Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul? PART VI

Have you ever stopped to wonder, "Why music?" Why do we like it so much? For me it is a kind of out-of-body or existential question. It is such a personal and profound question that it seems like I'm really asking myself why I like to eat food or sleep. We might run the gambit and offer some theological/philosophical reflections on why music is so essential, but ultimately I believe music just is.

The better question--a question that is still difficult--is what kind of music is best to listen to. Most of us stop to consider what kind of food is best to eat, and likewise we need to think clearly about our taking in of music. The assumption that I have been working with is that not all music is created equally and that music is not benign. Making a decision for or against a particular kind of music can be as much an ethical question as it is an aesthetic question. I say "can be" because there is much to be qualified about the ethics of art. For example, Hitler loved both Wagner and Beethoven. While I could live comfortably in a world without Wagner, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is the tune that gave Nazis a German sense of spirituality and strength for battle. Incidentally, it is also the tune of "Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee," a song still loved by the church today. The difficulty in stating that music is ethical is that we might then try to systematically differentiate between right and wrong, good and evil music. This in practice is a very delicate task and ultimately a waste of time.

While music is not benign, it is also complex. It is possible to identify certain behaviors as wrong and to write laws against them because certain behaviors are concrete or exact. Certain behaviors leave little or no room for interpretation. Unlawful behaviors are those specific behaviors that our society agrees are wrong. However, music on the other hand leaves us with large territory for interpretation. As soon as you find something dark or heavy or confused in a song, you might also be able to find something true or good or right--something worth redeeming. It is the complexity of music that has led many to surrender it along with all art forms up to the realm of the subjective: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

But it is not! Beauty is not in my eye or yours. Beauty does not come from humans. Beauty comes from the One who is Beautiful, the One who created "all things bright and beautiful." Beauty is made and defined by God. And here is my most important point: arguing that beauty is objective does not have to turn us into the Stasi. I am not calling for a mass book burning or a purging of all mp3s from hard drives.

Instead of starting heavy handed from the outside--or top down, instead of chasing down every example of wrong music, we start from the inside out. Again, it is a question of formation. If we become more like Christ, if we put on the mind of Christ, if we walk in the Spirit and hunger and thirst for righteousness, then our aesthetic tastes will be shaped into making ethical choices that reflect the beauty and goodness of God.

Below I've outlined what I call "Full Gospel Worship." Our worship should cover all of the eight expressions listed. Some OT scholars identify some 20-30 different types of worship expressions found in the Psalms. I've narrowed it down to eight for the sake of simplicity. You will notice that "Full Gospel" does not mean trite, simplistic, sentimental or idealistic. My understanding of "Full Gospel" arises from Fredrick Beuchner's The Gospel As Comedy, Tragedy and Fairytale where he explains, "the Gospel is bad news before it is good news." A theologically sound definition of beauty then, must contend with the ugliness, horror and tragedy of our existence.

You may be wondering, "What about music that is not strictly 'worship' music?" I've intentionally tried to not create a discussion about worship music over and against the rest of music because in daily practice there is and should be necessary blurring of the line that seemingly separates worship music since all of life is worship. The eight expressions below can and should be expressed in all the music we listen to. Another way to consider it would be to assume that if we properly form our worship music, it will then properly form the way we engage all other art forms. Form the heart and the mind and from it goodness will flow.

  • Thanksgiving/Celebration:  The God of provision and abundance. The faithfulness of God. The God of Salvation and hope.
*Psalm 47:5-7 God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the LORD amid the sounding of trumpets. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise.

  • Exaltation: The God who reigns above. The transcendent God. All powerful. The God above all other Gods.
*Psalm 27:1,2 “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—my adversaries and foes they shall stumble and fall.”

  • Adoration: the God who reveals himself. God who is immanent. God who is close in Jesus.
*Psalm 42:1,2 “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

  • Confession: the God who is holy, righteous, judge…a look inward at what is wrong, broken, confused.
*Psalm 51:1,2 “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

  • Lamentation: a complaint, a look outward at “the state of things” to groan or ache for what is wrong to be made right
*Psalm 22:1,2 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night but find no rest.
  • Supplication: prayers to the God who is near, tends to be a prayer for our “daily bread.”
*Psalm 31:14-17 But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, "You are my God." 15 My times are in your hands; deliver me from my enemies and from those who pursue me. 16 Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love. 17 Let me not be put to shame, O LORD, for I have cried out to you; but let the wicked be put to shame and lie silent in the grave.
  • Intercession: prayers to the God who is above, for God to act on a large scale, for God to move with power.
*Psalm 79:5-7 How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire? Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.

  • Remembrance: rehearsing the works of God, a regular act of attending to God’s faithfulness.
*Psalm 111:2-4 Great are the works of the Lord studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Couple Books


Quick college students....before you break is over, go get you hands on Strength in What Remains, the newest book by Pulitzer Prize winning Tracy Kidder. Susanna and I discovered Kidder when our book group in Oklahoma read his Mountains Beyond Mountains, another MUST READ about the life and work of Dr. Paul Farmer. This new book is a real page turner. See the description of the book here. Sus got this for me for Christmas. We've been reading to each other while driving from each of our holiday spots and are now almost half way through it.


I've had an interest in the 20th century ever since I read The Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop and the American Avant-Garde. In that book Lewis McAdams surveys the art movements of everything from Charlie Parker to Bob Dylan to Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol. Some said that while Washington D.C. may have been the capital of the United States, but New York was the capital of the world--at least in the first half of the 20th century. So much shifted in the world during this century and Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own traces how four people felt and responded to those changes: Dorthy Day, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Flannery O'Connor. The book's title comes from a short story of the same name by O'Connor which you can read here. Not only are these very important authors worth their own attention, but Elie manages to bring them together into a deep conversation about who and what America has become and how we as Christians should interpret the life of Christ into our contemporary circumstances.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Wire, We Finished Season Five Last Night

It happened with Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, the British Office and the most short lived Pushing Daisies, and it happened again last night for Susanna and me with The Wire. Yes, yes, yes...all good things must come to an end.

The Wire has been one of the most important things I've ever watched of film, TV whether documentary or fiction. It is sad that is is over, but this is one series that I would start over from the beginning today if I had the discs. So, I have the second viewing to look forward to.

Instead of trying to say anything that could do the series justice, I'll just point out that it is true, there is television worth watching these days. And I'll also quote David Simon, the series creator, from his own thoughts in his season finale letter:

We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions. We enjoy being provoked and titillated, but resist the rigorous, painstaking examination of issues that might, in the end, bring us to the point of recognizing our problems, which is the essential first step to solving any of them.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Another book excerpt/ pre-order/ Sentimentalism defined

If you are so inclined, THE book can be pre-ordered here.

And David recently posted another excerpt this time from Jeremy Begbie. Begbie also addresses the issue of sentimentality in Christian art in another anthology:  The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts edited by Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin. The excellent essay is titled, “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts.” The gist of the essay is that sentimentality is un-earned emotion or emotionalism when emotion is an end in itself. Begbie identifies three problems with it:

  1. misrepresents reality by evading or trivializing evil.
  2. is emotionally self-indulgent.
  3. it fails to take appropriate action.
I really appreciate his use of a quote from Milan Kundera:
“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: 'how nice to see children running on the grass!' The second tear says: 'How nice to be moved, together with all mankind by children running on the grass!' It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.” 
These thoughts can go a long way in serving the discussion on Christian music that I'm developing here on this blog.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul? Part V

Alright. My hiatus from my more favorite music is over. As I write this, I’m listening to Wolf Parade’s “Apologies to Queen Mary,” and yeah, its “doing it” for me. Other interesting news: I don’t know if anyone noticed that John Michael Talbot posted a comment on the first of these “What Music Feeds Your Soul” posts. I looked around on the net and he does have a facebook account and actively writes blogs himself. So, there is reason to believe it was really him. Pretty cool. I’m just trying to figure out how he found my blog. Hmm…?

