Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Worship, Songwriting and Context

I recently listened to the audiobook How Music Works by David Byrne (former lead singer of Talking Heads). He offered an interesting insight into an aspect of songwriting that most folks don’t pay much attention to on a conscious level - context. He noted that for hundreds of years music in the west was confined to major types of scales because the music was predominately played in the context of Cathedrals with reverb times of 4+ seconds. Major scales would ensure that there would be no dissonance, no clashing notes. As a result we in the west have come to associate certain types of music that follow that type of approach as sounding “spiritual”, though for those in Africa or Asia “spiritual” sounding music would sound very different (there would be no sentimentality towards major scales with reverb). Byrne notes how when the Talking Heads first started making music in the mid seventies their regular gig was at CBGB’s, New York City. The club had a much tighter acoustics which in turn influenced how the band both played and wrote songs (early Talking Heads music was very tight and uncluttered sonically).   

I think David Byrne is on to something here. As I reflect on my own journey of songwriting I can see how I have both written songs from and for a certain context and how I have also written songs for an imagined context. The first Delirious album that really moved me in a powerful way was Live and In the Can. I remember watching videos of the band from that era playing in front of thousands in Wimbly Stadium, London. It was like a full on stadium rock concert but it was worship! I remember how that influenced the way I had been writing songs a bit, though at the time I was unaware on a conscious level. I began writing songs with more driving beats and bigger choruses (the kinds that thousands could sing in unison like at a U2 concert). I could imagine thousands of people singing these choruses in unison and it was glorious (at least in my mind). I think what I was experiencing was actually pretty common among worship leaders and songwriters at the time.

Though I have only been a part of the Vineyard (at least attending Vineyard churches) since 2002 I can see how context has been a part of the songwriting process since the beginning. I suspect that one of the reasons Vineyard was on the forefront of worship led on acoustic guitars had to do with the contexts of home groups, coffee houses, and small churches in the mid to late 70s. Then as Wimber began doing many more conferences the sound of Vineyard worship music began to get bigger to match the venues. The rise of megachurches and huge conferences across the country has had a major influence on the types of songs written and sung in churches for the last 20 years. I figure that most of the top worship songs today are probably written for a context of thousands singing in a large venue. While there is nothing wrong with writing songs with large venues in mind, I have, on occasion, experienced the frustration of doing anthemic rock worship songs in an early morning service of 20 people and seen them go over like a turd in a punch bowl. 

The church I pastor recently began having two Sunday gatherings which meant that our crowd of 100-140 adults has been roughly split in half (actually we have had a drop in overall attendance since we went to 2 services). The energy in the room has been noticeably lower which effects not only crowd participation but even the energy of the band a bit. So in thinking through these concepts a bit I emailed the worship team the other day saying that for the next month (at least) we will try and lead worship that takes our current context into consideration a bit more. For the next month we will be doing songs on mainly acoustic instruments (no electric guitars, keyboards or drum sets). This will force us towards simpler arrangements and less dynamics in the sound but will also connect in what I envision as a more intimate way of worship for our more intimate context. I think this could be a way of incarnation ministry, stepping into the community to serve folks where they are rather than imposing something that doesn’t quite fit. I am looking forward to how we can sing and write songs with our new context in mind so as to engage the community in a fresher way. I will update everyone on how this goes in a few weeks.

A couple of questions:
How have you experienced leading songs that didn’t fit the context of the space/community you were leading in worship?

For those who are songwriters, how do you think context has influenced the songs you have written?

Monday, October 12, 2015

I Feel Indignation Therefore I Am

Ranting about political issues feels good.  It almost feels like actually doing something about said issues. The truth is that most of us only have a very small realm in this world where we can make a difference. Let not our feelings about issues distract us from the ways that we can truly live out goodness in our everyday lives. I can’t change the world but just maybe I can live out a different sort of life in my small place in this world today.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Trouble in Mind, Dealing With Laments in Scripture

As one who has had the opportunity to preach/teach most weekends for almost 6 years now I decided to shake things up in the material we dig into on the weekends by using the Revised Common Lectionary for the passages in our Sunday services.  The Revised Common Lectionary is basically a collection of scripture readings that follow the church calendar and covers much of the Bible in a 3 year period. Why this shakes things up a bit for me is that it causes me to deal with passages that I would not normally choose if I was simply doing a topical series or teaching through a book of the Bible of my choice. Two of the passages for this weekend - Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-5 are definitely passages I’d rather not try to teach mainly because they seem so utterly hopeless.  As I wrestle through these laments I am reminded of a couple of things.

