Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Sleep? What's that?

So, I’ve been awake since 3:10 this morning. And for those of you who got emails from me sometime between 4:00 and 8:00, wondering why in the world I was emailing you so really…now you know. It’s not that I was awakened by a fire alarm in the building or anything. No, nothing that simple. Heck I’d have been happy if it had been Maggie or Cricket – my dogs – complaining that they wanted to go out on patrol in the wee hours of the morning.

I just couldn’t get my brain to shut off. I’m not sure why, but I woke up completely cognizant, and…I guess the best term is “spiritually restless.” Funny how that term also applies to how my life’s been these past few weeks. Kind of how animals can sense when a storm is coming, I’ve felt…attuned…to a shift in my life coming. To be sure, some of the things I want to do would seem like insanity to many, and I think I’m just being prepped for the time of WHEN the shift will occur, not IF. I don’t know if any of this makes sense – partially because it’s so difficult to nail down in precise words an emption and a feeling…but also because I’m bloody tired and I’ve not had my requisite 87 cups of coffee today.

Onwards…

Of late, I’ve been listening to a lot of mid-to-late 80’s/early 90’s music. But not the type of music you might think. No, nothing so artistic as Oingo Boingo or Wham! I’ve been listening to a lot of older Christian music.

[insert gag reflex here for a great many of you]

Yes, it’s true: the synthesized drums and the layers of keyboards are musically cheesy enough to induce a panic attack for the lactose intolerant. The hair – oh, the hair – and the clothes make me want to burn all the old photos of me and my friends (hi, Wooley) as we would do our best to dress in similar fashion. And no, not everything that was churned out during this decade and a half qualifies as a thing of artistic beauty.

But there were some true gems to be found in this time. And not from the CCR mainstays, either. Yes, “everyone” knows Michael W. Smith. Amy Grant. Wayne Watson. Twila Paris. Steve Green. Margaret Becker. DeGarmo and Key. Petra. White Heart. The Imperials. And “everyone” knows the – for lack of a better term – hit songs and albums that these people produced. …and the way that they were played to DEATH on the radio, in churches, and in multiple youth group retreats.

For me, I come not to bury these songs or artists, and not really to mock or praise them either. To be sure, there were some clunkers (“Boycott Hell.” Eddie. Dana. Guys. WHAT were you THINKING?). But for every song called “Get On Your Knees and Fight Like a Man,” there was a “More Power To Ya” waiting in the wings to validate music with a Christian message as being musically and lyrically solid.

And for me and my friends? Yeah, we knew the mainstay artists and songs listed above, but the ones that stuck me and have stayed with me for LITERALLY over half my life were the songs and the artists who were…storytellers. Whose music and lyrics were hauntingly beautiful and inspiring: Dighayzoos. the choir. Daniel Amos/DA/da/Swirling Eddies. Absence of Ceramics. Breakfast With Amy. The Throes. Mad at the World. Mark Heard. Randy Stonehill. Phil Keaggy. Kim Hill. Ashley Cleveland. And God’s court-jester himself, Steve Taylor.

Storytellers. People who spoke about the struggles of life, and didn’t try to candy-coat faith or reduce Jesus to a mantra of “verse-chorus-verse” just to get airplay on a CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) MOR (middle-of-the-road) station, the equivalent of what the kids call an “adult contemporary” station these days – or, the stations that people listen to at work in an office environment. The artists listed above – for the most part – NEVER got airtime, because the frankness and complexity of their songs would probably have sent many listeners to the local Christian AM stations into toxic shock. It would be like hearing Phil Collins followed by Henry Rollins.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: That was not meant to rhyme. I blame the insomnia.]

Now, there are some modern Christian artists whose music seems to be cut from the same cloth Larry Norman used – Relient K springs to mind immediately. Mute Math. Flyleaf. Until June. Derek Webb for SURE. And others of this caliber. But…(and here’s where these ramblings seemingly tie together)…my little stroll down nostalgia lane has made me wish that today’s popular Christian music was a little less vertically focused and more towards the horizontal.

See, while I can appreciate and do have a thankful heart for the great worship awakening ™ that has taken place in many contemporary, emergent, or emerging or post-modern churches…I miss the bemoan the fact that bands like The Innocence Mission or Over The Rhine must be relegated to background music or “focus songs” if they are even used at all. Anyone who has ever experience the group sing-along of songs like “More Than Useless” or “Latter Days” can testify that some of these experiences can be just as powerful as anything Matt Redman has ever penned.

Maybe it’s just me, but I love the storyteller aspect of songs. Musically speaking, I can appreciate just about anything, provided it has some intrinsic musical worth. I can appreciate the music, but nothing sparks my soul like hearing a story come to life in a song.