Oh, and speaking of news, Susanna is now 18 weeks pregnant. I can honestly agree that she is officially showing. I felt the baby night before last. It was two slight taps.

Continuing the discussion on what Christian music could become….

Here is a tough question that arises regularly in the course I teach, and it’s also something the worship team struggles with too: when does worship music become manipulative? My students, rightfully so, are very aware of the power they wield in creating a mood. Speed up the tempo, turn up the volume and get people excited, or slow things down and work a ballad for a somber, reflective state. Either way it is obvious that music can influence us by shifting our moods. Marketing specialist know this. Moviemakers know this. Party throwers know this. So, what is the difference between a worship leader and the rest?

Here I affirm once more the importance of the biblical and theological training of the leader. He/she needs the training to be able to discern when and how to use the power of music, to be able to identify what biblically sound music is. It is this kind of discernment that motivates me to keep writing out these thoughts. I want to imagine a kind of Christian worship that does not rely on the same over worn, and in effect, sentimentalized and manipulative instrumentation and arrangements.

Remember the road trip experience with the radio, how you can tell while flipping through radio stations which is the Christian music even before listening to the lyrics? I was in a studio in Dallas a few years ago watching a friend record the vocals of a popular Christian artist you have most likely heard of (but who I will not name here). The final tracks were sent off in the middle of the night to Nashville. In the morning the song came back fully mixed and ready for radio release as a single of the artist’s forthcoming full-length release. The mixing engineer’s compliment to my friend, the tracking engineer, was “your tracks have got that Nashville sound!” Of course, I was happy for my friend, a very talented studio engineer and producer, yet the gadfly in me begs the question: why is “the Nashville sound” the standard of success? The studio becomes a place that does, it seems, work hard to manipulate a song so that it matches the Nashville radio sound. So yes, I sympathize with what my students fear about being manipulative, that music be forced into what is predictably ‘feel good.’

Yet, to play the devil’s advocate, much of what worship should offer a Christian is a definite sense of the assurance of their faith. We should be nurturing peace and hope. What is the difference then between ‘feel good’ music and the appropriate sound of hope and joy? How does the worship leader acquire the ability to tell the difference between the two?

Let me pose the question in a different way. Instead of thinking of the power of music as manipulative, why not think of music’s power as formative? Formative is a less pejorative, careful word. Yes, the leader does use the powers of music to influence, yet in the proper, loving and discerning hands the affect of music can be appropriately formative. The question that I want my students to ask is how do we properly use the powers of music to form Christians in the faith?

C.S. Lewis has a chapter in Mere Christianity titled “Let’s Pretend” that really helps us get at the difference between manipulation and formation. He recounts two fables. The second one reads like this:
The other story is about someone who had to wear a mask; a mask which made him look much nicer than he really was. He had to wear it for years. And when he took it off he found his own face had grown to fit it. He was now really beautiful. What had begun as disguise had become a reality.

This is in sum what I mean by formative.

I’ve heard Christians say that they will not sing the lyric of a song that they are not genuinely convicted to profess or even feel. The assumption is that God is more pleased with the genuine state of their hearts instead of empty repetition of religious words that do not “connect” with their present self. The problem with this is circular in its reasoning: when will such a person be genuinely in a condition then to profess the true words of faith? What will inspire the worshiper into such a space? We are in trouble as a church when faithfulness begins with our own personal, sincere and genuine condition.

Lewis in essence is saying that worship is a practice of pretending. Is this hypocrisy? No, not at all. When we as Lewis says are “dressing up as Christ” in worship, when we move beyond our current, personal emotional state to worship God in faith, we are fundamentally practicing that which we truly are. We are throwing off the old self and literally putting on the new.

Music then aids us in this work of helping the Christian to “dress up” and play the part of the Christian. Yes it is manipulative, or better, it is formative to create an environment that can stimulate the senses and awaken the worshipper to their true identity in Christ within the fellowship of the saints.

My concern is that what is most commonly offered in Christian worship music is not capable of nurturing a full enough diet in worship. If anything it is not formative enough. It’s too narrow and is not inspiring the proper fullness of Christian worship.

In the next post I’ll outline what that fullness should look like by considering the Psalms as our model, a map for the full breadth of Christian worship.

I’ll leave this post with a bit more from Lewis for you to chew on:
You see what is happening. The Christ Himself, the Son of God who is man (just like you) and God (just like His Father) is actually at your side and is already at that moment beginning to turn your pretense into a reality. This is not merely a fancy way of saying that your conscience is telling you what to do. If you simply ask your conscience, you get one result; if you remember that you are dressing up as Christ, you get a different one. There are lots of things which your conscience might not call definitely wrong (specially things in your mind) but which you will see at once you cannot go on doing if you are seriously trying to be like Christ. For you are no longer thinking simply about right and wrong; you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person. It is more like painting a portrait than like obeying a set of rules. And the odd thing is that while in one way it is much harder than keeping rules, in another way it is far easier.

The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to 'inject' His kind of life and thought, His Zoe, into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Meditation on Isaiah 9

Some people ask for this around Christmas time. I thought I'd already posted it on this blog somewhere. Forgive me if this is a double post. I believe this was first written in 2001 for a service at Bridgeway Church. For those who are curious, I was reading Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy when this was written.

If you want some other thoughtful reflections on advent check out my friend Dustin Ragland's several entries here www.okcherbivore.blogspot.com/. He is definition of gentle giant with insight and creativity seeping out each pore (if that isn't too gross of an image).

Meditation on Isaiah 9

Unto us a child is born,
unto all of us.
Unto the widow,
unto the homeless,
the addict,
the AIDS patient.

Unto us the football captain
and the drag queen.
Unto us the politician,
the factory blue collar,
us the single mother,
the crack baby,
and unto us the affluent suburbanite.

Unto us the Goth,
the hippie,
the rocker,
the alternative and underground.
Unto us in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue
and unto all of us in between.
Unto us in the gutters of Calcutta,
unto the Muslim,
and the Jew,
the Buddhist,
the Krishna and the Hindu.
Unto us the fatherless.
Unto the heavenly fatherless.

For unto us a child is born
a son is given
and a secret revolution begun.
This is what the prophets had been preparing for.
They said his name would be,
“Most Beautiful Wisdom,”
“the Highest of Heaven’s Secrets.”

His name would be,
“the God who continually bends over backwards for you,”
“the God who gets down on his hands and knees,”
“the God who would become silly and mis-understood,”
“the God who would be mocked- - the God whose name
would be taken in vain.”

He would be called
“the God of underdogs,”

“the God of the powerless and unspiritual,”

“the God of those who cannot pray or fast.”

And there would be no end to him and his
underdog weaklings or their secret.
There would be no end even
while the nations continue to rage on.
Even as ethnos rises against ethnos,
even as valleys are filled with dead bones
and rivers run with blood.
Even as violence runs through our streets
and schools and hearts
covering us like a thick fog.

Even in this dark land of weak people
the God who bends over backwards
will shine forth like a great light
as the dawning of a new day
letting his secret spread forth with healing and joy.

Drop the mirror and let it shatter
Crush the hourglass and stop the clocks ticking.
Stand still.
Hold your breath.
your wildest dreams.
Sell everything and buy the farm.
Come with me, cover your eyes and hold out your hands.
Stop your weeping,
stop your groans,
the fast is over.
Let the celebration begin
the father has come.
He has sent his son
Unto us He has been born,
even unto us.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Warm Fuzzy Christmas

We finished our final Gathering for the semester last night. Campus ministry is a huge blur. It is hard for me to really believe we are done. I do have a bit of grading to do and I will be meeting with students all week, hopefully. Paul and I will continue to tinker away on this next year's recordings. We're going to mix and edit in Pro Tools instead of Digital Performer this year. So, there is a bit of a learning curve there. There is the calendar or next semester to start working on too. So, there is still work, but it's just not all crammed in with planning and leading four services a week.

