Category Archives: Spirituality

Rembrandt_-_Jeremiah_lamenting

Psalms of Lament

There is a collection of ancient Hebrew poems that express confusion, despair, doubt, fear, anger, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and stress.

The frustration and angst, often, is directed toward God himself.

And these poems make the cut. They get put into the Bible.

They are the Psalms of Lament. Apparently, the Hebrews believed that we could live those feelings and experiences before the face of God.

We live in a world that seems increasingly chaotic and a lot of people are tired of pretending everything is fine. They see the fracture in the universe. They see it out there, and they feel it in their own chests.

Unfortunately, many churches exclusively offer peppy, happy-go-lucky gatherings, convincing those in attendance that cliche God-stuff can be mixed in as an add-on to their life and it will all be fine.

A lot of people buy in. But, a lot of people are not buying it.

Too often, Christians fail to speak into the dark places. Secular voices, however, are attempting to address these issues, and people are listening — a point made so wisely in a recent article. (The title of the article is “In Sweden, Human Darkness is Confronted by the Arts Not the Church: If the church is to survive, it doesn’t need to be nice – it must address the big existential questions of sin and death” Read this!)

TS Eliot wrote,

“Why should men love the Church?…
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.” *

I find it encouraging to know that the Bible offers language, modes of prayer, and worship in our darkest times. We can tell of these unpleasant facts, yes, but we can also offer a way to worship in the midst of them.

The Psalms of Lament are that pathway. We have such a resource to offer people in dark places.

The good news in these Psalms is that Jesus felt those feelings too. From his cross, he cried the cry of one of them, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”

He went into that dark place for you and for me.

I think we need to recover these ancient texts.

Not to necessarily dwell on them exclusively — because life under God’s rule is filled with pure joy and beauty also. We are followers of a resurrected Lord for goodness sake. This means there are all kinds of reasons for hope and joy and celebration.

But we should recover these Psalms and carve a space for them into our rhythms of worship.

We need them to speak for us when we just aren’t sure. Which happens to be a lot of the time…

  • T S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 96.
Deeper Well

“I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.” A conversation with Evan Way from Deeper Well

I first came across their music on a lark, one of those “fortunate falls” of internet browsing and music streaming that yielded a font of good tastes and great content that hasn’t let up since.  You see Deeper Well, a recording arm of Door of Hope Church, fashions themselves as a “Gospel Collective.”  They manage to heard some or most of the creative cats in their care to produce startlingly original, well perhaps not original at all, but at least refreshing, music from, by, and for the Church (and anyone else who’s listening).  Led by pastor/musician Josh White (formerly of the Christian Anglo-invasion-philic pop outfit, Telecast, and Evan Way (currently fronting the sunny vintage pop act The Parson Red Heads) this motley crew has been busy, diverse, prolific, and generous in its mere two or so years of existence.  The result is a wild panoply of scripturally rich, aesthetically integral tunes.  Songs about mystical experience with the living God that beget Spiritual experience.

WHMy entry point into their ever-expanding catalogue came by means of the outrageous cover art for Wounded Healer, a sort of coming out party for this self-styled collective.  Many of the songs formed congregationally and became fixtures in their corporate worship gatherings.  One listen and you get the sense that you’re hearing imminent throwback music, what hippies hoped for before they were tamed by age or hormones or the eighties.  They pulse and throb with immediacy and playfulness.

EaderJust when your ears begin to adjust to the textures, intricacies, and excesses of Wounded Healer, they put out Wesley Randolph Eader’s record, another favorite, but for completely different reasons.  If Wounded Healer takes us back to a Jesus People commune, Eader’s record rewinds the tape all the way back to the Dustbowl.  With the precision of Charles Wesley and grit and ease of Woody Guthrie, Of Old It Was Recorded takes some pretty familiar forms and incarnates them, indeed overflows them, with nothing short of the story of the Good News.

Josh WhiteAll this brings us to their two newest releases, all of which are offered as free downloads, a grace-gift to the public.  In December 2013, they posted an album of reworked, stripped down in most cases, Josh White-Telecast tunes.  Listening to these next to their predecessors really shows the original strength of their writing and how they were built.  In some cases, the songs reveal a superior beauty not unlike a lady without her makeup.  Fresh, innocent, and perfect not despite but often because of their blemishes.

