31 December 2012

The Worship Lifestyle, Pt. 2

I've had the privilege of leading music at my church for the better part of eight years.  Ever since I was an awkward teenager in our youth group who dug his mothers' vintage Fender F-70 out of the attic and began learning chords so I could play U2 songs, I've had a passion for singing about the Lord and engaging with others in worshiping Him.  One of the most difficult things I've encountered in conversations with people about what the musical side of worship should encompass is the issue of emotions and what their appropriate role should be.  This topic is something I've written about before (hence the "Pt. 2" in this blog's title), but I'd like to dig into the matter once again, not only because it is a very pressing issue in how the church worships (both privately and corporately), but also because it's something that is dear to my heart as a worshiper of Jesus Christ.

I've encountered several extremes concerning emotion's role in worship.

One is this mindset: "I don't worship God when I don't feel like it, because it would be meaningless."

A second is this: "I'm going to worship God whether I feel like it or not, because it's the right thing to do."

Another is as follows: "I worship God when I feel close to Him."

As is usually the case, all of these perspectives possesses some very real shreds of truth.  On one hand, we absolutely want to worship God when we feel like it, because that is a genuine outpouring of our dependence upon and love for Him.  On the other hand, we want to worship God even when we don't feel like it, because our emotions are unstable and we can't base worship upon them.  Additionally, we want to celebrate God when we feel close to Him, because his nearness means joy and salvation (Psalm 73.28).  However, worshiping God is never a "fake it 'til you make it" type of learning process, nor does it allow for a "follow your heart" mentality.

After leading for so long and studying a number of excellent resources (most notably, Worship Matters by Bob Kauflin and Desiring God by John Piper) in addition to the Word of God itself, the conclusion at which I've arrived is as follows: worship is 1. built upon sound theology and 2. expressed through our emotions.  It is always a two-step progression, and it is essential that the process happens in that order: our response to God should be emotional, but the foundation of our worship should never be.  In fact, Bob Kauflin says it perfectly: "Magnifying God's greatness begins with the proclamation of objective, biblical truths about God, but it ends with the expression of deep and holy affections toward God."  This is rooted in the fact that worship is all about God's character.  It's all about Jesus.  That's why worship transcends musical style, be it through ancient or modern hymns.  That's why worship is a lifestyle, and not just an action.  Worship is a celebration of who God truly is, expressed through our desire to see His truth proclaimed - both to others and to our own hearts.

It's simply all about Jesus.  Therefore, we respond whole-heartedly, emotionally, to Him.

Another way to think about it is that we worship God through our emotions and in spite of them.  This is due to the fact that while our emotions are incredibly unstable, God's character constant forever.  When we are wrestling with sorrow, anxiety, and even anger, we must worship in spite of our emotions.  If I find myself walking into a worship service while in this frame of mind, then in order for me to worship God effectively, I need to mirror the heart of Job, captured in Matt Redman's "Blessed Be Your Name:" "My heart will choose to say, 'Lord, blessed be Your name!'"  In this vein, although I am singing out of a heart which needs divine comfort, I am also magnifying the Lord's sovereignty and compassion, effectively minimizing my suffering in the wake of His provision.  It may sound like a subtle difference, but it is all the difference that is necessary.  It's a matter of perspective: instead of weeping over my pain and begging the Lord to take it away, my worship is now built upon a sound understanding that God is sovereign (Deut 10.17) and that He cares about my pain (Psa 56.8), poured out in humble expression of my desperate need.  It doesn't mean that I'm all of a sudden carefree, it just means that in esteeming God to be greater than my circumstances, I experience the Joy of the Lord which transcends pain and heartache.  Inevitably, my worship then becomes about His character, not what I am feeling.

On the other side of the coin, when we are soaring on Cloud 9 with joy, or when we experience a peace that surpasses understanding, then we worship God because of our emotions.  If I find myself here, then I must channel my celebration into magnification of God's benevolent character and esteem Him the author of my good fortune, while at the same time acknowledging that my promotion or an answered prayer ultimately takes a back seat to the gift of His Son (Psalm 13.6; Titus 2.13).  Otherwise, I begin to stray dangerously close to arrogance, independence, and even self-worship.  Once again, by celebrating the Creator because of who He is rather than simply because of what I feel, I am subtly shifting my perspective so that my worship is dependent upon His character, not what I experience or achieve.

There is a third mindset toward worship, however, that I haven't mentioned yet.  That perspective is one of indifference.  If I find myself in this position, then I have to very honestly and very carefully consider my own heart.  It's been said that the opposite of love isn't hate, because both are driven by passion: therefore, the true opposite of love must be apathy.  If we simply don't care, if we could take or leave a worship service, then we certainly can't engage in worship that magnifies a holy and righteous Creator.  John Piper writes, "The engagement of the heart in worship is the coming alive of the feelings and emotions and affections of the heart.  Where feelings for God are dead, worship is dead."  However, the problem I need to address is not my lack of emotions, but the condition of my heart.  To try to change how I feel would be to treat the symptoms and not the disease.  Either something in my understanding of God needs to change, or a sin that is callousing my heart toward Him needs to be addressed.  Only when the heart has been cleansed can emotion follow that may be used to glorify God.

In sum, worship is expressed through emotion, but is not built upon it.  In this regard, the appropriate expression of our feelings in worship should always be in response to God's character, and we should use our emotions to magnify Him above what we feel and experience.  However, worship is also very much dependent upon our feelings, because love is empty and meaningless without passion.  It can't be 100% objective in the same way that it can't be 100% subjective.  The Bible makes it very clear that God desires worshipers who celebrate Him in spirit and truth - in other words, with all of their being and with their fullest understanding of His character (John 4.23; Matt 22.37).  Jesus also proclaimed that it is out of the "abundance of the heart" that the mouth speaks, a statement which clearly implies that the only lips worthy of offering praise are those which are connected to a heart full of passionate love for God (Matt 12.34).  As Bob Kauflin states it, "What we love most will determine what we genuinely worship."  If God truly sits on the throne of our heart, if He truly encompasses our being, then we will only desire to worship Him, no matter what circumstances beset us.  Encountering His greatness should always result in the outpouring of heartfelt emotion, because He is holy, wonderful, and eternally deserving of our praise.

I'd like to conclude with a passage from Kauflin's Worship Matters as a final encouragement: "Worship is accepted not on the basis of what we have done, but on the basis of what Christ has done.  It's not uncommon for us to 'feel' accepted and loved by God when we're engaged in worship.  But if that feeling isn't rooted in the gospel, it will be an elusive sensation.  It's not enough to sing songs about God's love that produce warm feelings in our hearts.  We need to glory in the reality of Jesus Christ, beaten and bruised for our transgressions, giving up his life in our place on the cross.  There will never be a greater proof or demonstration of God's love."

Successful worship is worship that celebrates Jesus Christ as our mediator.  Successful worship is worship which glorifies God as our Holy Father, who - out of unfathomable love for us - gave such grace that He poured out all of His just wrath against sin upon His only Son.  Therefore, successful worship is dependent upon the condition of our hearts, in response to that truth.  Whenever we enter into a time of singing, prayer, or Bible study, we should always preclude entry by pausing to evaluate ourselves.  No matter what stage of life, no matter what frame of mind, we need to constantly check where our hearts are in relation to God.  If there's one thing I know about myself, it's that I am a wicked human being and my heart is incredibly deceptive (Jer 17.9).  As believers, it is our responsibility to be certain that we are loving the Lord with all of our hearts, souls, and minds.  Frequent self-evaluation is necessary to ensure that we are not behaving as the Pharisees did, whose lips were quick to spout all the right answers but whose hearts were simultaneously distant from the Messiah's (Matt 15.8-923:27).