Maybe it’s time we dusted off a few of the “gems” of bygone eras and cover them. The cycle is hitting for hymns, so maybe it’s time for Russ Taff’s self-titled album to be reissued. Or for Leslie/Sam Phillips to be welcomed back to our fold.

Parables were good enough for Jesus, after all. And I personally enjoy asking people about their life story as much as asking them, “So, how do you worship God?”

Makes for a less awkward pause in the conversations at dinner parties as well.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Just a thought:

Three minutes with God this morning is better than going two days without speaking to Him because I've been "too busy."

Trust me on this. I've just tested the theory for all of you.

If I'd not had those three minutes...man. The day's just about kicked me repeatedly anyway. Those three minutes? It's helped to make some of the headaches manageable.

And it's whetted my appetite for more, which shall be spent with Him tonight.

Monday, August 13, 2007

If bad things really do happen in threes...

It's Monday. Monday the 13th.

This is, of course, much worse than a Friday of the same date.

Not only did I not fall asleep until about 6:30 this morning (waking up at 7:45)...not only did I spill coffee on myself on the way to work (for which I was only about 10 minutes late; God bless having no hair -- it makes showering so much easier and time efficient)...and not only did I not get a chance to eat anything except for a sample box of dry Fruit Loops on the way to the office...

Yeah.

If this day doesn't improve, I feel the need to just declare today a mistrial and go home, put on some pajamas, and just watch some really goofy TV.

Not that the day so far is bad, per se, but...it's gonna be one of THOSE days.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"Purpose-Driven," or driven with a purpose (Part Two)

Okay, let’s pull back on the road and get back on track.

So, without going into great details (because they’re really of interest only to…well, me…), when I was growing up in Tupelo, MS back in the halcyon days of the 1980’s, there was a bit of what we shall term a separation of church and church. Allow me to explain…

Just as I have come to see the division between colleges/universities that inhabit the same city, there was – and may still be, for all I know – a prevalent division between not just Christians in Tupelo (everything from Protestant VS Catholic to Baptist VS Methodist VS Nondenominational VS Presbyterian VS etc.) but also between churches in the same denomination. For example, if one lives in Jackson, MS, then one attends Millsaps College as opposed to Mississippi College or Belhaven College…you’re tagged as probably being a certain way. Each school, although all of them are private and religiously-affiliated, has a certain “style” of student it attracts, either due to the make-up and heritage of the school or by virtue of the fact that for so long, students of a certain “type” attended there and – voila! – suddenly, the campus is rife with them.

Same as it goes with churches. The cliques and sub-genres of Christians that attend a church of a certain style or slant are there because like tends to be attracted to like. Not that there’s anything inherently WRONG with that in theory – but it does run the risk of coming across as possibly being exclusionary of others. Should every church be everything to everyone? At the risk of sounding heretical…not really, because given the various ways we as humans differ and the various passions we carry…we’re all different, and in my humble opinion, only Christ has the right to claim a “one size fits all” tag.

We just need to not judge or look down at one another for the ways we celebrate grace.

Case in point (now that I’ve chased this rabbit for a bit): back in the mid-to-late 80’s when I was in high school, there was this one Bible study (yeah, we still called ‘em that back then; it was the 80’s. We were dumb) that was housed at the house of a lady in town that was…more or less, an interdenominational small group for high school students from various protestant churches (mainly Baptist – SOUTHERN Baptist, specifically) who came together to meet weekly and learn from one another. In a lot of ways, in hindsight, this was a bit of a forerunner of the emergent/emerging church mentality; we were young and brash enough to want an authentic worship experience that also took us deeper into a study of the Bible that was devoid of all the trappings of the “open your hymnal to 138 and we will sing stanzas 1, 2, and 4” rut coupled with the “walk the Roman Road, come forth, pray a prayer, and sign our membership directory” style-teachings of our home churches.

The only criteria to attend this meeting? You had to be in the ninth grade or older. This added an air of mystery to us little peons in Junior High who wondered what the “big kids” did at this thing. Did they sit around and talk about s-e-x and how evil it was? Did they talk about going to college? Did the boys get to sit by the girls? You know – the questions of a deep and complex spiritual nature.

Once I was of the appropriate age, along with my friends Dea and Aaron (if you guys are reading this, by now, you’re probably snickering), we started attending on a semi-regular basis. It was kind of cool based on the fact that we got to see some of the “older kids” we saw at high school in a spiritual light. Oh, to be sure, when we were at school, they were – almost without exception – too COOL to speak to us, but in this little pocket of equality, we were…respected.

