Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Great Conversation

There was a day when people talked. Today when you pass a stranger on the sidewalk, there are no conversations about life, no regard for each other's experiential wisdom (what that person has been through in life and what he's learned from it), and no social permission to breach a discussion about issues of love, or God, or... anything, really. In fact, today you're lucky to get a silent head nod and not fear for your life when walking past a stranger. But there was a time when philosophy (the love of knowledge/wisdom/truth) was considered the most important pursuit in a man's existence. And so it was normal, if not expected, to run into a stranger on the street and engage him in conversation about, for example, the nature of the human soul.

Now, don't misunderstand here, my hope is not to be a philosopher; I was a C student through high school and I still only read when I "have to." But I want to continue this "Great Conversation," as its been called by many scholars, and to be sharpened by the knowledge and life experiences of my friends (and relative strangers). At the recommendation of my good friend, Dan (Pray Your Gods blog), I would like to begin a new series called "The Great Conversation" with this purpose in mind. I, or one of my blogging friends, will start a topic of discussion under the title "The Great Conversation," open it up to discussion, and then friends with blogs can post a response (rebuttal, if you will) on their own blog page. I'll spare you further explanation, it'll make sense as we go. And so, I'll open with a statement for our first discussion:

Many families cling to a "Christian-only" policy when it comes to books, movies, and music. And while I encourage protecting the minds of young kids, it's sad to me that Christians are growing up to adulthood with a subconscious belief that everything "secular" is bad. These kids grow up to be critical (rather than discerning) of everything that doesn't have a Christian label attached.

I would submit that God can use "secular" art (literature, theater, music, etc.) to accomplish His evangelistic purposes in our world today, just as He did through ancient paganism in the centuries before Christ's first advent. In ancient Greece, they didn't have an AMC, Barnes and Noble, or Flava' Flave (it wasn't all bad in ancient Greece); what they had was the theater. The theater wasn't just another source of mind-numbing over-stimulation like much (not all) of our entertainment is today; the theater was where deep-rooted issues of politics, war, and the human condition were expressed artistically through comic, tragic, lyric, or epic portrayals. The things performed on that stage were THE stories and, in many cases, the beliefs of that culture.

One such play was called "Prometheus Bound." The tragedy opens with Prometheus, a Titan god who created man and posesses the gift of prophecy, nailed to a rock on a mountain. The play unfolds as Prometheus recounts the events leading up to his punishment: Cronos, the god of the Titans, and Zeus, the god of the Olympians, were at war with one another. Prometheus, with his gift of prophecy (his name means "Forethinker") tried to counsel Cronos in his strategy against Zeus, but Cronos would not listen. So, in order to save himself and his family, the god Prometheus defected to the Olympians, and by his counsel, Zeus defeated Cronos. But then Zeus punished Prometheus by making plans to destroy all of mankind (Zeus wants to punish him because, like all tyrants, he distrusts even his closest friends for fear of his power being taken from him). Knowing that Prometheus is compassionate to the race of men (since he created them), Zeus hides the gift of fire from mankind, leaving them utterly incapable of performing their skills/crafts of survival, which would lead to their complete destruction. But Prometheus, the god, takes on human flesh and sacrifices his life in order to save and to bring light (fire) to the race of men. As a consequence, Zeus has Prometheus nailed to a rock on a mountain, where vultures will peck out his eyes every day forever.

This story (and many other Greek plays) would have been common and extremely well-known by everybody in that time (perhaps like you and I know the story of Cinderella). So when Paul comes to Greece with the Gospel ("good news") that there was a God who left His throne in heaven to take on human flesh, in order to be the "light of the world" and save men from the curse of death by Himself being nailed to a tree on a mountain... he was speaking their language, to say the least.

Did God take a pagan play about a polytheistic war and a god-man's sacrifice and use it as an evangelistic foundation for Paul to build upon? Could God have inspired those stories in the hearts of Greek men in order to prepare them for the coming of Christ? Does God commonly use "secular" expressions to make His work known to generations of people today, as it seems He did in ancient times?

