Making Soup

I was part of an interesting discussion recently with staff members from various churches and denominational backgrounds on the subject of worship. Ultimately, we found ourselves discussing instrumental configurations, styles, song choices, form, and tradition all encapsulated by the topic, “what makes great worship?”

It soon occurred to me that what I was hearing sounded akin to a couple who when asked to describe true love responded with talking about their terrific sex life.

Not much about chasing one another around the kitchen requires truly loving devotion and not much about our “great worship” makes us true worshippers.

Back to the discussion with my friends, after I challenged the conversation with my somewhat base analogy they asked me in what context I viewed true worship.

After taking a moment I said, “Until we view things like making soup as an act of worship then we will never have a proper view of what it means to truly give God his worth with the daily parts of our lives and we will always feel as if we have to abdicate to the experts on Sunday to do it for us. We will have a very codependent relationship with experience if we lose site of the ordinary miracles in the moment. What the church needs to know is that when we lead worship it is we, the ‘worship leaders’ making our soup. We just happen to make our soup in front of a lot of people. My soup happens to include art, story, and music. You’re soup may be literally making a meal for a friend who is on her second round of chemo. The Sunday Soup was never meant to be THE soup.”

If the main thing that comes up when we talk about worship is how we do it then we are very much like the people mistaking love for how often they swing from the chandeliers together. If our view of worship is one that understands sacrifice and living a life that matters we are less likely to be satisfied with simply slurping down the soup that someone else serves up to us once a week hoping they season it to suit our own persnickety taste buds. Trust me, my Sunday Soup will never be so good that it will quench our need to glorify God in the unseen moments of our daily lives.

I understand that when a bunch of consumers come together and decide to call themselves a church, expressions of art, music, and story in worship will be a matter of specific taste (and even propriety in the opinions of some). However, the more we can see ourselves as part of a body of past, present, and future soup makers we can begin to embrace their various expressions and place less focus on our need to brand the soup.

Maybe it would be a good thing for our perspectives of worship and intimate relationships alike to step back from the hooha and just make soup together.

Reality and My Doorstep

When reality finally catches up with us it confronts that which we think we’ve already come to grips with. In other words, we only think we know what we believe about something until we are actually confronted with it.

We often discover that maybe we adopted our beliefs in a vacuum. We can’t know precisely how something is going to feel until it finally shows up on our doorstep. This is when we realize that maybe reality isn’t quite as easy as it seemed in the vacuum.

When Tricia and I were newly married we were those people who judged the young parents of children in dining establishments and movie theaters. Fit-throwing, noisy toddlers were not going to be a part of our family because we were going to make sure our children knew how to behave in public. Not too many years later I found myself carrying a screaming two-year old of my own out of an Italian bistro in Green Hills after she suddenly decided she didn’t want to be there any longer. Covered head to toe in Fettucini Alfredo from the mini-meltdown we were apologizing to every patron we passed as we gathered our belongings like scavengers and took the long walk of shame out the door. Suddenly, my ideas about what I thought I would do in a situation vaporized before my eyes as the unending siren swell of my own child’s voice in an otherwise quaint little eatery became my glaring reality.

I used to have pat answers about divorce until some of my best friends were confronted with complicated and painful realities in their marriages resulting in the end of something that neither of them had categories for nor could have anticipated.

I had all kinds of solutions about addiction and what alcoholics looked like until I woke up one day and realized I was one.

Many of our cut and dried views regarding sexuality work great until the day one of our teenaged children come out to us. Reality suddenly has a face and a name and we love them.

Living wills, discontinuing curative meds, and medical powers of attorney, which allow me to make choices on behalf of a loved one, are where I live now. It was much easier when this was all a hypothetical vacuum before reality took a dump on my doorstep.

Reality rarely shows up dressed as it was in the brochure.

