Church

Good Friday – What An Old Church Cemetery Taught Me About Life

I was invited to read, play and tell stories for a congregation of people just outside of East Lansing, Michigan. Parking my car in the lot adjacent to the old, white church building, I had to pass by the tilted and worn headstones of the town’s main cemetery, hosted on the property of this old church.

I used to think cemeteries were cool and creepy.
I don’t anymore.
I know too many people whose bodies are buried in the ground.

A fiend of mine used to be the pastor of a church in downtown Berkeley, CA. It’s a hip, young church in a hip, young town with hip, young congregates doing hip, young things. He told me he missed the presence of a cemetery on their property. He believed the presence of “the dead” among a church family completed a kind of life-story each gathering of theirs told. When that family came together, he said, the entirety of earthly human experience was enacted and represented. Newborns and their older siblings, carried and collected by their parents whose parents and grandparents were often also in attendance. The presence of those they’d lost in their process of life together, completed that story.

It also made death part of the human story, rather than simply the end of it.

This Good Friday, my tribe pauses to meditate on the crucifixion and death of Jesus. We see this moment as one in which God frames Death in the context of Life, proclaiming Life as stronger and more resilient than death. In the glimmering shadow of Resurrection Sunday, Good Friday asks us to give death its own moment in the process of life, believing all the while that death is only a part of this glorious process… not the end of it or even a defining characteristic.  

Like my friend from Berkeley, my church family meets in a building without a cemetery. Our building in downtown Concord was once a thriving movie theater. Over time, the theatre didn’t quite make ends meet. It became an adult movie theater which, in its turn, failed and was then was purchased by First Presbyterian Church of Concord. First Presbyterian turned it into a community center and, as the Presbyterian church population tapered off, the community center saw less and less use. Now, that space is rented out and used by Concord Vineyard Church, Lighthouse Church an an Evangelical Covenant Church called Shelter.. where I am an associate pastor. Two days from now, in that building, we will be celebrating new life by dedicating a truckload of kids, some of them newborns, with more dedications to come in the later spring.

All that to say, even the history our small building, in it’s own way, reminds me that failure, darkness and death are rarely the actual end of things. Just as often, they are doorways through which other life (or other kinds of life) enter in.

Walking to my car after that show in Michigan, I was fairly certain I saw headstones bearing the surnames of folks I’d just met inside. And while I generally think of friends and loved ones who have passed with a sense of sadness, the proximity of those headstones to the living members of their families framed my sadness with the broader perspective I think Good Friday calls me to have; That Life does not just go on after death. Instead, a good life carries death with it on the way… because Life is stronger and more resilient.

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Festival of Faith And Writing: The Best of Who We Are

I was listening to G. Willow Wilson, the writer behind Marvel’s new Ms. Marvel and a Muslim, talk about the changing tide of femininity in fantasy and comics. Across the campus, Jeff Chu, author of “Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage In Search of God In America” was calling the idea of objectivity into question. Earlier that morning, Richard Foster enchanted a packed room as he described writing as a form of spiritual discipline before giving the stage to Miroslav Volf, who suggested that all religious impulse was rooted in an intrinsic human desire to “reach into the Transcendent.”

Women and men who don’t see eye-to-eye on critical social issues, sharing the same space and sharing the deeper conviction that what God is doing in and through the Arts is more critical than any of the particular issues we might allow to divide us.

And just as G Willow Wilson said the words “I write the books I wish were there for me to read” I thought to myself, “I wish everyone I knew could see this. This is a glimpse at the best of who we are.” 

I naturally want things like the Festival of Faith and Writing to make more noise. I get nervous that the best of who we are as a religious tribe doesn’t make enough noise to drown out the shrill chaos of our lesser expressions. But in thinking this way, I would be expect the FFW to stop being, in essence, what it is – to sacrifice primary elements that make it a great expression of Christian culture.

What makes most any good culture is a combination of thoughtfulness and wisdom. Such qualities often come with living and building at a slower pace – spending time in quieter corners.  Lesser culture tends to be loud and faster paced. Lack of quality and depth is often compensated for with volume and pizzazz.

Good culture often happens slowly. 

I left the Festival of Faith and Writing with pages of notes. More than that, I left with a conviction to locate (and lead my tribe to) the smaller, slower, quieter spaces wherein our sisters and brothers are building, planting and fostering the best of who we are.