  1. The Psalms as a place of intercession - In Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God, The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, he notes that the practice of praying the Psalms will often move us into passages that do not speak to us as individuals at all. This is no doubt a byproduct of our way of reading the Bible which only values the way it speaks to us in our own personal relationship with God. But Peterson sees these passages as a great place to enter into the suffering of others through prayer. So, for instance, the passages I mentioned above don’t really speak to the realities in my life at the moment but they do speak to the realities of friends of mine who are facing terminal illness, unemployment, and loss of loved ones.  So one approach to these types of passages is that they can create a space for intercession when they don’t speak directly to us. So for this Sunday I may set aside a time for folks to write down prayers for others who are going through very difficult times.  
  2. Singing the blues so the blues don’t get on you - I heard an interview with an old bluesman recently where he talked about the function of blues music. He basically said that you sing the blues so that the blues don’t get on you and take you down. I think that blues music is the closest thing that we have in the modern world to the laments of the Psalms (and Job). Blues songs rarely end with any type of resolve and yet they oddly don’t seem without hope. There is something about vocalizing and naming the pain, the frustration, the sadness that actually works to push back the clouds a bit. There’s an old blues song called Trouble in Mind that has been covered countless times by the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Snooks Eaglin to Nina Simone and Sam Cooke. It very much reminds me of the types of sentiments in the passages for this week:
Trouble in mind, I'm blue
But I won't be blue always,
'cause the sun's gonna shine
In my backdoor some day.

I'm all alone at midnight
And my lamp is burnin' low
Ain't never had so much
Trouble in my life before.

Trouble in mind, that's true
I have almost lost my mind,
Life ain't worth livin,
Sometimes I feel like dyin’.

Goin' down to the river
Gonna take my ol' rockin' chair
And if the blues don't leave me
I'll rock away from there.

I'm gonna lay my head down
On some lonesome railroad line
And let the two nineteen
Pacify my mind.

Well it's trouble, oh trouble
Trouble on my worried mind,
When you see me laughin'
I'm laughin' just to keep from cryin’.

3. Laments give us permission to be honest with our feelings - For so many years of my Christian journey I would hide negative feelings and try to push past pain, grief and sadness. This was partly due to the types of churches I initially attended as a new Christian. I remember looking around at folks on Sundays and feeling like a complete failure because it seemed everybody had it all together. It wasn’t until I attended my first Vineyard Worship Leader Retreat back in 2003 (I think) that I really began to hear folks being honest about their struggles and hardships. And what that did for me was give me permission to be honest about my struggles, failures and disappointments. The passages for this weekend allow us a great place to communicate to people that “you are not alone” and it is okay to feel frustrated with your circumstances and with God right now because you stand in line of a tradition going back thousands of years of people who have felt and expressed the same feelings.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Why I Don't Blog Much Anymore

For many years I was blogging on a pretty regular basis, but in the past couple of years it has dwindled down to just a handful of posts a year.  There is a reason for this, or should I say a few reasons for this:  

First off, I find that it is easier to have conversations on issues via social media than on blog comments.  The conversational aspect of social media can be much more stimulating than the blog comment/response format (though it can frequently get pretty ugly as well). 

Secondly, if I am being honest, I have to admit that I am just not disciplined enough to take the time it takes to write something of the level of quality that would justify a blog post.  Over the years my best posts have often taken several hours and gone through multiple revisions before I published them. Though I would like to be disciplined enough to devote time to quality posts, I have dedicated that time to other important activities like watching Netflix.  

Thirdly, the more I read and learn, the less confident I am that I have anything unique to say that isn’t already being said better somewhere else. I don’t think this will always be the case. In fact I hope to someday write a book when I am a little older and wiser. 

Finally, I don’t blog much anymore because I got tired of having to have an opinion on every issue and to voice it publicly while the issue was hot.  I think this is the worst kind tyranny that bloggers face. When stories break about racial violence, corrupt politicians, terrorism, Monsanto, police brutality, moral issues, fallen church leaders etc. I have knee jerk opinions like everybody else. However, I have come to learn that my knee jerk reactions are often not the most insightful ways to deal with issues in a way that will bring justice, healing and reconciliation. With many of the hot button issues in our world today I find that it takes me many days or even weeks of reading, prayer, and dialogue with others who are connected to the issues to get to a point where I can genuinely speak something of grace and truth into a situation. The tyranny of having to voice one’s opinion on every hot button issue is something that is not terribly helpful to me at this point in life. I admit that I am a very opinionated person, but I want to be a more thoughtful person particularly when it comes to how I communicate. I want to be the type of person that communicates in a way that doesn’t just stir up controversy but invites people in to conversation where we can all learn something from each other. While there are bloggers out there that do this, many are simply writing from a reactionary place. Reactionary blogs get lots of traffic but I am not sure that our world is a better place because of them. 