So examine your heart, because if it is far from God, then worship is impossible.

26 December 2012

Observations from the Studio, Post-Mortem

I'm apparently not much a blogger, because the guys in the band had to tell me to write this.  If I were truly a blogger, I would obviously have posted it before they had a chance to think of it.  The fact that I also haven't written anything since we left Nashville in October also says something...

But I digress.

For those of you hanging on tenterhooks, the Twenty Committee's album is finally 100% recorded, two full months after our trek to Nashville.  With the help of Stephen Wise, a friend and fellow musician who has appeared on albums by Stevie Wonder and The Roots, we were able to nail down the backing vocals and officially take a deep breath, knowing that the last stage of finalizing the album rests in the magical hands of Mr. Jerry Guidroz.  Back out west, the Nashville String Machine recorded string arrangements for tracks 3 and 6, songs entitled "Airtight" and "Tonight" (part III of The Knowledge Enterprise).  It's a testament, first, to the quality of Geoff's keyboard, because upon a first listen to the raw EP, the string parts which he recorded almost sound like they're being played by real cellos and violas.  It's also a testament, however, to the quality of real cellos and violas that they were able to add an organic element to those tracks which a synthesizer never could have managed.  The final mix, which none of us have heard yet, is sure to be absolutely stunning.

In other news, practices continue and Joe and I are now juggling instruments in order to keep the live performances of our material as close to the studio versions as possible.  Literally, juggling.  Also, a photoshoot is currently in the making, probably utilizing some rundown factory in Philadelphia or some similar overused rock album cliché.  We promise to make it really artsy and not at all cheesy.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for the album drop in January.  Personally, we can't wait to get it into your hands!

20 October 2012

Observations from the Studio, Day #5

Our final day in the studio began with Steve polishing his solos and finalizing lead licks for How Wonderful (our potential single) and a 10-minute monster called Her Voice.  Meanwhile, I purchased t-shirts from the Radiant warehouse (AKA, Neal's garage), got to know Chris Thompson (Neal's personal assistant), and contemplated some final thoughts about our week in the studio.

I'd kind of been hoping that I would have something really poignant and eye-opening to say about our experience by our last day - something powerful and moving.  But the fact of the matter is that, despite being incredibly fun and exciting, nothing necessarily sticks out to me as perspective-changing.  It reminds me of how people would ask me how I felt about being married in the months immediately following my wedding, and I could say nothing more than it felt just about the same... and yet completely different.  I'd been excited out of my mind to tell Tara "I do," and I'd been thrilled about the concept of professionally recording our debut album - both were things I fantasized about, but couldn't possibly imagine actually happening.  However, upon entering into either time and place, I've found myself not feeling particularly different than I did before.  I suppose it's a matter of simply being ready, of experiencing a natural transition, and the change is so subtle it's not even noticeable.  The new setting becomes home, and the new faces become family.  I mean, Jerry's just like an older brother: he says things like "gnarly" and "groovin'" and makes fun of you when you mess up your parts.

I certainly can't speak for the rest of the band, but my time at Radiant has been a tremendous learning experience and my first (hopefully not last) introduction to the life of a professional musician.  Geoff is staying another week to finish his keyboard parts and to work with Jerry on the mastering process, but as far as the rest of the band is concerned, the project is finished.  We were calling the album "The Knowledge Enterprise," largely because the piece which concludes the project is a 5-part, 25-minute epic by the same title.  However, Geoff's been mulling around some other ideas and bouncing them off the rest of the band, and the new working title is currently "A Lovelorn Self."  But that's a post-production issue, TBD.

Other occurrences from today:
Joe tickling Geoff's feet, which produced much giggling and wrestling.  Lunch with Jerry at a place called Hollywood's, which prominently serves Hibachi.  Consuming an entire jar of Tostitos Salsa con Queso, in addition to our daily twin pots of coffee.  Joe playing Roller Coaster Tycoon and mumbling under his breath.  Titus smacking every available object with Joe's drumsticks.  Additional vocals, which resulted in us pondering whether or not Joe is actually Ben Folds in disguise.  Jerry's Sylvester impression.

One final preview until the album is released, and a farewell to Radiant Studios:

Last words:
"Let's skip all the stupid chords and play all the good chords." (Jerry)

"I can't wait to turn the knobs on this thing." (Geoff, about Neal's Moog)

"I rocked my headphones off my head before." (Steve)

"Isn't it something like 'Crabswallow?'" (Geoff, on the name of a street in White House, which was actually 'Lee')

"If you translate it into Japanese, it means giant fig balloon." (Joe)

"It's like boxing with a beehive." (Geoff)

"I feel like I'm in a circus at this point." (Tara, listening to the raw 'Airtight' waltz)

"Spit it out, man!" (Richmond)

"Taacoooos..." (Geoff, in the next room)

Gran Finale

Observations from the Studio, Day #4

Our fourth day in the studio was slotted for nailing down the electric guitar parts, which unsurprisingly would prove to be one of the more complex and time-consuming parts of the recording process.  Over the course of the day, in addition to countless re-dubs and second takes (not to mention writing new parts), Jerry, Geoff and Steve spent hours measuring delay times, tweaking gain settings, and cleaning up sustain and fuzz (just a few of Steve's favorite things).  Phrasing for electric guitar is so important, and today we learned that what we should have been doing during practices was nailing down exactly what we were each playing, because jamming quality does not equate to studio quality.  Each note needs to be carefully orchestrated, and purposefully articulated - that goes especially for something as technically involved as lead guitar.

School's out.

Some low-quality samples of what you loyal fans are in for (and more of Jerry's superb drumming):

Today's Overheard:
"Baaanaaanaaa..." (Geoff, in the next room)

"I'll give you some feedback..." (Jerry, to Steve)

"I'm playing with the grabber." (Richmond)

"Do whatever you did yesterday to get rid of all that... squishiness." (Jerry)

"My e-mail wants me to improve my love life." (Richmond)

"Tuning translated into Japanese means 'avocado of the sea.'" (Joe, via the internet)

"Listen to the bass.  It's incredibly tight with the drums.  I know, because I put it there." (Jerry)

"This next part is ugly, nasty, and terrible." (Steve)

"Well, if you can think of a way to make it not ugly, nasty, and terrible, then we can use it." (Jerry)

"I think we should just do that song from Zelda, and modify it to fit in there." (Joe)

"This guitar tends to hit amps like a sock full of nickels." (Steve)

"...and then... there were guitar players." (Jerry)

"Your feet are mildly moist." (Joe)

"Oooooh...  Chooooclate..." (Geoff, in the next room)

Tomorrow: vocals and cleanup detail!

18 October 2012

Observations from the Studio, Day #3

With bass and drums finalized, Thursday became my turn in the spotlight.  Geoff was the one to vocalize an observation that I'd already been mulling around, albeit in less precise terms: as a worship leader and one of the frontmen of Synaesthesia, my guitar-playing style is typically more driving than finessed.  Therefore, my biggest challenge in recording Twenty Committee songs was less wrapping my brain (and fingers) around awkward chords and obscure time changes than in learning when to push the song and when to "sit back and groove" (as Jerry would say).  It's learning finesse and practicing give-and-take, or finding a niche and expanding it to its fullest capacity - without spilling over into the rest of the mix.

Another hard-learned observation from today is that just because the music is technically correct doesn't necessarily mean that it will always sound correct.  Sometimes notes will rub the wrong way - partially due to the instrumentation and voicing, partially due to the equipment - and the challenge is to find alternate harmonics in order to make the music sound less abrasive.  In other words, what's right for the song is not always the proper notes - something that took us the better part of a half hour to figure out.

