Category Archives: Spirituality

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is the day we remember Jesus lived in the land of death.

He was dead. Really dead. In a tomb dead. As in, he was a corpse, dead.

Dead, dead.

There will come a day — if it has not come already — when the fact that Christ has gone ahead of us into death will be a great comfort to you.

When someone has gone somewhere scary first, it makes you not as afraid to go. It makes you not afraid for the ones who have gone, because they are safe.

And Jesus came out on the other side. Alive and well. So will we. So have the ones in him who have gone there already. He has made the way through the darkness of death.

We don’t have to be afraid.

On Pollen, Parenting, the Nose Sucker, and Suffering in the Life of Faith

It is all yellow in the Deep South. The Pollen-Apocalypse is upon us.

As a result, my 6 month old son, Leland, has been a sneezy, snotty, runny-nosed, and congested mess. He is not breathing well, therefore he is not sleeping well. He is not sleeping well, therefore he is whiny, exhausted, frustrated, and miserable. Because he is all of the above things, his mom and dad are weary.

Enter the bulb syringe. Affectionately referred to in our home as the “nose sucker.”

Leland hates it. It is pure torture for him. In his 6 month old mind, it is literally the worst thing in the world. I pin him down and suction crud out of his nose. He wails so hard I wonder if he is going to stop breathing. But if I stick with it, I’ll help him.

Strangely, I take no pleasure in the event itself, but I’m glad that I do it. He needs it and I’m his dad.

Further, I know what is best for him. I have a perspective he could never have. I also know what is best for our entire household, because I’m sensitive to how his allergies wear out his mother, and how they might have an effect on his brother.

I willing put my child through difficulty he neither understands or enjoys precisely because I love him.

Turns out, by the way, that I’m not the only Father who does this.

Please don’t think this account of why suffering comes to us is the only way to explain it (it’s not). Or that it explains every situation (it doesn’t). Perhaps not all suffering we experience is what my friend Matt calls, “soul making.” But it is a way to think of it.

One angle of vision on a very complex subject.

In the case of the nose sucker, it should be added that in the misery of it all, I’m with him. Giving all the comfort I can. Speaking tender words.

And that’s not nothing.

Luther on the Psalms

“Hence it is that the Psalter is the book for all the saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”

Martin Luther, “Preface to the Psalter” in Luther’s Works, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 255-56.

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.

“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.

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.