On Friday each member of the staff gave a brief testimony of what we are thankful for. We framed the service as a live Christmas card and even gave a student a camera to take our picture.

Here are a few that Kate took from the stage of the gathered students:

It was a good week. I used to be so frustrated with the challenge of coming up with Christmas music so suddenly at the end of the semester, but these last two weeks were really enjoyable. A large part of the joy was changing the instrumentation for a few services: four girls singing, a real piano, drums light (kick, snare, hat played w/ brushes), vibes and a full concert glockenspiel, two acoustics, an electric mostly playing ambient swells, two violins, a cello and an upright bass. I'm a dork for not getting a photo of that group last night. On Monday I had a student organ major lead two carols with the chapel choir. Wednesday was the strings et al. Friday was standard rock core, and then last night was the strings based team again.

After much banging of the head and gnashing of the teeth, I've finally found some inspiration to keep working on the Ordinary Neighbors recordings. Some of my fears have settled. I've accepted my limitations as a mixing engineer and started hearingthe things I'm good at instead of the things I'm bad at. I've got the 'studio' set up again in the guest room and am pretty excited about working intensively on these old songs...rediscovering them. After working for the last 3+ years to get the school to give me the money to make major improvements on the Dimnent studio, the irony is that it is hard to get good extended time in there with all the others who want to use the space too. So this is where I'm working now:

I'll have to post some pics of the new mix room at Dimnent so that you can see the contrast--why this is not quite as ideal. One thing I am excited about is this:

It is a two track tape machine my grand poppa used for years with his music students. I've got a box of tapes of him instructing his students. The deck barely works, but it's got this nice sound of another age with all the crackles and hiss. Even better, I can hear poppa speaking. I'll be using samples on different songs.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul? Part IV

Truth be told, I do want to play a bit of the blame game—not to blame any particular people, but to blame a shifting within our culture further and further toward absurdity, an “idiot culture” as I’ve quoted Carl Bernstien before. It is a collective guilt that I will own myself. I hope I can write these thoughts without self-righteousness and self-deception. I want to live better, more deliberately and thoughtfully, but I’ve got my own kitsch sentimentalities. Yet, in playing the blame game, when identifying what is lacking in Christian music, we must realize such failures are part and parcel to what is lacking in our American culture at large. If the American church is to blame for anything, it is that we have not nurtured a substantial enough resistance to the banalities of American popular culture. But it isn’t quite that cut and dried. Culture making is tedious and complex and it takes time.

Remember how a frog gets boiled? You turn the flame up slowly, so slowly that the frog isn’t able to understand what is happening until it is too late to jump out of the kettle. This is the gist of what has happened to church music in America. Really sincere intentions to engage our culture are now a decade later threatening the vitality of our worship life.

Why is it that contemporary worship leaders need theological and biblical formation? Without access to such wisdom we will most assuredly find ourselves with the frog in a hot kettle. The worship leader needs to hone her discernment, to possess a kind of prophetic sensibility to be able to detect and discern trouble. As the Apostle Paul admonished the church at Ephesus: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and from and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” And likewise we shouldn’t be pushed to and fro by the latest trends in culture and technology.

A blog posted by Marty Nystrom on the CCLI website outlines the top ten common characteristics of the top ten contemporary worship songs.

1.    Universal Theme
2.    Lyric Consistency
3.    Prosody
4.    Lyric Originality
5.    Form
6.    Musical Interest
7.    Usability
8.    A Well Placed Title
9.    Balance of Repetition and New Ideas
10.    Effectiveness in Worship

If you read through the explanation of these traits, nothing is said about biblical or theological precision, clarity or depth. In fact Nystrom states, “A lyric should not require an in-depth Bible study before it can be appreciated.”

Appreciated? Yes, if I am concerned about writing a song or leading a song that registers in the top ten of a CCLI’s most popular songs—if I’m concerned about writing a popular song in the first place—then I will be concerned about what people appreciate in a song. And a good pastor does concern him/herself with what people can appreciate. However, it is not where our concerns should begin or even end.

My reaction is not against those songs specifically. I’ve led and would be willing to continue to lead some of these top songs. Nystrom’s own, most well known song, “As the Deer,” is a classic. My concern is that he doesn’t offer any assessment of the theology of the songs. There is no question about how a song can teach and spiritually form a Christian. He claims, “the songs are effective in helping worshipers exalt Jesus.” Yet, there is so much that can be said about Jesus. It is naïve to think that just because a song names “Jesus” or claims to draw attention to him that the song is necessarily saying the right things about Jesus. Nystrom goes on to say, “these songs have been proven to incite worship in the hearts of people around the globe.” Well and good, but what about the minds of people around the globe?

Is it enough to recruit young, talented, charismatic and good-hearted people to become the worship leaders of our churches? We value seminary training for preachers. Why not for our musicians?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul? Part III

I need to qualify what I mean by changing Christian music. I have no grandiose notions. I’m one of the least ambitious people I know. It is a matter of remaining optimistically engaged in the conversation. And this is a hard conversation to stay attentive to. I’ve encountered Christians who make it fashionable to be disgruntled with contemporary worship music. It is a posture best summarized by Lauren Winner’s reference to those “Jesus is my boyfriend love songs.” There is a cross section of the church that is put off and even downright obstinate towards much of the music I make. I can sympathize with their concerns and criticisms better than they know. When I say that I want to be a part of the change, I mean that I don’t want to hide behind academia and write abstract theories. I’m not an idealist—more accurately, while I do have ideals, I can’t afford to be an idealist in the context of ministry practice. This is what Gordon Fee has called a “marketplace theology.” Much of what I learn is in the context of reading and writing, yes, but it's a kind of learning that has traction in the context of real ministry practice. It is in this space where all my best ideas are pressed into a dependence upon the ministry of the Spirit.

An aside: this is a tough thing for college students to appreciate. College is a place to gather and test the best of ideas. We train students how to tear ideas apart, and we train them to be proud of themselves in the process. Learning should be delightful, but what is our delight found in? The muscle of our brains or the joy of discovery? Learning is as susceptible to haughtiness as any playground kid trying to prove whose got the biggest stick—perhaps even more so. It is fashionable to be sarcastic and cynical, to bully and intimidate. Yet cynicism and pride are not very helpful when putting your gifts in the service of God. You can build a kingdom with those attributes, but not God’s kingdom.

If you want to change something, you’ll need to love it first. You can’t change anything from a posture of condescension. You have to get on your hands and knees and dive into the grey matter and pray, pray, pray.

Back on topic…

One of the most poignant sections of the conversation about Christian music is staged in the arena of the recording studio. More broadly, by now you can gather that I am concerned about any issue that might involve technology used in the production of God’s worship. I already alluded to the inherent cult of personality when a worship leader’s face is placed as the center of attention on large projection screens. Well, there are hundreds of other technological decisions that are made even before a worship leader finds him or herself on such a large stage, and many of these decisions are made in the context of the recording process. The studio is a place where much of an artist’s identifying sound is clarified and established. My point is this: technology is not neutral nor is it invisible. Each technological device and decision has the power to affect the spirit and the meaning of a worship service or a specific worship song for the good or for the bad. And for those of us who don't have songs to record, it is these recordings and productions along with a myriad of technological decisions that serve as models for the rest of us. The arrangement and production of these commercial recordings made in Nashville or wherever become defacto our model of the way our worship should sound.

“That I May Please You” was the first song I contributed to Generation Productions’ “Prayers & Worship Volume 1.” It was written in 1998, a year after graduating from college when I had enough money to buy my first computer and where I discovered the temptations of the Internet for the first time.

