What Passes for Faith

NOTE: I’m on vacation this week in North Carolina, so I haven’t been writing a ton, but I stumbled across this short thought on faith, and thought I’d pass it on. As usual: enjoy, comment, and share. 

 

Let’s face it: if you want to fake something, “faith” is a pretty tempting place to start.

Faith: it can’t be seen, and currently the very concept is so confused and diluted that it’s pretty easy to just throw out an idea or two and slap a title on it that says, “faith,” and you’re in business.

(Maybe I’m doing that now?)

In my context, “faith” can easily be confused with:

  • going to the “cool church
  • signing on to the correct political agenda
  • seeking tight and easy answers to issues, ideas and concepts that are more easily represented by mystery and unknowing

Too often, faith actually seems like a journey or quest into certainty and control, rather than what it seems to be in the Bible…

… which is actually a journey into uncertainty towards a release of control.

It’s even more ironic when you consider that perhaps two of the most destructive drives—all the way back to Genesis 1—in our human nature are the drive to *control* and the drive to be certain, to “know“.

What’s more, sometimes I think that our faith leaders in the West are complicit in this confusion. We sell certainty and control through a variety of different mechanisms. Let’s face it: it’s easy to do, and it keeps people satisfied.

But I suspect some of us (clergy included) suspect, even hope that there’s something more hiding on the other side of all this apparent concreteness.

And, again, we need it. We need something more than this false security. Look around at our culture: we are still dominated by agendas that lack compassion, that seek domination, power and control, that are still primarily concerned with “yes but what do I get out of it? How do I protect my Kingdom?”

I think the message we hear from Jesus in the Bible takes issue with this perspective, and I wonder (a) if “Jesus people” even want what He wants (and let’s face it, Jesus wants a lot); and (b) if we church leaders are willing to go the extra mile to point people towards this deeper way of living.

I’m not excluding myself from this conversation: I know how hard it is to offer up everything to Jesus, and I confess that sometimes I also balk at this offer to surrender my selfish desires. And I also know that sometimes this Gospel doesn’t always sound like—on the surface at least—”good news” to the West, a culture that is build on more and more and more and radical individualistic freedom.

“This may cost you everything you think you need” is a difficult sell.

“The reward waiting for you after you have freed yourself from your desires is unbelievable, but unfortunately largely unseen” isn’t much easier.

And that’s what faith is.

For me, from what I’ve seen and heard and discovered in the few truly “holy” people I’ve encountered in my life, what passes for faith is a gentle detachment and acceptance of life on life’s terms, and an unencumbered dive into the mystery of life, and God.

It’s beautiful to behold, and I’d like to experience more of it in my life.

 

+e

 

Advertisements

Will Versus Wisdom

If you are a pastor, you may be a spiritual leader.

(Notice I said, sadly, “you may be”.)

If you are a spiritual leader, people may ask to meet with you.

If people ask to meet with you, they may ask you to speak into their lives.

If people ask you to speak into their lives, they might specifically want to know your opinion on exactly (more or less) they should be doing with their lives.

If they want to know all that, they may put it this way:

“I just want to know what God’s will is for my life.”

(This portion of the blog post brought to you by If You Give a Moose a Muffin.)

This desire to “know” looms so large in peoples’ lives, particularly in those under 35. There is some kind of nagging uncertainty about how to make decisions, and also a certain assumption that there is a “right” path (and, therefore, a wrong one as well).

So, the dialogues happen:

“I have this job opportunity before me, and I don’t know if I want it; I just want to know what God’s will is for my life.”

“I thought I was going to get married to this person, but it fell apart, and now I’m afraid I won’t have another relationship. I just want to know what God’s will is for my life.”

And so on, and so on.

I get it; I’ve been right there before.

I wanted to “know”.

When I was about 30, I was on the phone with a friend of mine who was weighing—guess what—a decision about a job. She had a job in the marketplace, and an opportunity came up to work at a church organization. She liked her other job just fine, but she also wanted to be more directly involved in ministry.

So she told me: “I just want to know what God’s will is for my life.”

Since then, I’ve sat down with countless individuals who have been processing the same question and, as I’ve navigated my own “high stakes” decisions (some of them great decisions, some of them not so great), my thoughts and feelings about just how to help my friends have been growing and evolving.

To put it simply: maybe it’s not about God’s WILL as much as it is about God’s WISDOM. Both of these concepts are squarely Biblical, but there are slight differences. (And no, this won’t be exhaustive, just meant to provoke some thought and consideration.)