In other news, Jerry has re-christened us as follows:
Me = "Clark"
Steve = "Vinny"
Joe = "Vince"
Richmond = "Gregory"
Geoff = "Clarence" (circa 10:00am to 4:45pm, and briefly at 7:15pm), "Gary" (current)

We, in turn, have renamed him Pepe.  All of this for no particular reason.

Also, this happened today:

What I failed to capture was Jerry admitting, "That's why I stay I the other side of the glass, man."

Two days left!

More quotable XXCMTE (from here on referred to by their new names!):
"Gary is boring.  He gets most of the sounds he needs out of his Korg-M50." (Vinny, probably in comparative reference to his 600 guitar pedals)

"I can read sheet music!" (Gary, indignantly)

"We'll call him Yokel!" (Jerry, about Gary)

"I'm sure he feels different - just look at him!" (Pepe, about Vinny, who was in the next room and didn't hear)

"What Pepe wants, Pepe gets!" (Gary)

"You've got different textures!  You've got shouting, you've got screaming, you've got shrieking..." (Vinny, rebutting Gary on the varieties of metal)

"Yeah, they're like bat-fart notes." (Gary, on James LaBrie)

"Well, Gary's a nerd turd.  A re-turded nerd turd." (Vince)

"This is probably going to end up on your blog, but I'm going to say it anyway: slather this on your carrot." (Gary, pouring Ranch dressing into a cup)

"Is everybody happy?  I'm happy." (Gregory)

16 October 2012

Observations from the Studio, Day #2

Today was a 9:30 start, and bass day.  Richmond flew in from Philadelphia at 11:30 last night and promptly spent a 12-hour day locking in the low end while the rest of us played basketball, jammed in the other room, or sat on our laptops.  It's a tough life, this whole musician thing.  Radiant also provides endless snacks and coffee.

Things overheard in the studio today:

"Oh crap, these guys have shields??"  (Stephen Kostas, playing games on his computer).

"No, no - we're looking for the brlamp brlamp brlamp.  The brlamp brlamp brlamp." (Jerry Guidroz, on synchronizing Richmond's bass with Joe's fills)

"If my gum still has a lot of flavor, then I just stick it in my hand to save it for later." (Joe Henderson, after arising from his midday nap on the portico swing)

"My head's about to come off if it goes up any more." (Jerry, on the 3-minute atonal jam)

"I just feel like smacking you with this sweet salty nut." (Geoff Langley, to Joe, for no apparent reason)

"After this part, everyone can go back to their Mars-Volta-ing." (Jerry, on the 3-minute atonal jam)

"Yeah, some guitar-chestration." (Geoff, acknowledging Steve's ideas on orchestrating)

"Wait, what does this fruit do?" (Steve, playing games on his computer)

"Steve, do you suck like that description of Robo-Cop remix?" (Joe)

"I think that works - I just have to do one more measure of beat-detective." (Jerry, on correcting a drum goof)

"Geoff, stop spilling everywhere." (Joe, on Geoff's poor vocal take)

"Ahhhh, it's a pink dragon.  Pink dragons take you to bonus levels."  (you guessed it)

Observations from the Studio, Day #1

After two days of travel (6 hours to West Virginia on Saturday, and 9 hours to Tennessee from there on Sunday), we arrived in our rental cabin 30 miles outside of Nashville, well after nightfall.  Upon arrival, we made two immediate realizations: one, that we'd crossed into central time (largely thanks to our iPhones being smarter than we are), and two, that spiders in Nashville are much larger than those in Jersey.

Monday, day one of recording at Radiant Studios, yielded a fair number of simple yet foundational observations which may or may not be helpful to the up-and-coming musician debating whether to go to a professional studio to record his debut album or to attempt doing it himself at home.  Speaking as a member of various indie bands who, over the years, have opted to do home recordings for EPs, things such as decent headphones for playback monitoring and proper sound-proofing were luxuries which could be done without.  Entering into a fully stocked, professional recording studio, where such things are not only commonplace but staples of the trade, I was struck by the humbling revelation that anything I may have done using Audacity at home - no matter how many over-dubs, firewire interfaces, or painstaking EQ adjustments - would never equate to the sloppy warm-up takes we did before lunch.  The studio is certainly going to be a big investment, undeniably, but so is recording in your basement - an investment of another kind.

The following are some observations that I made for the day, in no particular order:

1). Technicalities, once glossed over as acceptable "EP quality" imperfections, are in fact major issues.  This is especially true for progressive rock.

2). Setting up and mixing the drums is, predictably, the most time-consuming process of day #1.  For us, this was quite the change from simply dropping a single 57 over Joe's head to catch his cymbals, taping one to his snare, and shoving a condenser into the bass drum.

3). In a similar vein, playing white-boy basketball in the driveway while said drums are being mixed is not quite the ego-boost we might have hoped.

4). Recording scratch tracks is not glamorous, but it is foundational.  Live takes are amazing when they happen, but when they happen is never.

5). Getting that fat and full sound is less dependent upon the bucks you dropped for your guitar (although that certainly helps too) than having quality sound equipment and an experienced producer at the helm.

6). That perfect first take is idealized, but not always golden.  Seasoning comes with subsequent punch-ins.

7). You will get very well acquainted with the comfy furniture available in the recording booth.  And your dummer's shoulder.  And your own tunes, as they will invariably be stuck in your head after the day is done.

More tomorrow.

05 October 2012

A Dramatic Monologue

I type:

They say writer’s block exists only in the mind, but it can certainly paralyze the fingers. 

And then I slouch, twisting my lips pensively. And where to go from here? 

Groundbreaking is the hardest part of writing. Cracking open a fresh idea is like breaking open a coconut or a watermelon and trying not to make a mess everywhere. And if what you’ve broken on the side of the mixing bowl is a half–baked idea, all you’re going to get is partially developed bird embryo in your omelet. 

I make a face. What a disgusting mixed metaphor. And for that matter, what a terrible pun! 

The cursor blinks and winks in the absence of my typing, taunting me from behind the laptop screen. 

And then it says: [If you can’t think what to write next, then it’s my turn to do the talking.

For a moment, I fail to react. Frowning, I glance at the coffee mug a handbreadth away from the computer and my gigantic stack of homework, wondering if I made it too strong or not strong enough. The Christmas goose on the white ceramic stares back blankly, offering no explanations. 

I look back at the screen, watching the cursor suspiciously. “But I don’t want you to do the talking,” I say slowly, suddenly thankful that my family isn’t anywhere in the nearby vicinity to hear me exhibiting signs of certain schizophrenia. “I want to do the talking.” 

Several silent blinks. [But you’re not saying anything at the moment.

“I have a great opening line,” I insist under my breath, reaching for the goose mug. I am stalling, trying to think and simultaneously wishing I didn’t suffer from the habit of talking to myself. Non–fiction writing assignments are not my forte. I like to invent stories about other people, not recount ones of my own. 

[But where are you going with it?] the cursor asks inquisitively, blinking its black–pixel spine against the last period. 

I don’t really know, I think in response, but am unwilling to admit that aloud. Somehow, the demon antagonist within my computer must already know this. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid. 

[Why don’t you take a break?

I pause with the mug at my lips, narrowing my eyes at the screen. The cursor winks back, innocently. The kitchen is silent, broken only by the out–of–tune hum of the refrigerator, and lit with afternoon sun. With the house to myself, I am keeping myself focused by willpower alone. 