So for now my blog will limp along with a post or two every few months but it’s not because I don’t like blogging, it’s just that I need to find what I want to say and how to say it better.  

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Image of God at the Heart of Religious Violence

It seems every day that we are confronted with news of horrible acts of terror and destruction perpetrated by people who claim to follow God.  For months now groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have captured global attention with their sadistic version of Islam that has led them to brutally execute and enslave people of various groups, even other Muslims.  But it’s not just Islamic extremists who are engaging in violence in the name of God.  I just read a heartbreaking article today about Christianmilitias in the Central African Republic who are engaging in brutal acts against Muslims to the extent that there are now 50,000 Muslims who are fleeing the country rather than face being hacked up with machetes by Christians.

Here in America Evangelicals are more and more frequently calling for the U.S. to wage war against ISIS.  This week I watched a video clip from Pastor Robert Jefress, Dallas First Baptist, who somehow twisted the teachings of Jesus on being salt and light into a justification of why we need to go to war in the name of Jesus. 

While I agree with the desire to protect the innocent and to stand up to evil, I am very disturbed by how easily American Christians are willing to appeal to Jesus as a justification to use violence against other religious groups.  It seems to me that as much as American Evangelicals may hate what ISIS is doing, their answer as to how to deal with ISIS is simply to answer violence with violence, hate with hate, and destruction with destruction, and all of this from the moral high ground that God is on OUR side.  Though this way of responding to tyrannical groups may make sense in terms of national defense, this position cannot be defended by way of the example or teachings of Jesus.

As New Testament Scholar Richard Hays has noted,
“From Matthew to Revelation we find a consistent witness against violence and a calling to the community to follow the example of Jesus in accepting suffering rather than inflicting it … Nowhere does the New Testament provide any positive model of Jesus or his followers employing violence in defense of justice.” 

I am becoming more and more convinced that much of what is called Christianity in modern America is little more than tribalism, nationalism, and patriotism covered in a “Christian” veneer.  This type of Christianity doesn’t show forth the good news of the gospel rooted in enemy love, forgiveness, peacemaking and reconciliation but instead keeps recycling the same old story of retributive violence. 

N.T. Wright has noted that humans become like the god(s) they worship.  When I look at religiously motivated violence whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic I see that under the surface they all have in common a vision a violent, retributive God who is “on our side” against others.   It takes nothing to believe in a violent and retributive god who is on our side.  Why? Because he looks just like us! 

But Jesus reveals the God who is utterly different than anything we could come up with.  In Jesus we see "God with us", the God who will step into our world and get his hands dirty, the one who taught us to love our enemies, to seek peace, to show mercy and compassion to the sick, poor, and those living on the margins of society. In the cross of Christ we see the overthrow of the vindictive and violent picture of God as Jesus prays with his dying breath "Father forgive them, they don't even know what they are doing."  As the author of Hebrews wrote, “[We come to] Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24.) The blood of Abel is at the foundation of civilization crying out for vengeance but the blood of Christ, the Lamb slain at the foundation of the world, announces forgiveness.  This is the good news!

Isn’t it interesting that the most prolific writer in the New Testament was a former religious, fundamentalist terrorist? Before his encounter with Jesus, Paul had terrorized the early church through persecution and even lethal force.  Imagine Paul’s shock when he bumped into Jesus on the Road to Damascus, realizing that rather than fighting for God he was actually fighting God himself.  Paul would never again see violence as a legitimate way to live out his faith because the image of God behind his worship had been radically changed.  Paul went on to spend of much of the rest of his life being persecuted and imprisoned for his faith in Jesus, but even in persecution he did not resist or fight back but rather followed the example of Jesus to the very end. 

The question of how to deal with ISIS is a tricky one, especially for those of us who follow Christ and live here in the west with no fear of persecution. While I do not know what we should do concerning ISIS, I do know religiously motivated violence from Christians will not bring about the righteousness of God. 

