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.




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.

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):



Twitter: @ericcase

Sunday Spine

I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit, and it’s really great: practical productive ideas on creating from a long-time practicer. She talks about the need for every creative work to have a “spine”, something which knits the whole work together. It answers the question, “What am I trying to say?” with ruthless clarity and conciseness.

What’s interesting to me is that the spine is not necessarily the same thing as what the audience/public/congregation sees or hears or experiences. That’s the story; the spine belongs to the creator or team of creators that orchestrate it.

For those of us who work on Sunday, I think we have the opportunity to think about spines as well. We already know our story (and it’s a good one); but we don’t always think about our particular spines. In my context, a spine may be anything that holds a set of songs together besides the obvious (a journey towards God). For better or for worse, this past Sunday my “spine” was a musical one: it was the concept of a power trio. Could I (a) have no acoustic guitar; (b) play slide in open tuning; (c) re-arrange some familiar songs to have a heavier, bluesier feel to them; and (d) do all of this without it becoming distracting or prideful?

In regards to the spine, “What am I trying to say?”

I am trying to say that worship music can be bluesy and soulful and still congregational. 

That was my thinking, but a spine can be just about anything: it may be a stylistic approach to the songs; it may be a progression of musical keys; it may be a subtle facet of spirituality—meditation or contemplation, say—that’s not overtly being discussed but that I’ve been working with.

Now, here’s the deal: First, in Sunday worship “business”, spines are not necessary. We’ve been handed a story to tell, and it’s up to us to tell it clearly and compellingly. In a sense, we don’t need spines.

(I hope I don’t need to tell you that spines should never detract or distract from the story. People shouldn’t notice that all your songs were in the key of A; they should notice this God that we believe in.)

But spines enrich our stories. They give us the opportunity to make our Sunday stories multi-layered and rich.

They also infuse our creative lives with fresh wind.

(I daresay they make it fun.)

What some of us need is a dose of creative energy, a breathe of fresh air to engage our thinking and give us the strength and focus to run another leg of the ministry race that we’re in. Ultimately, I think that spines are a useful tool to keep us engage over a period of time with the work we do.

(By the way, I also use the concept of a “spine” when I’m developing a sermon; it governs what stays in and what goes out. In this sense, sermon prep for me is like poetry. It’s about editing down to the essentials and trusting that what is left over after the process is sufficient and essential.)

What spine can you insert into your work this week? What would give you energy?


“Bummer” Worship Songs, Casinos + the Church Calendar

In case you didn’t know, casinos don’t have windows. Typically, it’s really difficult to see outside in any way from the casino floor, and it’s fairly well-known that this is because they want you to exist entirely inside the reality of the casino while you’re there. Everything, including the patterns on the carpet, is tailored to pull you into a place where anything is possible: where you could win $1,000,000 on nickel slots; that cute blonde really does like you (and really isn’t a prostitute); where you really are a high-rolling consultant from NYC (and not a debt-strapped state employee from Wisconsin). They spend a lot of money to create this illusion, and they are pretty good at it: while you are there, you can believe anything, and it feels real.

But guess what: eventually you have to leave the casino.

And it’s 2pm.

And rather than being up $20,000, you’re down $450 and you have to make rent.

Reality sets in sooner or later…

I’ve been accused of leading “downer” worship sets. In fact, I was once officially reprimanded at a church for not putting enough “uplifting and joyful” songs into our weekly sets. What’s more, at my church we are in a season that has found us playing a lot of songs that dwell on pain and suffering (and yet choosing to still sing, no matter how tentatively). I’ve even made a concerted effort recently to pull us away from these songs, but it just seems like we are in a season of pain and struggle, and as musicians and pastors we simply need to speak to that. Lately, I think of it as “Gap Worship”, songs that stand in the gap between exhilarating hope and devastating despair, between joy and pain.

Reality sets in sooner or later…

I was having coffee with a good friend last week who is watching a loved one struggle severely with an undiagnosed devastating physical illness. Doctors cannot seem to figure out what’s going on, and the situation seems to be deteriorating. They were telling me about the latest news, and they said, “I just can’t seem to connect with church right now…”

I replied, “I imagine you walk into most churches and you think, ‘because of what I’m going through right now, there is nothing here that connects with my life.’” 

He began to tear up and simply muttered, “Yeah.”

So many times our churches can begin to resemble casinos, both physically and emotionally. We truly want to pull people into a reality that says “Hey everyone remember: Love wins! Just give your life to Jesus and save your soul! Get on board with God’s mission!” To that end, we do a lot to pull people into the reality we are trying to create.

(In fact, most of our modern churches go to great lengths to blot out natural, ambient light—windows—so that we can better employ our systems to tell the story we want to tell that week.)

And yet, we know that reality is going to set in…

People are going to walk back out and experience the devastating reality of their lives: debt, illness, loss, loneliness, anger, isolation.

I am absolutely not advocating abandoning hope.

I am advocating timeless, non-contextual worship experiences that don’t connect with reality. 

Let’s face it: even Jesus knew it wasn’t Easter all the time. 