We are going to be changing my wife’s care plan as she continues to struggle with degenerative MS. She is no longer going to be on meds that aren’t working for her. She’s no longer going to be whisked off to hospitals and emergency rooms at the first sign of a crisis. Even with the gift of great friends and healthcare professionals to help me think it all through, at the end of the day, reality doesn’t feel like I thought it would. It makes what I thought would be a cut and dried decision another peek through the dark glass known as faith.

Done With Christmas… Again!

This is a rehash of a post I did last year right after the Christmas season. Oddly, I am still finding myself sharing the same sentiments so I thought I’d rehash and re-post. Let me know if this resonates.

Before I launch, however I want to thank everyone for encouraging me this year with my Christmas CD, concert, and just the overall love shown to my family and me this season. Those things are not forgotten in the rant I’m about to do about the holidays. Know that this is very “tongue in cheek” and for those of you who made this an incredible year for me I’m sincerely and eternally grateful.

Okay, I’m just going to say it – I am REALLY done with Christmas this year.

I don’t mean to sound like Scrooge’s successor but for a myriad of my own reasons I was done with Christmas before Christmas this year. I suspect I’m not alone.

I had nightmares of being led out of Best Buy in handcuffs and having to decide whether to include my mugshot in my Christmas letter or not.

I was fairly certain that I was going to have a meltdown that would make the glassy-eyed woman in the Target commercials look emotionally well adjusted. (I, for one missed her this year!)

Probably somewhere between pulling off three Christmas Eve services (leading two of them myself) and an additional Christmas concert and Christmas piano project which launched in September as well as trying to pull together what Christmas for my own family would look like, I just decided that I was done with Christmas before it ever got here this year.

Factor in another unanticipated ER visit and hospital stay the week before Christmas for my wife again this year and my toaster was moving toward the scorch setting.

So, in the spirit of the season (and in a feeble attempt at maintaining my sanity and sense of humor) I decided to once again list a few of the ways that, if you’re like me might indicate that you could be getting close to “done” with Christmas this year.

You might be done with Christmas if …

… you procrastinated your shopping hoping that the Mayan calendar was right!

… when choosing a gift for your wife you seriously consider fashion advice from a sales woman in a pantsuit that looks like it came from the Kim Jong iL collection.

… you are tempted to finally send the “honest” Christmas letter this year because you know that everyone has seen your teenager’s Facebook page anyway.

… you realize that you have raised children who expect Santa to show up at the Christmas Eve service.

… you see the elf from Macy’s taking a smoke break outside and you ask him if you can bum one off of him.

… your boss has left candy canes in everyone’s boxes with a note that says, “Thanks for a great year!”, and you realize it is your Christmas bonus.

… when the entire mall starts to look like one big tacky Christmas sweater party to you.

… you find yourself carrying pepper spray, not for the potential muggers in the parking lot, but to protect yourself from the salespeople with the cologne spritzers in the department stores.

… the Carol of the Bells playing overhead in the stores starts to resemble a Mayan war chant in your head!

… walking through the Galleria feels like you’re participating in the Running of the Bulls.

… you have enough fudge and leftovers to last until the Spring thaw provided you don’t eat yourself into hibernation (otherwise known as a diabetic coma).

… you have to resort to installing an electronic invisible fence around your refrigerator to keep from helping yourself to a cheesecake or your third breakfast of the day!

… you have fantasies about ripping off those crazy antlers and reindeer noses from the Escalades that take up two parking spaces at Target!

… when someone gives you a sticker that says, “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” you decide to blow off shopping and just take Jesus to Starbucks for a Venti Soy Chi.

… you are already making a list of ways you will re-gift the presents your relatives gave you this year.

… you shamelessly ask your guests to help you take down the tree before they leave on Christmas day.

… you entertain the idea of yelling the Santa secret at the children of the lady who took the parking place you circled the parking lot five times trying to get.

So, by next week I’m sure I’ll be back to my old self. I’ll be ready to blog again about the compelling things I’m reading, my perspectives on faith and culture, and maybe even share a few thoughts I have for the New Year.

