Two Things That Christ Desperately Wants You to Know, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2!

Last week I suggested that there were two things that Jesus wanted you to know, and that these two simple concepts have the potential to jumpstart, restart, or simpley START your spiritual journey.

The first thing that we need to understand about reality (and ultimately, any spirituality worth its salt is in the end about REALITY)  is that “salvation is a life,” and you obviously you can read the rest of that post if you’d like.

The second reality that Jesus would love for his followers to understand is that not only is salvation a life, but we are active participants in that life.

(Or, at least, we should  be.)

Yep… this is the part where Jesus tells most of us to get off our butts and start engaging in our lives in such a way that he can be present in it with us.

Because the life we have to live can only be lived by one person, and one person only…

YOU.

You can’t live someone else’s life. Christ comes to no other person in the same way he has come to you, and what that means is that Christ comes to YOUR job…

… YOUR family…

… YOUR school…

… YOUR financial situation…

This is significant because there’s an insidious tendancy in matters of faith to think that spiritual things happen to, well, spiritual people

(and almost all of the time the “spiritual people” = not me).

But the thing is that the life Jesus comes to save and dwell in is not anyone else’s life. It’s yours.

Not only do you not have to wait until you “get right” with Jesus to start experiencing salvation, you actually can only do what you can do right now, in this moment.

Good spirituality is only ever about how you can experience the Kingdom of God now, in this moment and in this circumsances, not in “someone else’s” life, who is supposedly “more spiritual” than you.

(To be clear: I’m not saying that there’s not more spiritually mature people in the world: I know there are, and I’ve been blessed to experience life with some of them. What I am saying, however, is that some of us use our “UN-spirituality” as an excuse to stay dormant and stuck, when actually God says that

RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE…

                                                    RIGHT HERE,

                              RIGHT NOW,

YOU

          ARE

                    BLESSED.

(And that, my friends, is called GRACE.) 

 

The actual question is, what are you gonna do about it? What will you do with this life that is given to you?

Jesus wants to live his life in your life.

IF you want that, if you want to experience Jesus life in the midst of your life, what you actually have to do is arrange this life of yours in patterns and rhythms and experiences that actually resemble Jesus’ patterns and rhythm and experiences.

(There’s an old cliché here that actually is appropriate: If you want to do the things that Jesus did—meaning his miracles and such—than you have to do the things that Jesus did… meaning his rhythms and patterns and habits of life.)

A lot of us don’t think that way.

We’re stuck. We’ve been trying this “faith thing” for a while now, but instead of Jesus’ life of love, peace, transcendance we still seem to have “Eric’s life” of jealousy, laziness and too many chips and salsa.

It feels mundane, and definitely not spiritual.

We pray for something, and we try harder, but if we haven’t actually arranged our lives to look more like Jesus’ this practically amounts to a Christian version of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.

In just the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, we are told that Jesus hangs out in “lonely places” to be with God. He rises before dawn to pray.

That’s just a hint of what we’re getting at: Jesus is able to do the things he does and experience his Father the way he does in because he makes himself available to the Father.

(It’s not about Jesus “working” for his father’s love, and it’s not about that for us either. God gives His love freely; it’s about what to do with this life that we are living.)

To put it yet another way, salvation is a life, and we are invited to practice it in particular ways, ways that Jesus (and other spiritual masters throughout the years) are very familiar with.

Metaphors and examples from art and sports serve well here:

You can call yourself a “musician,” but if you don’t practice the necessary skills to make music, it will be largely hit-or-miss as to whether or not you can actually make a piece of music.

You can call yourself a Christian (and remember, God does love you, regardless; His love is not optional here), but if you don’t practice the skills necessary to do live the life that Jesus wants to live within your life, it will be largely hit or miss as to whether you’ll be able to respond with compassion, peace, and love when the time comes.

You can call yourself a decathlete, but if you don’t practice … 

(I think you get the point.)

The “training regimen”, or practices that Jesus engaged in are historically called “Spiritual Disciplines.”

“Discipline” has now taken on a largely negative connotation in our culture (being sent to the principal’s office for “discipline”, usually involving—in my day—a swat with a board), but it’s original meaning has much more to do with instruction or knowledge, and even now in some contexts it can still refer to the idea of training yourself to do something in a habitual way.

We want to habitually respond to life the way Jesus would. We want to make it a habit to allow him to reign and rule—to live—in our lives.