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Festival Of Faith And Writing, Day 2

RICHARD FOSTER
My day was bookended by remarkable conversations. The morning found me listening to stories and teachings by Richard Foster, author of the vital “Celebration of Discipline.” There were many choice moments during his presentation. Among them were moments he shared with his son, Nate and his former agent, Kathy. Here are a few… 

“This day, I’m writing all day. And I spend half the day walking, in silence.” -Nate Foster

“If you’re wrestling it to the mat, maybe you need to back off and let it happen to you. Let words happen to you.” – Kathy Helmers

“There are things God will give you that are meant for you. You won’t write about them. That’s part of being silent. They will inform your writing. But if we expose everything about ourselves, we become shallow.” -Richard Foster

In the Biblical creation mythology, God creates the world in seven days, with that seventh day being referred to a “day of rest.” The way I read it, the world wasn’t created in six days (literally or figuratively) – It was created in seven (figuratively), which includes the day of rest. I think the ancients, in their wisdom, were suggesting that rest, stillness and silence are part of the process by which all things are made. I agree. And I think it ought to be part of my creative process as well.

ANNE LAMOTT
My day ended with the incomparable Anne LaMott. Anne spoke for just over an hour and at some point I simply stopped taking notes. I sat still and listened, as one does to a great, transcendent piece of music. Before I closed Evernote and locked my phone, here is what I put down…

“What I know about faith informs me in my writing. And vice versa.” 

“What do you do when there is no good answer? Just show up.” 

“Taking something out of your work doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It just goes somewhere else.”

“I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years. I’m getting better.”

“If you’re multitasking, your work is going to be diminished.”

“We weren’t taught to sing. We were taught to do well and get it right. Perfection is the voice of the oppressor. It will steal every chance you have of a sweet, good life. We were taught that when it doesn’t work, you drive on. And when the abyss opens up behind you, go to IKEA and get a nice area rug to cover it up. But anything I’ve ever written that you like was written from time spent in the abyss.”

 

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Festival of Faith And Writing, Day 1 – Thoughts On Gene Luen Yang

I am spending the weekend at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing. There are few (if any) spaces quite like the one Ken Heffner and Calvin have created here.  I love being here and hope I can pass on some of the utter goodness I’m absorbing.

Gene Luen Yang’s opening keynote has had me buzzing all day. Yang is a graphic novelist responsible for American Born Chinese, the 2007 Eisner Award winner for Best Graphic Album, the Publishers Weekly Comics Week Best Comic of the Year and the San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year.

He focused his presentation on the question “Is Art Selfish?
“Yes” Yang said, “it can be.”

But even as a father of four who had lost money on most of his comic efforts until American Born Chinese, he believed it did not have to be, if he could treat his art in any of these four ways:

  1. As An Icon
  2. As Prayer
  3. As An Organ
  4. As An Act Of Service

ART AS AN ICON
In the Christian tradition, icons are works of art that are intentionally designed to point beyond themselves. There are always more vital issues at hand, including the family life that feels, at times, in competition with art itself. Good art, suggests Yang, doesn’t have to be in competition with these larger issues, it can (and perhaps should?) point beyond itself to them.

In my process, the obvious effort of many contemporary Christian artists to create work that points at Jesus makes this a daunting notion. But looking at Yang’s art makes clear that the problem isn’t in treating one’s work as iconic… it’s doing it poorly. Bad iconic work says “Hey! Look at me! I’m pointing at Jesus!!”

ART AS PRAYER
Yang talked about the way his artwork plays a similar role as his prayer life. Going without it for too long meant becoming grumpy and unfocused. “When is the last time you worked on your comic?” his wife would ask. I feel that.

ART AS AN ORGAN
This was so vital to hear. While a liver is vital to a flourishing human life, says Yang, it is only one organ among many. An artist is not made up of only one organ. She must see herself as a whole person, in whose body art is a vital part… but only a part.

ART AS AN ACT OF SERVICE
Art provides story, sound and shape to for the pursuit of meaning in the human process of life. At times, Yang believes, art can provide story sound and shape for meaning itself. It is a service the Artist provides to make such work. 

I’ll be chewing on these thoughts for a long time.

Below are some further chewables from the evening keynote, given by National Book Award winner James McBride.


“Most of what I do fails. The difference between me and the next guy is that when I fail at something I forget all about it and start again.”

 “I don’t write everyday because i think I’m going to win another award. I do it because I can’t not do it – because God has planted that seed in me.”

 

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LENT – The Fierce Urgency Of Now

My son wanted to board the BART train heading West.
I told him we would do it later.
He said “Dad… there is no ‘later.’”

And after I laughed about it, thinking he sounded like Apollo Creed,  I saw the truth in what he said… and re-thought my answer.

When I played football in high school, I practiced. Practicing football prepared me for the game coming up on Friday. But the key moments of life don’t look at a schedule to decide when to show up. Every day is vital. Whether because it’s the day I get to be Asa’s dad or another day when I get to be Amy’ husband or another day during which 19,000 kids perish because they can’t get enough to eat or drink… “each day” Jesus taught “has enough trouble of its own.” Tomorrow? I don’t have time for tomorrow. I have today and, if I’m paying attention, that’s more than enough for me.