Liz ViceWhat’s even more impressive is when one of these gems gets recorded a third way, given to someone else’s facilities, surrendered to their minor variances, and phrasing decisions.  Take Liz Vice’s shot at “Enclosed by You” on There’s a Light (released TODAY 1/14/14!).  Originally a Telecast tune, then stripped to its bones on Josh’s record, it might actually sound best out of Liz’s soulful mouth.  The rest of the record effortlessly shape-shifts, like trying on clothes at a thrift shop or spinning warped LPs (mostly Shirley Ann Lee, Roberta Flack, the Staples Singers, and Nina Simone).  You want to go back there, wherever then and there was.

I had the chance to chat with Evan Way, Pastor of Worship and Arts at Door of Hope about their approach and some of their hopes.  When I spoke to him in November, I caught him in the middle of an odd stretch where he’d just returned from a trip to Manhattan to perform children’s music in a band at a church, and was about to go on the Portland NPR affiliate to promote his band, The Parson Red Head’s album release.  Music.  Faith.  Bicoastal.  Bipolar.  This mash-up seems to characterize the church’s approach to music, and an offhand comment revealed something of the power of art’s ability and relation to the life of faith, “I learned Scripture better by playing in a band.”  I asked him about some of those bands and some of that intersection.

Hopeful Realism: What are some of your greatest hopes in making this kind of art?

Evan Way: We just want to see music that is good, quality music that is theologically sound, Christ-centered, and scripture-formed.  I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to just react to Christian culture, because even the lousiest Christian music can do good things.  My desire is to see really quality music that can actually transcend boundaries of “Christian music” that someone normally might not give the time of day.

We’re created in God’s image, part of what that means is that we’re creative people who are naturally bent to need to create things and hopefully they’re things that reflect Jesus.  As much as I’d love this music to be great for us to sing together in the church or for the people of the congregation, my heart is for those outside the congregation to hopefully hear it and have it speak to them in a surprising way.

HR: Making something that is musically excellent, that sounds good and has integrity, is pretty tricky.  It seems to me that a lot of Christian producers and musicians don’t know what to do with the imperfections in music that, despite their technical error, actually give a song, or album or moment “soul.”  Frustratingly, it seems like excellence, in Christian music circles, is usually equated with “perfect,” impossible, or fake sounds.

EW: Yeah, you really start getting down to defining what one person means by “perfect sounds.”  Do I think those sounds are perfect sounds?  No, I’d much rather hear a gritty guitar played through a crappy tube amp.  To me that is a more real, more perfect sound.  It’s really been important to us to not try to make these records into something that they’re not.

I know that there has to be more quality Christian music out there.  I haven’t quite solved the mystery of why you can’t find it.  Rather than solve the mystery, we just thought we’d try to make the kind of records we’re interested in and make them available.

HR: Why has giving away your music for free been so important?

EW: I never wanted to do it if we were going to be selling the albums.  The idea is to be generous with the things and the talents we’ve been given…to say “this music is our gift to you.” Our business model has been to create music focused on Jesus and to give it away because it’s never been about us.  It’s very dangerous, the moment you start making money.  You start to think about a bottom line, and not what you’re making.  Giving our music away puts your goals in the right place.

In this we’ve learned a lot from Josh Garrels and his music.  He always gives his newest album away for a year.  After a year, he “retires” it.  This came about because he was making a record and having a hard time, going through a dark season with his career, and he said one day God told him, “if you love me and you’re doing this for me, then give it away for free.”  He did it.  And when he did he had more success than he ever did before.

HR: As a touring musician and as a worship leader, what do you find in common with those two roles?  What’s different?  What do you find you have to unlearn?

EW: When I first started leading, I had to keep reminding myself that leading worship was not like playing a concert.  It’s tempting to forget that you shouldn’t be getting the same sort of attention or glory from putting on a show.  There are a lot of similarities between the two roles, but in many ways they’re totally different.