The group of training habits and practices (disciplines) are fairly well defined. They include:

  • prayer
  • solitude
  • silence
  • celebration
  • service
  • worship

There are more, but these are a foundational core. (Actually Dallas Willard would say that an even more essential core would be: prayer, solitude and silence. You can see these lived out constantly in portrait of Jesus’ life that we see in our four gospels.)

This is our training regimen.

This is our practice. 

This is the life that we are called to, in order to see the salvation life that God holds out for us.

These two thoughts—that salvation is a life, not an “after-life promise”, and that we are called to actively participate in this life through practice and training—consistently have taken people beyond their circumstances and more deeply into the Kingdom of God. If we let them have a tangible impact on our day-to-day lives, they actually bring about the Kingdom within and among us. Jesus saw it and lived it in his day, and he wants us to know that we can see it and live it in ours as well.

That is a wonderful, subversive, revolutionary invitation, and one that is still desperately needed for the world today.

 

blessings and peace… as usual, please comment, like and share…

under the mercy

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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

 Soul Music

I was 9 or 10 when my maternal grandfather died. We made the trip from Texas to North Carolina to celebrate his life and to lay him to rest. I knew him as a kind, soft-spoken southern gentleman (my mother has different memories, as usual).

I’m not sure how a 10 year old interprets “death”. Though I had visited him and spent a little time with him, we grew up in Pennsylvania before Texas, and so I didn’t have the connection I had with my dad’s parents, who grew up two houses down the road (my uncle lived in between us). My mom was pretty devastated, and it hurt to see her so torn up, but we did our best to keep it together and to mourn in a healthy way. Meals were brought; hugs were given and received; stories were through moist eyes and shaking voices.

There was a viewing; I’d never been to one before (my maternal grandmother died when I was probably 4 or 5, and I don’t remember anything about that except hearing my mother receive the phone call and knowing instantly as I heard her cry, “What?!?!?!” that something was seriously wrong. (Is there a word for that tone of voice? The tone where the unthinkable has happened? It’s not “sad”; it’s not just “shocked”; it’s something from beyond. Beyond the pale of normal, “safe” human interaction.)

Anyway, the viewing. To say it disturbed me is to understate things. The casket was open, but I was, well, horrified, as I realized what I was supposed to do: walk up and look and “pay my respects”. Shamefully, my parents had to virtually drag me up to the casket; I’m sure my mom was so embarassed, but something irrational had captured me, and I couldn’t get past it.

Somehow we got through that night. The next day was the funeral proper. I remember a typical rural southern church: white wooden walls, vaulted ceilings, pews with cushions, everything very clean and arranged. I sat down next to my mother and the service began. Everything was fine until…

… They started playing, “How Great Thou Art,” an old hymn. I don’t know if it was one of my grandfather’s favorite hymns; I don’t know if it was an afterthought: “Hey everyone knows this one!” All I know is that as the music began and people started singing, I lost it.

I mean, lost it. 

I mean, not like you get the, “Fa-fa-fas” or the tears stream silently down your face. I mean irrational, super ugly, uncontrollable wailing. 

Even to this day my mom says, “We didn’t know what was happening! It was just beyond the normal level of human weeping; you were unconsolable!”

I couldn’t tell you what had happened, except that in that moment, I realized the power of music. I was experiencing something that was communicating to me beyond words, beyond speech, beyond even a human embrace. There was something in the combination of melody, rhythm and words that drilled its way so far beyond my defenses that I was devastated before I even knew what was happening.

It was like being attacted by emotional/spiritual ninjas.

That, my friends, is “soul music.”

Believe it or not, I think in that moment I was captured by music: its power and its ability to break down walls and defenses; to speak the unspeakable and express the unexpressable.

Once you touch a moment like that (theologians might call it numinous or transcendent) you really can’t go back. It changes you; lets you know what’s truly possible, beyond this world that we can see and touch. There was something beyond all of that, and I wanted it. Not only did I want to experience it again, I wanted to be a part of creating it for others.

It’s been a long road since then, but a few days ago I stood up in a small chapel—only 45 people or so—where family and a few friends had gathered to remember “Grandma Alice.” Alice passed away at 94, the grandmother of some friends of mine from my community. Amazingly, I was also Grandma Alice’s worship pastor. Somehow, this woman in her 80s (at the time) worshiped under the leaership of a rock and rolling, guitar playing, melancholic and introspective pastor (that’s me). She was great at giving hugs and giving encouraging words, and I was honored to be a part of remembering her.

The family chose two songs for the service. I don’t know if she had a part of picking them or not. The last song in the service was “I’ll Fly Away.”

