December 29, 2014

Intentionality Helps People Sing on Sunday (Part 5)


Reality check: none of this matters in a cosmic sense.

If we make these things that what makes-or-breaks us, we become consumers who instead of worshippers. Let me restate: the first church had none of this to worry about; they met in catacombs (translation: underground graveyards) amidst a huge persecution and weren’t overly worried about their perception by others. They were far more concerned with the fact that God was DOING something and how they were going to be a part of it. They didn’t care about growth or numbers and were openly persecuted by the government and established religious sects, yet they added to their numbers (daily!). Let me re-restate: if you “can’t worship” because of any or all of these things, you may need to rethink your motivations. Worship is, after all, still a choice, still a response to God’s offered mercy, and so singing as worship must be no less. 

However, just as God used the circumstances of the ancient church to speak to their culture, so too does He use our circumstances to speak to OUR culture. These things DO matter, but in a “here’s how we can help people focus” sort of way, a “here’s how to remove distractions” way, rather than a “this is necessary or else we can’t engage God” sort of way. Many of these can apply regardless of budget; these are to degrees, not to some absolute standard. 

They influence, they do not mandate.

They are also not really “rules” so much as they are “principles.” Rules are situation-specific; principles are cross-cultural, and will apply in every culture but will apply differently. Some are extremely practical, while others are more “vision-based.” For the next two posts, I’ll write a slightly exhausting (but not exhaustive) list of what helps people sing in church on Sunday … or whenever. We’ll start with the first of the two biggies.

Intentionality

There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it - having a plan always helps people sing.  I know that, in some cultures, the plan is “we sing stuff we always sing so we don’t have to plan,” but that doesn’t usually work in most western contexts (and it's still a plan). We should always plan that something will go differently than planned - because something almost always does. But if we plan ahead, fewer things will be able to phase us; instead of having to deal with crisis AND come up with a plan in the moment, having a plan means that shifting gears to accommodate new developments can happen more smoothly. There’s a notion among some clergy that the only time the Spirit of God works is “in the moment” but I would suggest that the Spirit of God more often helps us develop plans for gathering rather than interrupt them. Or, perhaps you could say yes, the Spirit always works in the moment - but there are a lot more moments ahead of the service or gathering than in it, and the Spirit works in those moments too (and perhaps we should listen).

A great example of this is jazz music. Jazz is often seen as a very loose, un-planned kind of music because of the high number of improvisational solos found in almost every piece. What seems as unplanned melody, however, is actually extremely strategic. The basis for good improv is a good chord progression that, I assure you, was carefully created by the author of the piece. What makes it seem effortless, however, is that each musician that is part of a good jazz ensemble has spent years (usually decades) perfecting their skills. The reason a jazz musician can “make up” a solo on the spot is because they’ve done it a thousand times already. They’ve played thousands of chord progressions similar to the one to which you’re listening, experimented and failed in many of them, and gradually perfected their own personal style. What an audience hears in any good improv solo sounds off-the-cuff, effortless, unplanned, but in reality is the product of hours upon hours of practice and careful planning by a whole community of people. 

If we’re doing what we’re doing on purpose and seeking to partner with what God is doing already, then the big-picture plan is already in place and we simply need to spend the time to learn what God’s got in mind (to say nothing of the fact that God actively invites us to use the creativity with which he created us - this is a partnership, by His choice). If you don’t spend time in advance to find out what God is doing, then don’t be surprised if people have a harder time engaging with God that day, particularly in something as personal as song. Yes, there will be times when things have to change at the last minute, but if this is your rule rather than the exception, you’ve created a last-minute culture and will not only burn out your ministry staff (volunteer AND paid), but you’ll also be ignoring rather than imitating the character of God, who spent all that time between Genesis 3 and Matthew 1 tilling the cultural soil for Jesus’ birth.

Furthermore, songs that are chosen on purpose for a gathering will allow the message of the morning to more fully penetrate the minds and hearts of those who have come to participate. This doesn’t mean, for example, that if the theme is “God’s Faithfulness” every song has to have the word “faithful” in it; the process can and should be a lot more subtle and story-driven than that. But it does mean that we must consider every piece of the gathering and how they relate to one another.

One might even say that everything that follows this element depends upon accepting it: planning matters.

Next Time: the other biggie that helps people sing on Sunday …

December 28, 2014

The Way of the Kingdom

I got to preach again today. It was a hard message to prepare, but I'm satisfied that God did what He needed to, at least, in me ...

December 22, 2014

Spread the Light

We'll return to our series on "What Helps People Sing on Sunday" next week. For now, it's almost Christmas again, and I thought I'd offer some reflections.

As with every family here in America, advent was a chaotic time for me growing up. There were always school productions to be rehearsed, concerts to be performed, presents to be bought. But my favorite part of advent was the tree. As a kid, it was a family affair. Dad and Mom would take my sister and me out to the local tree farm and we’d hunt down a good, solid white spruce, cut it down, and then wrestle it home into our living room. And because the season was as busy as it was, between church and shopping and school events, we almost never got our tree decorated until the week of Christmas, and sometimes even only on Christmas Eve.

There was lots of waiting at Christmas. Busy waiting, but waiting nonetheless.

Later, when I was a boy scout, our troop’s big fundraiser was selling Christmas trees. On one weekend in November, we’d trudge out to one of several tree farms and we’d cut down all sorts of trees - douglass firs, pine, and maybe even some spruce. Then, we’d get five or six volunteers from the national guard to drive out some large cargo trucks and help us get them back to our tree lot on main street, and each would get a tree for their help. And then came the long nights of volunteering in the little trailer on the tree lot. Mom would pack me a thermos of hot chocolate and some snacks, and two or three of us would huddle in the trailer with our dads waiting for customers to come in so we could dazzle them with our knowledge of the trees we were about to sell them.

Mostly, though, there was a lot of waiting.

Oh, everyone wanted a weekend shift - lots of customers kept us busy on Fridays and Saturdays, even on Sundays. And everyone usually GOT a weekend shift, because there were so many people out then that we needed extra help. But the rest of the week, those nights were fairly uneventful, and everyone got at least a few of those. But the unfortunate few, of which I was often a part, would get more than a few night shifts. We’d sit in the trailer on milk crates telling bad jokes and lamenting the cold, wondering when our replacement shift would show up so we could go home and thaw our cold hands and feet and frozen bottoms.

The waiting was busy, but it was still waiting.