WILL

Most of the time, the desire to know God’s “will” for our lives is a fairly binary, “yes” or “no” question. It’s one or the other; this or that.

Consequently, finding/getting/knowing that will is a pretty important thing, so many of us experiment with combinations of prayer, fasting, studying, guessing and closing our eyes and hoping for the best, because who wants to miss God’s will? 

(Answer: no one!)

Furthermore, oftentimes the “thought behind the thought” is that if I miss God’s will or go on the wrong path, it will mean suffering and misery (and conversely, the right path will equal peace and contentment). 

The problem with this thinking is that it brushes up against some pretty powerful stories and thoughts in Scripture that would push back on it.

One thought that runs a bit counter to this approach is that God created us with this thing called “agency”. In Genesis 1 we are told that we are created to “rule” over the earth. We are created with the ability to act, and while that ability has to be redeemed and refined in a post Genesis 2 world, nevertheless we are made to have agency and responsibility in this world.

But the search for “God’s will” can be paralyzing, and so many of us sit back and do nothing (abdicating our charge to reign in God’s name) while we wait to know…

It can make us passive, in a world that is begging for loving, gospel-oriented action.

And that waiting, that searching, can actually become an anxiety-producing circle. Will we ever really know? God tells us that His ways are not our ways, so certainty may never actually come.

Once I was talking with a 20-something woman who desperately wanted to be in a relationship, to be married the gap between her dream and the uncertainty was causing her pain and anxiety. She said, “I just want to know whether God has a husband out there for me.” (Translation: “Is it God’s will that I would be in a relationship and get married?”)

I gently responded by shrugging my shoulders and saying as lovingly as I could, “Who knows?”

We talked a little about how maybe what she could be focusing on instead was how she was growing now, and how she could cultivate God’s presence and healing in her life now, as opposed to focusing on a future that she could not control.

WISDOM

“Wisdom” is actually a genre of writing in the Bible, consisting mainly of Proverbs, but also Job, Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms.

Wisdom literature in the Bible is explicitly concerned with “how to live well.” How do you live a God-oriented life in the world?

Because some of the writing is imminently, almost annoyingly practical, for a long time, I considered these passages the most boring in the Bible. (Give me the Gospels, or Paul’s writing on mysticism and community, or the anger and urgency of the Prophets.)

But now I see them differently.

Now I see them as advice and tools for, well, living rightly.

(Once again, Eric is humbled by God and the Bible. By now I’m used to it.)

How do I grow spiritually?

How do I heal emotionally?

How do I make wise decisions?

What do I do with money?

How do I approach friendships?

Sure, some of the responses are short and almost anecdotal, but that does not make them any less effective for my life, provided I’m able to be humble enough to hear them.

So a “wisdom” approach to life and decision-making would focus on making decisions as best you can, learning from them, and incrementally getting better and growing.

You could say that wisdom assumes agency.

You could also say that wisdom assumes learning, and growth and evolution.

(It also assumes occasionally failing and stumbling, but that’s how we learn.)

Lastly, It also assumes a vital, dynamic connection to the Holy Spirit. The Bible refers the Spirit as a “guide” who will help us, and I take that pretty seriously. The Spirit does amazing, supernatural things (like healing and instant discernment), but She/He also is there as a daily, moment-to-moment guide for living.

SUFFERING AND SOVEREIGNTY

Before we get too far, let me try to clear something up: whether you embrace the way of wisdom or not, suffering does not mean that we have somehow missed the “will of God.”

All you have to do is to look at the Garden of Gethsemane, and eventually the cross.

I still believe that the garden (and then the Cross) are still very uncomfortable for those of us who would rather avoid the thought that a faithful Christian life can somehow lead to suffering.

And yet, there Jesus is, in the garden of Gethsemane. I can only assume that his intimate connection with his Father in Heaven has consistently lead him to do the right things at the right time with the right motivations.

(Or you could say, “He is squarely in the will of God.”)

But in this hour, he is suffering, and afraid, and prays, “Please take this cup from me.” The cup is the suffering, the agony, and the anticipation of what’s about to happen.

Jesus asks if maybe it can be avoided (I’d actually suggest that he knows it cannot.)

But God says, “No.”

And so Jesus does it: he allows himself to be arrested; he submits to the torture, to the humiliations, and eventually to the execution.

And the whole time, he is both walking the way of wisdom and he is in the “will of God.”