And some of the older kids role-modeled to a fault what it meant to talk about one thing on a weekday night and then to completely destroy any and all street credibility of being a Christ follower during the other 6.5 days of the week. This was, of course, the exception rather than the rule, but still…when one of THE most “popular” guys was seen as a role-model at this Bible study and then during the weekdays was heard dropping the “F-bomb” left and right, was a known drinker (we were still all underage; don’t forget that fact) and was – at least, according to reputation – an experienced ladies’ man…yeah. In hindsight, not that I judge, but someone somewhere along the line should’ve done a better job of explaining the Pharisees to these people, and how the harshest criticisms Christ ever reserved were for the ones who claimed His name but dishonored God by their actions.

Not that this excuses it, but we didn’t have The Message translation to put everything into plain English for us. :)

Anyway – these last few weeks at Mosaic have made me all nostalgy for this Bible study. This past Sunday clinched it for me, and where and why I was drawing the positive analogies of my youth. The main teaching pastor (hi, Kevin) was on vacation with his family, and – with the apparent absence of a traditional hierarchical grouping of deacons, elders, leaders, associate and assistant pastors – so, instead of canceling the gathering for that day, the teaching cloak was passed on to one of the guys in the congregation (who, in addition to doing a phenomenal job, tossed out one verse that started sparking thoughts that I sent to my fellow windshielder for a possible night of teaching at the 706 sometime this Fall, because it just – to me – fit so well in the series that’s been designed).

See, the setup at Mosaic is designed to make you feel at home. Like it’s designed for intimate moments, intimate connections, and heart-joining experiences (not THOSE intimate moments, connections, or experiences, ya buncha friggin’ gutter minds). And the simple fact that everyone seems to know everyone, but for people who come in as an outsider (you know – the kids like me & Ashley), it’s not as if we’re intruding in on a closed gathering. It’s like we have just been invited to sit down and join in the celebration.

It makes me sit back and smile at myself when I see the patterns that God’s been making evident in my life. The way that everything cycles, the way that everything IS connected to everything else. (Or, paraphrasing the words of Chagall Guevara: welcome to Escher’s World.) The way in which a choice of a Bible study I went to in 1987 set in my heart an understanding and appreciation of the worship experience I would have 20 years later. It helps me to better understand and have the thoughts galvanize in my mind about how everything I have ever done, said, seen, acted upon, and cried over has led me to this point in time, here and now, and that the path my life has been on HAS been set before me and that…yeah. God knows what’s going on. I might not, I might disagree with it, and I might even openly rebel against it and ignore that still, small voice screaming in my ear.

That I can have faith and take comfort in that my life is guided, that my past does play a part in who I am and who I am to be, and that there’s a hope beyond my questions that gives me comfort.

My only judgment between the twenty years? Thankfully, the coffee has improved in the past two decades.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

"Purpose-Driven," or driven with a purpose? (Part One)

So, here’s where my mind’s been headed for the last few weeks. For people who’ve not known me that long, this will provide some deeper insight into the Sonny-who-was before you met him. For the RARE few of you who have known me for decades…you might smile a little at yourself, finding yourself cast into a role into this trip down nostalgia lane.

All right. Grab a cup of coffee (or your beverage of choice) and settle in.

For the last few weeks, Ashley and I have attended worship services on Sunday at Mosaic here in Miami (see sidebar for the link). No, for those of you who might be curious, this is not a “satellite” church that’s a plant of the same name from the church in LA where we sit around and watch a live feed or a DVD of a pre-taped service by Erwin McManus (not that there’s anything WRONG with that). Although, to be candid, we had no clue what the heck to expect before we went that first, fateful Sunday. We found the church (okay, confession time: Ashley found the church) through a quick search at www.RelevantMagazine.com before we moved here – we knew once we got to Miami, leaving behind everyone and everything that we knew, in order to make us feel more grounded, we needed to find a new home where we could find people who would HELP us to feel at home.

This place – Mosaic Miami – is about as intimate and real as it can get in terms of a local church: this is truly a collective of believers of a like mind and like passions (each other; the care and protection of the world and people around us; loving and living life in passion and respect for each other; the arts are celebrated; etc.). They meet in a small building of non-descript origin (the building feels like the 706 Room, for those of you who might know what that looks like) in downtown Miami just a stone’s throw from the literal wrong side of the tracks, and it’s populated not by folding or stackable chairs, but by a buncha comfy couches – all of which look like they’ve seen better days but have been reclaimed for a greater purpose – and very bohemian furnishings. The place is illuminated by a combination of Ikea-looking lights hanging from the ceiling, candles, and very few “stage” lights for the main podium. The services start at 11:00-ish (depending on if the projector and – everyone’s favorite: Media Shout! – are both functioning properly) and run for the almost two hours, including a break after the worship time for people to meet, grab a cuppa, and catch up while the stage goes from Worship Set to Teaching Set…meaning, the guitar gets packed away, the cables get rolled up, and the small table and laptop get placed on the stage. More often than not, as we have found, after services, the congregation (running 60-75 at my best estimate) all come together after all is said and done to share in a communal meal. People come in to the services not at the “downbeat” of 11:00, but as they are able to – if they’re commuting, walking, riding a bike…whatever...and running a bit late, there’s no judgment cast or glances thrown their way is they come in a little bit late. Time is not an issue. This, of course, makes Ashley smirk at me continually whenever I bring this up (for those of you who know her, you understand that Ashley Time does not necessarily sync up with what the rest of humanity uses).