And then suddenly it was Christmas and the waiting was over and the lot was closed and there was a tree up in our living room and it was time to decorate. I remember one year, a guy from church, who happened to be the volunteer fire chief of our village in upstate NY, came to my parents and offered to park a firetruck outside our house during the holidays. He was only half joking. My parents politely declined, and, after church, went home and set up our newly-cut White Spruce. My father would grumble at the tree as he wrestled the strands of lights into a very prickly set of strong branches. Then, as she did every year, my mother carefully added candles.

This was my Grandfather's tree last Christmas
It’s an old tradition for the Swiss side of my family, and one of which I’m very fond. Christmas Eve would start at church, of course, but then we’d come home and sit in our living room while mom lit the candles on the tree and then dad turned the switch off for every light in the house - including the tree lights - and we would read the Christmas Story out of Luke by candlelight. On the best Christmases, we travelled to visit my grandparents and our cousins and aunts and uncles. After dinner, we’d move into the living room where the tree was set up, full of old ornaments, each with a story, and of candles, their soft glow reflecting off the bay windows. There, my grandmother would read us the Christmas Story before we’d open presents. Inevitably, my grandfather would tell us stories of doing the same thing when he was a kid in Switzerland, and of even finding creative ways to string candles together and light them in sequence with one match.

For me, advent is a story of generations; each generation slowly, carefully passing the light on to the next. To pass the light of the candles means to pass on hope; hope of salvation, hope of redemption, hope of a Kingdom come to earth. Hope that the waiting will end soon, but with the knowledge that eventually, it will end. God came as one of us, bringing His light into a world that had forgotten they were even waiting, save for a few carefully holding onto a weak, flickering candle. But then the light spread, and has been spreading for centuries. It’s a light of redemption, of restoration, of re-creation. 

Waiting did end. Advent did turn to Christmas. The Kingdom has come, and now, that day will never end! The mission of God is something we can join with confidence because the end has already been won; in the incarnation, Peace became tangible; Joy overflowed; Hope was fulfilled; the light of the world has begun to spread. But it’s an ongoing project - the Kingdom is a gift that our world is unwrapping very, very slowly. And so it takes you. It takes me. Our advent world only feels that way because the gift is only open a little. But Christmas has come. God is on the move, and the invitation is open: here’s a candle. Join the movement. 

Spread the light.

December 20, 2014

Above the Clouds

My latest post on the ECC Worship Connect Blog is up, I'd be grateful if you'd pop over and join the conversation in the comments section!

"The view from 30,000 feet puts things in perspective."

December 15, 2014

What Style People Sing on Sunday (Part 4)


I felt like this one deserved its own post (even a short one) because, at its core, the debate about style lies at the heart of the so-called “worship wars.” 

Style, believe it or not, is only a secondary influence to engagement; its influence depends more on the culture in which the style is placed. It’s not a “neutral” like theology generally is, but we must also be careful not to overstate its influence by equating it with “excellence” or “planning.” Like I said before, if you like the music, if it strikes a chord within your soul, you will probably sing. If you chose a church, chances are you chose it, in part, because of the style you like anyway. Put another way: the style you choose will make singing more NATURAL (or if you prefer, comfortable). 

But as time rolls on, style matters less and less to, for example, millennials, who instead value the authenticity or the excellence in which it is led. Translation: they prefer a church where they perceive that the worship team or choir or leaders a) like what they’re doing and love the people they’re serving (authenticity), and b) know how to do what they’re doing and care about doing it well (excellence and intentionality). They don’t especially care (as a group) what the tunes themselves are; diversity of expression matters to them.

However, even if you value, say, traditional music more than contemporary or hip hop or whatever (whichever is your “soul language”), that doesn’t prevent you from singing it when it’s presented in your worship gathering. Style is an expression OUT of culture, rather than a requirement for singing, but while it helps us to sing what we love, it also will help us when we sing what OTHERS love. In other words, the wars have never been about worship. It’s such a terrible name. Maybe “style wars” or “preference wars” or even “culture wars” - maybe - but “worship wars” they are not. A “worship war” is an oxymoron; love of neighbor implies the ability to love one another in spite of preferences or styles, and true love of another often means learning to sing their songs. If you are warring about worship style, you are not responding to God’s mercy, which means it is not worship (Rom 12:1); you are instead responding to your own baggage. 

The worship wars still exist because young and old alike still say that the style of the song is more important to them than the people who are singing it.

It’s not like this everywhere. I know lots of people who prefer traditional music, but who champion the contemporary music though it’s not their preference. I also know plenty of other people who love modern music, but also have learned already to value the old hymns. 

If you find yourself in a church “at war” over music style, you are responsible for starting the healing process. If you’re all about contemporary music, learn some old hymns alongside those who love them (go to the traditional service sometimes). Learn the stories behind them from those who have been singing them all their lives. Ask about Wesley and Sandell and Luther and why they wrote what they did. Ask those beside you which hymn is their favorite and why. ... OR ... If you’re all about traditional hymns, the same is true; learn the contemporary music alongside those who love it (go to the contemporary or modern service). Sing some Houghton and Crowder and Jobe and Fraser and Gungor and All Sons & Daughters. Ask them why this music speaks so strongly to them. Listen to their stories. Sing with them.

You have no idea what a gift this will be.

For them. For you. For your community.

Next time: what actually does help people sing …

December 8, 2014

What Doesn’t Help People Sing on Sunday (Part 3)

We’ve talked about why people do sing.

We’ve talked about why people don’t.

But for a worship pastor, most of these reasons are not within the realm of control (since that IS what this whole conversation is about, right?). Our job is not to give people a reason to sing; our job (or at least, a fairly substantial part of our job) is to enable and facilitate singing for those who have that reason already. We create and curate the environment; they participate with us. We pick the songs and set the sliders and write the transitions; they sing with us.  We can set the table and cook the food with the best nutrition and flavor we can, but they have to pick up the fork or spoon or chopsticks (or whatever) and choose to eat it. Worship is a freely-chosen response to what God has done (I’ll never get tired of Romans 12:1), and music is one of its forms. Forced participation is called “abuse” and is definitely not what God had in mind for the worship of His people. We cannot choose to worship FOR someone …

We can woo. We can encourage.

We can also distract and interfere.

Oddly enough, the theology of the music does not seem to make much difference as to whether or not most people choose to engage the music. There are, of course, exceptions to this - those ├╝ber theological types who are fresh out of seminary, for example, seem awful keen on “perfect theology” if they’re to sing along. There are also plenty of us pastoral types who get over-focused on the details and can’t see the forest for the trees (and I’ll confess to plenty of moments of this, especially around Christmas or Easter when I’m stressed out). For the most part, however, I’ve noticed that there isn’t much about the theology of a song that helps the average Christian engage it or not. We’ll get to it later, but things like poetry help people engage; melodies and dynamics and performance practice … but not theology. 