From my bedroom, my guitar is calling in a sultry, spoiled–only–child wail. In the living room, the old PlayStation and its gang of mismatched controllers and antiquated games are loitering coolly, saying nothing, but I can sense their great displeasure at being ignored. Outside, the Camaro basks in the sun, snoozing shallowly, dreaming of a good bath and my hands under her hood, working out all the knots of tension in her coolant system. The bookshelf above my bed is home to volumes of Lovecraft and Poe, Dickens and Conrad, T. S. Eliot, Fitzgerald, Anderson, Murakami and many more. The soft rustle of stimulating, intellectual conversation is audible all the way out in the kitchen as the breeze from my open window teases countless pages. 

I set the mug back on the tabletop without taking a sip, shaking my head to clear it. “You fight dirty,” I say, but I am impressed and concurrently worried that I am losing my mind. 

[You do what you have to,] the cursor replies dismissively, and I imagine that if it had possessed shoulders, it would have shrugged. [I’m just trying to help.

“Help?” I repeat incredulously. “Helping me would be giving me ideas of what to write about.” 

[But that would be too easy,] the cursor responds matter–of–factly, almost smugly. [You’re the one who always says he doesn’t want the easy answers.

I laugh, possibly out of disbelief, sinking back on the bench to put my back against the wall. “You’ve got me all figured out, huh? Me and my independent Byronic mindset.” 

The cursor blinks pensively. [Looks like you’ve got a conundrum on your hands.

“No,” I retort, putting my head against the sheetrock and looking up at the ceiling. “This is just what I get for not writing this by hand. 100% recycled Meade margins wouldn’t talk to me…” 

[You say that like it’s a good thing,] the cursor replies, sounding offended. I imagine it pouting. [You’re the one who procrastinated on this assignment until now. I’m the one just trying to help.

“By distracting me?” I retort. 

This time, there is no response. I have not touched the keys in too long and the Mac's default screensaver has drawn the intermission curtain over my piece – early, of course. The second act is destined to be even dryer and longer than the first. 

Understudy! I cry desperately, then push back the bench and stand with a sigh. My coffee has grown cold anyway. I can’t write without steaming black Folgers, my thought catalyst. 

I dump the coffee back into the pot, add fresh grounds to make more, and then hoist myself up to sit on the counter and think. All I need is a good topic. Something in my past or a current experience to use in a creative, non–fiction essay. Something amusing, sad, enlightening – whatever. Anything. I have three days left to come up with something worthwhile. Of course I’ve been procrastinating – guilty as charged. But I’m a pressure writer: I work well in the last minute. 

My gaze drops onto the stack of books patiently awaiting my attention, and the sight elicits a moan of helplessness from my lips. The essay on English Grammar (which, logically, could be about anything so long as it utilizes proper grammar – right?) is due next Friday. The next paper for The Modern Short Story waits to even be started. Finals are just a few short weeks away. 

I think about saying something comically melodramatic – something like, “I’m doomed” or “The horror!” or “But man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward!” – but heave myself to my feet instead, crossing the vacant kitchen and seating myself before the computer once more. No one is here to groan at my terrible humor anyway.

“First things first,” I say aloud, and stroke the touchpad. The Arabesque curtain immediately retreats, and there is my last sentence waiting for me. It is awkward and stunted, but it is a complete thought. And there, batting itself flirtatiously, is the cursor. 

[Back so soon?] it asks, perhaps genuinely surprised. [It’s beautiful outside, you know?

“Just get the first draft finished,” I tell myself, ignoring the comment. “That’s what Professor Brown would say.” 

Revision is just a stall. I need to stop stalling and just finish my thoughts. Then – and only then – can I once more don the guise of the Mad Proofreader, the persona of myself who enjoys marking up his classmates’ and his own short stories with comments, edits, and suggestions so much that it has become a cathartic high. But revision is a completely divorced mindset from the writing process, a separate idea entirely. It is the child of the story, the one who cares for its parent in its old age, making the final decisions on healthcare and managing finances because the parent no longer can do those things for itself. 

This is what I’ve learned in class today. 

I begin to type. 

[Good,] the cursor says, like it is the technological incarnation of Obi Wan Kenobi, come to remind me to use the Force in my writing. [You’re telling our story.

My story,” I growl. 

In all, finishing my thought takes me less than an hour. Writing involves merely the sequential pounding of keys, the squinting of the eyes, and a tunnel–vision concentration of the mind. Of course it always sounds better in the writers’ mind – that’s why he must revise and revise and revise. But before that can happen, an idea must be completed. Otherwise, it becomes something that it was not meant to be, a separate thought entirely. 

I stop typing and pop my knuckles to ease the cramping sensation that has come over them. For a moment, I stare at the final line I have transcribed. And then, I scroll slowly back to the beginning of the document, reading what I’ve written with a critical eye. 

The cursor is finally silent, blinking approvingly, flanking my last sentence like an emotionless guard at Buckingham. 

I laugh aloud, shake my head, and lean back on the bench, putting my back against the wall once more. Either this is a really creative, thoughtful idea I’ve developed, or it is something else entirely – maybe a vain cry for attention, maybe just written evidence of my insanity. My autobiography in 1500 words or less. 

Still smiling, I lean forward once more and type these words:

They say writer’s block exists only in the mind, but it can certainly paralyze the fingers. 

Forcing them to move anyway produces something like this.


04 October 2012

Faith, Confidence, and Sanity: The Christian Worldview

One of the more significant changes shaping my immediate future is the fact that my band will be headed down to Nashville in just a few short weeks to record our debut album with Jerry Guidroz of Radiant Records (the producer behind Neal Morse and Transatlantic).  Without going into too much detail, the album we're working on is very much concerned with the legitimacy of faith (specifically the Christian faith) as a worldview.  It's essentially a microcosm of the world's pursuit of knowledge: the quest for true enlightenment which explores all avenues of thought, but that can only be found  -- as we believe -- in the person of Jesus Christ.  Geoff (keys and vocals) is the frontman and primary writer of The Twenty Committee's material, but as we got into the heart of the project, he and I began partnering on the lyrics -- especially those depicting the grungy independence of man and his scorn for all things intangible, things that even include faith, love, and hope.

As I stared at the blinking cursor on my computer screen, pondering the instability of faithless existence, I found myself reminded of a simple statement made by Dr. David Powlison during the 2011 CCEF conference.  A very simple statement -- three words, unrefined, no pretense.

"Prayer is sanity."

So concise, and in its directness, so poignant.  In the grandiose Louisville ballroom in which my wife (then, not yet my fiancé) and I were sitting, surrounded by thousands of counselors-in-training, the simple phrase passed over us like a wave -- not a whitecap which crashes over a swimmer and leaves him stunned, but a warm swell which buoys him gently above the sandy ocean floor.  As I remember that moment now, and realize the echoed sentiment in the rough lyrics of our nearly completed concept album, it strikes me that arguments for faith severely underemphasize one of the most important and most beautiful elements of the Christian belief.

Faith, even as an objective principle, is one of the most misunderstood concepts of our modern age.  Portrayed as mysticism at its worst and irrational confidence at its best, faith pertaining to any religion has become antithetical to educated thinking.  To the modern scientific community -- a generation raised during the era of Wikipedia, genetic cloning, and subsequent failed Harold Camping prophecies -- faith-based living is as quaint and outdated a practice as bloodletting.  To the post-Christian society in which we live, archaic religious thinking may at best hold some worthwhile grains of truth, but ultimately remains the equivalent of retaining belief in Santa Claus as an adult.

Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson, April 14th 1991
Understandably, popular misconceptions arise from the fact that faith as a principle always incorporates some form of not-knowing.  In other words, faith necessarily requires some element of trust which supersedes understanding.  Calvin's decision to go back inside and watch TV in the unsettling face of the unknown is a perfect example: man wants concrete proof that he is not alone in the universe and cannot accept the possibility that his own eyes might not be able to observe a supernatural reality.  Furthermore, when the overlooked plights of our world are taken into consideration -- our indomitable pride, our idol of independence and our obsession with control -- it isn't surprising that the world would rather place its belief in something concrete like science which defines the universe by expressly non-theistic standards.  It's terrifying to place confidence in something external to ourselves when what we value is our own knowledge and ability.  To sacrifice that for something which is intangible, something that you know in your heart but cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt to anyone (not even yourself) is tantamount to declaring mental instability.  In that regard, the popular debate between faith and science -- above all else -- is an argument over control.  It is a war between man's sense of pride and his dependence upon something greater than himself.

But the fact of the matter is that faith is not simply taking a step out into nothingness.  Biblical hope retains no element of uncertainty - it is a hope that knows and trusts, and ultimately experiences true peace.  That is the truth which forms the bedrock upon which the Christian stands.  Faith is not hoping God can, it's knowing that He will, which is certainly a pithy saying worthy of a wall plaque, but it is also the truth which allows us to see the rain as a blessing and the storm as an instruction manual.  Hebrews 11 defines faith as the "assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  In other words, while faith acknowledges that there are things we do not understand, there is so much more that we do.  In the same way that you know you have money in the bank (or don't), in the same manner that those numerals on that paycheck represent a quantifiable amount and you know you earned, despite the fact that your boss didn't hand you raw chunks of gold to carry home on the subway, faith also incorporates a trust that supersedes what we see and experience.  Invariably, this is the kind of discussion which arouses the arguments for evolution, for intelligent design, for the notion (or lack thereof) that we can't possibly know for certain what this life is about.

The issue around which all of these schools of thought circle is the problem of evidence.  Contemporary science denies the possibility of the supernatural because equations cannot calculate deity.  Intelligent design counters evolutionary claims due to the absence of transitional forms in the fossil record.  So-called agnostics simply shrug and insist that there's not enough to go by to choose one side of the court or the other.  The consistent back-and-forth banter of "Prove it's true" and "Prove it's not" is unending, because no one has the trump card which invalidates the other arguments.  Embracing a side, therefore, is inevitably a matter of faith, because regardless of what camp you find yourself in, the evidence does not conclusively add up.  Evolution ultimately boils down to the same faith-based mechanics as any other devised religion.  It has no testable hypotheses to make it a recognizable science (no, you cannot watch evolution happen), and it lacks insubstantial evidence to verify its claims.  The Christian likewise cannot point to any evidence which the scientist would not deem circumstantial or hearsay.  It is by faith that we acknowledge the universe as God's handiwork, attributing to Him authority over nature and ascribing to Him authorship of the scientific laws which govern the universe.

But frankly, I'm tired of all the talk.  I'm tired of Christian apologetics who hint at the possibility of proving God's existence through their archeological approach and their intentional use of big scientific words.  I'm tired of evolutionists who raise their noses to the notion that someone embraces a worldview which subjects science to deity, because they themselves are unable to wrap their brains around the notion that an all-powerful god (which is, by objective definition, a supernatural and supreme being) would not be limited by the clockwork regularity of the universe He created.  And I'm really tired of people misusing the "agnostic" label simply because they don't know what they believe and don't want to be labeled as an atheist, which would be too extreme.  We stand in a room crowded with stubborn debaters, all shouting to be heard, and no one is convincing anyone of anything.

This post is not an argument for equality of thought or a demand for coexistence.  It is, however, a request for greater understanding of and a respect for what the other guy thinks.  It's a call to listen more and speak less (and I'll be the first one to admit failure in that department).  We need to stop adding to the argumentative noise.  What I also want to communicate is that faith (intelligent design, Creationism, or whatever other label you'd prefer) is not an unrealistic perspective of the world.  It is not a denial of scientific research, nor is it divorced from logic, reason, or education.  It is simply a different perspective and a different order of priorities.  Faith is a legitimate worldview because it is based upon confidence in the reality and veracity of the Bible.  Yes, it certainly takes faith to believe in a God who cannot be seen or defined with scientific instruments, a God who created man and gave him a mind of his own, and then chose out of His lovingkindness to redeem that man rather than destroy him for his ungrateful independence.  However, it also takes tremendous faith to look past the gaping holes in the evolutionary theory, just like it takes faith to answer the question "If God does not exist, then what is this all for?" with some apathetic defense of nature's prerogative.

The bottom line is that, if evolution is an educated and respected school of thought, despite its uncertainties, then intelligent design must also be held in the same regard.

In all of this, in my frustration with internet forums and the conversations which take place in so-called collegiate-level classrooms, I find myself coming back to Dr. Powlison's statement, an idea which is so fundamental and so grade-school in its simplicity, and yet we constantly overlook it.  Prayer is not the spiritual equivalent of groping blindly in the dark: it is leaning into the one dependable lifeline we have in a universe which spins out of our control, out of our finite comprehension.  Prayer is sanity because of the reality, the omnipotence, of the One upon whom we depend.

To me, the most beautiful aspect of the Christian faith is the fact that despite our wickedness, we may boldly approach the throne of grace -- boldly, not with trepidation, not with uncertainty, but with absolute confidence.  I know beyond the shadow of any doubt that my Savior will one day welcome me into His open arms, and that all mysteries of life, the universe, and everything will one day finally be answered -- but not until I come into His presence.  In the meantime, I intend to live a life which celebrates that confidence, knowing that man's pursuit of knowledge and understanding begins and culminates with Christ Himself.


Psalm 18.1-3: "I love you, O LORD, my strength.  The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.  I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised."


20 September 2012

A Tribute to a Friend I've Known Since Birth

Just today, I happened to find myself thinking about you.  Maybe it has something to do with getting another year older, or maybe it was just a random bit of nostalgia that brought you to mind.  Or maybe it's the fact that you're sitting in my living room chair at this moment, just as reliable and patient and omnipresent as always.

The things I remember most about you growing up are your quiet nature, your calming spirit.  I remember the pensive quality of your gaze, so consistent despite my oscillating temperament.  You were always agreeable too, and loyal, but not to the point of being a sheep.  Maybe you didn't stand up to me as much as you should have, but I could always sense the disapproval you kept to yourself when I was up to no good.  In that way, you were a leader, even as you were a follower.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, you got just as dirty as I did when we were young - if not more so.  We took our leaps together, and - consequently - our falls.  My successes were yours, and my failures likewise.  You had your stitches, and I had mine.  Boyhood was rough on the both of us, the way it should be.  It taught us the taste of grass and fused the sensation of sweat running down our backs with the sense of accomplishment gleaned from hard work.

I think maybe we were so close because you were a reflection of the things I couldn't yet be - characteristics and qualities I wanted, but things for which I had to mature first in order to grasp.  Maybe you were a template, one that wasn't much like me, but a mouthpiece for all my quirks and the recipient all my ideas, all my imaginings, which no one else could possibly understand or handle the way you could.  In that sense, you were my muse, my confidant.  You embodied the songs I couldn't yet write, the stories I couldn't yet transcribe.  You were my first audience and my first critic, but you were gentle and we learned together how to dream big.

It's amusing in retrospect.  As a kid, you don't think about these kinds of things.  You just accept things as they are, at face value.  Things are black and white, hard and easy, bad and good.  The world only becomes complex when you shed that type of binary thinking in favor of adult ideas - gray areas, revelation, and common sense.  As a kid, you were simply my friend, a playmate, company in times of loneliness and celebration.  You were simply there, and I loved you for it.  Time and again, you let me drag you behind me through the muck of life (sometimes literally) and still got up on the other side with a smile on your face - a smile which said, very plainly, "Let's do that again."