The two related lessons here are:

  1. (1)The way of wisdom accounts for failure: the presence of suffering in your life does not mean that you are somehow diminished or a “bad person”. It doesn’t even always mean that you are being persecuted. What it does mean is that you have something you can learn. There is opportunity to learn from mistakes.
  2. (2)Just because life is going “down and to the right” does not mean that somehow you have missed something, or have made a mistake. The sad and mostly painful truth is that sometimes life brings suffering; but because of the Story we live in we can know that suffering can bring about amazing, redemptive events.

Lastly, as we journey through life and walk through decisions, I think we can keep in mind that God’s sovereignty and power tell us that if we really are on the wrong track we can trust that He will let us know if He wants (as usual, pray for “open eyes and open ears.”). As I heard Erwin McManus once say, “Do you really not think that God can’t stop you from doing something that He really doesn’t want you to do?”

(See Acts: 16:6-8 for an example.)

BACK TO THE 90s

At the time I talked to my friend almost 20 years ago, I had just read a little passage in Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae. He tells this little group of believers,

since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1)

In this little passage, Paul seems to say something pretty important about “God’s will” as it pertains to our every day lives. To restate, Paul says, “I’m praying that God fills you with the knowledge of his will through WISDOM, UNDERSTANDING and the Spirit.”

In other words, we can know God’s will through wisdom, understanding, and the Holy Spirit.

But then Paul goes on, telling the church that they come to know God’s will so that they can live a life worthy of the Lord and please him.

In other words, the question may not be so much, “Where should I work?” but “How well am I growing? Am I coming to resemble Christ?”

Paul goes on to unpack it even further. Living a life worthy of Christ and “pleasing him” means:

  • bearing fruit
  • growing in knowledge
  • so that (again with the results!) we can have great endurance and patience, AND (last, but not least)
  • be joyously thankful.

What’s so amazing about this is that when you think about God’s will in this way, guess what: you can enter “God’s will” whenever you want. 

When we choose to bear fruit, grow in gratitude, choose joy and patience, we are “in” the will of God. We don’t have to wait. 

So, if you’re in “decision mode” right now, here are some helpful questions that I would process, instead of “What is God’s will for my life?”

  • Where will I grow in patience and endurance? Am I growing in it right now? 
  • Am I being “joyously thankful” now? What about this potential change will make me joyously thankful
  • If I make this decision and it goes “south”, what can I learn from it? 
  • Are there trusted people around me (an aspect of “wisdom) that could give me advice on unforeseen outcomes of this decision? Have I talked to them? 

(Because His will for your life is that you grow to know Him more, that you bear fruit, that grow in patience and endurance, that you grow in thankfulness/gratitude.)

May you seek God’s will today. And be wise.

And make a decision.

+e

(As usual, thanks for sharing, commenting and spreading the word!)

 

When I Grow Up

bible-1866564_960_720.jpg

In late 1988 (more from “The Vapor”) a folk singer named Michelle Shocked released a single called “When I Grow Up.” Since she was “home grown” (from Texas, where I was raised… mostly), we heard a lot of the song in Fort Worth. At the time, I thought it had a pretty solid groove, and a unique perspective, but at the same time a little quirky.

Here are the lyircs:

When I grow up I want to be an old woman
When I grow up I want to be an old woman
Oh, an old, an old, old woman

Then I think I’m gonna find myself an old man
Then I think I’m gonna marry myself that old man
An old, an old, an old, an old, a really old man

We’re gonna have a hundred and twenty babies
A hundred and five, ten, fifteen, twenty babies
Uh huh, that’s what I said a hundred and twenty babies

We’ll raise ’em on tiger’s milk and green bananas
Mangoes and coconuts and watermelon
We’re gonna give ’em that watermelon when they starts yellin’
Here’s what they’ll yell…

In the summer we’ll sit in a field and watch the sun melt
In the winter we’ll sit by a fire and watch the moon freeze
Me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies
Me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies
I said, me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies
Oh, when I grow up I want to be an old woman
When I grow up I want to be an oooooold…

Pretty cool.

Now, as I stare down a 49th year walking this planet, I’ve been thinking a bit about this song, and I hear it a little differently now. The lyric asks me questions now that I’m not sure I heard 30 odd years ago.

When I hear the song now I think about how being an “old woman” (or in my case, an old man) is so much more than an age:

Now I think about elders. 