While this might seem to be a bit of a shame, it’s actually kind of the point: music is a medium through which the theology may be communicated. If a song has bad theology, it’s a tragedy to be sure, but that won’t stop people from singing. In fact, the tragedy is worse when the song itself is engaging, if it sets up its point in an easily-remembered and catchy sort of way, to say nothing of the worship team who leads it well and brings people along with them for the ride.

Don’t believe me?

When was the last time you sang the popular “Mighty to Save”? It’s a well-known piece by Hillsong in Australia, and it’s been up on the top of the charts for a long time. In verse 2, however, we get this little gem: “I give my life to follow / everything I believe in”. Have you ever stopped to wonder what on earth that means? While not especially theologically inaccurate, it’s also not especially … anything. The lyric means basically nothing; everyone gives their lives to follow what they believe in. So while this isn’t necessarily some sort of heresy, we sing it with such fervor, such passion. Buried in what otherwise is a pretty decent piece of musical theology is this poetic oddity. But gosh, it’s so darn catchy! The theology isn’t especially unsound, but in song it sounds so good!

The conversation on music is so important is because people remember ideas better in song than they ever will from spoken words (sorry, preachers). By extension, music with bad theology generates bad practice. I will admit that this is a bit simplistic in the grand scheme of causality (because practicing good theology also helps us believe good theology), but it’s a useful simplification: we become what we sing. And there is very little point to theology if we do not act upon it.

Next time: so … what about style?

December 1, 2014

Why People Don't Sing on Sunday (Part 2)

Last time we talked about why people sing in church. But some of what the articles say is true, there are plenty of times people don’t sing with those leading worship. And yes, we worship pastors occasionally make mistakes in the way we arrange, prepare, or lead some of our music. Some of us do it consistently. We really don’t mean to, but it happens.

But there are lots of other reasons people don’t sing.

For example …

Most of us can agree that there are some underlaying assumptions about worship through song that might be cause for people to sing or not. As in, if you aren't a Christian, you probably won't sing in church. Maybe this one is too obvious, but if you’ve never encountered Jesus, if you don’t yet agree with the lyrics of the song or have never heard it before, chances are you’re not going to want to worship Him through song. Of all those people who aren’t singing, is it possible some have never encountered Jesus? Is it possible they’ve never been in a church before, or for very long? Might they be seeking but unsure of what is True? Yes. Yes. Yes. And let’s be clear: THIS. IS. AWESOME! It means that we must be doing something right! It means that people have come to our worship gatherings because they sense something different and want to know what it is. And THAT means those people in our churches are surrounded by other people who love Jesus and DO have a relationship with Him, are providing an example of worship and discipleship. Hopefully, that’s going to rub off; eventually, those people will sing. They'll sing their freakin' lungs out, and it will be epic.

Other people are sitting next to them in the pew, but entirely self-obsessed. They think they're too good for the music that's been chosen. They think the theology of this one isn’t quite right; the drums were too loud on this one; the organ too soft on this one. And they could never sing music that wasn’t reflective of God’s perfect Truth, or deserving of God’s perfect favor, could they? Unfortunately, such people will never be happy because God’s favor is not something that really concerns them, and it is not actually possible to satisfy them; they have not come to church to engage God. Instead, many other reasons bring them; loyalty, duty, power ... anything aside from the pursuit of a relationship with a redemptive God. Many are either unaware of their own shortcomings or too ashamed of them to allow their carefully placed masks to slip. Their posture often (but not always) gives them away - closed arms, bent head, a slight frown: judgmental (maybe planning to blog about what the pastor's doing wrong). I must confess that have been here; self-righteousness was an easy habit to gain and remains a hard one to break. Only time and God’s patient prodding helped me to let go of my own aims and sing again.

Another reason some people don’t sing is that they’ve been caught up in the music in another way: they’re listening. Absorbing. Experiencing. Sometimes we sing at the top of our lungs and surf the wave of the music all the way to the shoreline. But sometimes we get overwhelmed by the ride and let the wave wash over us, and instead of surfing, we go swimming. When God speaks through music, it’s not always because our mouths are moving - in fact, often, God speaks through quiet, hushed spirits. Sometimes our singing can be about busywork, keeping our minds or bodies distracted from the quiet, still voice of the Spirit. I’ve had times when, in the middle of a song, I suddenly feel the need to stop and listen, and God says something to me that messes with me, be it through lyric, through melody, through an instrumental piece … if my mind does not quiet down (usually starting with my mouth), I miss what God is saying to me.

Some people don't sing because they are self-conscious. They know that there are lots of people out there - maybe (likely?) next to them in the pew - just waiting to judge them for their voice, the way they dress, and/or their commitment to God. So they don't sing; because, you know, why should I draw unnecessary attention to myself? I’ve been this person many times, worried what others around me would think if I tried a harmony from the pew and failed. And so I will say again what I said before: the haters aren’t worth your anxiety. For everyone else, only time and excellent hospitality will draw a song from their lips; when they realize that their pew-neighbors love them (maybe because of OR in spite of their voices; musical talent has very little to do with it), the masks will start to come away and the authentic self will start to emerge in the midst of the melodies.

Related to this: some choose not to sing out of guilt. Just as some choose to sing because others guilt them into it, others choose not to sing because they don't feel worthy of the words. They feel that they don't deserve to participate, either from the shame of ongoing sin or because of the pressure of the community around them to look perfect. But if there's anything we've seen so far, it is that nobody is perfect; everyone chooses to sing or not sing out of reasons related to their imperfect circumstances. In our singing, we have a chance to sing our way to a new way of living, and so if you find yourself caught up in guilt for something, singing will only help you move away from it. If anyone tells you you are not worthy of the music, they are lying to you; God loves you as you are and it is in the act of surrender that He begins to transform you - it won't happen without your permission. We are transformed because of God's love, not to earn it.

Some people don’t sing is because they’re in pain. For most of us who have gone through something hard, singing is suddenly not at the top of our lists. Many songs we choose to use in Church gatherings (regardless of style) focus on joy, happiness, the wonderful things that God has done. Rightfully so. But think for a moment; what music do YOU listen to when life is suffocating you? I know that “And Can it Be” and “One Thing Remains” (two of my favorites) are not on my list … I usually grab some John Mayer or Linkin Park or Evanescence … angry music. Music that expresses the dark insides of my current thoughts and emotions. Sometimes, people don’t sing because they just. can’t. do it.