It’s been interesting how leading worship has affected my playing with the Parsons.  I’ve been focusing more and more about making that band about giving God control and allowing Him to do whatever he wants with it, even though its not a worship band.  Everything we have we have because God’s blessed us.  I view both as  ministry.

HR: Is the music you’re putting out in these albums only possible in Portland?

EW: Maybe more than just being in the city, it’s the part of the city.  Here in the Southeast part there are so many creative artists.  There seems to be a real revival of faith and people really trying to live their faith out.  I don’t think we’d be doing what we are without these people, not only musicians and songwriters, but visual artists, photographers, and filmmakers trying to use their gifts for Christ regardless of how the money works out.  I can’t say that this could only happen in Portland, but I also can’t say that I’ve ever been around something like this before, anywhere else.  A lot of things have come together and God has really brought people together.

Theology of the Cross vs. Theology of Glory

Since I was introduced to the concept in seminary (about 5 years ago), I can’t get Luther’s dichotomy out of my head.

Luther believed that there was as way of being a theologian and of understanding God that was really about us, our comfort, a stamp of approval on our notions of who God might be. He called this a “theology of glory.”

In contrast, there was as way of being a theologian and of understanding God that looks to the cross. God is not who we think he is, notions of “power,” “glory,” “might,” “triumph,” and everything else must be re-thought through a cross-shaped lens. This is the “theology of the cross.”

Think about it, we call today “Good Friday.” This tradition demonstrates that our understanding of “good” has been re-thought already in light of the cross. For Luther and for subsequent Lutheran thought, the theology of the cross is a way to understand God, a way of understanding how God deals with the world, a way to understand our lives under him.

So much more could be written here…

Our friend Wesley Hill wrote a piece today, called, “Anger Room.”

Hill’s post makes this dichotomy come alive.

Particularly appropriate to share on this Good Friday.

Ash-Wednesday-cross

Lenten Spirituality

(I’m increasingly interested in the church calendar and the rhythms of spirituality that it provides. I’m a novice here! But here’s a little something I wrote on Lent a few weeks ago for purposes in my local church. Lent is certainly a season of “hopeful realism.” We see the reality of who we are, push through that tedious exploration in order to hope in Christ. We are who we thought we were. But, Christ is who he is too.)

“Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”

Ash Wednesday begins the Season of Lent. In a traditional Ash Wednesday service, worshippers have ashes imposed on their foreheads, as the above words are recited.

These words serve as a reminder of who we are. We are the “dusty ones.” God knows this, remembers this (Psalm 103). Lent is a time for us to acknowledge and remember this, too. We don ashes to express a desire to move toward faith and repentance.

Lent is the season in the church’s year that’s intended to point us inward — to remind of us of who we are. In Lenten spirituality, we prod and examine deep into the depths of our sin, short-comings, brokenness, inadequacies, disobedience and rebellion. It’s a season of repentance from these things. A season of dwelling in our dustiness, of cultivating contrition.

However, our gospel instincts remind us that such inwardness is always incomplete (maybe dangerous?).

Lent, therefore, is a journey. Lenten spirituality is both negative (a turning from sin) and positive (a turning towards Jesus). We plunge into the depths of our sin, in order that we plunge into the depths of Christ and his passion journey. Lent culminates in the celebration of Holy Week, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

“There is no pit so deep that God’s grace isn’t deeper still” (attributed to Corrie Ten Boom) — that’s the shape of the Lenten journey. Lent brings us into the cross-hairs of God’s righteous and holy judgment, in order to bring us into the cross-hairs of his love and grace.

All of this dusty and ashy contrition makes us ready for the explosive hope of Easter.

Lenten reflections tend to follow the way of Jesus towards the cross. As we wade into our struggles, we find him there to meet us. May we take this journey, remember who we are, embrace our neediness, remembering and turning to the One who has gone before. It is in this movement that the Christian finds his home.

candles

Advent

(A basic little something I wrote for practical purposes at my church. The season of Advent is quite the season for hopeful realism, by the way.)

On Advent

Time, how it’s used and its soul-shaping quality, is really important in Christian spirituality. The daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms of our lives are not a neutral aspect of the life of faith.

This is always been recognized in the tradition.