More specifically, I wonder two things:

  1. Are people willing to seek out the wisdom of the elders?
  2. Where are all of our elders?

But here’s the deal: Question 1 is a bit out of my control, and frankly I’m just not that interested today in “complaining about the young generation”.

So, older people, I’m talking to US today.

Are we aspiring to be ELDERS? 

(For clarity, I’m not talking here about a position in a church. I’m using the term in a more global, traditional sense, of men and women who have…

… walked the paths of life

… probably fallen down once or twice (or 14 times)

… chosen to grow beyond their own egos and agendas

… (and consequently) have walked the road to die to themselves

… have begun the journey to separate from their earthly concerns and choose the peace that comes from detached loveing

… understand that life is more about what you can give than what you get…

THAT kind of “elder”.)

So, yeah, that’s what I’m wondering. The older I get, the more I look around me and wonder, “Where are the elders?”

I’ve been blessed to stumble across a handful here and there, but make no mistake, there are a lot of people out there who, even as the decades fall away behind them, are deciding not to grow up and be “an old woman/man.”

(And without going on another rant, our culture really doesn’t help much to discourage this resistance… Sometimes it seems that if you choose to remain immature and bound to your ego, and your agendas and small-self concerns well into your 60s, 70s or even 80s(!), then there’s an APP or a 24-hour news cycle or an echo chamber that will help you do that.)

But for me, the cost is too high. I think that I’m with Michelle on this one: “When I grow up I want to be an old man.”

The cost is just too high. I’d rather have the peace. I’d rather have the contentment. I’d rather have the patience. Maybe that would help someone younger; but that’s not up to me. What I can control is my availability to God and those closest to me.

God, make me an elder.

 

As usual… thanks for commenting and sharing …

 

 

“The Game is On…”

1920x1080-427875-sherlock-background-wallpaper-for-computer-free.jpg

Recently, my son and I have been watching the recent BBC version of Sherlock together (it’s become a bit of a family tradition: we did the same with my daughter a few years back). It’s just excellent in so many ways: innovative directing and camera work, great storytelling, impeccable acting, and enough “Easter eggs” and clever references to keep us all entertained.

In the “old school” Sherlock stories, whenever the detective sprang into action he would declare to Dr. Watson that “the game is afoot!” The modern version updates that phrase to “the game is on!”, and whenever Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) exclaims it, the action always takes a great leap forward and the characters move into the story, the mystery, and in a variety of ways proceed to confront villains, solve problems, and in a general way bring some justice and resolution to the storyline. It’s a great time, and thoroughly enjoyable.

A few years ago, I was reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography when I ran across an exchange that gave me a pretty significant pause. Merton is talking with his friend Robert Lax. Lax asks Merton what he wants to be, and after Merton replies that he wants to be a “good Catholic,” Lax tells him pointedly, “What you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

Merton protests, declaring, “I can’t be a saint, I can’t be a saint.”

But Lax drives the point home: “Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.” 

Does that strike you as much as it struck me?

(For the record, Merton bounces Lax’s idea off of another wise, monk, who verifies the truth of it.”

Forgot all the challenging traditions and baggage you might know and feel about “saints”: the occasional over-emphasis on relics and veneration; the supposed miracles that are associated with old bones and mystical visions. Set all that aside for just a minute and think about what (or who) a saint actually is. 

What images come up?

What names come up?

Francis? Mother Theresa? Paul? Peter? John?

The_Apostle_Paul_-_Rembrandt

“The Apostle Paul” – Rembrandt (courtesy Wikimedia)

Maybe there are some unofficial, modern ones as well: Martin Luther King Jr.?

I always think of “saints” as men and women who had essentially learned to live out of the radical reality of God’s love.

They had grown beyond the masks and identity traps that we fall into, and simply grasped the simple fact that they were/are “The Beloved” of God (just like Jesus).

After that, they just started to work out the implications of that reality in their own context…

“If I truly AM the Beloved… 

… Then I am free to live in poverty

… Then I am free to fearlessly look at my “shadow side” 

… Then I no longer need to hype God up, or scare people into the Kingdom of God

… Then I am free to speak truth to power

… Then I am free to see people the way God sees ME: as broken-but-beautiful; cracked-but-precious

… Then I am free to be compassionate to all 

… Then I am free from the fear of death

… Then I am safest in the arms of my Father in heaven. I have nothing to fear. 