And so I keep thinking that the phrase “religious practice” might be a touch confusing. What am I practicing for? Later? There is no “later.”

Good religion teaches the necessity of practice while at the same time acknowledging each day as the fullness of time – there is no “game” to be played (much less won) on Friday. Today is the day the Lord has made. My practice is not just for tomorrow (though,.. if I get the gift of another day, I will be better for the way I’ve practiced in this one). I want my religious practice to set my mind on what Dr King called “the fierce urgency of now.” My fasting doesn’t just prepare me for a further date in which I’ll be in better shape to face and shape my world… my fasting makes me aware of the life and death reality of this moment – A moment in which a sister in Zambia will lose a child to malnutrition and lack of access to clean water. That’s a world I want to attend to now… and again tomorrow if I am gifted with such a thing.

 

  • I want my fasting ( and all of my religious practice ) to be far more than a “rehearsal” for some later reality.
  • I want to be actively conscious of sisters and brothers half-a-world away, whose children become statistics which I can far-too-easily cite in a blog.
  • I want to live differently in light of the injustices that impoverish their lives, believing as Dr. King did, that “… injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
  • I want my sacrifice to change things beyond my own mind.
  • I want the changes in my mind to change things beyond me.

And I want these things now.  I want this day to be different.  And I want to be different in this day. I don’t want to wait until later.

Thinking this way makes me fully alive in this day… this absolute and utter gift of a day. And my fast leads me to think this way – to think that, well,.. there is no “later.”

LEAVING FOR CHINA

Thoughts On The Thoughts Of Those Who Have Publicly Thought About “Leaving Evangelicalism.” Also A Free Chapter.

I’ve enjoyed reading the passionate and poetic recent conversation around “Leaving Evangelicalism.” It’s a conversation mostly between progressive sisters and brothers online. I love the expressiveness and mindfulness of the voices I’m reading, including the wonderful Sara Bessey.

Here is a thing I have found true of my progressive friends and family:

• We have many wonderful ideas… perhaps too many.
• We also have many poignant critiques (again, perhaps too many).
• Yet we have built very little. And that might be a key part of this cultural moment.

Sure, there is more than enough to be disgruntled (and disappointed) with in Evangelicalism. But that’s just one part of what it means to leave a relationship. The other part has to do with what is in us. What are we capable of? What do we want? Discontent always points at vision. So, do we have a clear enough sense of our vision? And more importantly… do we have the capacity to make that vision a tangible, practical reality?

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There are questions I think my progressive friends and family face if we are to make “leaving evangelicalism” something real. They are difficult questions to answer because, in part, we can’t write authoritatively about them (not really) until we’ve done something – until we’ve acted.

Blogs are good.
Sometimes very good.
Our online tribes can be welcoming and generous.
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But are our homes as welcoming?  Can we be good neighbors to the folks who can physically knock on our doors, eat our bread, drink our wine (or beer or whiskey).. and disagree with us directly to our faces?  Do we have enough space in our actual spaces to fully embody (as is required by an incarnational religion) the things we think and believe? Because that’s what it takes to make something worth journeying toward. Walking away is never enough.
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So.. those questions… phrased more concisely:

• What will we build? Having an opinion is the easiest thing in the world aside from having a negative opinion. The ease of that task doesn’t make the opinion any less worth having or less true… it just means that it’s not enough.

• What part will you (yes you) play? Knowing something is wrong ought to come with some level of responsibility. If it’s important enough (and it is) to blow up your FB wall about, can you translate that emotional energy into some kind of culture making? You don’t have to be the principle architect of that better culture (I don’t think everyone should plant a church, for instance), but you can at least be a faithful support and wise critic for those women and men who are making something good, true, beautiful and new.

• What will we do when the thing(s) we build share many of the same spaces, traditions and even the same flaws as the constructs we left behind us?

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These are the questions that faced the early protestants, leaving the Mother Church.
These are the questions that faced the early church mothers and fathers, leaving Judaism.
This cultural moment (which I do think this is) is not unique or new.

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But it  feels new because it is incredibly difficult – it asks more of us than we are likely prepared to give. Moments such as these ask us to become people of power.

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Which brings me to this concern:

I wonder if the progressive critique of power (and the abuses thereof) may have worn the idea of having power too thin. I wonder if we are afraid to wield power ourselves. But that will what is required if “leaving evangelicalism” is to mean anything at all. We will have to build and proclaim and make and stand. And doing do puts us on the scales to be measured and found either sufficient or lacking by critics such as ourselves.  It’s not enough to leave.

We’ll have to build, make and create.
We’ll have to be people of power.

Like the ones who build the culture we believe we must now leave.Here is something true: Jesus was not afraid to appear (and be) powerful. He built a culture of discipleship wherein those shared in life with Him couldn’t watch him feed thousands… they had to take up the bread and fish themselves and hand it to the hungry masses.