It's hard to sing when you're holding back tears.

The lament is a lost art to the western mind; it doesn’t fit our cultural masks very well. When somebody says “hey, how are you?” our first reaction is always “great, how are you?” That should tell us something; it means we don’t like to look sad, or to be vulnerable. But when our emotions take such a beating that the mask starts to fail, with them, so will our voices. Which means that the rest of us need to sing all the louder for them, to lament on their behalf when words fail them, to surround them with the prayer of lyric and melody.

Let’s not give into the peer pressure to sing every note. It’s ok to not sing for a lot of reasons. Music is so powerful, don’t dishonor what God does through it. If God uses music to open your mouth in praise, sing with all your might. But if God uses music to shut your mouth to listen, don’t dishonor Him by opening it again anyway. Give grace to those around you who are not singing, remembering the times you too have been in their shoes. And sing all the louder, because somebody worked really hard to give you space to hear from God that morning.

Next time: what will help or hinder people to sing with those of us who lead?

November 24, 2014

Why People Sing on Sunday (Part 1)

There are still a lot of articles flying around right now about why people "aren’t singing" in churches since the last time I wrote on this. Some are wise to point out that the issue seems to be common to congregations regardless of style and thus must be something beyond that style. Go figure though, most blame modern music and all blame those of us who design and implement the worship gathering on behalf of our church families. It’s argued, not unsubtly, that people would only sing if we would just work harder.
 Speaking as one who works very hard to make each week a time where my congregation can engage God in song, in silence, and in scripture, it hurts to read these.

But it got me thinking, what about all the people who ARE singing?

I know for a fact that some people sing. Lots, even. Even the most irritatingly uninformed of these articles acknowledge that not EVERYONE is silent; some people actually do sing with the worship leaders. In the three churches I’ve pastored so far, and in the churches before that where I volunteered, lots of people sang with me when I led. Lots. I know, because I could see them, and I could even hear them sometimes over the sound of my crazy rock music and pumping organ. Seriously though, there are lots of reasons people sing.

For example …

Some people sing because they love the music. Shocking, I know, but if you hear a song you like, it’s hard not to sing along. Believe it or not, some people really like classic hymnody. Songs like “And Can it Be” and “Take My Life and Let it be Consecrated” move something inside of them. Other people can’t help singing along to songs like “Oceans” or “Build Your Kingdom Here” or a myriad of other modern pieces. Some people like both. Some people sing along to songs like “Santo Santo Eres” or “Vengan Sus Hijos.” Some sing songs with words like “Agnus dei” or “Kyrie,” though admittedly not many; it seems that truly good music doesn't have an expiration date, but sadly those who love it do (the melody of the Philippians 2 hymn is lost to us for this very reason). But in every culture, a different sort of music points people towards God and helps them worship Him in song. It’s ok to like a certain kind of music. Really, it’s ok! If you like modern music, awesome - lots of people do. If you like classical hymnody, awesome - lots of other people do. If you like hip hop, awesome - lots of people do. But whatever you happen to like, don’t say that someone else’s “lacks theological depth” when what you really mean is that you don’t like their style - honestly, you’re showing your own ignorance of their culture and not your own intellectual prowess.

Judgement happens in churches, believe it or not, and so unfortunately, some people sing out of guilt or peer pressure. They look around them and see everyone else is singing, and they either don’t want to stick out, or they don’t want someone to judge them for silence. But as we’ll see next time, the same people will judge them for singing as well. I wish there was something we could do about this. I pray that if you’re singing out of guilt or pressure the songs start to take root and you’re able to ignore the haters around you and sing with a newfound freedom. Honestly, the haters aren’t worth your anxiety; and if you need silence, take it.

Some people sing because they know it will help them change. Music can help us change our attitude in something called “action-reflection” learning. Basically, it means that we don’t feel like singing, but we sing anyway until we start to feel like singing. Think of a Sunday morning when the kids were awful or the drive to church was fraught with arguments and stress. You arrive, but your mind keeps going to that project at work you have to finish on Monday, or to the book the kids ripped before you left. So you arrive, and you just don’t feel like it, but the worship leader steps up to the mic and says “join me as we sing!” She sounds too chipper for how you feel, but you hear the melody and you start to sing. And sometimes, by the second or third song, you realize that you’ve released the anxiety of those things to God and you’ve been able to sing. It might not work for everyone, but if you haven’t had that experience, I suggest that you try it this week; you might be surprised at how God speaks to you through the music.

I saved the best for last though. I know it can be cliche, but Christians sing in the first place because the Spirit has moved them. Translated out of Christianese, God has done something in the lives of these people and they respond as so many before them - in song. Not a single culture is without music in some form, which means that music is the culturally universal way of expressing what’s happened inside of us, of expressing our hopes and dreams and fears and joys and sorrows. In response to God’s mercy, one thing Christians do is sing. Some people sing hymns. Some people sing rock ballads. Some people sing along with a banjo (though for the life of me I don’t know why). Some people sing in amelodic rhythmic percussion (beatbox, hip hop, rap - yes it is music, even if you don’t like it). Some people sing without words. Some people sing with only words (a capella). Though the method and the words may differ, they all sing in response to the mercy they’ve been offered. In the words of an old spiritual, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free” … They’re forgiven, and they know it.

So they sing.

Next time, we’ll talk about why someone might choose not to sing. Stay tuned …

November 3, 2014

Vertigo

I was laid flat with vertigo most of the day on Friday. It started around 4am, when I woke up suddenly feeling like I was spinning around on a centrifuge, burning up and freezing at the same time. If I lay really still, I almost felt normal, but that illusion would disappear as soon as I’d either open my eyes or move my head slightly. Then, I’d see the room start sliding one direction or the other, usually towards the left, and as I closed them again, I’d feel like I was back in the centrifuge.

Oddly enough, I never actually threw up.

The little semicircular canals in the middle ear are the bits that aid with balance (or, as wikipedia calls it, “equilibrioception”); they’re our own personal gyroscopes. Mine are known, in my family, for their hypersensitivity - they’re just the worst. Because of this, I’ve thrown up in multiple states and countries on multiple vacations, making my family miserable because I got car sick at inopportune times (although, really, IS there an opportune time?). But this time I didn’t. And the reason might actually be the fact that I AM so sensitive - because I’ve been through this before. Sometimes, my ears just don’t tell me what’s really going on, a fact of which I’ve become acutely aware. I know and accept that my ears are not infallible, and have often failed me, causing my body to do things it really shouldn’t (like vomiting, which is just about the worst feeling ever). Even as I lay in bed, it occurred to me that, though my eyes told me otherwise, my wife couldn’t possibly be walking around the apartment unless it really wasn’t rotating in three simultaneous directions.

