Holy Transparency & Your Church

(This post is largely in response to a post from Jeff Goins’ blog, Pilgrimage of the Heart.  If you don’t follow him, you should)

What’s the deal with the overlap between faith and music?  Why are we drawn to “the gray area?” – that place where seemingly “un-christian” artists talk about things related to faith?  Artists like Dave Matthews, Damien Rice, Over the Rhine, and others like them – who probably won’t find themselves as worship leaders in a local church anytime soon – possess an undeniable ability to pull us in.  Why?

“The Blower’s Daughter” has effectively changed the way I look at my wife. Here’s the live video.

The scary thing is that there is certainly biblical precedent for this kind of holy transparency. Psalm 51 (context: David after the Bathsheba narrative) is probably the clearest example that comes to mind. Here’s the most poignant piece to me: While only one verse is spent recording David’s confession (2 Samuel 12:13), a whole Psalm is spent in meditative, artful, contrite worship.

Why does God want us to read both accounts – the historical and the poetic – of David’s thoughts after his sin with Bathsheba?  What can be said through a psalm that can’t be recorded in the historical record?

Interestingly, Psalm 51 is one of the 55 Psalms prefaced with “for the choir director” as a sub-heading – noting that it was typically meant to be experienced alongside of music. Here’s how I imagine this going: David writes down or recites his meditation (the words of Psalm 51). He hands it to the choir director (likely a Levitical priest or someone who had experience with music in a corporate worship setting). The choir director then supplements David’s words with music that was meant to bring his words to their fullest and deepest resonance. Over the last 3,000 years, we’ve lost the music. And, because we can’t handle the powerful transparency of words alone, Psalm 51 (like many others) has become peripheral in corporate worship. We needed the music.

The thing about Damien Rice: He is both the writer and the priest of his meditation. There is no gap. That testifies to his authenticity.

Here’s a possible direction to take this thought: Does the church know how to corporately steward the feelings of her people through music? What would happen if the adulterer in your church took his words (a la Psalm 51) to your worship leader? What would he / she do with them? We need artists who can craft music that moves alongside the whispers of the Spirit.

Diary of an Old Soul

A lot of my thinking lately has been informed from Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin.  An awesome read.  While Seth (I feel like I can call him “Seth”) certainly has a delightfully direct way of stating his point, sometimes I need to hear the same point stated a little differently. Consider this post the same idea, just in a different voice.

My brother has been recently working with George MacDonald – that incredible Scottish poet-monk-pastor-sage who injected powerful fiction and poetry into an often unwelcoming Victorian English backdrop.  I’ve always been a fan.  If you’re a poetry fan – I hope you’ll comment.  If you’re not – I hope this might get you thinking:

’Tis hard for man to rouse his spirit up—
It is the human creative agony,
Though but to hold the heart an empty cup,
Or tighten on the team the rigid rein.
Many will rather lie among the slain
Than creep through narrow ways the light to gain—
Than wake the will, and be born bitterly.

But he who would be born again indeed,
Must wake his soul unnumbered times a day,
And urge himself to life with holy greed;
Now ope his bosom to the Wind’s free play;
And now, with patience forceful, hard, lie still,
Submiss and ready to the making will,
Athirst and empty, for God’s breath to fill.

- George MacDonald, from "Diary of an Old Soul"

The Tragedy of Paint-by-Number

(…more apologies by Seth Godin and “Graceful”)

Paint-by-number is a curse from our early childhood.  It’s that horrible tool that taught us that if we stayed within the lines and follow the numbers, the correct picture will emerge.  At the end of the day, our kindergarten teacher hung all 20 pictures up on the wall and we marveled at our talents.

But we were duped.  Those never showed our talents.

Paint-by number involves no risk.  Your talent and success are measured in terms of how well you stay within the lines.  That’s all that’s expected of you.  The teacher overseeing your work would be shocked (and probably a little concerned) if you neglected the numbered pattern (let’s say a pattern that produced a turtle) and chose to create a picture of a majestic lion instead.  Because paint-by-number painters don’t think. They follow orders.  Didn’t it annoy you how you could always tell what the picture would be even before you began?

In church-world, we’re at no shortage of paint-by-number options.  Church planting.  Discipleship.  Evangelism.  “If you do _____, you will enjoy ______ as a result.  Just do what we tell you, and your ministry will grow – your marriage will heal – your church will learn to love again.”   Predictable.  Boring.  And false-advertising.  It just doesn’t work.

How about a different option: What about just setting someone loose with a blank canvas, a few oils, and a brush?  How is that different than paint-by-number?  That’s a crucial question for me.  Real art presupposes that the artist has something to offer: himself.  He sees something no ones sees.  At least not in the way he does.  His creation then is a genuine result of honest craftsmanship.  It is him.  The reason Van Gogh, Picasso, and Degas succeeded is because they threw out the numbers.

But Van Gogh was weird.  And Thomas Kinkade sells a painting that ends up in someone’s office as a $3000 collectible testament to paint-by-number’s final triumph.  Why?  The fact is – we long for something inexplicable.  But before that longing can be born in us, we abort it in favor of quantitative self-justification.  Why?  Because we’ve learned to value comfortable, predictable, and consistent faux-creations more than honest, naked, and gutsy risk.  Like weak-willed parents who give into their kids at the toy store, we’ve been trained to give people what they want – at the expense of their spiritual development.