I would submit that yes, He can and He does. Perhaps we should be less guarded as a "Christian" culture and more confidently aware of what God is working in the hearts of "secular" beings that could be foundational to our witness.

Please POST your thoughts (don't keep them to yourself); the whole point of this series is for you to contribute to the conversation. And after you've commented, please check out the above-mentioned friends' blogs for their responses (Pray Your Gods and Late Night Over Pancakes).

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I'll Be 80 Soon

Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week,
But I'll be 80 soon.

And then I will no longer look forward to my life;
I'll look back on what I did with it.

I realize now that I could never work hard enough
or do things great enough in this life
to ever achieve "no regrets."

"I could have done more," my elderly flesh will prod;
"If only I had known then what I know now."

"And what I know now at 80 years of age
is that everything under the sun will fade
And that the only true moments of life that I've made
Are those moments when I loved a neighbor
Are those moments when I heard a friend
Are those moments I reached out to a stranger
Are those moments I didn't pretend."

"Shame that is took me these twenty-nine thousand and two hundred days
To finally make sense of what was worth all that wait:
The world was drowning slowly and I knew that they would die,
But I stayed safe on the lifeboat and turned a blind eye."

Maybe not next birthday, maybe not next year,
But I'll be 80 soon
And their death is my biggest fear.

"Only one life and it will soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last." - Unknown Author

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Just When I Thought That My Grace Was Gone

Just when I thought that my grace was gone,
You covered my shame and called me your son;
Just when I thought I failed my last time,
Your stripes stood the trial for my petty crime.

Just when I thought that I'd gone too far,
You patiently drew me back under your arm;
Just when I thought that all hope was lost,
You gave me Your Word, no matter the cost.

Just when I thought that my grace was gone,
You told me that Your love was far and beyond
All of the notions and motions and calm
That I choose to rest in instead of your palm.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Summer School of Rock: Final Exam

Well, the summer is officially over, which means it's final exam time for the Summer School of Rock. It's been a great summer. I've learned a lot, heard a ton of new (old) music, and feel just one step closer to "capable" in a conversation about classic rock. Like I said at the outset of this experiment, my goal this summer was simply to "catch up" on the era of 60's and 70's rock that I missed out on as a twenty-something. I still have a lot to learn, of course, but I think I accomplished my goal fairly efficiently. If I gave myself a letter grade for the course, I think it would be a B+. If I had had more time to commit to it, it would have been a solid A, but alas, I'm not paid to read about Zeppelin or study Pink Floyd CDs.

What would your grade be? Below is a test from my School of Rock learnings:
1. Who is the lead singer of AC/DC?

2. On the famous “Cowbell” sketch on SNL, what 70’s rock band does the cast portray and what’s the name of the song needing “more cowbell”?

3. The name of the Southern Rock band whose lead singer, Ronnie Van Zant, along with several other members of the band and crew died in a plan crash in 1977?

4. The name of the band and the album that can, reportedly, be played simultaneously with The Wizard of Oz as a sort of psychedelic soundtrack?

5. Since most of you know the answer to #4: Same band, who was their chief songwriter through the 70’s and beginning of the 80’s?

6. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones: what was their band called?

7. What highly influential English punk rock band was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and credited with initiating the punk rock movement in the UK even though they only existed for 4 years (1975-1979) and released only one studio album (plus compilations and singles)?

8. This duo formed in 1957 and were together through 1970, and their hit list includes “The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Hall of Fame-rs and #40 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

9. Name the band whose hits include “Come Sail Away” and “Mr. Roboto.” (Hint: it’s one misspelled word, four letters)

10. Pete Townshend was the guitarist and principal songwriter for this band that has been called “the greatest and most influential rock band of all time.”