What we think we’re experiencing isn’t always what’s real. When the world feels like it’s spinning out of control, it might be that whatever we’re using to measure that or experience that is actually broken and needs fixing. “We do not lose heart,” Paul writes; “though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Peel back the layers, he says, and there’s always way more going on that you can’t see. Sometimes what’s going on right in front of you isn’t what you think; sometimes, what you think you see or hear isn’t really there (or sometimes something is there you don’t think you see); sometimes, your body or your mind betray you; sometimes, your senses are wrong.

It takes courage to see this.

How many of us, when the world feels like it's warped and twisted into unrecognizably dizzying shapes, have tried to lay still just to make the hurting stop? Change can render the best of us inert, frozen, unable to move in the direction we've been called because it can be so disorienting. Our collective senses are designed for what’s right in front of us, which means we’ve been built to trust God for the rest of the story, for the things that haven’t yet happened. 

When I'm a passenger in a car, and I find that we're starting to pull a bunch of hair-pin turns through canyons or mountains, I've discovered that the best place to focus is not on the road in front of me, but on the road far ahead. When I keep my eyes focused on the bigger perspective of my orientation to the end, rather than the spinning and bouncing of the now, I survive the lurching feeling of a car that feels out of control. Dizziness still happens, because the windy road I'm driving must still stay in my peripheral vision, but it's manageable; I can still make it to where I'm going. In our spiritual vertigo, the things of the now can be deceptive if we try to forecast them forward; only God sees the bigger picture, and so we must trust that God is working for the redemption of this world. This is why we’re so often told to focus on the end-game of the Kingdom, and not to focus on the short-term wins and losses. Things of the past can point us towards this reality - the incarnation, the cross and resurrection, and the many times in our personal histories and in our world’s history when God came through for His creation.

But once again, this is why it is called “faith” - we can walk, even run, despite that our eyes sometimes say the ground is missing and our ears tell us that we're falling, spinning out of control. If we're running where God is leading, our feet will always find purchase, though 'purchase' may look very different than we might expect. When the world begins falling apart, we'll survive the hairpin turns when our eyes strain to see what God sees: 

redemption, restoration, and a Kingdom that will never end.

October 6, 2014

Whatever

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” — Leonardo DaVinci


There’s some part of every artist that will never be happy with the status quo. Every artist I’ve ever met has issues with dissatisfaction and perfectionism - nothing will ever be quite … done for us. There’s always one extra edit to make, one more smear of paint to add, one more rehearsal to perfect that one phrase, one more paragraph to add. It’s a temperament that has served artists well for a long time - we improve our craft and produce our best art when we obsess, not only over the big picture, but also over the details. Like many things, however, such a strength can also be an achilles heel; spend too much time on something, and other projects, family, housework, even health will all suffer. At some point, we need to put the brush down, call it “done” (or at least, “as done as it can get”) and move on. If we abandon ourselves to obsession over one piece, we’ll never make anything new.

I’m finding, though, that this same thing is true - for myself, at least - when starting art. I know what good writing or photography looks like, what good music sounds like, and so if I don’t feel like I have it within me that day to craft a fantastic blog post or an excellent essay or a beautiful song, I somehow get it in my head that it’s best not to even start;

Why waste the time producing sub-par material?

Cue writer’s block.

There are a few things colliding here. The aforementioned obsession with perfection is obviously a major contributor; I want to make the best thing, but I want to make it right from the start. Which is the second element: we Americans are, for some reason or other, also obsessed with efficiency. We’re very bad at lingering, at taking the long way around, because our cultural narrative of production demands that if we think we have time to take the long way, we could probably take the short way twice and thereby produce more. I’ve written before about our culture’s desire to produce as much as possible, and while we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far the other way (we do need to make something or else we won’t be able to survive), creativity often comes from the times of disruption, silence, quiet, lingering, and seeming inefficiency.

Which means that sometimes, when I find myself in a rut and unable to start, I’m finding that it’s good to do something totally inefficient. Last night, for example, after dinner I pulled out my pastels (for the first time in a long time) and simply blended color together on blank pages in my notebook. My seven year old kept asking what I was drawing. When I told her that I was just making color, she looked confused, insisting that this must be a tree or something (Rorschach was a genius, by the way). In truth, I was just burning up pastels to see what might come out of it. I wasn’t making “something;” I was making anything, or more accurately, I was making “whatever” - flexing my mind to see which direction it might bend. You might call it artistic calisthenics; other art forms often inspire our primary form simply because they pull us away from our patterns and help us try new things.

Sometimes, change for the sake of change is actually a good, healthy thing. I don’t actually like doing it, personally - I like my patterns, my habits, my routines. But if I stick to them as if they’re the point, I end up leading a stale life, and my writing, my leadership, my music, and even my parenting ends up sort of … blah. Lifeless. Inert. Lacking flavor.

Lives lived well - lives in which God is working, lives that are works of art - will always need to experience new things, learn new ideas, try new activities, go new places, and at least occasionally, break their routines in order for God to work. It is true that God works in many routines - of gathering and sending, of daily prayer, of sunrise and sunset - but it’s just as true that God works by breaking those same routines - retreats, camps, fasting, celebrations, vacations, even weekly sabbath to break the rhythms of work.

I had a professor once who told me that he felt like his teaching was stale for a while, but couldn’t figure out why. And then he realized that he’d been telling the same stories over and over again; he start teaching, and then one day it had suddenly been five years since he’d told a new story to his classes. He’d gotten so used to telling the stories he’d collected that he’d forgotten to make new stories to tell. He was no longer modeling the life he was trying to teach because he’d gotten sucked into teaching the life in a classroom. 

If you think about it, a routine is like telling the same story over and over and over again, and one day we wake up and realize that it’s been years since we told a new story, that everyone around us has tuned out because they’ve heard that one about a thousand times. You might say that our salt loses its saltiness. So if you’re like me and have a tendency to get sucked into your routine, be brave and try something new. Go to a different restaurant for lunch this week, or take a different route home from work, try holding your pen a different way. It doesn’t matter what, but do something NEW! Don’t let your story get so routine that you forget to tell it!

After all, your life could be a work of art, and art is never finished, 

only abandoned.

September 30, 2014

Mountains

Did you know that not all the scriptures started out written? Some were only written down after they had been oral tradition. And did you know that the new testament was written in a form of common Greek, but in the documents we still have, there are no spaces, no lowercase letters, and no punctuation?