Van Gogh starved most of his creative life.

What are the areas where you’re most easily tempted to paint-by-number?  Why do you do it?  I’d love to hear some thoughts on this – it’s been on my mind a while.

Stewards of Momentum

(Warning – this is a long one – originally meant for use in Awana International.  Get comfy if you intend on unpacking this ditty.)

He lifted his brush.  With a passion that was at once delicate and frenzied, the artist made the final strokes in the landscape that would become his masterpiece. Each house in town was given a stroke of yellow and orange paint, signifying warmth and comfort shining through their windows.  The lights were on.  The small town was safe.  The only structure in town that wasn’t given a light was the church.   Black.  Vacant.  Functionally absent.

The world knows Vincent Van Gogh for his somber-yet-beautiful work we’ve dubbed “Starry Night.”  But the world has forgotten something about Van Gogh: Throughout his early twenties, Van Gogh lived and worked among the poor in Belguim as an itinerant pastor.  Moved by their poverty, he reached out in strikingly out-of-the-box ways: giving most of his clothes away to coal miners, struggling alongside of laborers in their work, giving much his modest income to their families.

Though a series of altercations with the state church (which was frighteningly detached from the culture at that time), Van Gogh was advised that his ideas were too radical to serve the purposes of the church, eventually persuading him to give up the ministry he loved.  So the brush became his pulpit – the canvas became his sermon – and millions of art viewers became his congregation.

I’m a huge Van Gogh fan.  But there’s something hauntingly sad about that.  For what it’s worth, I’m thankful Van Gogh became an artist.  But I feel a sense of sadness about the circumstances surrounding his decision.  Was he not understood?  Was he not heard?  Was there really no space for the kind of thinking in the church culture at that time?

The fact is – it’s frighteningly easy to forget the next generation.

As someone who’s concerned about this kind of stuff, I’d like to explore what it looks like for those of us already in ministry to prepare the way for those coming next:

  1. Creating opportunities for involvement.  When talking with a group of unpaid summer interns recently (ages 18-22), I asked them what we can do to keep them engaged.  Their resounding answer was: “Continue to give us a seat at the table – give us something to do.”  As stewards of momentum, it’s simply not enough for us to merely promote awareness anymore – saying, “Here’s what’s important to know.”  We must actively create opportunities for their mobilization – saying, “Here’s where you can go and here’s what you can do.”  And if we’re really on top of things, we’ll be able to say, “Here’s what I’m prepared to do to help you get there.”
  2. Allowing spaces for becoming. Most of us measure our identity by what we accomplish: how much money we’ve brought in, how many people have been touched by our ministry, how many organizations we’re connected with.  Hence, the programs we create (whether they’re internships, ground-level ministry positions, or missionary appointments) usually employ quantitative measurement tools and look more like report cards than personal development strategies.  In seeking to create spaces for becoming, we need to remember that doing is not the most critical piece of the puzzle.  Doing is a simply a means to an end. We need to realize that in the process of doing, young adults forge their becoming.  From a management perspective, this looks like crafting intentionally open-ended job descriptions, self-directed projects, and explorative learning experiences.  Through the process of becoming, the next generation of the church will discover new (and likely uncomfortable) ways to expand the kingdom the God.  They will blow the task-list out of the water, becoming people who are capable of re-thinking and re-imagining the accepted structure.  In so doing, they will likely exceed the expectations placed on them.
  3. Advocating intentionally adaptable paradigms. If young adults do so they can become, they become so that they can create and shape. It is the responsibility of those who control the structure (both financially and organizationally) to be intentionally adaptable.  This kind of management looks more like listening than talking.  It is characterized by constant re-evaluation rather than entrenched tradition.  The coming generation will measure an organization’s success (whether it’s a local church, para-church ministry, or business) not by how long it’s been around, but how agile it is – how quickly it can shift to meet the needs of a rapidly changing culture.  The scary part (the exciting part, depending on where you sit) is that they are all too eager to help play a part in the reshaping of accepted processes and paradigms.  The more we advocate for open ears and adaptable, agile paradigms the more we will attract and retain those who will shape our future.

The real value of programs like internships, field experience, or mentoring isn’t that we can ramp up productivity.  That’s easy.  Monkeys can do that.  The eternal value is that we can play a part in directly enabling the next generation to expand and shape the kingdom of God.  If we take a more selfless and open approach, we then cease to be managers, directors, or executives.  Instead, we become stewards of momentum.

When Jesus looked at the church in first-century Ephesus, He said: “…repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place” (Revelation 2:5).  Jesus’ words show that it doesn’t take long for something strikingly beautiful to become something obviously absent.  Looking across my office to the Starry Night print that hangs near my doorway, I think it’s likely Van Gogh saw the same thing in his church.

A dark church.  An unreached town.  A cold kingdom.

Van Gogh took his life when he was 35 – detached and alone.  All we have to do is nothing.