For now, … well, for now I’m just done with Christmas… Again!

Skydiving Buddies

I am calling this my year of jumping out of airplanes. That’s my way of saying I’m finally tackling some opportunities I’ve avoided for a number of personal reasons.

One of these is a Christmas CD, which I finally decided to make this summer. The follow up to that was a concert to premiere it. That happened last Sunday evening, Dec 2. It was truly one of the musical and personal high points of my life!

As I look back on this year I realize that I’ve said “yes” to more things than “no”.

For example, I’ve taken on the role of worship leader for LifeWay Men. These will be nationwide events where I will not only lead worship but will also have the opportunity to share my story. The first of which will be in July at the Curb Center in Nashville. LifeWay has been very generous to me with their audience and even promoted my Christmas project on their LifeWayworship.com site for download as a way of introducing me.

I was also invited to post weekly worship service outlines built around a feature song of the week for Essentialworship.com. It is a great opportunity to share some of my worship perspectives while highlighting songs that the publisher wants to make their audience aware of.

I attribute a lot of this newfound initiative to having a skydiving buddy of sorts – a best friend with whom I bounce off my ideas and goals and with whom I dream aloud. He shares his with me as well and as we begin to push and pull one another along there is a synergy that develops.

The best thing about a skydiving buddy is that they are happier for your success than you are. They help you critically assess something while at the same time throwing you a parade for accomplishing it.

My best friend, Jonathan is my case in point. He brainstormed and helped me flesh out a concert that would highlight the material and weave a theme of anticipation throughout it. Jonathan did everything from wrapping huge gift boxes for props on stage to thinking through the entire look, writing a great poem for the night, singing, and sharing his entire family with me for the weekend as we pulled it together.

Jonathan decided that my CD project deserved to be celebrated as well so he and his wife Jenny pulled off the best retro-Christmas CD release party afterward complete with homemade cookies she and other volunteers made. She brought vintage Christmas decorations she found around town and it looked like I was back in my childhood. It represented literally hours and hours of thoughtful preparation and loving attention to details.

That is more than a skydiving buddy. That is the best friend that you only get one of in your life.

I tell everyone that they need to jump out of airplanes if they want to experience what God has placed in their hearts to accomplish. Just don’t do it alone. You need that person that you strap yourself to who tells you to remember to breathe and makes sure your parachute opens.

Thanks, Johnny Boy! Well done!

The Ghosts of Christmases Past

I am fortunate enough to have known my great-grandparents. My great grandmother lived to be ninety-six and was even at my wedding. Beyond that generation however, I have no real information about my ancestors. I don’t know who came to this country in what generation or who migrated from where to get to Illinois where my relatives are all from. We have very few pictures of distant family and even the living relatives can’t agree on who these really are.

I have been going through my parents’ home movies from when we were kids. Everyone looks like they are on the set of Mad Men. It is fun, funny, and heartwarming to watch as my relatives that have now passed away joked, hammed it up, or even shunned the camera. I know who they all are. I know their stories. I know the occasion and setting of each frame of footage.

I had these fluttery films put to DVD so that we could archive them lest they be lost to the ever-rolling wave of technological progress. It occurred to me that generation after generation would be able to know these distant relatives even if they don’t know all of the stories. My grandchildren will see my great-grandmother playing croquet in the garden behind her big old house and my great-grandfather smoking his pipe in the very chair he died in.

While many of the people in our movies are no longer with us and many of the places no longer exist (and the ones that do don’t live up to the memories we hold), they are still very much a part of us. They are woven into who we are and who we became. They existed and they mattered. They shaped us. They moved us forward. They inspired and they sacrificed. They failed and they succeeded. There is a reality about them that will be in our hearts as long as we continue to tell their stories. They are not just ghosts of Christmases past.

My daughter Lauren (who is now twenty-three years old) watched some of our own home movies together from her childhood recently. She came in one day and simply said, “I want to remember mom. I only remember her as being sick and I want to remember her from before.”