Any guess as to what the first one was? IMG_4153

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Do Not Seek the Whirlwind

In 1990 I walked to campus reciting this prayer: 

“God bring me the whirlwind. Bring the me the storm. Tear me up. Bring the pain.” 

Though this particular prayer was a response to a ridiculous relationship that was ending, it also reflected what was a deeper truth for me at the time: 

That pain and trauma was necessary to art. 

As an angst-y 20-something musician (and let’s face it: what 20-something musician isn’t angst-y?), I cultivated and curated pain like a miser. It was virtually the only emotion that I could easily recognize, and that fact alone made it the most accessible to me as a guitar player and fledgling songwriter. 

I was reading this article today on the Huffington Post and it made me think of that prayer, and that time in my life. 

It was hell. 

It was hell, and it makes me sad to think about the myth that is still so pervasive: that only tortured/addicted/troubled/solitary (the list goes on and on, but you get the point) make art. 

What’s even more troubling to me is when I think about how I actually sought out pain and drugs and rejection because I thought it would make me a better musician. 

Eventually, somehow I started to wake up. I realized that the rock and roll mythology that I believed in was not quite accurate, and that:

  1. there are quite stable people who actually make quite exceptional art, and
  2. there are actually quite troubled “artists” who make horrible, unexceptional art. 

In other words, there is no correlation. 

Now, what I do still maintain is that great struggle can produce great art: when you read the stories of Michelangelo, di Vinci, the Beatles, or U2, or Wilco, etc., it’s easy to see that some kind of struggle occurs in the midst of producing art, but that struggle does not have to be emotional. 

It can be a struggle with pushing the boundaries of technology, whether it’s the number of tracks available in a recording studio or the types of paint pigment that are available. 

It can be a struggle with keeping a band together in the midst of losing record deals or changing consumer tastes. 

It can be the internal struggle of a writer who is struggling to put into words the vision that is burning inside of her. 

But it does not have to mean personal drama. 

It does not have to mean pain. 

It does not have to mean depression. 

(Obviously, for those of us who struggle with depression, we know that sometimes the isolation and melancholy that swirls around us can sometimes give rise to thoughts and feelings that lead to songs or books or poems or paintings… but the point is we don’t need to seek it out.)

Don’t cultivate the pain for the sake of “art”.

Don’t pray for the whirlwind just because you think you need to suffer to create. 

Sometimes life is indeed hard; the whirlwind will come on its own, and art may or may not come out of it, but that’s another question.

These Days.

These days I’m tired. It’s funny how fast the wind can leave my sails and a deep, soul-level fatigue can set in.

I know myself well enough to know the things that trigger it, and this past season has been full of multiple events.

I. BOUNDARY ISSUES

I am, by nature, a “gray-thinker.” Life (and thus human beings) is a mystery, and infinitely complex. This type of thinking helps me craft a “middle way” through variety of issues, and find ways to diffuse controversies in order to invite people into dialogue.

Occasionally, however, I am confronted by issues that are not nearly so easy to navigate: different aspects of spirituality or church life sometimes contain some kind of absolute that has to be dealt with.

Usually, when an absolute is involved, someone is going to get hurt. Insiders have the potential to become instant outsiders. The accepted can come to feel the pain of the rejected, in just a few short minutes.

This tears away at my soul.

I know that life is difficult. I know that “gray thinking” can, in and of itself, be a form of “black-and-white thinking”, a way to avoid the messiness of disagreement and confrontation.

But it still tends to send me into a tailspin.

II. FATIGUE

I pride myself on being a “workhorse”, particularly in the arena of public ministry. At 46, I still try to be the musician who can play the longest, most consecutive Sundays (or whatever). There is something in me that says, “Put the burden–of music, of teaching, whatever–on me; I can handle it. As Bruce said, “Baby, I’m tougher than the rest.”

(BTW, I realize that this isn’t healthy.)

Even more, this simply is no longer the case. I get tired. This Sunday marks the second Sunday I’ve been off since Easter, and a number of those Sundays have been days where I’ve both lead music and taught as well.

I started to notice the fatigue about 6 weeks ago, when I’d wake up on Monday morning with the thought, “Oh man, I have to do Sunday in 6 more days.” (Worse yet, sometimes the thought would strike me on Sunday afternoon/evening before I’d even had a chance to catch my breath from the morning.)

Fortunately, I have two Sundays off (more or less, but that’s another story), so maybe there’s a way forward through this part of the forest.

III. QUESTIONS OF CALLING

At this point I’ve been in ministry, more or less full-time for 17 years. Roughly speaking, that’s 800 Sundays of music or teaching (I left out a whole year, and used 50 Sundays/year as an estimate).