11. What genre did the band Deep Purple help pioneer?

12. What band released that single that gets in your head and never leaves you alone, “More Than a Feeling”?

13. It is estimated that by 1985, this band had sold over one billion discs and tapes worldwide. They are #1 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

14. Regarded by some as “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” this group nearly fell apart between 1979 and 1984 due to substance abuse, except for the tireless efforts of then manager, Tim Collins, who reformed the band, got them help for their addictions, and made it possible for this now 38 year old rock band to still perform concerts today to sell-out crowds. (Hint: the lead singer has a daughter in the movies)

15. If you were stranded on an island and could only have one CD to listen to, which would it be?

It's been an eye-opening summer learning about these artists who shaped not only the direction of music but the culture at large. I've always known that music can change the world, but until I dug into researching these bands and saw how their music directly influenced movements, reforms, and the makeup of entire countries, I didn't fully appreciate how deep that truth runs. I look forward to semester 2 of Summer School of Rock in Summer, 2008.

Check back soon for the answers to the final exam questions above. Post your answers so we can all see how brilliant you are.

Pet Peeve #2

And now for my second installment of "Quirks, Jerks, and Everyday Irks."

2. The conveyor belt at Publix.
I realize that very few will be able to sympathize with my irritation here, so I would definitely put this under the "quirks" category. But I'm slightly OCD, so when I place my groceries on the belt at checkout, it's not a random scattering of items for me, it's an art. Heaviest items up front, softest items in back, and all like-items together in a nice, neat, orderly system. And what's really weird (as if that's not weird enough), is that I literally have to take slow, deep breaths in order to fight off a panic attack when the conveyor belt starts to move because it messes up my system (no, I'm not kidding). The belt starts moving, and now instead of an orderly group, there's four feet of space between each of my groceries; instead of the 2 boxes of frozen peas standing neatly next to each other, there's a box of peas, then four feet... then a jar of tomato sauce, then four feet... then a loaf of bread, then four feet... and then the second box of peas... And few things in this world take me closer to being institutionalized.

On a side note: as much as I "suffer," I can't imagine how difficult life would be as a truly OCD person. I would say I have obsessive compulsive tendencies, but not full-blown disorder. I actually consulted a psychologist friend of mine about this issue when I was in college. I was concerned because I count my steps everywhere I go, I count my bites when I chew food, I do everything from scratching an itch to licking my lips in sets of seven, and certain things (like the conveyor belt at Publix) take me dangerously close to panic attacks. But as crazy as that sounds, I know people who literally suffer from the disorder- and it isn't even slightly funny what they go through. The difference is this, my psychologist friend informed me: "When you count your steps in sets of sevens from the car to the front door of your house, can you still go inside and relax if your last step isn't number seven in a series? Or would it mess you up so bad that you would have to go back to the car and try again? Those with the disorder would have to go back and literally try over and over again to make their steps count up to the right number before they can move on to any other activity."

Thankfully, I can go on if the steps don't add up and I can laugh at myself for being such a weirdo, which is why I've listed "the conveyor belt at Publix" as my Pet Peeve #2.

Friday, August 10, 2007


"Then Jesus declared, 'I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty." (John 6:35)

Our souls cannot survive without the nourishment the Lord provides. There is no other bread and no other water that can sustain us through the fall- nothing but the body and blood of Jesus. I love that Jesus uses our sense of hunger and thirst to help this truth hit home.

When it comes to Christian living, it seems to me that there are three kinds of people: those who are constantly hungry but never satisfied, those who are full but never hungry, and those who are regularly hungry and then fully satisfied.

In the natural world, everyone recognizes the pain of hunger and dehydration and goes and eats and drinks until they’re satisfied. No one feels a hunger pang and walks around for days in agony wondering “what is this pain I feel?” It’s instinctive: we were designed with the need for daily filling. And yet, as much as we understand this in the natural world- the world that we can see, taste, smell, touch, and feel- we have this internal dysfunction that has somehow deceived us into believing that the pain we feel in our souls, the hole we sense is empty inside, is somehow unrelated to our lack of spiritual nourishment. We go days, weeks, even months and years without seeking the Lord’s filling and then we wonder why we are keeled over in pain from depression, anxiety, doubt, bitterness and pride. And the deeper our hurt runs, the more we bite the hand that feeds, so to speak; we blame the Lord for not strengthening us or coming to our rescue, too blind beneath our shroud of guilt to recognize that the Lord has prepared daily provisions for us but we simply haven’t been responsible enough to come to the table. This is the person who is constantly hungry but never satisfied.