As we watched she saw her mom in ways she hadn’t remembered. She saw her mother giving her advice about how to wear makeup as she got Lauren ready for a dance recital. She saw her mom telling her funny stories as we opened our own Christmas gifts. She saw Tricia serving cookies at her preschool program and teaching her to run a vacuum.

Finally, Lauren tearfully said, “I didn’t remember any of that. I only remember her as sick and removed and withdrawn. She was normal. We were normal. She really engaged me and wanted to teach me to say please and thank-you.”

There was a softening that happened that night. Suddenly Tricia was a little more human and not just a ghost. Lauren saw some glimpses of her own reality that had been there all along – she’d just forgotten.

These time capsules we watch together are powerful things. It is more than visiting the ghosts of Christmases past. It may even be less about remembering them and more about remembering ourselves.

Should

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the emptiness of should.

A lot of our lives are built around this word. A lot of our spirituality is explained away in this word. Should implies that there is some greater, agreed upon reason at work that trumps thinking, understanding, and all self-awareness by simply ascribing blind duty to a situation.

Should isn’t a big motivator in and of itself. “I should go to the gym. I should drop some weight. I should quit smoking. I should probably go to church. I should stop cussing in front of my kids. I should be nicer to the lady at the dry-cleaners who can’t speak English. I should pray more. I shouldn’t be so self-absorbed.”

Oddly, none of these comments assume any steps toward change. Should never takes me from a what to a why. It never challenges the bigger reasons that I’m not willing to invest myself in certain areas. Should never asks me what I’m eating or drinking at, who I’m angry with, whether or not I believe that God gives a rip about anything, or if I even want to be more emotionally accessible. Asking why makes me face myself. It makes me examine what is standing between me and practicing what I say is so important to me.

Should simply becomes a convenient little club that I pull out when I need to hit myself over the head enough times to feel sufficiently contrite over something that I’m not willing to address head on yet.

Should can also become a great stick by which I can measure others. “He should learn to listen. She should quit being so irritable with people. They should be more careful with their money. Those kids should learn some boundaries.”

Should never demands anything of me. Should doesn’t drive me to compassion, understanding, or coming alongside someone that is in a mess of their own consequences. Should never reaches out because it doesn’t have anything more to offer. Should is just a smokescreen that leaves us living under the illusion that we care about things that in reality we may not.

What if we replaced empty words like should with statements that accurately explain myself and challenge me to action.

What if instead we asked, “I wonder why it is that I’m eating all the time these days? I need to think about the resentments I may be holding against my kids so that I can quit flying off the handle at them. I’m going to have to think about why I’m not willing to act more respectably toward my wife and why I intentionally don’t consider her opinion. Why do I profess to believe in the power of prayer and yet I engage in so little of it?”

These are the questions that change us. It is time to press the more honest questions. Should just holds up an empty standard that we have apparently only pretended to buy in to.

Revealing Assumptions

There is a strange climate afoot these days – one where assumptions are running rampant. It seems to be a season where it is okay to label, to only half listen, and to cast a wide net of opinion that goes well beyond issues and instead demeans the character of those with whom we may disagree. Worst of all, we feel the freedom to assume things about others based on actually knowing very little about them. I’m not talking about political candidates here as much as I am my brothers and sisters voting for them and the way we view one another based on how we engage in this process.

Assumptions are like a false start in a hundred yard dash. Once you hear the gun and realize that you are already ahead of the facts it’s just too late!

We impose ourselves on those around us via our own unresolved issues and insecurities. Assuming is looking at others through the lens of what we believe to be true about ourselves, and making judgments about them accordingly.

When we assume, we are filtering everything we think we know about a person, situation, or event through our own arrogant grid of experience.