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The most vital critique Jesus and His disciples leveled at the old-and-dying religious culture they were leaving behind was that they actively created a better culture. They put themselves at risk. I think that’s the way of Jesus. I want that to be my way as well.


To add a bit more of my thought to the conversation, I’m giving away a chapter from my book CMYK: The Process of Life Together.  This chapter, like all the chapters in the book, is anchored by a letter to a loved one in their process of faith. Each of those letters is coupled with a song (lyrics appear in the chapter) and a personal reflection. 

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Guest Post For Friends At Blood:Water

I’m honored to have a piece up at the the Blood:Water Mission blog (hosted at their FB page). The story something of a collision between clean water, autism (it is, btw, Autism Awareness Day) and compassionate, intentional proximity…. also my beloved Southwest Airlines.

Read it here.

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CMYK – It Would Be Weird Without You

I often crack a joke at the top of of my shows that goes something like this: “Thanks for coming tonight. It’d be weird without you.”

I crack the joke to break the ice, but I’m also serious about my observation. Everyone thanks the artist for showing up but he or she could be there all by themselves and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference – There would be no one to connect with. Seth Godin says that art is about connection and I think he’s right. If what I’m making doesn’t connect with people, I start to wonder if it’s bad art … or if it’s art at all.All that to say this: You play an essential part in what I do. Just like Rae, Tony, Juliet and Joe.

 

  • Rae works with students at Malone University in Canton, Ohio. She has brought me in to speak/play at Malone for the past 13 years. I just left Canton after another wonderful time with her students.
  • Tony also lives in Ohio. He’s a nurse and a great husband/father. He’s been to (and brought people to) shows of mine since 2000. He recently coordinated my visit to Bluffton, OH where I connected with a sweet local church and some very thoughtful college students at Bluffton U.
  • Juliet is the events manager at Ebenezer’s Coffeehouse in Washington DC. I’ve played Eb’s every year since they started doing shows and those shows are a highlight of my calendar every year.
  • Joe pastors a vibrant and energetic congregation of women and men in CT. For years now, Joe has invited me to “do my thing” for his tribe, trusting and inviting me to be part of the beautiful work God is doing among them.

If not for these folks, I don’t have dates on the calendar in March. They play an essential part in what I do.

There is no such thing as “just a listener,” “just a viewer” or “just a reader.” Listeners, viewers and readers are an essential element in an artist’s creative process – the part that ultimately makes a work “art.” My best shows have been shows at which you have beet at your best as well as I have; shows during which we have really connected.  In 2013 I made the most comprehensive project of my entire life. And you got behind me to make it happen. You play an essential part in what I do.

This Spring marks my fifteenth year making art full-time. After this many years traveling, playing songs and telling stories, I still love what I do. And if you’ve been on this ride with me for any length of time, know that part of why I love what I do is because you have played your part so well.

Thanks for being in it with me.

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“If You Don’t Have Anything (Wise) To Say…”

I honestly admire my quieter friends.

When something blows up on the national stage, I often feel a tug in my mind. I want to talk about it, blog about it.. at least make a comment about it. I like talking. When a conversation gets big enough and involves enough people I know, I tend to want in on it. But I am learning that I don’t have to say something about everything.

I shouldn’t.

Sometimes, a thing takes the national stage and has resonance with the work I’m doing or an area wherein I have some level of expertise. Sometimes I can sincerely add my voice and it makes some difference for some people. Sometimes I really do have something to say. But not as often as I used to think I did.Come to find out, having an opinion is pretty easy – might be the easiest thing I know of.  But actually having something to say is an art. It takes discipline to learn how to do. It takes wisdom. The older I get, the smaller that list of things gets. I work on fewer things.. and this is wisdom. I realize I have “expert(ish) knowledge in far fewer areas… and this is wisdom as well. And in light of that, I am learning to say less about fewer things. I think this is wisdom, too.

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SUNDAY REFLECTION – I Don’t Audition Any More

I used to audition all the time. And not just when I was hoping to make a career in theatre. My first few years traveling and playing shows was all about auditioning. Every show, if I nailed it, might get me another show, etc… 

But doing that makes me like that guy at a party who keep shifting his focus away from the person he’s talking to, scanning the room for the next (potentially more valuable) conversation. As if the value of the conversation he’s currently having is that it might get him another one… with someone else. 

Or, maybe more accurately, treating every opportunity like an audition for another opportunity makes me like the friend who befriends a friend because he wants to be friends with that friend’s friends. Ew. 

As a performing singer-songriter, I want to be exactly where I am and with the people I’m with. Those people, be it 7, 70 or 1700 are entirely worth my focus and effort; if I’m only there in part or in passing, it makes me less worth theirs. 

“… do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus taught his followers “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” 
Amen and amen.