Friday, February 06, 2015

Our Religious Violence is Better than Your Religious Violence

Yesterday President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and within no time various political sites/blogs were already condemning his words, or should I say about 50 of his words.  Here are the “inflammatory” words for which he has been criticized:

“Lest we get on our high horse and think that this (religious violence) is unique to some other place, remember that during the crusades and the inquisitions people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ… In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow was all too often justified in the name of Christ.”

All day I have seen one anti-Obama post after another on Facebook about how the violence perpetrated by Christians in the Crusades was not nearly as bad as what Muslims did, and that Christian violence during the Crusades was at least justified.  In other words, “our religious violence is better than your religious violence.”

But the truth is that Christians did commit some horrible acts of violence during the Crusades and the inquisitions not to mention what “Christians” have done in this country towards Native Americans and African slaves among others.  Have Muslims done horrible things in the name of their religion?  Yes, and certain extremists are committing horrible atrocities to this day.  Religious violence, no matter what brand, is wrong!

I watched the controversial clip of President Obama from the prayer breakfast and honestly couldn’t find anything in that clip with which I remotely disagreed.  So I decided to watch the entire speech from the prayer breakfast for context thinking that I must have missed something.  To my surprise President Obama spent most of his speech condemning religious acts of violence and calling for humility in how we live out our faith.  His closing words  were a call to practice the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 7:12 “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” 

I did not vote for Obama nor do I support many of his policies, but these latest attacks on him for condemning religious violence and calling for humility are truly disheartening.  I highly recommend that folks watch the entire speech from the prayer breakfast instead of getting a 30 second sound byte spun by political blogs/news sites, and see if you really think his speech was as crazy as it is being made out to be.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A Different Way of Making New Years Resolutions

Here we find ourselves at the beginning of another new year and the time when we resolve to be better people for the coming year.  So often we come into the New Year longing to change—a longing that is helped because it often comes with a few added pounds from the holidays, credit card bills from the Christmas season, and a workout routine that has been sufficiently interrupted to be nonexistent.  And so we decide to be different people because we think that it is just a matter of making the choice to change.  But at some point in adult life we finally come to terms with our inability to change ourselves and thus we resolve to never make New Year’s resolutions again.  After all who needs to add the self-loathing that comes with breaking resolutions to the long list of things to change about oneself.

But I wonder if one of the reasons we are so lousy at actually keeping these resolutions is because we give very little attention to changing the context of our lives.  We deal with our unhealthy behaviors as people trying to solve the problem of weeds with a weed-eater, cutting away at the top without ever getting down to the roots. 

I heard it said a once that we are inter-dividuals.  As much as we might like to think we are not isolated individuals but rather people connected and formed by our relationships with others.  It is these relationships more than anything else that constitute the context of our lives.  Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous figured this out a long time ago.  Recovery in AA isn’t about pulling oneself up by the boot-straps and trying harder not to drink but rather working on recovery in a community of people in recovery.  The alcoholic who swears off drinking and commits to sobriety on his own will rarely make it very far, but the one who joins a community of recovery and gets a sponsor is on a much better path to freedom because, with the help of others, he will be getting at the root issues that manifest in addictive behavior.

One of my resolutions for last year was to write more songs.  In the last couple of years I have not written as many songs in the past and really wanted to see things change.  Looking back on last year I realize that it was one of my most prolific years of song-writing in a long time.  So why all the new songs?  I believe it is because rather than simply trying to write more songs I changed the relational context of my life.  For me this meant being a part of an online songwriting group as well as setting aside more time for working on songs with others in person.  The reality is that most of the songs I wrote didn’t happen within the songwriting group yet being a part of a community that was working to create new songs kept me more attuned to the gift of songwriting within me.  What’s more is that I saw an improvement not only in quantity of songs but also in the quality of songs I wrote.

New Year’s resolutions aren’t bad but I think we can start in a better place to experience real change in the coming year.  So here’s a few ideas on a different way to approach resolutions that gets more at the context of life rather than behavior modification. Instead of resolving to run 3 times a week, try resolving to build relationships with folks who are runners.  Resolve to find a community of runners of which you can be a part.  Instead of resolving to get out of debt, resolve to make time in your life to build relationships with others who are currently working to live debt-free.  Instead of resolving to be a better husband or wife, resolve as a couple to spend time in the coming year with people who have walked through tough times in their marriage and who love each other.  I think these types of resolutions have the potential to help create a healthy context in which good things can grow. 

Happy New Year!