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.

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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 Two “what ifs”

(all apologies to Seth Godin, King David, and Kevin)

I’m scared of the dark.  There.  Now you know.  Every Saturday when I lock up our church building, I honestly wonder if the Phantom of the Opera is suddenly going to appear.  I’m an authentic sissy.

There are two kinds of “what if.”

The first kind of “what if” is the kind that we admire – albeit from a safe distance most of the time.  It says things like “what if we could be…,” “what if we were the kind of church that could…,” “what if we found a unique way to…”  I’ve seen it show up in pastors, leaders, artists (real ones), and creative thinkers.  It’s the “what if” that moves forward based on that belief that if we were to give that up, we’d probably die from heartache.  This “what if” takes risk.  I heard a radio interview with Rocca Deluca once where explained why he entitled his debut album “I Trust You to Kill Me.”  When asked about the strange title, he cited the feeling of profound risk that comes with releasing 60 minutes of your art to a world that might reject you.  Led by the single “Colorful,” the album reached no. 5 in the Top Heatseekers of 2006.  Not bad for a debut indie-rock album.

But there’s another what if: the “what if” that’s motivated by something darker – and ultimately more subversive.  At first, it sounds a lot like its twin brother.  It sounds like: “what if we end up…” “what if ____ happens,” “what if it doesn’t work out?”  Honestly, that’s the one that characterizes me on most days.  This “what if” is forward thinking, but is sheepishly frozen by fear of the unknown.  It’s interested in risk management and crisis prevention.  It’s Seth Godin’s lizard brain.  Glancing over our shoulder to Psalm 23, this kind of “what if” would nervously stand at the entrance the valley of the shadow of death until his baby-sitter comes along, scoops him up, and takes him home to enjoy a pleasant lunch watching Andy Griffith rid Mayberry of its evil band of ruffian jaywalkers.

But we’re probably not meant for Mayberry anymore.

Probably one of the most foundational books I’ve ever read was during my first year of college – Lewis’ “Til We Have Faces.”  Through a retelling of the Psyche-Cupid myth, Lewis explores the question: “Why must holy places be dark places?”  Great question.

“Have done with it, Psyche,” I said sharply.  “Where is this god?  Where the palace is?  Nowhere – in your fancy.  Where is he?  Show him to me?  What is he like?”  She looked a little aside and spoke, lower than ever but very clear, and as if all that had yet passed betwen us were of no account beside the gravity of what she was now saying.

“Oh, Oural,” she said, “not even I have see him – yet.  He comes to me only in the holy darkness.  He says I mustn’t – not yet – see his face or know his name.  I’m forbidden to bring any light into his – our – chamber (page 123).

Psyche’s husband only comes to her at night?!  And even then, he is veiled?!  What’s the deal with that?!

Folding back into Psalm 23, it could be because we’re meant to lose ourselves in the darkness.  There’s a powerful parallel between Psyche’s nightly encounters with her unseen husband and kind of faith that says “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil – for you are with me” (sanctified-imaginative implication: “...and that really ought to be enough.”).

It could be that the only difference between the two “what if’s” is faith.

What would it look like if our lives were characterized by the first kind of “what if?”  What if we simply acted in faith?  Not faith in our strategy, brilliance, ability, or cleverness.  That would be too frail – and likely lead to our internal collapse – I’m 29 and I’m already sick of myself.  Faith ought to rest in the One who meets us in the shadows. He doesn’t like to come out too often – but not because He’s shy.  Moses saw him.  So did Paul.  But as for King David and the rest of us – when we find ourselves entering the shadows, faith demands that we do one thing: wait to feel His grip.

“…eat this book” the discipline of ingestion

…coming from a conversation with Mandie this morning (actually, she did most of the talking, I – for once – just listened):

I’m been reminded this morning how necessary it is for the Christian to regularly be shaped by scripture. Hearing Mandie speak, it struck that the battlefield of the mind – what we think – is one of the enemy’s primary attack points in the war of our spiritual development.  There are few consistent tendencies that I see in my life when it comes to how I approach scripture:

1) I believe because I feel it.  This hardly needs much amplification because this kind of bible study runs rampant today.  The obvious tendency here is to find a passage that seems to justify what I’m already thinking.  I might grab my nearest concordance, online search tool, whatever and look up a word that resonates with what I’m feeling.  If the passage I find seems to correlate, this results in belief.

While this sure seems convenient, the likely conclusion is that I’ll do one of a few things: 1) Ignore the parts of scripture I don’t like or easily agree with, 2) Learn from and teach only the texts that support my current hobby-horse, 3) Expect others to be as passionate as I am about my issue.  This is akin to a blind man feeling only the rough, hard, cylindrical leg of an elephant and – because of his limited experience and knowledge – passionately insisting that he’s holding onto an oak tree.