Early Christians, using the Jewish rhythms — feasts, holy days, etc. — as a point of departure, began to think of the yearly Christian experience in seasons. This is where we get the idea of the church calendar.

Advent is one such season.

Advent is not Christmas. It’s the season before Christmas, intended to guide us into the desperate longing and somewhat frustrated waiting that has always been associated with the people of God. Longing and waiting for God to come to rescue, fulfill, deliver, restore, make things new and fresh.

Think of profound things you’ve had to wait for. Think of that weird frustration/swirling angst/sometimes faint hope/painful longing you felt. That feeling comes close to the heart of the Advent season.

At Advent, we enter into the desperate longing and somewhat frustrated waiting of the people of Israel, as they hoped and anticipated the arrival of God’s anointed, king-like figure, foretold in the shadowy, mythic oracles of the prophets. This anointed-one would somehow play a role in the re-establishment of Lord’s rule and reign in the world. We feel their desperation, and taste the seemingly delusional hope that their God just might be the kind of God who would break-in and make things right and new.

At Advent, we also enter into desperate longing and somewhat frustrated waiting of Christians everywhere, as we hope and anticipate the re-arrival of Christ. He snuck into our world in a unnervingly ordinary way the first time. The second time will be a different story.

And the great Christian hope is that he will appear to finish the job he started. To re-assert his rule and reign in a final and complete way.

Again, we long, hope and wait. All the while remembering that our God just might be the kind of God who would bring such total and complete restoration.

The Christian journey is lived in the tension of these two Advents, arrivals, comings. God’s kingdom’s re-establishment has been launched in Jesus’ arrival. This kingdom is here, but not quite fully here yet. It will be here fully (eventually) but for now we wait.

By the way, if this living-between-comings doesn’t explain a lot about our lives and our world, I don’t know what does.

Advent is the season when we enter into this story. When, in a uniquely focused manner, we read, think, pray, long, wait and hope along these lines.

If you are in need of Christ in a fresh way in the very mundane ordinary realities of you life, if there are things that only he can give for which you are longing, hoping and waiting, then the Advent season is for you.

Christ came. Christ comes. Christ will come.

Get ready.

All of Christ for All of Us

Andy is across the pond, reading Calvin, drinking coffee and writing about it. I’ve enjoyed his posts immensely because I really like hearing Calvin from Calvin (which is often different than a macho, hearsay kind of Calvinism that floats around American evangelicalism, by the way…).

I remember being told that Calvin’s Institutes can be some of the richest devotional reading available. That might be hard to believe until you come across a paragraph like what follows. I came across it in another book and was glad that I did (and I was drinking coffee too!).

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him.” If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.” II.16.19  [1]

I grew up in a Christian tradition that almost solely emphasized Christ’s death for me. I never would want to minimize anything about the cross of Christ. However, I’ve only recently come to understand the significance of all of Christ’s person and work for all of our need. Not just his cross, but his life, his humanity, his obedience, etc. is salvific for us. Our union with all of him is salvation for all of us.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 527.

The Dangers of “Radical” Continued… Spiritualized Escapism

For those of you following the blog, I apologize for the hiatus in new posts.  My wife and I have been on a sobering, fast-paced trip to England.  We are moving there in early August in the face of extraordinary obstacles but with a nagging, unyielding sense of calling.  The plan (which we have been anticipating for about a decade) is for me to begin the PhD program in New Testament at the University of Durham.

This is a “radical” venture.  It may well be the most arduous path my feet will ever take.  Moving a family of six to one of the most expensive regions of the world without proper resources, and doing so for a stringently demanding degree program that will cost us so much financially, logistically and emotionally—to some, it may appear as madness.  Though I previously entertained the prospect of overseas study with a romanticized wistfulness (sipping coffee beneath the ancient beams and archways of a centuries-old library while studying theology), the severe costs of what we are undertaking has brought painful sobriety over the years.  The sense of calling, however, has only intensified, to the degree that we feel constrained to pursue the path “by faith.”

And doing anything “by faith” is just terribly inconvenient.