I had dinner with an editor friend one evening not long ago. She lives in Boston. She is Catholic. She is a believer who happens to vote as a democrat. She recounted to me how every time she comes to Nashville she is bombarded by assumptions based on her political perspectives. She said that because she is a believer people assume she’s a republican. Or, they find out she’s a democrat and it calls all of her spiritual and doctrinal perspectives into question. Her quandary was how the south, conservative evangelicals, and the Christian subculture seem to have sewn so many things up in one neat little ball. While she understood the things that concerned conservatives she didn’t necessarily agree on how those things should be addressed politically and culturally as a social remedy.

In this season of election coverage at the forefront of just about every form of media we encounter, I want to encourage us to check ourselves when it comes to our assumptions. Everyone in the room may not be coming from the same place simply because we share the same Savior.

At the end of the day I believe that most of us would agree on things like taking car of the poor in our communities, not entering into wars hastily, and making sure that every human being is guaranteed equality under the law. I realize we don’t all agree on how to get there and that’s what makes America a wonderfully free and progressive place to live. We need the pushing and pulling and tugging on our opinions and ideas to make us think. It is okay to disagree. It is even okay to passionately disagree. However, I don’t believe that it is ever okay to assume that just because we think alike in one area that we will all think alike in every area. Such assumptions shut down and shut out those who might like to express another point of view.

Commendation, Condemnation

Picture a courtroom full of strangers. There is a twelve-person jury seated to your right and a stern-faced judge sitting atop a mountain of stained oak panels. You have been called to answer for something that you would rather die than say aloud, let alone confess in the presence of people you’ve never met.

This is the day your secret, the one you’ve protected above all others is going to be brought to the light of day. You’re heart is in your throat. You can barely choke out your own name let alone speak words that address this supposedly shameful truth for which you are about to give an account.

The judge somberly asks if you would tell the court the reason you are before them today. You can’t break the downward gaze that has been your posture since you entered the room. You breathe deeply and exhale the words that you’ve never said aloud in your life.

As you confess you begin to unpack the details, the origins, and the outcome of what you had hoped would never be spoken. You begin to loosen your gaze and lift your head to face what you believe will be the furrowed brow of a judge, the scorn of a jury, and the critical stares of every witness present.

Suddenly, the courtroom erupts in deafening applause. It gets louder as it ricochets from the floors to the plaster ceilings and back into the recesses of the courtroom. It swells like ocean waves and you begin to hear the sound of wood scooting across slate as people are backing out of their chairs and standing to their feet. The judge is beaming as she joins the ovation.

You become overwhelmed with emotion, confusion, and bewilderment.

As the applause dies the judge begins to speak.

“We have been privileged to witness today your first steps into freedom! What you just experienced is called grace. We are not applauding your secret or the dark details that you have hidden from the world. We are applauding your courage because we know that your confession will free you. We are applauding you owning your truth and admitting enough brokenness to seek wisdom from others and forgiveness where appropriate. We are applauding you!”

Every person in that room has had their moment when their secret came to light and every person was equally convinced that they would be shunned, shamed, and shackled for life. Each one experienced that same ovation once they came to the end of themselves and they know that downward gaze firsthand. The joy they experience now with every confession they hear reminds them of their own and fills them with gratitude. In fact, they can’t contain their enthusiasm and they erupt in acclamation.

What if were so keenly aware of our own need for grace that confession by others brought about applause and joy from us? What if the confessions of others reminded us of our own and we were filled with gratitude?

Story

As an artistic person I have often felt like I was going through life getting to sit at the grownup table at Thanksgiving, but not really belonging there.

Last week I had the privilege of being a part of a conference in Chicago called, STORY 2012. It is a group that celebrates people who are expressing their faith through a variety of creative pursuits. Film, music, authors, entertainment, design, and media were all represented in some form.

Anne Lamott passed along tidbits as basic as, “If you want to be a writer, you have to carry a pen. Get a pen. Steal a pen. But have a pen.” Erwin McManus shared his crisis of faith that led him out of vocational ministry and into filmmaking, fashion, and art. Phil Vischer, one of the main creators and voices of Veggie Tales recounted how his company tanking resulted in him seeking new ventures from a completely new vantage point spiritually. Others spoke about being a recovering person and how surrender changed the way they experience creativity.