So – here’s another option:

2) I go to Scripture when I need answers.  There are times in life when we’re able to correctly identify a pattern (whether a sinful attitude, behavior, etc.) that needs correction (i.e. 2 Tim. 3:16).  If we’ve been given the gracious gift of a soft conscience toward God, we’re drawn by impulse to Scripture.  The problem that I find (at least with me) is that once I crack open the book, I usually follow the same pattern: 1) I locate the passage that deals with the topic I’m dealing with. Example: “contentment” might draw me to Philippians 4:10-14.  2) I read and reflect on what that passage says about my issue, prayerfully asking God to show me where my attitude or behavior deviates from His desire for me. In this case, let’s say “the missing link” is my feeling that my contentment is really dependent upon my circumstances.  Paul points out that he has “learned to be content whatever circumstances” (4:11).  The fuller answer is amplified in 4:13 where he states that he can “do all thing through Christ who strengthens me.”  There’s my answer.  I now supposedly understand truth.  3) I walk away with a clearer picture of biblical contentment a more resolute decision to guard myself against self-strength and situational contentment.  There are a billion ways I can apply that to my life – supposing I’m really reading circumspectly.  But do I really understand what I’ve just read?

Here’s my concern with this kind of reading: First, I have to know where a given subject is addressed and where to find it.  Given our age of increasing biblical illiteracy, that’s a pretty huge assumption.  Without the background of steady biblical teaching in my life (thanks to involvement in solid churches), formal theological education (which incidentally served in my case to puff up my mind more than soften my heart), or a variety of church leadership roles, I’m not sure that I would have known where to find a given passage.  I’m fortunate that grace has allowed me to have the background I have.  Not everyone has that.  For those of us brought up in church world, this is a gift.  Thank God for it.  Although it isn’t the norm.

My second concern though speaks more to the root of the issue: This kind of reading assumes a heart that is: soft (ready to hear), circumspect (ready to humble oneself and learn), and desperate (eager to apply).  Honestly, this has been the biggest issue for me – and many people I’ve known – over the years.  I like to pull out structure, meaning, or depth – often citing literary allusions, metaphors, linguistic nuances, or theological underpinnings – but the real key to understanding scripture is predicated on a soft, humble, and desperate heart.  The consistent danger that I face is that I’ll walk away from scripture with a full head, a hard heart, and empty hands.  The result is (at least in my case) the life and a neat and tidy – yet self-sustained sinner.  Because (if I’m honest) I’m merely looking for answers – not transformation.  That’s like cleaning only a noticeably dirty fingernail when what I really need is a shower.  I do this because: 1) The smaller part is often more noticeable, and 2) Showering takes more work.  And I’m fundamentally lazy.

So – here’s a third option:

3) I make a habitual practice of ingesting the word – regardless of immediate results, but by faith trusting that our minds are consistently being renewed and transformed (Rom. 12:1-2) The idea here is this:  We will be shaped by something although we may not recognize it.  I see this principle at work in our children.  Joseph (4), Carston (3), and Hannah (7 months), already believe certain things about the world, themselves, God, His church, and unnumbered other concepts.  The hard question that I have to ask myself as their father is: “Is what they believe about this or that informed by Scripture or their own thoughts?”

Example: Joseph understands that sometimes other kids can be hurtful.  He has seen this through TV, overhearing conversations, and personally experienced it through his classmates and acquaintances at school or church.  The larger question is: “What does he believe about why people are hurtful?”  How he answers that question will determine his action and heart towards those who hurt him.  Let’s say he believes that people are hurtful because they’re having a bad day, because they don’t believe enough in themselves, or because they are victims of a form of unfair oppression.  Any of those may be partially true.

If however, he is shaped by the foundational belief that people are hurtful because we’re all sinners and that hurting is one of the results of living in a fallen world, he is much better equipped to love them as God does.  He will hear their stories – whatever has led them to act hurtfully.  He will be gracious in listening and slow to speak. Because underneath the pain that he sees, he is convinced of God’s perspective on the matter.  He will understand how sin factors in the equation.  He will understand how sinful choices factor in.  He will understand that pain has a remedy.  Adam and Eve – Ecclesiastes – the woman at the well – 1st Corinthians 13 – and others must all be very real to him.

The result of regular ingestion of the word is that we find our primary conviction about an issue is also scripture’s – and therefore, God’s.  We must be consistently shaped – not occasionally re-directed.  When we read like this, our minds need less correction, but instead crave more training (2 Tim.3:16-17).  Like a small lamp that enables a wakening sleeper to navigate an otherwise dark room, scripture gives us the ability to function and survive in an unknown and often frightening world.