a call for people to actually sing.

It makes me wonder if we are going through the same “drift” that our mother (The Catholic Church) went through between the early 300s into the medieval era. I wonder if we are becoming content with worship becoming a “spectator sport” as opposed to a participatory event. (NOTE: I understand that not everyone will always participate 100%; this is more about what we, as leaders, are content to accept as normative.)

Worship need not be opposed to excellence. We can (and should) strive to be the best musicians we can be (both on Sundays and on Monday-Saturday); however, our goal, our target should not be only excellence, relevance, or sacredness. It should be participation. We are not worship performers; we are participants with the congregation.

Productivity/Creative “Contultants” v “Practitioners” 

So, about 4 years ago I discovered this whole genre of life and learning called, “Productivity.” Among many others, the field includes books like Getting Things Done, along with authors and podcasters like Merlin Mann, Todd Henry, and Scott Belsky. You can learn about it on websites like Lifehack.org and 99U.com Essentially the field is about efficiency and creativity: getting your best work out to people with consistency, excellence, and a degree of interest.

However, more recently I’ve noticed an interesting trend: basically I think the field is dividing into two types of thought leaders: those who write about creativity and productivity, and (2) those who have actually done something creative. 

I don’t want to name names, but I was listening to a productivity/creativity podcast months ago when it occurred to me that the person was basically a productivity expert because, well, he was a productivity expert. 

In other words, he hadn’t really created anything, except more information about being productive.

There were no stories about being “in the trenches” of productivity: He hadn’t written a screenplay, completed a record, led a company or team that was constructing (and delivering) a tangible product.

He was a creative/productivity “consultant”.

… And frankly, I wasn’t that interested.

For this current season of my life, I find myself drawn to people who are practicing creativity and productivity, not merely writing about it. To my mind, they have more to say about the blood and guts part of “getting things done”, like:

* inspiring people over the long-term

* creating a signature style in the midst of a corporate culture

* navigating the scarcity of resources (human and otherwise)

* the pressure of constantly having to come up with “the next big idea”

The list of productivity voices gets a lot shorter when you look for people who are actually getting work done, rather than merely posting about creative theory and interesting life hacks.

In fact, I’m going to recommend starting with a list of three people. These folks have done the work over the long haul, therefore (in my opinion) they have an authority and wisdom that comes from a slightly deeper place.

  1. James Victore is a NYC-based artist/designer who has been creating posters and visual art since the 90s. His work is provocative and engaging. His YouTube series, “Burning Questions“, answers some of the basic levels of creativity, and does it from the perspective of a guy who has actually done it (he does a year-end reading list, which I love). I’d encourage you to subscribe. (He’s also quite funny.)
  2. I’ve written about Twyla Tharp before: she is an award-winning, acclaimed choreographer and dancer (who also lives in New York City). Her book The Creative Habit is simply one of the most interesting and thorough works on how to be creative “in the real world”. It is full of lists and suggests (yay!), as well as stories of how this stuff has born itself out in Tharp’s life. She’s done it for a long time, and she speaks with the voice who has seen it all. If you do any type of vital work in the world—leading people, creating, or simply envisioning change and a future that may or may not exist yet—and haven’t read The Creative Habit, you really owe it to yourself to pick it up and read it. Quickly.
  3. The last name is this list is also a heavy weight. Steven Pressfield is an author and screenwriter, most notable (perhaps) for The Legend of Bagger Vance, starring Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron. He’s also published more than half-a-dozen works of historical fiction. However, in 2002 he published a little (relatively) book called The War of Art that has proven to be a game-changing work for many of us artists, creatives, and folks that just need to get stuff done. Pressfield writes with a directness, vulnerability, and authority that is seldom seen. It’s both practical and conceptual, and is worth reading repeatedly (once a year maybe?)

In my opinion, these three people are great places to start if you want to be challenged about productivity and creativity from people who are actually doing it. They are not consultants; they have seen the battles, and slogged through the frustrations and disappointments of trying to bring something to the world that is new, refreshing and effective.

The “DTR” Conversation

So, as I’ve been doing my annual “re-evaluate and re-assess time”, it occurred to me that I need to seriously take a look at my iPhone: how I use it and (more specifically) how I allow it to interrupt and intervene in my daily life.

I thought the best way to do it would be to write a DTR note to it.

Hey …

So look: I have to talk to you…

I know I’ve been really busy lately; not as busy as some people, but busy in my own right: Christmas, gigs, meetings, reading, recording, writing, etc.

I really want to thank you for tagging along for all of that, and for doing it without complaining (though I know you get really run down during all of the running around: like 80% run down).

But I’ve been thinking a lot about, well, you and me.

I think we need to talk.

You need to know this is about me, not you. Even though you’re only a 4s, you’ve been more than reliable, holding all of my music (well, iTunes Match does, anyway) and all the apps I could ever need or use. You tell me when I need to be somewhere, plus help me get there (well, mostly; can we talk about Apple Maps?). You help me maintain some level of effectiveness and organization (OmniFocus, Evernote). For all of this I am really and truly grateful…

But I’m changing.

I’ll just be blunt: I need you to be little more quiet during the day.

I hope it doesn’t hurt you too much to hear that.

It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate your great colors; your functionality; your cute alerts and badges and notifications. They’re really great.

It’s just that, well, I realize that a lot of what you have to say can wait. 

Recently I’ve become aware that you don’t have much of a filter: whether I’m in a meeting or doing research, meditating or having dinner, you have this way of demanding my attention: “Look at me! There’s something important happening on Twitter!

… and in your email!

… and on Facebook!

… and in the NFL!

… and English Premier League and German Bundesliga!”

… and on and on and on.

Understand that I’m not saying our relationship is over. I’m in this for the long haul (or until my next upgrade, but shhhhhhhhhhh baby it’s okay…).

But things have to change: For one, I’m silencing a lot of your notifications. I just really don’t need to know all these things RIGHT THIS MINUTE. I’ll keep the info apps on the phone, and just launch them when I have a few minutes and want to know what’s going on.

But also, you’ll have to become content with not being present at all my meetings. Sometimes, you’ll be left in the car or at home. Not because I’m ashamed of you in some way, but simply because a lot of what you have to say can wait. It’s actually not really urgent or an emergency, in the grand scheme of things, and frankly there are things happening in my life that I simply want and need to pay attention to in the moment. I want to be be  able to give more of me to the events, people, and activities that deserve them.

And sometimes you just simply distract me.

I don’t blame you; you don’t really know any better.

But it’s time that I take a little bit of control back in this relationship.

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):

 

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Twitter: @ericcase