Nearly every speaker shared how adversity, being thrust from their comfort zones, and simply feeling ill equipped to face the challenges that were put in front of them resulted in their greatest growth opportunities creatively, personally, and spiritually.

I could go on about how they completely repurposed the space or the art being produced in every nook and cranny of the building. They even had a breakout session entitled The Theology of Space (using space to communicate what you want people to experience together). Beyond all that was a prevailing message of hope, why we as artists need hope, what it means to create from a place of hope, and communicating what life looks like from where we sit as artists.

I came away with some clear applications.

1. Don’t wait for everyone to throw you a parade and give you permission to be who God uniquely created you to be. Embrace it. Celebrate it – and then live it!
2. If you are investing yourself in things that are killing you, stop it! Life is too unpredictably short to engage in things that are not bringing you life and allowing you to breathe life into those around you.
3. Ask! When you have an idea that needs to move to the next phase, ask! It never hurts to reach out to those with whom you might like to partner that you might otherwise assume to be unreachable. Someone somewhere knows how to accomplish the next thing. Find them.
4. Don’t try to make “Christian” art. Make art that reflects what God has done in your reality. Reflect the times you’ve experienced hope and the times you experienced complete doubt and despair, even if it is in the present tense.
5. Don’t try to write as if you are the Holy Spirit. He already has a book. Write from your reality!

Sometimes we creative types just need a good dose of one another to grease the wheels of our crafts. This was such a week.

Go To the Wall!

After recently being away for a couple of weeks from work and a few more from blogging, I’m back! I’d love to say that I just took some time to burn up a few vacation days on a sun-soaked beach or holed up in a mountain cabin to escape the Tennessee heat. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

The truth is, I hit a wall – plain and simple. There was no crash. It didn’t even make a thud. It simply took on the form of a very pronounced but progressively dull ache that was exacerbated by every new calamity of recent months, let alone the last couple of years.

The culmination of several recent professional, personal, and family challenges lined up like moons and stars creating a tidal wave of emotional fallout for me that I frankly didn’t see coming. Most of these situations found me in “do” mode handling the necessary details required but allowing myself to feel very little of it. Being a virtual single parent, a caregiver of a progressively ill spouse, and the only constant in my job’s department of dwindling staff I found myself carrying a great deal of responsibility while feeling very abandoned and alone. Being the overall “go to” guy in the scope of all these scenarios left me a functional but numbed out robot who was finding it challenging to breathe, let alone answer my phone.

Enter The Wall and the silent crash. I should add here that by God’s grace I didn’t relapse although the idea of getting twenty-eight days away at rehab in Arizona sounded like a beautiful thing!

As I began to address The Wall and my recent clash with it I began to see it as the place of tension where the spiritual realm and the physical world meets.

In Sue Monk Kidd’s, Secret Life of Bees, May was a broken, mentally challenged and traumatized woman prone to deep emotional upheaval. When May would display a dark, dramatic emotional episode her sisters would say, “Go to the wall, May. Go to the wall!”

May would slowly make her way out to the garden wall with her pad and pencil. She would scribble down the things she could not say aloud on tiny bits of paper, fold them tightly and place them in the cracks of the mortar. For May, this was where the pain of the physical world and the hope of the spirit coexisted. It was the tension of the wall that held the beauty of her soul, her secrets, and her prayers.

As I begin to process my trip to The Wall I am spiritually scribbling down the things that I want to leave there. Little bits of fear, resentment and anger tightly folded in confessions. The pieces of my heart that need to heal. The concerns that weigh on me for those I love. Asking God to give me my life back and at the same time fearing what it would look like if he did.

Faith is seeing us placing our scribbled fragments in the mortar. Salvation is what happens when we can walk away from them.