That’s a lot of stuff.

Whether it’s just getting older, or something else that’s going on, right now I am FEELING those Sundays.

Put another way, sometimes I ask myself, “Is it time to do something else? What else might God want to do?”

Relatedly, it doesn’t escape me that time keeps rolling on, and I have more years behind me, vocationally-speaking, then I do ahead.

(Not being morbid; this is simply a fact.)

In a way, this is invevitable: horizons begin to narrow: I can no longer contemplate going on tour, or entertaining all the crazy dreams that I used to.

Now is the time, for practicality, isn’t it?

Trouble is, practicality was never very motivating for me.

I’ve been reading a lot of monastic literature lately, and there’s a part of me that resonates deeply with that life: rhythm, simple work, prayer and reading.

However, I’m pretty sure you can’t take your family into a monastery.

So I’m restless. I’m hungry, but not much looks inviting or intriguing right now. I seek rhythm and peace, and hope that the light shines through that rhythm and peace, and I wait.

Waiting’s not so bad, after all.

 

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James Stayed.

Once, for a class in college, I had to look up my family tree. It wasn’t that easy, because (a) though actually in existence (surprise!), the internet was largely unavailable to a “mere” undergraduate student like me and (b) there are some decided gaps in my ancestry. For one thing, many of my ancestors came from rural North Carolina, and records were scant (my great-grandfather was murdered, which someday I’ll write a song about, but that’s another story. Literally.)

One thread of my ancestors, however, was easy to find. I actually traced our arrival in the colonies(!) to somewhere in the late 1600s. From that point on, my ancestors were actually pretty active in the birth of our country. It was pretty cool to see, but one thing stood out. Though our family did a lot of really impactful things, my direct ancestors weren’t always the ones pulling the trigger, or signing the document, or meeting the President. Most of the time, it seemed like it was a brother. My direct ancestor was at home on the farm while the famous older or younger brother was out changing the direction of this young country…

 

Some friends of mine come over every other week or so to study the bible. This year we spent a lot of time in the book of James, and something struck me early on in the discussion. James, as best we can tell, was the brother of Jesus, and though he wasn’t a follower of Jesus while he was alive, somewhere after the resurrection James came to believe, and eventually became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. In the book of Acts, we see James’ significance in chapter 15, where Paul and Barnabas come to report on their activities around rest of the region.

“The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied…”

According to the setting here, James has authority. Because of where he speaks (after the report), his words matter (and we see later that they actually do).

Anyway, I started thinking a lot about James, especially compared to Paul, Peter, and even Barnabas:

  • Paul (and Barnabas) travel the Mediterranean, “bringing the light” to the Gentiles (and writing what becomes much of the New Testament)
  • Peter is given the keys to the Kingdom by Jesus, eventually ends up in Rome, becomes the first “Pope” and is martyred.

But you know what James did?

James stayed behind.

He stayed behind, and he became a pastor to this little splinter group of Jewish folks who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and that something amazing had bloomed into the world. He taught them, encouraged them, warned them, and protected them as best he could.

Mostly in obscurity, for even though at least one biblical scholar called James “The true first Pope” (by virtue of his stature and authority in Jerusalem as shown in Acts 15), James is largely unknown by people today.

While Paul got top billing (and let’s be clear, a whole lot of abuse as well), James quietly, obscurely led the Jerusalem church—the first mother church—through persecution and poverty.

Sometimes, I think about James, and I think about my ancestors (the Brevards, by the way: look them up, they were pretty major players in Revolutionary War-era North Carolina), and I think about myself.

The fact is, I like it when my friends go out and do big things. I like feeling a part of their success, like my behind the scenes contributions have somehow made a difference in their work. That I helped.

But you know what?

Sometimes, I think I need to step out too.

Ultimately, I’m glad James stayed in Jerusalem. He had to. Someone had to. And eventually a little piece of his story got told, in five short chapters, included right between Paul’s letters and Peter’s in the Bible.

I don’t want to be in the Bible.

But sometimes I think I should think about “leaving Jerusalem” as well.

Yes, yes, yes.

I get this, at a very deep level. This is how I approach music.

“Either you are the music or you’re not. There are a lot of people that want to do what I do, but what I do is about humility and righteousness and understanding, because music is precious. I know it’s just rock and roll, but there are moments in there. There really are and you can’t miss them. It’s got to be soulful, it’s got to speak to you, it’s got to twist your little heart, and you have to be turned on.” – Andy Johns, Producer, in September 2010 Guitar Player (see credits here)