One of the great (and under-utilized) tools for planning worship that doesn’t look like and feel a casino is the church calendar. Used creatively, the liturgical calendar (broadly, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and “Common Time”) can help us address the pain and doubt (as well as joy, hope, and anticipation) of the individuals we live and do ministry with.

Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation. It is a great time to talk about the meaning of Jesus’ coming, and the “gap” between the our world, and the vision of the world that He comes to inaugurate.

Christmas is joy and celebration, celebrating “God-with-us.” In the midst of the depth of winter (death), life springs up. Even in the absence of hope, God is working.

Lent walks us through our mortality and our frailty as we think about Jesus’ journey towards the cross. It’s a time to mourn and to sacrifice and abstain from comfort in order to shake loose sin’s hold on areas of our lives.

Easter bursts forth with celebration and new life. It screams at the world, “Whatever you think you know about life, there is a deeper reality than you think.” At the moment of great sadness and even evil, the victory is truly won.

Pentecost addresses the life that the Holy Spirit brings, and also the creation of the church. It can be a time of community and connection.

I’m certainly not an expert in the church calendar; my church only observes a couple of these seasons. However, I’m fairly convinced that these seasons holistically address the human experience, and avoid “Casino” worship.

For the time being, I’ll keep my downer worship songs. I can see outside, and it’s not always 75° and sunny.

Reality is going to set in when they leave your sanctuary, and we don’t worship a God who asks us to stick our head in the sand. We don’t deny death; we defiantly claim that life—actually resurrection life—comes out of death.





Introducing the “Deep Well”

“The Deep Well” is born out of a few threads that emerged during a Sabbatical in 2013.

The first came out of Isaiah 55, where God is reminding his people that they have spent resources—a lot of resources—on “food that is not really food” and “drink that is not really drink.” Folks have wasted their time chasing after things that don’t really satisfy. In contrast, God says, “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, but food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk… Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts” (vv1, 2a).

The idea that came to me was to just set up some space where God’s people could “feast” on Him. Not really much of an agenda—just provide an arc and a space where people could throw themselves into God and He could satisfy their deep thirsts and hunger.

The second came out of the idea of our “belovedness” in God’s eyes. This theme, echoed in a few writers for me, is necessary (to my mind) because sometimes the very reason we run after so many other things that do not satisfy us is because we are terrified what God may actually think about us—that He actually may not like us.

It occurred to me that reminding folks that they are beloved in God’s eyes would be a good thing to do.

These two ideas—to let people feast on God, and to remind them that they are the beloved—form the backbone of this thing I’m calling “Deep Well”. There are other thoughts and inspiration mixed in as well, but these form the spiritual core of what I’m doing.

It’s pretty simple; I’m thinking that most good ideas are. I’m thinking I’d like to see just how many folks out there are hungry, and thirsty and how many need to be reminded that God’s forgiveness (and love) precedes their repentance. Right where they’re at.

For now, if you want to know about this thing called “Deep Well” you can come here and follow me, or stay posted on Twitter.

The first “Deep Well” event will be happening on June 7 at Element3 Church in Tallahassee. Doors will be at 7:00, and the music will start at 7:30. I’d love for you to come and invite as many friends as you care to.

Let’s see what happens.

Worship Leading Throughout the Room

For awhile I’ve been telling the folks on the worship team at my church to remember that they are always leading worship.

In fact, I prefer the negative form:

You are never not leading worship. 

You see, once you embrace your role as a leader, you no longer always get to choose when and how people respond to you.

In fact, I think it’s just best to assume that—on Sundays especially—people are always observing you, and therefore you always have the chance to “lead worship”, whether you’re on stage or not. You are always leading, so here’s a few ways to lead worship from “around the room”:

  • In the Parking Lot or Lobby: How do you conduct yourself before people know your gifts? Do you make an effort to get to know people? If “Leadership” is a part of “Worship Leading”, than we have to keep in mind that leadership is inherently relational. Saying “hi” to people far away from the stage increases people’s relational connection to you, which leads to trust, which increases your ability to help facilitate their experience with God.
  • In the Back of the Room: Or the side. Or in the front pew. How do you worship when you are not on stage? Is your experience of God as dynamic and vital off the stage as it is on the stage? Because people may be watching you. It’s about authenticity; it’s about saying, “This time—this response to God—is really this important whether I’m on stage or not.”

    (p.s. This means that you’re actually in the room, and not hiding in the green room or sleeping in…)

  • Backstage: What attitudes are you fostering among your band members? Are you bringing to life the same things within your team that you sing about in front of your community? What do rehearsals feel like? Are they relational, gospel-centered?
  • In the Tech Booth: When I visit churches, I carefully watch the tech teams: the audio, lighting, and graphics people. These individuals are usually the best barometer of the spiritual and emotional health of your worship team. How are you leading them? Are you treating them with respect, and seeking to understand their needs and perspective?

Like it or not, once you embrace leadership, you step into a spotlight that seldom dims. People are watching you, and you will influence—lead them—their response to God in every interaction that you have with people.

You are never not leading worship. This is a great opportunity; steward it well.