(A note about one of those implications: I used to think that being a “saint” somehow meant that you somehow floated above life, and you no longer had to worry about things like “brokenness” or “sin.” However, the more I learn about the men and women who have achieved sainthood—officially or unofficially—the more I learn that they were actually incredibly in touch with their own limitations and brokenness. However, they were able to relentlessly place those limitations in the context of their Beloved-ness, and therefore resist the guilt and shame that plagues most of us. Rather, that awareness helped to unlock new levels of gratitude, appreciation and understanding of God’s free gift of grace, which in turn spills over into ever-increasing compassionate love for and service to the world that God loves so much.)

So now, think about that: God wants to make a saint out of you (no matter what Mick Jagger might say).

Now, make no mistake: when Robert Lax tells Merton, “All you have to do is desire it,” there is an awful lot packed into that phrase.

Because if we are honest with ourselves and each other, we desire an awful lot before we desire sainthood.

Here’s just a short list of my “desires”:

guitars

chips and salsa

pizza

quality music releases

a richly satisfying marriage

books

safety and maturity for my children

a secure retirement

a good vacation this summer

a healthy church

better leadership out of myself

a better workout habit

a richer prayer life

grass that mows itself

a teenage son that cleans up after himself

a book project that effortlessly writes itself

3 more hours in my day to be productive

3 more hours in my day to sleep

a 24 hour, free, soccer channel

comedy specials that actually make me laugh

a community that governs itself

(… and all that is BEFORE 9AM!)

But make no mistake: there is something that stirs in my heart sometimes, that gnaws at me, and that just sticks with me constantly.

Maybe it’s the growing desire to be MORE. It’s the growing desire to let God “make what me what He created me to be.”

And that thought has begun to stir my soul. It gets me out of bed in the morning (or rather, HE gets me out of bed in the morning), and into the presence of this God, this Love, this mystical and mysterious Presence that wants to grow me into something that He always intended me to be.

So I pursue prayer.

I pursue worship.

I pursue confession.

I pursue submission to a spiritual director.

I pursue service.

I pursue community.

I pursue study.

I pursue meditation.

Yep, as Sherlock would say it, “The game—of growth, of maturity, of spiritual evolution, of transcendence—is on.”

Where are you at with your spiritual growth? Do you believe—and trustthat God wants you to be a “saint”?

 

Thanks for liking // sharing // commenting.

Under the mercy.

 

 

Music From “The Vapor”

6211307788_4722af0ca3_b.jpg

Image via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/27613359@N03/6211307788

It’s always fun when streams in life start to bleed together.

My church has been journeying through the book of Ecclesiastes for a few weeks now, and one of the key concepts that emerges almost immediately in the book (indeed the first 2 verses) is the Hebrew word hevel. 

Most English Bibles translate the word as “meaningless” (the King James calls it “vanity”) but the Hebrew is more literally “vapor” or “breathe”. In this context, “The Teacher” of Ecclesiastes is not so much declaring that everything is “meaningless” in an absolute way, but that it is vapor: ephemeral, passing, impossible to control (if you want to see and hear of the implications of this idea, you can check out our Vimeo E3 Vimeo Feed or our E3 Church Podcast).

Lately, as I get close to my 50s (WHAT!?!?), I’ve been thinking of some of the music and bands of my 20s, when I was a young and growing musician, learning the basics of my craft and discipline. For a good decade plus, I absorbed everything I could in order to reach “the next level” of my musical development, and during that search I ran across a multitude of bands and artists and songwriters and guitar players who, for a relatively brief period of time, were considered masters of their craft (and therefore, worthy of my time and attention).

But guess what: they were vapor. 

Even more than than other areas of life, music and art can be truly passing, as tastes change and evolve (listening to almost any music produced in the 1980s can show how much entire sonic palettes can dominate briefly, only to sound almost ridiculous—thanks, cocaine—a mere 5 or 10 years later.

But nonetheless, there were a few bright spots in an often dark age of music. The vast majority of these bands never entered the public consciousness outside of their immediate context; put another way,

If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t know. 

I got lucky: I was.

So, since the digital world now makes it easier for us to “grasp the vapor” a bit, I wanted to offer you all just a few sounds from the past—mostly from the 80s and 90s—that you probably wouldn’t know about (but maybe you should).

And now, the introductions:

Hothouse Flowers

For sometime in the late 80s, U2 had a record label. This was one of their first signings. Hothouse Flowers were some strange blend of folk, soul, along with some unmistakably Irish leanings. This is the sound of my freshman year in college (at least until the cassette wore out).

