From the start of our community project, I’ve been keenly aware that we don’t have a traditional musical experience. When, in the beginning, I wondered aloud with a friend what we would do in our gatherings for “worship”, his response was to remind me that among those who had committed to join us was “probably the 4th best guitarist in the world” …. Yes. I knew this, and I also knew that the speaker himself was a pretty competent bass player–point being, we had some tools in our toolshed. But I’d had a few conversations with Guitar Player, and I knew that he was a bit burnt out on playing music on Sundays, and I was not about to pressure him to provide something to our group that he didn’t have to give. He needed rest.
One of the things I’m sensitive to is the tendency in institutions to settle into performance ruts that require a great deal of structure and organization to sustain, and that set us up for crises when they can’t be sustained. I remember a Sunday at a church years ago, when there was no drummer available, only a couple guitars and a vocalist (we regularly had a full rock band each Sunday, with several teams on a complicated schedule): the suddenly smaller, less rock-y band was blamed for things being seriously “off” in the meeting that day. While I’m pretty sure the small band was not the problem, this is a good example of a habit becoming an issue.
So, with no musicians ready to play in our meetings, I faced a challenge: I’m not a musician, but I have a strong sense that music is somehow important for taking us away from our normal, logical, word-heavy way of thinking. (I also knew that I didn’t want to play much traditional worship music, for the same reason that I didn’t want to carry on other liturgical traditions from our history … I wanted this community to build a language and a set of practices that had meaning for our time and place, not merely continue a habitual, preferred way of being.) So I started to mine my music library, which was beginning to grow, thanks to the internet and the multitude of music-discovery sites out there.
I played songs that had meaning for me, and invited others to do the same. I picked music that moved me, and spoke to the things I thought we might be hearing from God in a particular season. But I made no effort to pick “worship” music or even Christian music. I began to set up songs by saying that I thought all love songs touch on something of the divine love for us, invoking the words from St. John: ‘We love, because God first loved us‘. What besides a touch of the Divine can explain the sudden, radical change that comes over otherwise tough and independent men and women when they sing a love song? One notable set-list stands out in my memory: I played a few Tony Bennet songs for the group. A woman responded, with some emotion, that she thought the idea of playing Tony Bennet during worship was silly, but by the time we got to Fly Me To The Moon, her defenses were down, and she got it: This was the way God thought about her.
And the group has embraced it, sharing every kind of music: classical and opera, alternative- and classic-rock, folk music and country, and instrumental music of all kinds. And yes, we’ve had our share of classic worship music, as well. Even with the arrival of a bona-fide guitar-playing worship leader in the last year, we still get plenty of opportunity to play our own music, and so to tell a bit of our own stories with songs.
A few weeks ago, I played a set that was very much a musical journey. An old friend of mine, visiting from out of town, reflected on the power of the journey when compared with the traditional worship mode of songs that are designed to lift us up into the heavenly places. This music was on our level, almost easier to join to, because it started where we all are. He said it was perhaps the most powerful time of worship he had ever had.
The set began with Josh Garrels’ Ulysses (from The Sea In Between), a take on the original Long Journey, about a king who is separated from home by various obstacles and enemies. The journey continued with Sara Groves’ It’s True, from a Christmas concert she performed in a women’s prison–in the set, this song plays the part of the spoken affirmation, an encouragement to believe the simple truth in spite of what we see (which is no platitude when sung in front of hundreds of prisoners). The set finished with Big Tree’s Gloria (from This New Year) , a giddy love song about some of the things we think and do around our loved ones … and setting those sometimes silly things in their proper context: glory.
In my design, this journey took us through an inventory of our hopes and fears, touching down on our drive to return to a Home In God against all odds and through much despair; on the simple and hard-won truths we hold to; and finally on something of God’s playful and powerful love for us, where all melts away in his smitten gaze.
I love to listen to radio stories / podcasts that expose me to perspectives from outside my philosophical neighborhood. This means I’ll listen to people talk about UFOs, Buddhism, car repair, magic, true crime, architecture, and stories from around the world. Often, and this is most interesting to me, I’ll hear a fresh perspective on something that I know well, and be challenged to consider things in a new way. A prime example would be opinions on the Judeo-Christian worldview from any of the above perspectives. Always interesting.