I deserve much worse than this,
I have trampled underfoot
Your Spirit and you blood.
Wash my body in your Word
And cleanse my consciousness
To love your righteousness
And hate all evil.

Questions about tempo, dynamics, instrumentation all were made in roughly a few hours of studio time with hired studio musicians. The musicians knew nothing of the core meaning of the song and so the result of that session sounded and felt foreign conveying an emotion that couldn't support the lament and repentance of the text.

I really shouldn’t complain. I am still very grateful for the opportunity. Charlie generously paid for everything. It was my first shot at recording—for free. He sold copies of the CDs to me and the other contributors at cost so that we could in turn make a profit and thus fund our own full-length recordings. Charlie has been one of the most helpful friends in my growth in music ministry. Yet, during that same year Don and Lori Chaffer with Ben and Robin Pasley and Brandon and Christina Graves had made the first of the Enter the Worship Circle records, just a few microphones, some guitars and hand drums in a cabin. Time to linger, to make music out of fellowship—a very different kind of recording that I could help but be jealous of. I’ve been trying to learn how to make my own records ever since.

When an artist decides to make a record, a very fundamental question needs to be asked about how the recording will be made. How spontaneous or how live can and should this music be documented? Said another way: to what extent does the recording studio become a part of the record itself? In the early days tape machines had only a few tracks to record on. A four track recorder was at one time a rather sophisticated device. Everything was tracked live. One track for a lead vocalist perhaps, and three other tracks recorded all the rest of the musicians in groups, a mic for drums, a mic for horns etc. A song, even a song on the radio, was a document of a single live event. With the advent of 24 track tape machines and now digital recording devices, recordings are an assembly of many different creative moments assembled together by a mixing engineer over time to resemble a whole unified musical experience.

My assumption is that there are many artists out there who are brilliant and worth listening to, yet they do not have the right access to the kind of recording equipment and expertise necessary to document their music and make it enjoyable to listen to. Again, we can’t be idealistic here either. There is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing between recording methods. I’m not interested in digital versus analog or live verses studio debates in the abstract. The question is what is best for each artist, each record, each song? There are as many different kinds of music as there are human emotions. Further, there are just about as many different ways to record a song as there are kinds of music. My main concern is the ubiquity a very specific, very limiting, formulaic approach to creating Christian music that is aimed primarily at satisfying predictable market targets. Good music or good art in general is at its best when it retains the mystery of exploration and discovery and defies predictability. Popular music, both Christian and what is on top 40 charts in the past decade have become trapped in a box. Even more tragic, worship music, specifically what is often called ‘Praise and Worship’ has become a particular genre that possesses its own sound, its own sonic signature and arrangement patterns.

You and I both know the experience of driving cross-country, flipping through the radio stations. You hear the sound of the music and know before any lyrics are sung that it is contemporary Christian music. This is what twists my stomach in knots.

Yet, while I am arguing for artistic integrity and freedom in the recording studio, my further concern is seemingly counter-intuitive: God focused music should be constrained to a standard of biblical and theological maturity. This is not just a kind of mature development of lyrics alone, but a kind of wisdom about the music as well. In my next post I want to make the argument that Christian artists should study theology and more specifically that worship leaders should seriously consider ministry training. In the long run such study and preparation should, if pursued properly, be more freeing for the artist rather than confining.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul? Part II

The beginning of the end of my interest in Christian music began with the tragic death of Rich Mullins. Rich was on the Wheaton campus during my senior year. He’d written a play about Saint Francis and was using Wheaton students to stage its first performance. If I’m remembering correctly, his fatal car crash happened within only a few months of my graduation. I had seen Rich around, mostly in the dinning hall. He and Mitch played a short concert one night during dinner once. A few of my housemates have some really funny stories of their interactions with him. By all accounts Rich was as raw and as sincere of a human being as I would have guessed from seeing previous performances when I was in middle and high school. I personally did not try to engage him. I’m too shy, but more truthfully, I wasn’t as interested in his music anymore.

I attended a Vineyard church throughout my four years of college. The Vineyard and its worship music consumed most of my attention. Instead of Rich Mullins CDs I was buying up recordings by Matt Redman, Kevin Prosch and Martin Smith’s Delerious. From my first trip to England, I brought back the Delerious’ “Cutting Edge Band” two discs before they were marketed in the US. None of my friends in college had heard anything like those songs. I felt more enthralled and optimistic about the relevancy of my faith than ever. My vision for the church at large and worship music was dynamic and eager. I had considered for a time that I might graduate early and go straight into church planting. I’d even gone forward at a pastor’s conference and had John Wimber himself lay hands on me and bless my commitment to planting a church by the age of 25, “buster” churches is what they were calling them, as opposed to “boomer” churches.

Here is an odd little fact: the Evanston Vineyard was leading Matt Redman songs well before he became associated with the Passion conferences. I led “Better is One Day” for the first time in Oklahoma City at Bridgeway church sometime after I moved there in 1998. Charlie Hall then subsequently introduced that song to Louie Giglio. It is such a good song that it would have made it into churches across America by some other means, but it is interesting for me to try to understand why I’ve been quietly in the background watching at the turning points of these things.

Much of my frustration with Christian music is a result of watching Charlie himself get pushed around by the business side of this industry. It is really his story to tell, so I won’t say much, but I can remember my first Passion event in 1999. Some 13-14,000 college students gathered in Ft. Worth. Charlie’s face was projected on these enormous screens. It was the size of his televised goatee that was most impressive. Here was a friend, our church’s worship leader, someone so familiar and warm spread large and turned so unfamiliar and strange. I was immediately confused by the implicit cult of personality. It was nothing that Charlie was himself doing. It was the spectacle of the production that troubled me.

I want to be clear about something before I proceed: I don’t believe anyone I’m naming here was doing anything intentionally wrong. I’m not writing this out as a blame game. I’m trying to explain why it is that I’ve gone so far out of my way to critique popular culture and the church in historical, biblical and theological ways. Most of us have simply been naïve in our efforts to honor God with our gifts. Now it is with urgency that we should be ruthlessly evaluating our past and projecting a hopeful vision of what God honoring music can and should grow into. When I say that I’m frustrated with Christian music, it is not an idle critique. I hope I am and can continue to be a part of the change.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul?

Great to hear from some of you. Thanks for saying hello. I dig it!

My last month since rushing to the emergency room has been a bit interesting to say the least. To be blunt, I almost died. And this, of course, has affected my thought life considerably.

I’m not 100% better. I still have some exhaustion that is worse than usual since I still don’t have full use of my lungs. My biggest issue is the shortness of breath that creates a strange sense of restless anxiety. The Apostle Paul urges us to take every thought captive. Well, I’ve been working to take every breath captive. Perhaps you’ve seen me taking slow, deliberate breaths—‘cleansing’ breaths. I take off my glasses, rub my face and stretch my neck to the left and right rolling it around gently. This slower pace keeps me mindful of the fragility of life, of how serious it was. Shortness of breath. Shortness of life. The strange gift of sickness. Breathing never felt so good—especially breathing outside. A few full breaths of Autumn air are the best of cleansing breaths.

Here is one alarming experience post ER: I’ve found it hard to enjoy much of my favorite music. In the past four or five years my musical interests have moved further into the obscure. It is obscure to most of my faith community anyways, an emphasis on sounds over lyrics, musical explorations rather than musical statements, music as experience first and communication second. I’ve found myself stuck in the progress of my own side project. It's the place where I experiment with all that I can’t use in corporate worship music. Developing a taste for this has caused me to lose my taste for other things. It is difficult to carry on a conversation with several different voices. If you are interested in one conversation, no doubt you will need to turn away from other conversations. And right now, I’m finding that the conversation that I’ve given my attention to is not “doing it” for me.