The Call

Immediately, two thoughts enter my mind regarding The Call: the first is the unfortunate …. of …. (WORSHIP SONG>>>>) FLATTENING …. The second is that it must say something about the quality of your music when a young singer from a pretty popular band agrees to sing backup on one of your singles (this is long before “collaborations” became synonymous with “new ways to make more dollars”). In this case, a young Bono from this upstart band called U2 can be heard singing backup on “What’s Happened to You.” What’s more “The Walls Came Down” features Garth Hudson (from The Band) on keys.

The BoDeans

Three things you’d have to know: First, they opened some dates for U2 on The Joshua Tree tour. I saw them on the first of the first of a two night stand in Fort Worth, Texas (On the second night BB King opened the show; that night included the filming of the live footage of “When Love Comes to Town” for Rattle and Hum… it’s all about the stories.)

Second, almost more than any other of these acts, The BoDeans (really just two dudes from Wisconsin whose surname is not “BoDean”) suffered from some of the more unfortunate sonic choices of the era: gated snares, gratituitous reverse reverb, and an overall emphasis on the crystalline high end (again: thanks, cocaine!) at the expense of the guttural visceral mid-range.

Third, in my opinion, this is where some of the more proximate roots of “Americana” can be found: in the late 80s and 90s, various midwestern bands were discovering the beauty of stripped-down production (at least, when their record companies let them have a voice), harmonies, and the beauty of songwriting. In just a few short years, a little band from southern Illinois called Uncle Tupelo would take up the mantle, releasing a few records, and even more importantly eventually breaking up, forcing Jeff Tweedy to start Wilco and Jay Farrar to start Son Volt.

The Jayhawks

I first read about this Minneapolis band in University of Texas at Arlington school newspaper, when they rolled through the Dallas/Fort Worth, circa 1992/93. This band was similar to the BoDeans (sans the phony last names) with one huge difference: Rick Rubin produced their debut record. In other words, gone were the awful sounding drums and studio tricks, and in their place was the raw and very natural recording sound that Rubin would bring to everyone from The Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash. This was a game-changing record that showed a lot of us how music was going to sound in the very near future. They sung amazing harmonies with each other, and just made honest, heartfelt music.

Around 2001 or 2002, I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with the band, and Teri Gross referred to the band’s 2000 release Smile as “the best record of the year.” It’s just full of one concise, pointed, economical song after another.

Ricki Lee Jones

This is some vapor music from a slightly earlier time (her first record came out in 1979), but I still think that Ricki Lee Jones’ 1981 record Pirates may be the best singer-songwriter record that practically no one under 40 has ever heard. Jones was cinematic and dramatic, but the thing that really hooks me about this (and her first record as well) is the studio band. This is the way music sounds to my ears: real, and immediate, like you sense the guys in the room together. It is organic and coiling, and her voice is weaving in and around the rhythm section, and the moment on “We Belong Together” when what you thought was 6/8 was really a deep swing… I mean…

It still catches my breath 30 years later.

 

No, you can’t hold the vapor… but boy if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, there are some real special moments that come our way.

If you want to actually hear this stuff, the “Vapor” Playlist can be found at: https://open.spotify.com/user/1219088576/playlist/0dVi7R8lqmEXSIBuxuqRWE

 

Song Stories: “Thank You”

So a few weeks ago I released a record (or whatever they’re called nowadays) called After All(,) This

It was really nothing more than a little exercise in musical creativity and exploration, and it was deeply satisfying to me. What’s more, some of you actually paid money for it, and that was a great blessing to me as well.

One of the songs on that release is actually a cover of a song from the early 1990s by a guy named Dennis Jernigan. On the surface, it may have been an odd choice, but there’s a story and a connection to that song.

In 1995, my wife and I moved from Texas to Chicago, Illinois to begin what was the first of many little “adventures” that we’ve undergone. At that time, I was an electric guitarist in my mid-20s, with some miles behind me as a fairly focused musician from Texas. I played on 6th Street in Austin, in Deep Elllum in Dallas, and a few other places in the Lone Star State. What’s more, I was imbued with the notion that electric guitarists from Texas were a breed apart: our legacy included Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Johnson, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top (not to mention Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson).

I took this legacy seriously, and that combined with a strange gumbo of Duane Allman, the Edge, David Gilmour and even a little 1980s hair metal all produced an attitude that was all about making a statement and making an impact on whatever was going on around me musically.