The second kind of person is the one who is always full but never hungry. This person digests meals as part of their daily ritual; like a machine on auto-pilot, they don’t really crave the food, they simply do what they need to do to survive. Godly men and women reach a place when they’re calloused to the ritual filling of the Lord. They eat a lot, but they’re never hungry; they attend to the business of faith but never crave after the Lord. These people are fat and happy Christians and have forgotten what it’s like to passionately hunger after anything- especially the Lord.

The third kind of person is the one who is hungry every day and eats at the proper time. They experience both the agony of hunger pangs and the joy of being satisfied- every day. St. Augustine wrote, “There is no pleasure in eating and drinking unless they are preceded by the unpleasant sensation of hunger and thirst.” In the desert, the Israelites were instructed to gather manna from the fields where God rained it down on the earth like dew on the grass every morning. They weren’t allowed to store up a supply of bread; gathering manna every other weekend was simply not an option. They woke up in the morning and gathered their bread for the day, or they starved.

How often do I go starving simply because I was too lazy to get up and gather my daily bread? How often do I just “get by” going to church, reading the Bible for 20 minutes a day, and performing my rituals of faith? I've been all three of those people at different times in my life, but most often I think I'm like the person who eats just enough veggies to feel less guilty about the volume of junk food I've ingested. I'm doing just enough good to disguise my bad.

I want to do more than just get by.

I want to be hungry again and again and again so that I can be satisfied in Him again and again and again. But it isn’t my hard work or my determination or my spiritual standards that make me hungry. Rather, the God who created my stomach to growl three times a day, who formed my spirit with a “God-shaped hole” so that nothing else will satisfy but Him, and the giver of my daily bread is also the One who gives me the hunger for that provision. So I must call out to Him daily: “Lord, make me hungry for more of You.” To my mind, there isn't a more God-honoring prayer than that. “Lord, I’m just ‘getting by’ again, please make me thirsty for You so that you can once again be my deepest satisfaction.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

GMA Conference in the Rockies 2007

Most of you who read my blog know that I'm a worship leader who dreams of becoming a songwriter/recording artist professionally. I have no desire to leave the worship ministry and no ambition beyond what I believe God has intentionally caused my heart to crave, and yet I've always felt like these two desires in my life are in conflict (writing songs and leading worship). It seems to me that the ministry of worship is altogether selfless, directing all praise and glory to God whom the congregation came to hear (in theory). But writing about my life experiences and being in the spotlight has always seemed a selfish catharsis- being the object of honor rather than the mirror of someone more honorable. So I don't write more than 10 songs per year and even then, I never have the opportunity to get them out to the masses. And while God has granted me contentment as a worship leader and I've been blessed to see Him change lives time and time again through this ministry, the longing to write music has left me with this sort of "holy discontentment" and a heart that's continually sick ("Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life."-Proverbs 13:12). I've tried and prayed and fasted and waited... and yet the Lord withheld His vision from me of how all of these longings will be satisfied and reconciled... until last week when He made it all so much more clear.

God told me I'm supposed to run away with the circus...
(Just seeing if anyone reads past the first paragraph. Please read on.)

Before I tell you what "became clear," first let me tell you about where I was last week. I returned home Saturday after spending 8 days in Estes Park, CO where I attended the Gospel Music Association's 33rd Annual "Music in the Rockies" conference. (I took the picture above as I rounded the corner entering into Estes Park for the first time- it nearly stopped my heart how beautiful it was.) The week of hands-on training, masters classes, and networking opportunities is designed for songwriters, worship leaders, and artists to sharpen their skills and hone their craft. I was 1 of 1,000 conference-goers who were privileged to spend a week learning from "the best of the best" in their particular fields of interest. I focused mostly on the songwriting track while I was there, so I was able to learn from such highly-successful and widely-published songwriters as Sue C. Smith, Dave Clark, Ben Glover, and Don Koch. You haven't heard of them, but chances are you've heard of some of the artists who have recorded their songs: Faith Hill, Steven Curtis Chapman, Gloria Gaither, Travis Cottrell, Joy Williams (to name a few). Sitting in classes and receiving one-on-one critical feedback on my songs with these writers and artists was a lot like being a sponge thrown into an ocean; you soak up what you can, but you can never absorb it
all in one week.