For someone who’s spent the greater part of the last three years worshipping in a warehouse across the street from a beer distributor, the physical layout and placement of the church? Not a big deal. I have some friends who genuinely looked down their noses at where Compass meets when I would try and explain the uber-coolness of using an existing facility for a church instead of (soapbox mini-rant) being a poor steward of the planet and spending time and money on building yet another cathedral symbolizing steeple-envy among the masses. This place? My friends would go nuts, and not in a “HOLYCRAPTHISPLACEISSOCOOL” kind of way, but in the “You call this a church?” kind of way.

If Jittery Joe’s at Five Points in Athens had a church, this is what it would look like.

[SARCASM MODE ON] So you know that I hate it, right? [SARCASM MODE OFF]

Now, while Ashley and I are still wondering where we’ll “light” eventually for a home church, while I debate what the freak I’m going to do come January and beyond (prayers, anyone?), while I wrestle with this calling thing in my heart, while I openly argue with God on the latest and greatest tug on my heart (taking some of the better of these postings plus the materials in my journals and turning them into a book/submitting an article or two to be published)…Mosaic has, at the VERY least, been a beautiful, glorious respite for me. As someone who was not burned out on church, but was questioning the authenticity of a lot of places which seem to honor style over substance, this place has been a breath of fresh air.

I’ve visited a number of churches where the whole service felt very much like it was designed with a corporate mentality in mind – if the message itself wasn’t pre-packaged and/or made of processed materials (culled from other sermons, put together in a mish-mash of loose connections, kinda how a McBurger is put together from various parts of…something…), then the entire worship experience felt more like it was being kept warm by a heat lamp instead of a fire burning in the hearts of the chefs of this church. Packaging a worship experience as a cohesive whole, making it to where Point A flows into Point B seamlessly, where the songs sync up with the message, where everything feels intentionally and purposefully made to feel as if it’s meant to go together? When it works, it’s a beautiful, synchronistic and meaningful moment of life change for many people (raises hand). True moments like this – inspired by God and implemented by us ragamuffins – are not to be mocked or lessened by the times when we try to FORCE a “heart moment” into a worship experience, because we think something SHOULD fit into a certain place because we think it MIGHT be good. Unfortunately, just because something is cool or because something worked once – or worked once for someone else – does not mean that lightning can or will strike twice. Or seven times seventy.

And the consumer mentality of many (but not all) of the people I encountered on a week-to-week basis who would attend church (“Serve me and my needs and I’ll pay the $3.99 for the value meal…maybe…but don’t ask me to get in that kitchen and help you”) just drained me. No, I don’t think that volunteers should be tapped week in and week out, to be used and drained like a battery and then discarded when they get jaded or burnt out. Unless they’re a freak like me who would double the time of his work week by going to church late at nights and on the weekends to serve (love you, 706-ers: you all is still my heartbeat). But even workaholic freaks like me need a break every now and again. The problem is, many people just tend to see the people working the counter (so to speak) in a church as static and always there to serve THEM, without ever thinking how they can, in turn, serve others. There are probably the people who “forget” to tip the servers at Waffle House, thinking they should be grateful to have a job serving them.

Again, just going through the motions and not getting invested in a body of believers is kinda like eating nothing but McBurgers for months on end. Yes, I’ve seen the documentaries of the people who eat this and get grossly obese and slovenly, and I know there are people who can do it and not on the surface suffer any ill effects. But don’t you wonder what that does to the insides of you? How…bad…your digestion has GOT to be by now? How after eating nothing but junk for months (or, in some cases: years) on end…you lose some of your tastebuds. Geez, I know that after all the coffee I’ve chugged in the last 25+ years, I have to have fried more than a few of the taste sensors on my tongue.

I also know that I have tried to – and have allowed God to – scrape the gunk off my soul, restoring the taste in my soul for meaningful and fruitful worship.

Me? I’m spoiled on whole foods. I’m spoiled on the organic, locally grown produce.

Both in terms of food that feeds my body and food that feeds my soul.

…man. Have I EVER gotten off topic from what I set out to type initially.

Tell you what – come back later for Part 2 of this little missive. I’m actually going to break what I’ve written in half, and Part 2 will be on-line by the weekend.

It’ll be worth the wait.