(Occasionally I even had the chops to pull it off LOL.)

Though I’d grown up in the church, I’d done my share of wandering (and wondering), and by the time we made this move to Illinois, I’d already hit my first of a few (unfortunately it took more than one) “rock bottoms” in my life, and I was beginning to re-explore my faith. I grew up in a strictly “hymns” church, but during this time Shana and I started to encounter something called “Worship Music”, which was (supposedly) Jesus music set in “contemporary” arrangements.

The lyrics were spot on, obviously, and they touched the part of my life that longed for a deep, passionate connection to something or someONE higher.

However, the music was another story.

It was supposed to be “contemporary,” but I often sat wondering, “Contemporary for whom?”

Though the lyrics reached me, the recordings did not: the compressed, chorused, polite guitar sounds left me feeling empty.

When we arrived at Willow Creek Community Church, through an amazing set of circumstances and beautifully serendipitous conversations, I ended up volunteering with the music team there. All of a sudden, I’d gone from clubs in Texas—and an occasional church gig to 75 people—to playing before 5,000 at a pop, 10,000-15,000 total on a weekend. What’s more, the musicians there were mostly killer. Just amazing drummers (always my favorite) and bass players and keyboardists and singers, etc., etc.

(And they were filled with this amazing, joyous, celebratory love and passion as well.) 

And other guitar players too…

But not so many like me.

(NOTE: Sitting here, I know now how damaging it can be to my soul for me to ponder ways in which I am different from other people, but at the time, this seemed pretty real to me…)

  • They were established family men and women … Shana and I had been married for a few years, but were still a few years away from being able to have children (another story for another time).
  • They wore dockers and polo shirts … I had jeans and thrift store t-shirts (or that amazing relic of the 1990s: the gas station work shirt).
  • They played the aforementioned chorused and compressed Stratocasters through multi-effect units … I played a Les Paul through a handful of pedals attached by velcro to a piece of plywood.

In addition, I brought this southern, Allman Brothers approach to what they were doing…

And, sometimes, it just really seemed to work.

What was also fun and helpful was that I really didn’t know any of these records that they were covering. Instead, I played with instinct and improvisation. I listened to what they were doing in rehearsal, and then just started playing “what made sense”.

… And, for their part, they tolerated it.

(NOTE: Musicians and guitarists, if you want to do this, please… well… please be good. This approach is decidedly NOT recommended unless you’ve spent upwards of 4-5 hours a day of “deliberate practice on Wikipedia” for about 7-8 years.)

Anyway, “Thank You” was one of those early songs. I loved it’s simplicity; at its core was something essential and elemental to faith, and what’s more there was a soulfulness that I was able to find underneath the somewhat safe (and overly “white”) production. I remember being on that stage at Willow, tuned to “Drop D” and just hammering that low D against a wailing high slide. I remembered digging down deep, SOUL LEVEL DEEP and trying as hard as a human being could try to MAKE THE NOTES I PLAYED = THE EMOTIONS I FELT.

Looking back, it might have worked. It might have been a disaster. Truth is, it was probably somewhere in between.

There are other songs, and maybe they are for other times.

But that’s why I covered “Thank You.”

(OH: And it’s ALSO because… I’m thankful.)

For all that You’ve done I will thank You
For all that You’re going to do
For all that You’ve promised, and all that You are
Is all that has carried me through
Jesus, I thank You

And I thank You, thank You, Lord
And I thank You, thank You, Lord
Thank You for loving and setting me free
Thank You for giving Your life just for me
How I thank You, Jesus I thank You
Gratefully thank You
Thank You.

– “Thank You” by Dennis Jernigan (c) PraiseCharts

4 Ways that Life is Like Soccer

If you know me at all, you know that as for me an my house, we watch soccer.

(Oh we like the NFL too, but for us, there’s no football like “futbol.”)

So sit back and enjoy while I show you why this sport is so much more like life:

1. It Doesn’t Stop (Until it’s Done)

Almost all of the major American sports have prodigious breaks in them. Though an entire game lasts well over 2 hours, each individual play takes mere seconds, and over the whole of a game this adds up to about 11 minutes total of play. The rest of the time is taken up with commercials, penalties, and various breaks in the action.

By contrast, there are notoriously really no breaks in the action of a soccer game. Commercials are only broadcast at halftime, and if you risk getting up and going to the bathroom at any point in the 90 minutes of play, you risk missing the play that changes everything.