This is the context out of which I am writing about the dangers of “radical” (see the previous post, The Un-Romance of Radical).  In no way am I trying to bash the bestselling book Radical by David Platt.  I like the book, and I think it is so helpful in lovingly goading comfortable, safe,  and suburban Christians out of out complacency.

But there are dangers in being extreme or radical.  In my aspirations to do the PhD in England, a vocational decision attended by many painful sacrifices, and in other “radical” decisions from my past, I have noticed several impure motives that have been cloaked with the noble rhetoric of “divine calling.”  One of these dangers is “spiritualized escapism.”

Radical Leaving rather than Radical Going

I was 20 years old and wracked with angst.  I was on my knees in the tiny “prayer closet” at UGA’s Methodist Student Center.  My heart was burning so fiercely with passion to serve Christ overseas that I felt I could not go another day without a global assignment, without a divinely issued itinerary on hand.  Friends of mine were planning mission trips.  One had just withdrawn from college to go overseas, leaving behind a major scholarship.

This was my prayer that day.  And I meant every word:

Lord, just whisper a country, and I will walk to it.  I don’t care how far it is.  I don’t care what it costs.  Just whisper a place and I will go.

If I had even had the slightest sense of which nation I was being assigned to in that moment of prayer, I would have walked out of that room with the clothes on my back and headed north, south, east or west.  I did not care.  If the country was in another hemisphere, I would have walked to the nearest port city and boarded a ship secretly as a stowaway.  I just so desperately wanted a task, a mission, a feat.

I never heard a word.  I guess I ended up doing homework that night.

A couple of years later, just after graduation, I was working on a landscape crew, digging ditches, pulling Bermuda grass and mowing lawns.  I came to the conclusion by the summer’s end that God had higher things for me.  I quit my job, deciding not to bother myself with the mundane inconveniences of work.  I had bigger things ahead of me.  I took up residence in the home of a very gracious family and began praying over a stack of maps that God would send me to the darkest places on Earth because I was willing and eager to go and serve.  (I recount this season of my life in the second chapter of Faith Without Illusions).

Eventually, I ended up on the streets of a spiritually dark Southeast Asian metropolis and found myself praying a very different prayer than the ones I had been praying in the previous years and months:

Lord, please get me out of here.  And please don’t ever send me here again. 

Looking back on these prayers, I have realized that I was much more concerned with a radical leaving than with a going.  The heart behind the prayer was not so much “let me serve you, Lord” but “Lord, get me out of here.”

Escapism.

I wanted to escape the unexciting “local” for the exotic “global.”  I wanted freedom from the tedious tasks of the daily grind for the thrilling speed of travel and for the gratifying buzz of experiencing something new.  I did not want to do statistics homework—I wanted to fulfill the great commission.  I did not want to dig another ditch in the summer heat—I wanted to preach the word on a distant city street.

As a college pastor, I have seen this longing for escape at work in many other young people.  That itching angst to do something awesome, the burning passion to be a part of something big—as one familiar with these sensations, as one who has acted on them and ended up stranded on the other side of the world, I find myself calmly urging college students with similar desires to settle down a bit.

They cannot see how doing their accounting project will glorify God.  They cannot see how finishing the research paper on 18th century art forms can contribute to God’s Kingdom work.  Aren’t people dying out there from lack of clean water?  Aren’t the lost dying without the Gospel?

Yes, but an untested 20-something without the work ethic required for completing the accounting project or boring research paper will likely be of little help in dire situations overseas.

All Ministry is Local

What I failed to see in my earlier adventures was that all ministry is local.  You can wistfully scan the horizon longing for global exploits, but once the plane lands then anyone who really wants to work for change must then embrace a host of tedious, mundane disciplines that are very unexciting: learning the language, finding the right food items in the nearest market, figuring out how to use the local currency, interacting with the postal worker, finding a plumber to unclog the drain, etc., etc.

There is no escape from the local, mundane tasks of the daily grind.  Nothing may be more suitable training for radical work abroad than years of faithfulness in small, meticulous details.  Patiently digging ditches in the summer heat, regularly paying the water bill, diligently doing the homework—these are the practices of someone who is qualified not so much for a radical, wild-hare trip, but for a lifetime of slow, persistent faithfulness towards God’s radical mission.