I want my children to have a friend like you while things are still simple.  In fact, I want them to have you.  I want their experiences with you to be just as memorable, just as enlightening.  And when they get older, wiser, and more knowledgeable of the world, I hope they look back on their friendship with you and remember the romance of childhood.  My warm, golden summers of the 1990's on the East Coast would have been merely sticky transitions without you beside me to enjoy them; for my kids, I want the same.

And maybe, just maybe, I'll make them read Calvin & Hobbes as much as I did too.

13 September 2012

Living and Active

In my youth group, we are currently teaching through the living and active qualities of the Word of God (as per Hebrews 4.12), and just this morning I was reminded of that very fact in my own personal study.  It's perhaps an ironic example of progressive sanctification: we never learn so much that we don't have any further to go, and often as I ponder teaching on a topic, I find myself needing the very instruction I intend to give.

As of this morning, I have a new life verse.  Job 27.6 says, "I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days."  Job, a man who was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but who had done nothing but pursue righteousness throughout his life, was forced to build a defense against his good-intentioned friends - friends who had heard of his calamity and unanimously decided that Job's personal wickedness had brought about his suffering.  Yet in the midst of his emotional, spiritual, and physical torment, Job famously blessed the name of the Lord and held fast to his innocence.

Reading that verse this morning, I pondered all of my failures just this week alone, and then the failures of my life as a whole, and I found myself thinking, "Wow, I wish that I could say that with the same conviction as Job."  Like Belshazzar, I've been weighed in the balances and found wanting.  But then I remembered that I can read this verse with conviction.  I don't need to build a defense against friends, family - anyone.  I stand redeemed by the saving work of Jesus Christ, and although I have failed time and again, I strive to glorify Him when He gives and when He takes away.  Job's claim to righteousness was not in anything he by himself had done, but in his ultimate desire to remain obedient to the Lord.  Likewise, I have no confidence in my own initiative.  My works of righteousness are nothing more than filthy rags if I count on them independently from Christ.  Furthermore, my failures are covered by His grace.

People always pull out that "no regrets, no consequences" mentality, encouraging others to live like there's no tomorrow.  But I want to live as though there is a tomorrow, a tomorrow where I can open the Word and reflect on the fact that I am consistently walking with Christ, and consistently pursuing righteousness.  I don't want to cram it all into one day because I've squandered yesterday and am worried I might not get another chance.  I don't just want to avoid regret.  I want a lifetime of days throughout which I can quote Job 27.6 with firm conviction - so that when there finally is no more tomorrow, I can stand before my Father and, instead of weeping for shame over of all my wasted opportunities, I can weep for joy instead, and boldly state, "My heart does not reproach me for any of my days."  More than anything else, I long to hear my Father welcome me into His kingdom with the proud words, "Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master."

26 June 2012

That Crazy Lady

I came home from work today to find my wife's computer sitting out on the desk, along with a note that said something to the extent of “I was studying the Word this morning and felt convicted, so I had to write out my thoughts, please read.”  Curious, and steeling myself for the needling daggers of humbling conviction, I sat down and opened her computer.  Her thoughts (with permission) are as follows:

I met a crazy lady the other day, or so I thought. As I sat with a number of other women around a table, celebrating a soon-to-be wedding day, a woman I'd never met before was talking non-stop about Jesus. She began repeatedly expressing her love for Jesus and sharing in detail all the joy she received for being a child of His. I knew everything she was saying was true - things like “He is my protector,” “He is giving me the strength I need to get thru my husband’s death,” and “I told my son he needs to take his decision to go on the Jamaica Missions trip before the throne.” Jesus saturated her conversation. As I sat listening, knowing how true all this was yet hearing those around me agreeing with a chorus of vaguely uncomfortable “mmhmm’s,” I couldn’t help but wonder if they were thinking, as I was, that she was a little bit too extreme.

It wasn’t until today, two days later, that I realized how crazy I am for failing to see just how much I lack true joy. This woman knew how much God loves His children. She understood that His love is such that He was willing to give His only Son so that we, as sinful as we are, could come home and enjoy heaven with Him (John 3:16-17; Hebrews 10:12-14). She clung to the God who is so powerful that He took down kingdom after kingdom for His children, the Israelites, and who promises to be our strength and refuge today.

You see, there is this battle I fight, one we all probably fight. I want to be perfect and honor Jesus. A big part of that, for me, is spending quality time in the Word, daily. I know all I have to do is say no to watching that episode of my favorite TV show in order to get a few more moments to spend in study, but what do I do? Typically, I justify laziness as weariness and promise myself that I'll just do it another day or later.

Do I? Not usually.

How is it that something so amazing as spending time in the Word of God is such a struggle to pursue? Reading the redemption story is medicine for a bad day’s work. It is healing for drowning in the midst of a materialistic public which desires nothing more than getting everything it wants. It is comfort for a death in the family or the loss of a loved one. It is peace in the midst of battle with a life-changing disease. We face these things day after day, but instead of turning to the Word of God, what do we do to get us through? Cry? Vent on our newest social network? Complain to friends? Distract ourselves through various media and entertainment?

The truth is, the lady wasn’t crazy. We are - that is, those of us who restrict ourselves from glorifying our Lord and Savior the way she does by worshiping comfort and entertainment. We DO NOT give God the glory He deserves - the type of life-consuming adoration which He justly required of the Israelites and desires in His church. Knowing who He is and what He has done should make us drop to our knees to thank Him endlessly (Phil 2:10-11). Time and time again, despite our sinful pursuits, He forgives. I thought that woman was being a bit dramatic about how amazing God is and how powerful He is, but in reality we should be just as zealous (Isaiah 25:9).


There's nothing that I need to add. All that comes to mind is Psalm 8.3-5: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” We serve a God who deserves our zealous and passionate adoration, the kind which should consume every aspect of our lives, because He dotes upon us when we deserve nothing.

Of course, I'm also reminded of Proverbs 31.10 and 26: “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels... She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”

Gentlemen, listen when your wives share the convictions of their hearts. Chances are, you've got some changing to do too.

13 June 2012

Contentment in Comfort and Catastrophe

Situational living is part of the Christian walk.  By that, I mean the daily denial of self in order to meet challenges with patience and joy, rolling with the punches and learning to appreciate each blow to the jaw as instructional.  As Paul put it to the Philippians, we should be “content in every situation without exception (4.11).  Unfortunately, I think we miss that mark on both ends of the spectrum.  Are we content in the valleys, trusting in the provision and protection of the Father, or do we find ourselves complaining instead, pleading for a more comfortable situation?  Do we remain faithful on the mountaintops, giving glory to our Father when our lives are full of blessings, or do we allow that sense of elation solidify into complacence-facilitating pride?

The greatest thing the Lord values is consistence in His children.  The emotional and spiritual roller coaster lives we live are the product of living in an unstable world.  We shouldn't require weekend retreats to re-kindle passion for ministry.  We shouldn't crawl from Sunday to Sunday, like living paycheck to paycheck, in order to be revived in our pursuit of righteousness.  Regardless of our circumstances, our faith in the Lord should be our constant propulsion.  The passage in Revelation 3 in which Christ threatens to vomit the church of Laodecia from His mouth is less about His rejection of unbelievers than His desire for usefulness to the kingdom.  Both cold and hot water have functions, but lukewarm water stagnates.  As Matthew Henry recorded in his commentary on the New Testament, “[Just] as lukewarm water turns the stomach, and provokes to a vomit, lukewarm professors turn the heart of Christ against them.  He is sick of them, and cannot long bear them.  They may call their lukewarmness charity, meekness, moderation, and a largeness of soul; it is nauseous to Christ, and makes those so that allow themselves in it.”  Lukewarmness results from going with the flow, allowing circumstance to dictate how we live.  This type of existence is useless to God: He desires followers whose hearts praise Him in both the valleys and on the mountaintops.