I mean, can you imagine?

Let's eat Grandma.
vs.
Let's eat, Grandma.

Like the t-shirt says, punctuation saves lives.

So too with context. Context is a big deal. Without context, we are left to interpret things however we feel. So when I notice the mountains that Matthew uses in his account of Jesus' life and ministry, I should start paying attention. The details are important.

Mountains, for the Hebrews, were focal points. Throughout Israel's history, all the important stuff happened on mountains. Abraham's son Isaac was spared on Mount Moriah. Moses received the ten commandments and the Law from God on Mount Sinai. David encountered an angel on a threshing floor on the peak of a mountain. Mountains are woven into the fabric of Hebrew culture. So when we read that Jesus went up onto the side of a mountain in Matthew 5, we should pay close attention to what he's about to say.

Because, for the Hebrews, mountains ("the high places") were where God revealed Himself to His people.

In Genesis 22, God reveals himself to be nothing like the gods of the surrounding culture by providing a substitute sacrifice for Isaac; He is a god who will not forsake His people. In Exodus 20, God reveals that He cares about the welfare of His people, that they rest, that they not take advantage of others, that they respect the lives and property of their neighbors.

There are at least five mountains mentioned in Matthew's gospel; where he feeds four thousand, the mount of transfiguration, Golgotha, the mountain of the great commission ... and of course, this other time, Jesus walks up on a mountain; the one who John calls the Word Incarnate; the one who Matthew calls "God with us." And He begins to teach.

Matthew's saying, Jesus is about to say something important,

So pay attention.

September 23, 2014

Traditionol

I saw a cartoon once with this simple caption: “Every year American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of baby boomers’ childhoods.” I found it a profound insight.

Tradition is a big deal pretty much everywhere you go, but nowhere else is it more revered than in religious settings. We like our traditions; the lights and greenery of the Christmas season, the parades on July 4 and Memorial day, that one special place every summer. For years before we moved out of Rochester, my wife and I would go to a sushi place called “California Rollin’” on our anniversary and our birthdays. It was our family tradition. We still go when we visit family there, as much for the nostalgia as for the food. Traditions can be true and deep and meaningful and - dare I say it - even holy.

There are two challenges, however, with tradition. The first is environmental: the world is not a static place, but rather, our environment is dynamic, always changing; jobs change, weather changes, economies rise and fall, friends come and go, people are born and people pass away … nothing stays as it is for long. Our traditions are subject to the movement of the world around us, now more than ever. The second is cultural: what one person considers a wonderful tradition is often unappealing for another. Some prefer the brightness of lights and lasers at Christmas, others prefer the darkness of a candle-lit sanctuary. Some prefer to rock around their Christmas tree, others prefer a silent night. We start to argue about making sure we “keep the tradition” and blacklist anyone who would dare suggest we try something new - they’re troublemakers up to no good, and no good will come of their antics. And we forget that our tradition was, at one time, not the way it was always done.

At some point, the tradition was new.

Traditions were not always "the way it is," but rather came from somewhere for a purpose. We create a rhythm with traditions; the rhythm is a reminder, a symbol of something deep and meaningful. Sometimes we can keep those traditions fresh and new, ever-imbued with deep meaning. I’d put “Silent Night” by candlelight into this category. It began a long time ago, when a German pastor needed music for guitar when his organ wasn't working. But it has evolved; every year it takes on a new meaning for me and many, many others; sometimes because of the peaceful tranquility of the soft music, sometimes because of the communal act of creating light and song together, sometimes just simply because it’s so darn pretty to see an entire room lit only with candles. It’s done every year on purpose, for good reasons, though we’d be remiss not to recognize that not everybody actually enjoys this.

All traditions, though, are created for a season, for a culture, and when they have run their course, when the world changes and more people come from other cultures with other traditions, everybody’s traditions change. Just like Silent Night, at some point, got charted out for organ or piano or cello or Orchestra, despite that it began as a song for guitar. And it’s ok - we can help each other create new traditions for a new season in a new time and place.

But “Traditionol” (now with fresh citrus flavor!) is a drug that promises, for many, to make it all better, as if going back to old faithful really will change the outcome. Despite a change in the environment or culture, despite the differences in traditions across a group of people, we often fight to keep the way it’s been done for the status quo, because the status quo always feels safer. Coincidentally, that’s also the definition of insanity: you are currently doing, as they say, exactly what it takes to get the results you are currently getting, and to expect new results by continuing this same course is simply lunacy.

Sometimes traditions continue only because that’s the way we do it; we can’t remember a good reason to do it beyond “that’s the way we always do it” or “we like it that way.” Sometimes we go so far as to make our traditions into dogma to be enforced on others as the right way, the only way; despite that those traditions were created for a positive purpose, to foster greater understanding and connection with others, along the way we lost the vision. That is when a tradition becomes the addictive and yet repressive traditionol: when we no longer understand why we should do it, but rather only know that we can’t and won’t stop; when we can't find a good reason to continue other than "because that's how we've always done it."

And so sometimes, sometimes the best thing to do is to let a tradition die.

That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a good thing, a helpful thing, a beautiful and true thing in ages past. Traditions often endure precisely because they have been filled with great meaning and beauty. It simply means that it has served its higher purpose and now, something new is needed. Sometimes, to keep a tradition from becoming traditionol, we need to let it die, and in its death we allow it to birth new traditions for a new time and a new culture. To let it die can actually honor that tradition far more than forcing it to try to keep on living; there is no life in a zombie.

So remember it fondly, as a good thing, as something that blessed many. And then start over with all the creativity we can find, and from the charcoal of the old, the whisper of the new is born.

This post was originally run on December 30, 2011 on this blog and has been edited for content.

September 16, 2014

Bricks

"You're a very useful engine, Thomas.”

Did you ever watch that show? I mean, really watch it, not just occasionally catch few lines while your kids soaked it up in the background. It's about an island full of living trains who are slaves suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and are self-defined by whether or not they're useful to a dictatorial (human) conductor. Ok, I know, it’s not technically the intent of the show’s creators, but when I’ve been forced to endure the cliches of so much children’s programming, what's a guy to do? But that’s the line that stuck out to me, one that’s repeated over and over again: “you’re a very useful engine” is what we hear when Thomas does something good.