And just like soccer, life doesn’t really stop. Oh, we can pretend it does by trying check out a little here and there, but like it or not, while we are still drawing breath we are in the flow of time, and learning to be present for all of it is an art.

2. It’s a Lot More Physical Than You Think

Because of #3 below, a lot of people think that soccer is played like ballet, and there is no physical contact. Especially on the youth level, it’s enjoyable to listen to parents unfamiliar with the game complain to referees about how their kids are being pushed around. However, as soon as you watch a game close up, you realize that this game can be brutal: elbows, fists, even teeth(!) are all a part of fighting for position. Players routinely get heads split open (to be stapled up and return to the game), and bruised by well-placed kicks. What’s more, a lot of teams have “a hard man,” or enforcer, who’s job it is to intimidate and generally make the other team’s players miserable. Vinnie Jones (of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels fame) was a notorious hard man in the English Premier League, and a  shows the essence of what it means to be an enforcer.

Gazza.jpg

For us, I think a lot of us still adjust to the fact that life is difficult, and struggle to react to pain and challenge. I know for myself, it took a long time for me to get over the fact that life simply isn’t that easy. However, once I was able to start conceptualizing that “in this life I will have trouble”, I was able to start viewing the bumps and bruises that came my way as opportunities for growth, and a “school,” or testing ground of sorts, for my faith. At that point, suffering can become productive, and even redemptive.

3. That Being Said, We “Flop” a Lot More Than We Should

I get it; soccer also has notorious actors and “flops” in it. They are attempts to get fouls called, particularly inside the 18 yard box, so that teams can win a free kick and an easy opportunity to score. There are some hilariously bad flops, when players dive through the air like they’ve been shot with a gun, and then writhe on the ground in excruciating pain, only to have the replay show that they were never even touched by an opposing player.

(Check out, in particular :19)

These type of actions get a lot of ridicule from soccer skeptics around the world, but maybe only until we realize how much we do this as well. 

I know for myself anyway, there are so many interactions that I’ve had that have just seem like the world has ended, and I am “devastated” or “enraged” … friendships have been jeopardized. The heat of the moment takes over. I am metaphorically “on the ground, writhing in pain.” Then, often in what is comparatively a really short time, I’m back on my feet, and I actually realize that what I thought was a really major incident, actually didn’t hurt me at all. In fact, I really didn’t even need to fall over or go down. I over-reacted. I let it get the best of me. (And maybe, just maybe I could have scored if I would have ignore the altercation and just gone on with my life.) 

4. It’s Diverse

Lastly, soccer/football truly is a world sport. Obviously, it’s played all over the world, and the numbers show it: by comparison, whereas the 2014 Super Bowl had 111.5 million viewers worldwide, by contrast the 2014 World Cup boasted 909.6 million.

It’s actually astonishing.

Watch any professional league, and the rosters are truly glimpses of a global community: Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East are all represented (Sadly, North America (minus Mexico) is probably the least represented continent, at least in Europe).

What’s more, even amidst all the diversity, cultures around the world still maintain (more or less) their own brand of play. The English Premier League is a league of speed; Brazilian football still maintains the reputation of being beautiful and creative (in the United States, a lot of our reputation has at times unfortunately been centered on individualism and show-boating). On and on the list goes on. It’s a wonderful blend of cultural identity with diverse influences.

Like it or not, our world is beautifully complex, and it was created that way. Revelation 7 speaks of “every nation and tribe” gathered around the throne of God, worshiping. It’s too easy to think that my Caucasian, North American perspective is all that there is to life, to faith. But it’s not. It’s so much bigger than that. I can learn about life (and about my blind spots) by people who are not the same as me; who share different life experiences and who have different values than me.

When my son was learning to play the game, we used to take as many opportunities as we could to get him playing time, so even when his club team wasn’t in season I would take him to fields around town to see if he could play in pick-up games. Most of the time, the only games available to him (even as a 12 and 13 year old) were games that international grad students from FSU would hold on Saturdays and Sundays. He would say to me, “Dad, I really want to play,” and I would look at the field full of people from Ghana, Argentina, China, Mexico, and Lebanon, and I would listen to the amazing blend of accents and language, and I would say, “Well, then you need to go out there and play.”

And he would wonder into this blend of culture and language and perspective, and he would go play.

And I’m hoping that he’s learning something about the world, and about life: about the joy of diversity, and the gift that other people can bring to us.