I am the last person to make heavy handed secular/sacred distinctions. I don’t choose not to listen to a particular kind of music because it is “worldly.” I do not want to live out an oversimplified, naive or a fearful posture toward society. I write in these blogs to describe a redemptive enthusiasm for the world. This is a fundamental reason why I’ve been interested in paying attention to bands like Animal Collective, Broken Social Scene, Sunset Rubdown etc. I want to find the good, even the beautiful in these parts of our world, to discover an artistic integrity somewhere in the murky waters of popular culture.

Yet, right now, for this season at least, I’m in search of music that explicitly and gladly names Jesus. Other than a bit of Jazz, I’m turning to worship music. I dug my old 100-disc binder of CDs out of the closet this morning. I haven’t listened to or look at these CDs in years. What does my soul good: Fernando Ortega and John Michael Talbot. Both have voices that are sincere, fragile but still full and strong. Integrity. I trust them. Two of my favorite worship CDs are John Michael Talbot’s “Come Worship the Lord” Volumes one and two. They are live recordings of him leading the Brothers and Sisters of Charity at Little Portion Hermitage in Eureka Springs Arkansas. A nylon string guitar, an upright bass, some tambourines, a synth playing trumpet-like leads and a congregation of voices, that is all that is needed to create a holy, spirit-filled raucous.

Why has it been so long since I’ve found other CDs like this? It is no doubt a result of my own musical direction and interests, but I do believe that there is a vacuum of good Christian music available. I actually believe part of my movement toward the obscurity of independent music is a result of the disappearance of Christian music that has any integrity.

I’ve been hacking away at these questions and have almost a fully completed essay on this topic, but I don’t think it’s best to dump the whole thing here on the blog all at once. So, I’ll be posting a portion of it at a time. I still want to work out a few things and I invite any of you readers to offer your own thoughts on this. What do you listen to? What feeds your soul and encourages you?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

My LIttle Secret Made Public

I'd love to hear from you.

If you are reading this, its nice to know every once in a while who is reading. Such a weird way to keep in touch with people. I'm here in West Michigan so far from so many beautiful people.

Oh, and I've also decided that I need to get a new design for the layout. I don't know what possessed me to go with something so...creepy.

I can feel another blog coming on.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Book is Coming! The Book is Coming!

I just saw over at David's blog that he is posting excerpts from the book over the next six months in anticipation of the books final release. You can read a little bit by Eugene Peterson HERE.

The book is called For the Beauty of the Church. I'm the no-name rookie author who got a chapter included by the skin of his teeth.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rosie Thomas Film

I got out of the house for the first time Friday night to celebrate Susanna's birthday. It was a bit of a gamble considering how exhausted I still am. Recovering from blood clots in your lungs has been deceptive. Most of the pain is gone. I can't see much else that is in process of being healed. It is all internal of course, but my body must be working hard at something.

Anyway, I had bought tickets for us to see Rosie Thomas over at Calvin. I thought it was going to be a concert. For those of you who don't know, Rosie also does this stand-up comedy based on an awkward, neck brace wearing character she calls 'Sheila." The evening started with fifteen minutes of Sheila, then Rosie showed a film about her life focusing on her confusion about making a living as a musician. Rosie is definitely a funny, charming and interesting person. Susanna said afterwards that she wished she could be friends with her.

Yet, the film was 80 minutes long. It could have easily been trimmed to 45-50 minutes and had the same meaning. Some of the concert footage could be included on a DVD as bonus features. After the film Rosie came out and made a few disclaimers about how the film was originally supposed to be a short 15 minutes. She reasoned that the length of the film and its use of her story was a way for all of us to come to terms with our own struggles. The film wasn't so much about her as it was about her suffering and that sharing our suffering ends up being our gift. This was an important observation. I'm glad to have received. All would have been well if she'd just sat down to play some music, but she ended up doing a Q&A for the next fifteen minutes. The evening was finished with only three songs. Well, truthfully, she may have played an encore, but I was so exhausted that we left.

Susanna and I wondered if she felt the need to do Q&A in the manner of a film screening. Perhaps it was my fault in not realizing that I was going to a film screening and not a concert. I'm glad we went, but I'm sad I didn't get to hear more music. Rosie is one of the few acoustic artists I can still stomach. I'm afraid I've become jaded. I can't listen to James Taylor or Emmylou Harrris or even Patty Griffin except for a random song here or there.

The evening with Rosie Thomas was a glaring example of the many ways we search for connection in our society. Whether it is a concert or twitter, its obvious how much we want to be with each other. Perhaps it is my age. I'm less naive. It seems to be more difficult for human beings to substantially share themselves with each other.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Home from The Hospital, What the What?

A blood clot in my lung. Doctors don't know exactly where it came from. Was it the minor bike wreck three weeks ago? Do I have a blood condition that predisposes me to blood clots? I was supposed to know more by now, four days after I went into the emergency room, but it turns out my doctors are either tools or they are just extremely...inefficient. So, my whole experience at the hospital was less than good, except for my ER doc. He was the one decided to do a catscan after all the other tests looked good. He is the one who thought it'd be best to double double check things. And that was a good move because most 34 year old people who are in good health (I've lost ten pounds riding an exercise bike and drinking almost no beer since July) do have blood clots in their lungs. Perhaps he might have sent me home with some strong pain killers (the pain was both stab like and pulse like on the upper left half of my body) and told me to take a day off work, and perhaps I wouldn't be here any more!

I'm having trouble getting my head wrapped around what has transpired these last few days. But let me just say that I'm glad to be out of the hospital. It is hard to be in a hospital for many reasons. But I'm still restless. The vicodin is really frustrating. It takes away the pain, but everything is a bit fuzzy. I've talked with a few friends on the phone and right now I miss Oklahoma City almost like it was just yesterday that we left. I have had great and overwhelming love shown to me from neighbors, church members and Hope College people. Lovely people, but there is a sense that I'd like to be in touch with people who have walked a bit longer with me on this tedious, twisty turny, beautiful and strange pathway of life (cliche fully intended).

I'm so tired of watching movies that I think I'm going to do something drastic and read Dostoevsky. I just finished Jonathan Saffron's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I picked up on the recommendation of a friend whose taste I really trust. It was a "B" at best. He seems to be the master of postmodern gimmickry. I think a person will either love his tricks or be annoyed. Unfortunately, my experience was the latter. He is definitely an extremely talented writer, and approaching a subject like 9/11 is a gargantuan challenge. But, nevertheless.... I'd be glad to hear from anyone else's experience with the book. The good thing, I guess, is that now I'm left with an appetite for something substantial in a canonical sort of a way.

The only other major topic for discussion: coffee and how I can have any of it right now. Because of my anxiety levels and this latest blood clot scare, we've decided I should stay off caffeine. I did this for Lent a few years ago and it didn't seem like such a big deal. Since then I have developed something of a love affair with lighter roasted coffees. I just bought this fun coffee maker, "The Clever Coffee Dripper" and a new grinder a month ago. So, I don't know which I want more sympathy for...blood clot or having to say goodbye to coffee (for awhile).

Monday, August 17, 2009

All Good Things Come to an End: Goodbye Summer

I'm very very pumped about school starting up. I don't think I've ever been more excited for Fall, but of course I'm pretty freaked out that the summer will be over for me in a few days. Worship team arrives on Friday. We drive up north on Saturday. Rehearsals are all next week.