At the end of each day I tried to spend focused time writing songs and applying the techniques and ideas I had "absorbed" throughout the day (ringing out the sponge onto paper, so to speak). And by the end of the week, I had over 20 songs and song ideas started and a few completely finished. ("But that still doesn't solve your problem of not having an open door to get your music out there." - I'm getting to that, I promise...)

The week before I flew out to Colorado, I was contacted by Craig Dunnagan, the Vice President of Integrity Music Publishing. Through a mutual friend, Craig heard two of my songs, "That Sweet Someday" and "Were You There," and he liked what he heard and wanted to get to know me. We talked for ten minutes and scheduled a follow-up phone conference for a more in-depth discussion at a later date (a couple weeks from now). But in that short conversation, Craig gave me a lot to think about and some great advice. He made it clear that he would like to work with me in some capacity, which is
ridiculously exciting; even if it's just to give me tips on how to make my songs better, it's a huge privilege for a young writer like me to have the ear of the VP of the biggest worship music publisher in the nation. Craig told me to link up with his associate, Lee Black, while I was in Colorado at this conference. Lee is the Songwriting Development Coordinator for Integrity and was scheduled to be a judge at the GMA conference.

To make a long story shorter, I linked up with Lee in Colorado, had coffee with him, and we really hit it off. We talked for a solid two hours about life, ministry, music, and future opportunities (I was expecting 30 minutes). Of all the advice, tips, and tricks I learned on this trip, Lee's advice certainly made the deepest impact in my heart:
Write songs that effectively communicate the heart of your home congregation and then let God sort out where He takes your music from there; listen to the hearts of your church members when you pray with them and counsel them and then write your songs from those interactions- and THEN you'll be a successful songwriter and worship minister, whether or not you're ever published outside your own church's walls."

It was an immediate splash but a very slow sinking in; I knew instantly that what he had said had changed my perspective forever, but I'm still unpacking those words today, a week later. His words echoed the Scripture verse that speaks of being faithful with little before you can be given more; why should God entrust me with the responsibility of writing songs that express the hearts of the
nations when I haven't yet been faithful to express the hearts of the 300 friends in my home church? It's such arrogance to ever think that God should expand my platform of ministry before I've faithfully served Him from this one. He doesn't know it (yet), but the Lord used Lee to bring my blinded vision into focus.

Here's the conclusion of all of this: Last week, the Lord renewed my vision of what He's called me to do: a ministry where He uses not one gift or the other (writing or worship), but where both passions work in synergy toward the purpose of leading people to His throne. The songs that I write don't have to be "selfish catharsis," they can put words in the mouths of God's Church; the lyrics that I pen don't have to "get out to the masses," they simply have to express what one person's heart would want to say if it could find the words. For the 10 years I've been a worship leader, I've been angsty about when God would ever satisfy my desire to write songs. As it turns out, the opportunities to write weren't in a record contract or publishing deal, they were right here in the church where the Lord called me to be all those years ago.

I can't tell you what a mystery that's been in my life and what a no-brainer it is now that the blinders have been removed from my eyes by the Spirit- in His perfect timing. While much of His plan still remains a mystery, I truly believe God ordained this past week at the GMA conference to be the moment in time when He would unveil a major missing piece of my destiny.

I'm keeping in touch with Craig, Lee, and several other writers and producers I met in Colorado and trust that they will continue to be a source of wisdom for me. And who knows, maybe someday God will use me to write the songs of the nations. But for now, He has called me to be faithful with these 300 hearts, and that's a tremendous responsibility. So, I have committed to write faithfully every week from this point on. My goal is 50 songs this year, good bad or ugly- it doesn't matter, just so long as they're expressions of worship from the hearts of those I lead and come in contact with.

"Lord, set my eyes like flint on this road you've set me on and keep my vision pure until we finish the race. Place what you will in my hands and then teach me to lay it down- not once, but every day- however much or little you entrust to my care."