The story of Job is the classic example of faith in suffering.  His life is a testament to the fact that all believers can remain faithful even in the worst of circumstances.  In one afternoon, Job lost his seven sons, his three daughters, and every last beast from his impressive herds of cattle – herds which were his livelihood.  But instead of blaming God, Job turned his mourning into worship – certainly grieving his situation, but without sinning (Job 1.20-22) -- at least, initially.

What about us?  Do we worship in spite of and because of our circumstances?  Too often we have the audacity to show contempt for the One who gives us the strength to overcome any challenge.  Because He has chosen to allow us to experience a hardship, one which is intended to grow us more into the image of His son, we feel slighted, forgetting that our God desires to work on us, to perfect us for His glory and our ultimate good.  Yet we have nothing but frustration for Him in those times.

"How dare He take that from me?"

"How dare He put that obstacle in my path when He knows I struggle with that?"

"How dare He challenge my thinking when I've understood it this way for as long as I can remember?"

We have a severely misplaced sense of ownership, right, and privilege.  We are far too prideful, and far too easily satisfied with easy physical and emotional comfort.  If we can only be “strong” Christians when living at the height of stability, what is that faith really worth?  What good is our claim to love God more than anything else if we become self-interested when our plans seem to be coming together?  In either situation, we tend to worship the gift more than the Giver, simply because the gift is more tangible: either we cling to what we have, or we crave what we lack.

I think the guy in Scriptures who had the most going for him was unquestionably Solomon.  Anyone who can spend 13 years building his mansion, who did not possess any dishes which weren't made of solid gold, and who had the opportunity to ask the Lord for anything (and, in choosing wisdom, veritably received everything) is a person who understands the allure of earthly contentment.  Predictably, Solomon's life is a paradoxical example: while he initially demonstrates the heart attitude which we as believers should maintain when life is good, he later models idolatrous behavior which we should clearly not emulate.  As a result of what he began to consider his successful reign over Israel, Solomon's heart wandered from the Lord's, and he even began worshipping other gods at the behest of his 700 wives and 300 concubines.  It is in Ecclesiastes which Solomon (likely) records the futility of such a lifestyle, acknowledging that “God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting” (Ecc 2.26).  Ironically, the author of Ecclesiastes now considers the accumulation of wealth to be nothing more than a chore, a delegated task to one undeserving.

Neither you nor I will know the wealth which Solomon possessed.  However, we do know his pride, because we become enamored with our own successes – no matter how small.  We want to be self-made men and women, independent and respected.  But we must remember that we owe all credit to the One who is truly in control.  If my identity is found in Christ alone, then the wealth of this world can have no hold upon my heart, because true value is found only in the pursuit of righteousness.  When life is good, I should take opportunity to express heartfelt gratitude to the Lord, not take my turn in the spotlight.

The apostle Paul gives an important reminder to the believers at Ephesus at the end of chapter 3: “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3.20, 21). In one breath, Paul ascribes to God the praise He so justly deserves and simultaneously reminds the reader that our Savior has given so much more than we can ever ask – or even imagine. He is the father who knows how to give good gifts, who is a “very present help in times of trouble” (Matt 7.7-11; Jas 1.16-18; Psa 46.1-3). Yet we still manage to grow discontent with His provision in the times that are less than rosy. We blame God for our awful circumstances instead of viewing them through the lens of thankfulness. We become prideful at our achievements instead of recognizing God's sovereign hand over our relative good fortune.

The fact of the matter is that we have been abundantly blessed, and despite the fact that circumstances may change around us for better or worse, that blessing does not change.  This is due to the fact that blessings do not equate to material things.  We say things all the time like, “God blessed us with this house,” which is certainly a true statement, but let us not mistakenly think that the house is the manifestation of God's blessing.   There is no profit to be had under the sun, even though everything we have is God-given (Ecc 2.11).  That house could burn to the ground, but that would not mean that God had taken away His blessing.  The true blessing we've received, God's unending love for us in the person of His Son, never fails.  We often think of the love chapter (1 Corinthians 13) as a checklist of what horizontal love amongst our brothers and sisters should emulate, but it is also a description of the vertical love which God shares with us.  His love is perfect, His love is patient, His love is kind.  His incomparable love keeps no record of wrong.   In unending gratitude, we should seek to love Him so perfectly in return.

Our yearning for a better and better relationship with God enables us to be content with nothing in this world because our love for God is unfailing, insatiable, and ultimately not tied to earthly comfort.  Likewise, when life seems to be a smooth ride, humbly seeking His face enables us to avoid complacence and self-worship.  Although this world has plenty of distractions to offer, none brings the ultimate joy and satisfaction of relationship with almighty God.

So the question then remains: in either situation, in wealth or famine, which do you love more – your God, or your comfort?  Your growth or your immediate gratification?  Your God or your god?

11 June 2012

Seeking Your Face, Not Only Your Hand

According to my wife, I've grown in confidence since we've been married.   I worry less about who I am and my abilities than I did while we were dating, she says.  Although I've definitely noticed this change myself, if not definitively, I still find myself lapsing into old ways of thinking from time to time. As someone who has wrestled with what some would call “self-esteem issues” for the majority of my teenage and adult life, I've come to expect myself to fail the first time and to always learn the hard way.  In other words, departure from this mode of thinking is definitely a positive thing, but only if my newfound confidence is not based in myself.

The reality is that, no matter how stern our temperament or how firm our resolve may be, the human existence is saturated in failure, disappointment, anxiety.  Our problem, whether or not we admit it, is that we all rely far too much on our own strength and far too little upon the omnipotence of God.  Perhaps it is unconscious, or maybe it is active, but our default setting is not to let Jesus handle our problems.  We like to do everything ourselves, as though God is not big enough to handle our massive problems, or simply can't be bothered to trouble with the tiny ones.  Though we recall the promise in Isaiah 40.31 about gleaning strength from the Lord, we still allow ourselves to become encumbered by the burdens of this life instead of entrusting them to our loving Father, who is able and willing to carry us and them through the difficulties we face.

Discouragement, therefore, is ultimately the bitter fruit of self–reliance.

Even John the Baptist became discouraged.  John the Baptist -- the voice in the wilderness boldly preparing the way for the Messiah, the humble best man who of his own volition decreased so that the Bridegroom could increase.  The guy who ate locusts and lived in the rough, who stood up to the Pharisees and baptized hundreds of followers.  That guy.  Imprisoned by a fearful King Herod, John sent some of his disciples to enquire of Jesus whether or not He truly was the Messiah.  Though he had baptized Jesus himself, not to mention preached to the multitudes that Jesus was indeed the one foretold, John still found himself doubting the authenticity of Jesus' claim to be the Messiah.  He had allowed his personal expectations of what the Messiah would do and how He would present Himself to cloud his perception of what Jesus was seeking to accomplish.  As Christ replies to John's inquiry, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preaches to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Luke 7.22, 23).  Jesus' response is unquestionably directed at John's doubt, but it is encouragement and not rebuke.  In his weakness, John had lost sight of the Messiah by becoming mired in his own opinions, and owed his loss of perspective to failed expectations and besetting circumstances.

This is where I see us.  We do exactly what John did.  As soon as Jesus fails to meet our expectations, we begin to question His authenticity.  However, it is not Jesus failing to succeed, but us failing to esteem Him as He deserves.  Therefore, it is our perspective that needs to change, not Jesus' response.