So, here is my Zen-like lesson from this summer: in order to have a good summer, you cannot want to have a good summer. After having two weird summers here, I decided last Spring that I wasn't going to think of this as a 'summer vacation' in the same idyllic sense that I have wanted it to be in the past. In the last few summers I found myself panicking as I saw June then July then August all pass by. I kept wondering if I was using my time well. If everything was happening according to expectation. So, I've worked most of the summer. In fact, I've been much more disciplined with a daily routine this summer than I have ever been in my whole entire life. I've even been exercising pretty regularly. A good day for me has been:

waking around or before 7am, time to read, write, mediate.
work on the two classes I've been taking this summer
11am exercise, shower, more reading writing
reading writing...work until a late dinner with Susanna around 7pm
Read something with her, watch a movie/TV show
to bed by 11pm at the latest

So, yeah, it has been a summer of reading and writing. Lots of Augustine, Teresa of Avila (see below for a sermon excerpt where I reference Teresa), and the history of hymnody. These were my two final courses to finish my master's at Regent. I have a comprehensive paper to write next summer, but for the most part, I'm finished! Kinda exciting and kinda sad. I'll have been slowly hacking away at this for eight years when I turning that final project next summer. It is a delight to learn. I'm very thankful for the gift. I'm considering a DMin as my next step as a way to keep me accountable to reading and writing. We'll see.

I did write two songs for the hymnody course. I'm nervously excited to show them to the worship team and see what they think. Susanna gave me some great help. She pushes me so well. Her ideas are right 9 out of 10 times. And that is a pretty good rate. Trustworthy indeed.

I called Brian Bergman today to ask him about this keyboard I'm buying for the school. It really stirred me up to talk to him even for just a few minutes. My week in Oklahoma City in June was really special. I miss so many good people so much. There is a definite cost to being here in Holland. I've been reading Rowan Williams on Christian suffering. The Apostle Paul often mentioned how much he missed various friends in distant cities. He was always so faithful to send greetings...to encourage people to greet each other with a holy kiss. For some reason I've been created to love and hold onto love for people in a deep way that does cause me pain now when I'm so far away. Rowan Williams draws out how friendship was a consitent theme for Augustine. For those of you who care, it is an interesting theme for Augustine because he has been put to task recently by the late Colin Gunton for having a trinitarian paradigm that was so horizontally oriented that it perhaps does not theologically account for our horizontal relationship--meaning that Gunto believes that Augustine didn't thoroughly draw out the theological model for friendship in a way that the Eastern fathers did.

I bring this up because friendship is such a powerful gift. I want to understand it in light of who God is and how he created it rather than how we might want to have friendship. I want to grow in an understanding of a God-designed friendship rather than a human design. A tricky puzzle that will take some time. I have a few friends who think Gunton's reading of Augustine is completely out to lunch. I need to read it all again to come to my own conclusions.


A few recommendations:

Sunset Rubdown Dragonslayer I'm a sucker for anything that Spencer Krug does ever since we saw him in Wolf Parade last summer. His live intensity is thrilling. I'm holding onto my excitment of loving a band exponentially more after see them live. I've had the opposite happen too many times. This record will either be a love or hate it for most people...but if you want to try out something really eclectic, this record has lots to discover.

The Field Yesterday and Today This is mind boggling electronica, well it is mind boggling if you like something created more for the sake of it's textures and layers. This is a headphones album if there ever was one.

The Besnard Lakes eponymous Again, this is another record you might need to really spend some time with. It starts and ends with a sound that is so blatantly invoking Pet Sounds that it has to be an intentional decision. But the core of the record is very different. I love records most that give me many different kinds of sounds in different ways. If you read through my music reviews, you'll see that I'm almost more interested in the soundscape of records than I am in the traditional song structure.

Fourtet Pause This an older record. Found it used at Zulu. Like what I said above about soundscape...I listen for that stuff in records because of projects like Fourtet and Boards of Canada. I don't think that Fourtet has put anything out that I don't want to own. Joyfully creative in a very detailed, particular way. Beats, noises, acoustic guitars and kids voices chanting about mosquitos (that is the song that drives Susanna mad).


Joel Limpic (to the left here) joined me for a the classes at Regent. He'd asked around about the best rosteries. A place called 49th Parallel has now redefined 'coffee' for me. No more dark roast. No more Starbucks ever. No more burnt roasts. I'm not exaggerating when I say that after drinking that coffee for over two weeks, I returned to Michigan deeply concerned that I would not be able to complete the summer as a happy man. I've started buying my beans from JPs instead of Lemonjellos because JPs gets their beans from Michigan roasters daily and weekly. They've got all their bean in huge jars along one wall and I can go through them all, lids open, smelling away. The 49th Parallel Guatemalan bean I'd had in Vancouver made me a believer in light roast. The smell is insanely lovely. The beans at JPs aren't 49th P, but they are better than I'd expected.

I had the opportunity to preach a few weeks ago at our little bilingual Crossroads Chapel. It was a very helpful opportunity for me. I need to teach and share what I'm learning. I need to see if what I'm growing in can bear fruit for others. I've excerpted an un-edited section from that sermon here below. I didn't read the sermon verbatim, but having the text in front of me helped me stay on track. I decided to preach the lectionary, so I went with the Gospel passage from John 6 as my text.

From August 9

This summer I read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. In these personal reflections she really is hard on herself, even calls herself the “chief of all sinners,” the “most wicked of God’s servants.” Yet, she has no major struggle with what we would today consider taboo sin, no drunkenness, fornication, no addiction to secret sin. But still, she does see her life long struggle with prayer as a kind of secret sin.

When considering the first twenty years as a nun, she considers herself a liar and a deceiver. She had the outward appearance of religiosity. She performed all that was required of her as a nun. She was praised by her superiors. Her confessors affirmed her prayer life and spiritual fervor, yet she confesses that she was running from God the whole time. It was one thing for her to go through the motions, to recite prayers and Scriptures, but she was not answering the invitation of Christ to let prayer become a part of the interior of her life. Those twenty years the door had been open to her to walk in the light, to walk in the Spirit, but yet she continued to live through her own strength.

Now why do we avoid prayer? Why would any of us ignore the opportunity to commune with the Creator of all the known universe? What is it that keeps us from eating eternal bread and drinking everlasting water? The answer that this passage in John chapter six gives us is that we can’t draw near to God because we are too busy grumbling.

The first part of this chapter six is the telling of the well-known story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with a little lunch of fishes and loaves. He’s been performing these kinds of signs and wonders and the crowds following him are getting bigger and bigger. Jesus is so exhausted from all his ministering, his teaching and serving that he leaves the disciples to get some time by himself then we walks across the water to catch up with the disciples as they are heading across the Sea of Galilee. In the morning it appears that the crowds have gotten into boats to chase after Jesus across the lake.

Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, while an interesting meditation in itself, sets up his teaching on what real bread and what real life is. This chapter six can only be understood in reference to the journey of Israel in Exodus. Here we have very similar circumstances. In both the Exodus story and in this story here in John, we have a large group of people wandering in search of help. Both groups are hungry and both groups are grumbling. What are they grumbling about? Mainly they are grumbling because they don’t like the way that God is feeding them. In the Exodus account God had promised to be Israel’s savior and deliverer. But where do they find themselves? Not in the comparatively safe, predictable circumstance of slavery to the Egyptians, but wandering around in the desert. They cry out,

"If only we had died by the LORD's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death." Ex 16

In response God sends down this strange food that they will have to go out and gather every morning and every evening. It couldn’t be stored because it would rot quickly, stink and fill with maggots. The food is so strange that when they look at and say, "manna" or “what is it?” But God had provided. And yet right after the manna fell from heaven, Israel continued to grumble and quarrel with Moses about water.

In John chapter six this multitude is grumbling and Jesus responds to them,

"I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval."

But the source of their grumbling was that Jesus was talking about a spiritual reality while they were talking about a physical reality. And who was this Jesus any way? Who does he think he is calling himself the bread of life? Isn’t he just the son of Mary and Joseph, those people down the street we know? How can he say he has come down from heaven? While these crowds of people wanted to receive food from Jesus and to be healed by him, they grumbled because they didn’t believe who Jesus said he was. They didn’t believe that he is the “Way the Truth and the Life,” the “eternal manna,” the final bread of life.