I’ve had a hard time finding words again lately, and I have a feeling it's directly related to the fact that I've been busy with all the preparations that come with launching ministries in the fall season. When my hands get busy with tasks, my mind doesn't wander to words the way it needs to in order to write, but rather, my mind gets caught up worrying that I won’t get everything done. And I will confess, this has bothered me a lot more than I may care to admit. I get anxious when I don’t have time to write because I love the process of writing and reflection that it requires, a process that is enjoyable and intense all at the same time. But sometimes I start thinking about blogging experts I’ve read, who say that I'll lose readers if I don't keep posts coming with some regularity (because this would be a travesty).

And in my most honest moments, I worry that I'm not producing enough.

In the book of Exodus, the Hebrew people travel through the wilderness quite a distance. They’ve seen the miracles of the plagues, Pharaoh suddenly deciding to let them go, then changing his mind and in the resulting pursuit, the parting of the red sea, manna available every day … and eventually find themselves camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai. God gives them the ten commandments, but then the author records these few verses:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”  [Exodus 20:18-20]
Don’t be afraid, God is testing you?

We’ve all been trained to worry about testing; it always means we’re being evaluated and judged, and the resulting possibility of failure often produces such anxiety that our odds of failure actually increase. But here, Moses says it like it’s supposed to be reassuring, even hopeful. The tragedy of their slavery in Egypt was not just that many Hebrews died making bricks for an oppressive power. The tragedy was that, upon finding their miraculous freedom, the former slaves sought to cling to the life of slavery out of their anxiety of making choices on their own.

In slavery, every choice is made for you on pain of death, and so the ‘right’ choice often feels obvious. As a slave, then, your whole life is not really your own; it is being directed by someone else who generally does not have your best interests in mind. The self-determination that comes with living a freed life feels distant, unfamiliar. And upon attaining this freedom, the unknown territory of the new can be so scary that we long for the familiar routines of slavery - they’re not actually good for us, but they often sound better than being responsible for our own choices and our own existence.

To the point, look at how many times in the wilderness the Hebrews complained about their circumstances and ask to return to Egypt - the occasions are numerous. But this is the very reason the Hebrews spent so much time in the wilderness - they were not yet ready for the responsibility required to live in the promised land. They were proverbial children who had to re-learn how to make good choices as a community. And so God started them all over again in the wilderness with basic survival; ‘depend on me,’ he said, and over the course of many years - a whole generation, really - worked the slave mentality out of their culture. That is why we ought not be afraid of testing;

it’s what keeps us from thinking that making bricks for somebody else is our only purpose.

To put it another way, what if this testing is God’s way of helping us grow? Paul says that if God is for us - and that he is - who could possibly stand against us? What if testing isn’t like taking an exam, but is more like refining impurities because God loves us so much that he wants us to be better than we are now? The first thing God did with these ten commandments was to create a rhythm of life for the Hebrew people to limit the bad habits they’d accumulated in slavery - loving other gods, fighting over each others’ property, lying or murdering to cover it up, etc. In short, these rules were created to help them learn to get along with God and with one another, to trust one another, to live a sustainable life, not just make brick after brick as if they were merely the sum of what they produced.

They were no longer slaves to their labor, no longer merely ‘useful engines’; they began to live as children of a God who loved them.

They’re not the only ones who need to learn this lesson. We too often behave as slaves. For some, like me, it’s finding identity in making writing-bricks or checking off task-bricks. For others, bricks look more like finding an identity in a business or possessions or in influence or in sexuality or intellect or even in family. Bad things happen, and while many (most?) of them have nothing to do with God, I believe he allows some to happen because we often get confused about who we are and need our brains reoriented. Some hard things aren’t persecution, they’re lessons to be learned. We must stop living into our identities as victims of circumstances we cannot control and start taking responsibility for the choices we can make ourselves.

Stop trying to be a useful engine; you’re not just someone’s brick-maker.

You’re a child of God.

May you live as one.

September 12, 2014

Sustainable

My time as a church-planter living in Australia back in 2006 changed my outlook on a lot of things, most of them positive. I got to learn from some pretty big names in the missional church world, to experience what missional Christianity (or, as I call it, “Christianity”) can be like first-hand, and I got to learn by doing. My theology was radically challenged for the better, and even learned a few new fun words like “liminality” and “contextualization” and “knickers” (although that last one may only have been because I was in Australia).

But I nearly didn’t go into worship ministry after - because of - my time there.

Nobody could adequately answer for me what place a worship gathering - and by extension, those who design them - had in this brave new/ancient missional paradigm. What was one to do with a “worship service” in the life of a “sent” church? Put another way, if we’re people engaged in God’s mission to build the Kingdom of God by serving the weak and oppressed, the alien and the widow, the gentile, with all the different sort of social and financial pressures associated with that, why would we selfishly spend that money and time and social capital on a pastor to “lead worship” or on a building in which to gather when those things, historically, have been the central problems for consumeristic Christianity? Don’t the really spiritual people move to the slums or the inner city or overseas? Or, if you’re less spiritual, shouldn’t you stay in your suburban neighborhood and have deep meaningful conversations over (free-trade, organic) coffee with your neighbors and eventually all sell most of your stuff and start have a communal garden and share your yard equipment and give your excess money to the poor? Isn’t that true spirituality? Isn’t music a luxury, not a necessity?

In light of the world’s crazy issues, why bother singing together when we could be out serving?

I felt so guilty for feeling called to worship ministry. But the Calling wouldn’t go away.

Because the answer is no: gathering together is not optional, nor is music a luxury. In fact, good music, well-led music, intentionally missional music is a necessity. Not a single culture is without music because our music (and really, all art) is a vessel for our identity. Who we are can be found in our music, but more importantly, it can shape who we must become. What we sing together helps us form our individual and collective identities - we also become what we sing. Which means that, if we are the sent people of God, we had better sing songs together of our identity as sent children of a creative God, of the mission, of the Kingdom the mission is building.

Here’s the rub: if we stop singing, all the conferences and free-trade coffee and money given to the poor with good intentions and service opportunities will eventually dry up. People without art in their lives become bitter, and bitter people stop making good choices and certainly don’t help others see the Kingdom. Good music isn’t simply a consumable good; our music can also keep us focused on the the vision, who we are, how we must then act. Without that inspiration, without the ear worm reminding us why we do what we do, without the language to express our joys and frustrations, our work will become stale and eventually slow or even cease.

True, investing in all that is required to have a good worship ministry is not “efficient,” but that which is of the Kingdom of God rarely is. The Kingdom is not brought about by some western business model, it’s a way of life made sustainable by (mostly) small choices that add up. And it's in creating and curating intentional space that worship pastors help people to first be, rather than do, so that we can then go. It's that space that makes this new/ancient missional way sustainable. And one of the centers of that space is music.

Don't stop singing.