Alternately, when beset by difficult circumstances, we become like Peter walking on the water: bold in our belief until we take our eyes off of Jesus.  I think Peter, as he climbed out of the boat and took his first steps toward Jesus, must have been thinking something panic-happy -- “I'm really doing it!  I'm really doing it!”  However, the fact is that he couldn't do it -- not by himself.  Walking on water is a physically impossible feat for a human being.  The Mythbusters proved that even ninjas can't do it.

Suddenly -- catching sight of the unsettled waves cresting on either side of him, realizing that the boat with his friends had been carried well out of his reach -- Peter found himself floundering beneath the water, having lost the battle to both his pride and his fear.

In the same way, we can't handle our circumstances alone either.  God provides all the encouragement and the strength we need to pass through the waves of life.  He promises to never leave us, and never to allow us to encounter challenges too great to handle.  It is when we allow ourselves to become distracted by the worries and troubles of everyday living that we begin to doubt and become discouraged.  Like John, we lose confidence when Jesus doesn't conform to our prideful notions; like Peter, we become overwhelmed when we credit ourselves instead of depending upon Christ.  In either circumstance, the moment we begin to obsess over a situation is the moment we esteem God unable to handle it and instead seek to resolve the issue ourselves.

As humans, perhaps our greatest idol is control (or the illusion thereof).  Anxiety and worry are centralized fear of losing the control we desire: when I don't know what is going to happen at the job interview tomorrow, I stress because it is outside of my control and I desperately want to be in control.  Jesus addresses this issue compassionately in Matthew 6: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to the span of his life?  Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.  Sufficient for the day is it's own trouble” (Matt 6.25, 27, 34).  This is as much comforting as it is a challenge.  Simply, our heavenly Father provides all of our needs and there is nothing gained or accomplished by worrying.  Instead, we should be keeping our eyes on Christ -- the One who truly is in control.

As it pertains to self-esteem, God's sovereignty is something which should supersede our sense of self.  While conforming to the image of Christ is not about compromising my identity as an individual, it is about shedding insecurities, sinful habits, and incorrect thinking.  If I'm more concerned about dying to myself in order to be more like Christ, then I'm naturally going to be less concerned about my shortcomings.  The fact of the matter is that a low self-esteem is just as much a pride issue as arrogance.  Either attitude takes control from God and places it in the hands of me: either I'm good enough to get along without God, or I'm a mistake of God and therefore beyond His ability to help.  Both lines of thinking provide infinite means of justifying sin in our lives – sins which will severely callous our hearts if left unchecked.  Maintaining either frame of mind, we are looking only for a helping hand if we turn to God, and not totally giving our lives to Him in worship.

Regardless of where we find ourselves, we each need to honestly answer the following question: do we trust in the Lord's provision, or are we like the seed which the sower threw amongst the thorns -- springing up immediately, but quickly stifled by the weeds amongst which it fell?  Faith in the provision of the Lord is not some type of superficial means of convincing one's self of security.  It is a genuine trust and an unshakeable understanding that God the Father truly does have control, that He has our best interests at heart, and that He will provide the necessities we require.

Our confidence cannot be in ourselves.  We can remain unburdened by the challenges facing us only by focusing intently upon the face of Jesus.

08 June 2012

Negative Nellies

Complaining seems to be the unfortunate benchmark of Christianity.  We are never known for what we stand for – only what we stand against.  We hate our suffering, we hate our circumstances, we even hate people.  And sometimes we blatantly accuse God of giving us more than we can handle, ultimately forgetting His promise in Deuteronomy 30: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?'  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?'  But the word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and it is in your heart, so that you can do it.”  In fact, Jesus reaffirmed this promise to His disciples, reminding them that the burden He required them to bear was easy and manageable (Matt 11.30).  Similarly, God does not allow us to undergo temptation greater than we can handle (1 Cor 10.13), and a quick perusal of the Psalms reveals the fact that not only is God our protector, but He also fights the battles for us.  In fact, the war we are required to fight is not one which we cannot win.  It has already been won.

In other words, we have nothing to complain about. We have been given the greatest gift in the world: grace which saves us from ourselves. We did nothing to earn it, and for this reason I use the passive voice intentionally: chosen by God, we have been called to the office of discipleship – following in the very footsteps of Jesus. When we complain – when we forget how easy our responsibility is in comparison to Jesus' – we choose to ignore the fact that with discipleship necessarily comes suffering and persecution. In fact, the circumstances we find besetting us were given in the job description of discipleship: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15.18-25).

Often, we mistake the “if” for a possibility and find ourselves miserable when things don't go the way we expected, but this is not an indefinite statement.  It is an absolute.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Gestapo in 1943 for his vocally anti–Nazi stance, reminds the believer in The Cost of Discipleship that picking up our cross to follow Christ is our willing acceptance of “sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest.”  In other words, until death.  This means acknowledging, as Christ Himself forewarned, that we will be rejected and despised by the world.  This means being identified with Christ, suffering the way he did to the point of death.  I want to be careful with this statement at the same time I want to be bold.  This type of death is both figurative and literal: we should always be 100% ready to give our life literally for the sake of the gospel.  That is not a frame of mind we like to keep, but it is one that not only missionaries to underdeveloped countries should maintain.  Chances are, we will not be required to literally give our lives for the gospel the way Bonhoeffer did, but we should be ready and willing to.  For this reason, “suffering to the last and to the fullest” also includes dying to ourselves daily – in other words, constantly striving against the sinful desires of our hearts and renewing our commitment to righteousness day after day.  If we are no longer dead in our trespasses, but dead to them, then we should no longer continue sinning by living as though our lives are our own.

As Bonhoeffer was keen to observe, we cannot mistake God's free calling as “cheap grace,” what he defined as a self–bestowed grace – one which equates to the “preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism, church discipline; communion without confession, absolution without personal confession; without discipleship, without the cross, without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.”  In other words, Bonhoeffer is cautioning against embracing an ideal of grace which costs us nothing.  Grace is certainly “cheap” in the sense that we do nothing to earn it, but it is costly because it required our Savior to lay down His life in order to dispense it freely, and it will require us to do the same in response.  It requires suffering, and it requires sacrifice.  It requires every facet of our lives.  “Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection,” Bonhoeffer continues, “so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord's suffering and rejection and crucifixion.  Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.”

In the Old Testament, the Israelites were given a conditional covenant – that God's provision would be a direct and concurrent result of their obedience to His law.  Although our covenant today is not a conditional one, it still requires obedience on our part – not an obedience which leads to salvation, because we cannot achieve that of our own volition, but a willing submission which is a response to saving grace.  The principle of faith and works (Jas 2) is that they are dependent upon one another: faith should drive us to obedience, and submission in turn should increase our faith.  In this manner, discipleship is a process of walking through suffering in obedience and faith, trusting that because the Son of Man suffered and endures all these things, He knows and understands our pain.

As a Christian, don't be known by your negativity, but by your willingness to lay down your life (literally and metaphorically) in the name of discipleship.  Ultimately, the burden we bear as believers is lighter by far than the one we would otherwise be carrying, and the suffering which comes as a result is not a cause for sorrow but for joy (Jas 1.2).  Complaining is only a sign of a hard and ungrateful heart.  It is a response which cheapens the incomparable gift we have been given.  We owe everything to the Lord for what He has done.  It is for this reason that King David, when offered oxen to sacrifice by Araunah, refused to take them without payment, insisting, "No, but I will buy it from you for a price.  I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing" (2 Sam 24.24).

Grace is a free gift, so let us give ourselves freely for it in return.