So, again, my confession is this: while I have claimed to be serving Jesus, have called myself a Christian, like St. Teresa I have too long ignored the practice of eating my daily bread. I have been just like this multitude that was following Jesus. I’ve wanted his provision but I haven’t wanted him. That is my confession. I’ve wanted him to lead and guide me, but practically and daily I haven’t believed that he is my food and drink. I have not allow him to satisfy my wandering heart.

E.M. Bounds Power Through Prayer “So we come to one of the crying evils of these times, maybe of all times -- little or no praying. Of these two evils, perhaps little praying is worse than no praying. Little praying is a kind of make-believe, a salvo for the conscience, a farce and a delusion.”

The invitation to a life of prayer has kept offering itself to me all these years. My testimony continues to be this: I’ve been responding to this invitation in a new way for several months now. It has become a kind of wakening from sleep. It is nothing dramatic. And it is hard. Here is the strange thing about prayer. We think that it is communion with God and we assume from the outside that since God is love and God is generous, that our relation to him should be something of paradise, something warm and cushy and light. Then we turn to prayer and it seems odd and strange like the manna: we have to go out and gather it. And so we develop a kind of resentment and we give ourselves over to grumbling.

Now here is a very important matter that I have to address before I finish this testimony: we do not pray in order to earn God’s love. Nothing we can do will earn his affection or attention. Jesus is very clear about this when he says,

"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. 45It is written in the Prophets: 'They will all be taught by God.'[d] Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.”

The story of Christianity is that God made himself known through his son Jesus. Through Jesus we have access to the Father. Yet when we pray we are not in control of how God responds to us. It truly is the daily work of gathering our bread. Prayer is not a kind of ritualism that we perform in order to conjure up God. We do not earn a week’s worth of gold stars for being faithful to daily prayer. Instead we use prayer to eat and drink eternal food and eternal drink just as deliberately as we would regularly feed our own bodies. My sense of being awakened is then a kind of realization, a daily participation in my spiritual being. It is a re-engagement in a life with God that I have tasted but have often forgotten.

He is that thing that we desire but have forgotten. He is the item that we have tucked into the back of the drawer of our memory. We sweep him under the rug or we stash him away in the attic or in the garage. We can’t come to him just when our stomach are hungry and when our bodies are failing. We come to him when our spirits are failing and we remember that he is the bread of life. He is the drink that if we drink we will never thirst again.

Here, I'll finish with a favorite picture from our time with my parents out in La Push on the Olympic Peninsula.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

NEW STUFF & And June Update


Check out some posts I just added:
Open Letter to Sam & Andy
My First Published Film Review! "Eastwood's End of Violence"
An excerpt from an essay to be published next Spring (2010), "Nurturing Artists in the Local Church"

It has been a while. I've been surprisingly busy this first half of the summer. For instance:

Lovely. I know, I know. So lovely you can't stand it. I'm not sure if it's because I broke my nose freshman year of college, or if I was born with it. I've got (had) a deviated septum, meaning that I could barely breathe through my right nostril. So, a month ago I had a surgery where they broke my nose, scraped out some of the cartilage and made it so I can fully breathe through both nostrils. Why? Well that is a long story.

In a nutshell: allergies + sleep apnea + deviated septum = a fatigued Josh Banner.

Now: flonase + CPAP + broken nose surgery = a finely tuned machine Josh Banner.

I was in bed for a week. I watched the first two seasons of the Sopranos and read most of a book on hymnody in America. Thanks to Larry and Jonny for taking the dogs out for me. Susanna was away for part of the time at a fiction writing workshop.

We just returned early Tuesday morning from Oklahoma City. I had three days of recording (two with Dustin Ragland and one with Justin Rice). We stayed at four different friends homes, had four different dinner parties with different groups of friends, took pictures of everybody's kids, played a concert, led worship and also led a discussion on the artist and the local church. Such times were so very sweet, but we were so very exhausted by it all. It's taking me most of this week to gather myself back together.

We leave for Vancouver, B.C. on the 11th of July and return August 1st. I'll be taking my final two classes to complete my MCS from Regent College. Here's some pics of our time in OKC.

Oh! And we also had a great time at the Banner Family reunion. I finally got to meet my new niece, Kesiah. It was especially nice to see my sister Annie, her husband and Kesiah's three big sisters.

Below are some favorite pictures from the last two weeks.

Bo Walker. He was an infant when I saw him last.

Silas Bottomly with Coen trying to do hand stands

Mia is to my left in this picture. Addison is next and Bethany is doing the funny show.

Pastor Promote and Produce

Below is an excerpt of the introduction of an essay that will be published in its entirety in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts ed. David Taylor by Baker Books Spring 2010.

"Nurturing Artists in the Local Church"

I’ve spent much of my life working beside my father and grandfather in corn and soybean fields of Central Illinois. We had two John Deer tractors, model 4020, that were used to do the bulk of the field work. I sat on the wheel cover next to the square lunchbox of a radio mounted to the right of the driver, one hand gripping the radio to keep my balance. I was ten when my grandfather first told me to slide over and take the enormous wheel. We swerved, bounced and jostled over the clods of dirt. Grandpa said I was over-steering. Slowly, with his hand placed on mine, I began to understand the subtle, patient nudges the steering wheel needed to keep the tractor headed in a straight line. In keeping with the antiquated idea of husbandry, it was through lessons like this that my gradndfather showed me that a good farmer is essentially a nurturer, a lover.

Wendell Berry, the poet-farmer, once said: “The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care.” The nurturer is concerned with giving to the land so that it can sustain production. The exploiter is interested in short-term gain and taking from the land. Berry acknowledges that both of these impulses are within us. Each of us is both nurturer and exploiter.

There have not been many examples for me to follow as a pastor to artists, so the carefulness and patience of a farmer have become a point of reference for me. Many of us, I recognize, are forced to learn by experimentation. In my first ten years of ministry, I often found myself straining myself, bucking against restraints. The example of a farmer has challenged me to slow down. I need to learn how to take the long view and to keep in mind that the way in which I perceive the ultimate purpose of the arts will affect the way I approach artists, whether I nurture their gifts or exploit them.

Behind the sanctuary at Bridgeway, a church in Oklahoma City where I began as an intern in 1998, there is a long, ridiculous cave of a room where kids chased each other in games of tag after the service or groups gathered for planning sessions. Over time we slowly transformed this room into “The Backroom”: with track lighting, hand-made paper lanterns, eclectic cast-off sofas and chairs, and a sprawling painting of a tree adding its metaphorical gravitas to the stage. The room became host to art exhibits, music concerts, poetry readings. It became a kind of garden where, willing but unwitting, I became not just an intern but a Pastor of Worship and Art. In this Backroom I did a lot of pastoring of creative people.

Had you wandered into The Backroom at that time, you would have found artists like Justin, or Shelly, or Michael.

Three artists
I met Justin in a church basement, leading Cordelia’s Rebellion, his scream-rock band while he was still in high school. Justin, always spiritually hungry, was part of our church for several years. When he returned from rehab, his music took a different turn. Today, almost ten years later, his current band is well known in Oklahoma City. Never quite securing a record deal but still making music that is painfully beautiful, his vocals are urgent, raw and simple. He is enamored with Alvin Plantinga and continental philosophy. He hopes a teaching job one day might help him support his wife and daughter.

Shelly grew up in a conservative Church of Christ home. She is soft-spoken and quite modest. During my first summer in Oklahoma, Shelly and I traveled with several others on a month-long missions trip to Honduras. The whole trip I had no idea she was an art student. That fall I began the small gallery in the Backroom and I discovered Shelly’s paintings. It didn’t take much prodding for her to continue to submit her work throughout college. Some of her classmates came and went from the Backroom, but Shelly remained steady. She finished a degree in Advertising Design. Now she uses ceramic tile to assemble mosaic installations and mixed media wall pieces, each with vibrant, modeled embellishments of nature.