August 26, 2014

Sloppy

A few days ago, my youngest daughter, who’s 18 mos. old, came up to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. And not just any kiss, she really planted it on there, and afterwards, I had to wipe soggy goldfish crumbs off of my face. As a parent, I know that this comes with the territory, and so far from being offended by the goo, I felt loved by my daughter. And it brought to mind a line from one of my favorite songs:

"and then heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss …"

I find this line brilliant, both in the poetry and in the theology. Good relationships, like the ones Jesus describes (for family and for friends), are like this - vulnerable, messy, honest. My daughter doesn’t feel the need to pretend around me or anybody else because she’s not yet learned betrayal, or contempt, or any of the other experiences that lead to the masks that we create for ourselves to hide from others. Good relationships are about removing those masks again and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, raw, honest … in spite of and because of and through the mess. 

Heaven met earth not in a showdown of power, but in these raw, vulnerable, messy places. … like the innocence of a kid planting a sloppy wet goldfishy kiss on the cheek of her father, or like the buzzy razz I gave my daughter after she kissed me. I know some people don’t like that line because it seems too awkward, too raw, too much like a teenager kissing a first date, and so they replace this phrase with “unforeseen kiss.” But I think that misses the point altogether; Jesus knew exactly what He was doing when He came to earth - the prophets told of His coming - so there was nothing “unforeseen” about it. It’s not a phrase about romance; it’s a phrase about vulnerability and pure, unadulterated joy. And so that’s why I use the original version, because when I hear that phrase, I’m reminded that there’s something elegantly simple and yet infinitely deep about the way God loves us.

How he loves us so …

August 22, 2014

Object Lesson

There are things that you are, and things that you are not. 

You are not an animal that devours others. You are not at the mercy of your urges, be they biological or emotional. You are not merely a sexual being, nor are you merely a robot for production; you are far more. You are not a piece of meat and metal available for consumption by others, for their visual or tactile or emotional pleasure. You are not an object to be moved around by the flights and fancy of those who see you as one. You are not meant to be the object of fantasy, nor are you to treat others as the objects of fantasy.

Hear it again: you are not an object.

And you are not alone.

You are free, or rather, you have been freed. Not by yourself or for yourself, but with others and for others. You are capable of beautiful dreams, of creativity and compassion and empathy, of generosity and gentleness, of self-control and mercy. You are capable of dependence on one greater than yourself, for it is not under your own power or authority, but under the One who has freed you.

You are part of a community, whether you know it or not. You are the son, daughter, child, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousin, granddaughter, or grandson of another human being. And you must always remember to look at others in that same way; don't look at them, see them. There is more to you than the way others describe you. You are loved without hesitation or condition. And you are given the task of loving others likewise.

You are a child of God.

Today, and the day after that, and the day after that, from now forward, you are Eschat Chayil (woman of valor) and Ish Gibor Chayil (mighty man of valor). May you live up to that name! May it become your identity, child of God. May you live out of what you are, instead of what you are not. May it inspire you forward, carry you through the times when encouragement is sparse, and overflow into others in times of plenty. May others catch your enthusiasm, be it a vociferous shout or a quiet confidence. And may you tell this story others, and so doing, draw them into the ekklesia, the community of the freed.

August 19, 2014

Activate

Believe it or not, more energy is wasted turning on lightbulbs than it takes to simply leave them on. The energy required to activate the reaction of a burning element inside the lightbulb is much greater than the energy it takes to sustain that same reaction of the element burning. The extra power it takes to start the reaction is called ‘activation energy.’ 

Chemistry is a scientific discipline all about getting one thing to turn into another thing at the most fundamental level. This happens in “reactions,” which sometimes means adding heat, sometimes requires the presence of other substances to start the reaction, and other times simply requires lots of time. Most of the time, it means all three. And at the end of the reaction, there will always be a product and some waste. To make things more complicated, in the real world, as soon as you change one thing, the products and by-products of that reaction will change their surroundings, and you may get secondary or even chain reactions that you didn’t expect. 

The same is true for implementing change.

When we start new ministries or change existing ministries at a fundamental level, it will always require activation energy. We’ll need more time, usually more financial resources (buying that curriculum, advertising, equipment, whatever), and of course, additional people to get things up and running. Sometimes this will mean being willing to add more stuff to an already busy schedule for a little while (if it’s truly activation energy, it should calm down after it gets started).

Then, when we decide to implement that change, we have to be willing to pay the price of the by-products and the chain-reactions. That means also being willing to lose some of the stuff we had from before that no longer fits the new vision (events, old equipment, etc.) - good things, valuable things! And, speaking of valuable things, it usually means being willing to lose a few people who just can’t get behind the change. It doesn’t mean they are any less followers of Jesus, it simply means they might better align their gifts or resources with another part of God’s vision elsewhere.

It will never be a question of “if” change, but rather of “what” and “when” and “how” change. God is a God of creation and of creativity, which means He’s always starting new things, re/making things new one at a time, and what’s more, the world around us is also always changing. Whether or not we’re ready - to use another metaphor - are we willing to hoist our sails into the winds of God’s Spirit and follow? Are we listening to the Spirit who moves to new horizons? Are we willing to put more of our resources and effort into activating new ministries in response to a changing world (and let others die) if that’s where God is going?

August 15, 2014

On Ravens and Writing Desks

“You should learn not to make personal remarks,” Alice said with some severity, “it's very rude.”
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. ‘I’m glad they've begun asking riddles.’—“I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.
“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ’I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
“It IS the same thing with you,” said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn't much.
Words matter.

We can choose how we shape our words. The right choice of words can open up untold worlds of possibilities; they can free slaves, bring lovers together, and spur young minds to change the world. The wrong words, on the other hand, can be devastating; they can start wars, objectify and abuse the vulnerable, and cause the fear-filled oppression of millions.

The apostle James said that our words can be like freshwater, giving life, or like saltwater, tainting it. Saltwater words manipulate, deceive, create fear, because salt water words are, at their core, entirely interested in the self. Saltwater words are about gathering power over others, power to influence, power to control. Saltwater words are inconsistent with one another, for they are meant to manipulate others, and instead of bearing truth, they are at most full of half-truths.

You see, saltwater words say one thing and do another. Freshwater words, the words of life, are consistent with action, with the way you live your life. But the thing is, sometimes they can be the

exact

same

words.

The difference is consistency. The difference is intent. It is no coincidence that earlier, in chapter one, James connected freshwater words to serving orphans, widows, and the poor. Freshwater words breathe *life* into others. This is the very essence of the Kingdom: life.

Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

Live your words.