Michael was the first college student to ask me to mentor him. Our friendship developed quickly, with many late night ramblings about novels and poetry. Michael became one of our best writers. He stood out among the many other student leaders of our campus fellowship groups. During his senior year, old memories of childhood trauma resurfaced and he dropped out of leadership. He stopped going to church and gave up writing poetry for a long season. We continued to share an affection for Thomas Merton. Today, while completing a master’s degree in poetry, he navigates between agnosticism and Buddhist mediation techniques. He remains fascinated with Jesus.

The pastor as nurturing, loving farmer
These relationships have been messy and, at times, unpleasant. I’ve struggled with patience, expected too much, pushed too far, and overstretched my own small spool of energies. But the use of a gentle, consistent hand is, despite my stumbling, effective. Why? Because the arts are made by people for people; each as intricate and organic as the corn my grandfather raised. In this very human endeavor, I have to continually remind myself that the arts are not buttons we push to enhance a sermon. They’re not levers we switch to intensify an evangelistic tactic. Art has to do with people we love, and this love bears witness to Christ.

What has unfolded for me in my arts ministry will be different than what you discover in yours. But I believe there is something universal about the connections between what I define here as pastoring, promoting and producing the arts. As farmer-pastors, we are lovers. We tenderly work the soil of our culture by identifying artistic gifts with discernment (to pastor). Then our joyful response to discovering the artists is to push their gifts outward in order to share their creativity with others (to promote). Finally, we prune the gifts and coach the artists to mature so that their fruit will be sustainable and long lasting (to produce). We are all learning as we press onward. I pray that what I share here of my journey opens up possibilities for the flourishing of artistic creativity in your community.

Eastwood's End of Violence

I had my first film review published by Cresset Review. It is an award winning publication that covers the arts and faith. You can read it here.

Open Letter to Sam and Andy

“We must play. But our merriment must be that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

-from C.S. Lewis' "The Weight of Glory"

It is that time of the year when I need to start thinking about new recruits for next year and how to position leaders to take over for you and the graduating seniors. This is all quite an enormous shift for me at this point after spending the first half of the semester preparing for and then pulling together all the pieces of our chapel recording. I wear many hats. Head coach, big brother, shepherd, intercessor. I get busy, fatigued. I grow reclusive, the classic introvert who needs to hide from everyone in order to gather myself back together. No matter, I continue to think about you two—how you are and who you are and who you are becoming.

Don’t be surprised by who you are becoming, but prepare yourself for surprise. You have no idea where you will be in five years. The setting, the major and minor characters, the details of the plot and the themes will morph, fold and expand, twist, turn and ripen; but the thread of your being, the essence of who you are will remain. That essential being is the goodness of you that has and will always remain in Christ.

In the musical Man From La Mancha, Dulcinea is Don Quixote’s beatific vision. Her real name is Aldonza, a destitute, failing lady of the night. As Don Quixote continues to romance her with a new and beautiful name, she begins to re-imagine herself through his eyes as a princess, something more splendid than she could have imagined herself before.

I’ve wanted to be Don Quixote in some way for you. I’ve wanted you to be Don Quixote for each other. I’ve wanted your time at Hope College to be an experience of looking and seeing each other, this ministry, this campus, your text books, exams and papers, the music, the instruments, the art, the world—all—“back to grace.”

Indeed, where will you be in ten years? Who will be your people? What will you be doing with your hands? What name will you answer to? True one? Hopeful one? Blessed one? Promised one? Healing one? The seeds of your tree, your roots and trunk are here before me, and what I see is tov, very good.

Both of you are sequoias and I pray you will plant sequoias too. Mind your time. Resist panic. Restlessness is like the night. Your morning will come. It will come on its own without your straining.

Beware of what is quixotic, but don’t believe for one minute that this is not a fairy tale. Once you’ve found Buddah, kill him, and so it should be with Don Quixote. If you try to live in a fairy tale, you’ll most likely end up having yourself a tragedy. You must yield and after surrendering you’ll look back and realize that all is well, all is well and all manner of things are well.

Much of what I’m trying to say comes down to music. Remember that music is not only an ethereal form. It’s arguably the most physical. It is both beat and melody, dirt and wind, and so are you. Make sure you do not neglect the record store. This is not a logical fallacy: once you start downloading music, it’ll all start evaporating. I wish I had the nerve to get into vinyl. It makes sense. I played that Stan Getz record before I bought it for Tryg. The stereo had a single speaker hanging crooked by a single nail. What an event! I was at a store that let me pull out a record and drop the needle. No one worried that my hand might slip. The store allowed me to freely take in that which a record can give. We need to touch music, to feel the static from the record raise the hair on the back of our arms. We need to turn the album around, to read the liner notes and study the artwork. We need to smell the cardboard, judge the balance of the needle arm and to feel it slide into the record’s grooves. We’ve lost the imprint of a record. We’ve lost the oscillating hiss and we’ve lost a world.

Buy used CDs unless of course it is a favorite that you can’t wait for. Buying used CDs not only saves money, but it helps you avoid the illusion that only the newest is the best. Try to collect all of the CDs put out by a few bands. Buy even the discs that don’t get critical praise. Listen to those CDs at least three or four times. Try to imagine why that music excited that artist and how it connects to their later work.

Buy your books used too. Take good care of your CD cases and liner notes, but get coffee stains, Gatorade, grease, dirt and even blood on your books. You’ve got to find a few books that you will read at least three times in the next four or five years. Let them be a security blanket that you pull apart to the nubbins both literally and figuratively. They should be capable of helping you fend off the loneliness and angst of being in your twenties. They will help you realize that restlessness is universal and it is overrated.

Please continue to make things with your hands: picture frames, bookcases, cards, lanterns, sushi, matzo balls. If you run out of time and energy to do things with your hands, you are most likely too busy. Learn how to say “no” to even the best of people and events otherwise you’ll find yourself sitting down with a friend at a coffee shop and you will not be able to taste him or her and you won’t be able to taste the coffee either. Everything will become a nuisance. All beer will be skunky. All wine corked. The necessary patience will require you to trust yourself and others. Trust that not only will they invite you again, but especially trust that you are worth being invited again.

That being said, there will be a few seasons to burn at both ends. Count the cost and make sure you are done burning like this by the time you are in your thirties. Your restlessness can inspire a kind of hard work that you may never again duplicate. These seasons will give you a sufficient bump forward and will provide you with much to reflect on during your thirties. Make sure that you know how to hit the eject button during these seasons otherwise you will become your busyness, your self-importance, your self-power and you will miss the Sabbath and an opportunity let your story be narrated by the greatest, most cosmic story teller.

Most relationships will take much longer to develop than you could possibly imagine. You can be intentional about meeting people, but you have very little control over who will love you. And you can’t hold a grudge against those who don’t love you the way you’d like them to. You have to forgive them. If you can’t forgive those who don’t love you, then it will also be hard for you to forgive those who actually do love you. Everything is an opportunity for grace and a reminder that beggars can’t be choosers; and we are all beggars.

Keep risking on the local church. Keep at it. Believe in both the reality and the idea of the church. Go. Be the church to others and be a church yourself. Accept the loneliness of the notion that you are a church already and hope that many will come and find their place in your communion, birds nesting in the expanse of your branches. It will happen as sure as the snow will thaw here in West Michigan. It’s that kind of wintertime longing, and it will never go away this side of heaven.

I like our habit of toasting everything. Teach it to the others you love along the way. The toast is a thankfulness that gives weight to communion. At the least it is ceremony. And if it is true that we Westerners are adrift, our lack of ceremony and etiquette is surely a sign. Discover, recover, or even create rituals that will make our being together more regular and more accessible. Showing up is the start of all discipline. Show up then “dwell in the land. Do good and cultivate faithfulness,” and if you find that you must leave, “never leave any place easily.”