Recently I’ve been listening to Alec Baldwin, the actor, interviewing people on his WNYC show, Here’s the Thing. He’s a good interviewer, and it was fun to hear him talk to another great interviewer on the show: Ira Glass. In the piece, linked to below, there is an interesting, and surprising, moment when Ira talks about why he covers religion to the extent that he does. Short version: every other news outlet’s coverage didn’t match what he knew of the Christians in his life. Sure enough, I’ve always thought that Ira Glass’ This American Life is a great place to hear respectful stories of real people of all kinds. Including my kind.
Note: the part where religion comes up is between about 7 minutes and 12 minutes.
Maybe it’s a good thing we’ve had our last outdoor gathering for a while. We were eating a LOT of marshmallows around the fire. And not just eating marshmallows, but making the world of campfire deserts a little happier for scouts everywhere …
Some might say that s’mores are perfect and can’t be improved upon. It’s debatable. There are those among us who argue it’s time for an updating. One thing is certain: there is no food that cannot be exhaustively fussed-over by people who love to eat.
Behold the renaissance of the s’more. The ingredients: a graham-cracker-crust cookie-cup invented by Dave, fancy chocolates (chocolate-covered almonds and dark chocolate macaroon bonbons) brought by Brian, waffle and choco-dipped ice-cream cones, and some giant marshmallows. There might also have been some Kaihúa involved with the marshmallows at some point, but that is another foodie blog post.
And, now that we are moving inside (and probably eating less-messy deserts), we close out the summer on the eve of the time-change with a little gallery of sweet treats.
I’ve always been the kind of guy to spend time talking to someone who’s asked me for money. I’ve thought that, whether I have money or not, I can have a conversation and meet this person as a fellow traveler, and not only as a person who wants something I’ve got. It’s part of the story that I usually did not have a lot of money to give away: when I got hired onto a church staff back in 2002, I had a built-in desire to learn how the strength of the organization could be used to help people in need. I naturally slid into the role of Outreach Guy, and when people came to the door of the church to ask for help, I enjoyed meeting them, praying with them, and arranging financial help for them. This was all fine and good, except that within a few months, word had gotten out, traffic at our front door had increased, and I had given away a large percentage of the church’s annual mercy budget. Our policies changed shortly thereafter.
But I got to have a say in the new policy, and we came up with a good plan to make our church (and my efforts more specifically) less like an ATM, and more like a generous community. We decided that mercy money would no longer be given out to ‘walk-ups’ as a rule. The new plan: as our people encountered needs out in the neighborhoods, they could get money from the budget, ideally to supplement their own efforts to help. This was good in a number of ways. We’d be helping people who were in some kind of relationship with the members of our community (providing for a greater chance of ongoing connection). Our people would know that church resources were there to help them to be helpful in their context–we were putting the power of the organization to work empowering its members. The policy also avoided the pitfall of centralizing outreach work in the church office, which effectively took it out of the hands of the community members. It felt like this was as good an institutional policy as you could get. It was also only moderately successful: all people had to do was let us know of a need they saw in the world, and we’d try to back them up … but not many remembered that the resource was there.
Fast forward to today, and to this community, and we’re getting a bit more traction in putting a community’s strength behind individuals’ impulse to do good. Last night, with help from a non-profit called Common Change, we enjoyed a yummy dinner and shared stories of our hope for change, which will culminate in the donation of a pot of money to a worthy recipient. Common Change (run by a friend who created the free tool to “spread awesomeness“) provides the online invitation to our Generosity Dinners (which we have the option of making public on their site), “sells” tickets to the dinner, and pools every dollar received into a common pot. Every ticket holder has the privilege of sharing a story of a significant need (generally one that is greater than the individual in question can meet), and the right to vote at the end of the night for which need will be met. Common Change then cuts a check and communicates the gift to the recipient. Sweet. The tool provided by Common Change allows us to introduce a level of anonymity if we want, and makes the vote-your-choice aspect a little more private, which can be good for a group that is getting to know each other.
Our community doesn’t really have a “mercy budget”. But we have a desire to dedicate a significant part of our common resources to making positive changes in the world around us, helping people, and generally being generous. And we love to eat. Can you say, “You had me at dinner“?
Combining good conversation with a really tasty meal is pretty much sacred ground with us. After trying the idea out a few months ago, we decided to replace our normal Sunday evening meeting with a Generosity Dinner 4 times a year. The payoff has been swift in coming.
After only two generosity dinners, we are getting to know each other in new ways, learning about things that matter to each other, and about people and organizations that we otherwise might not encounter in our day-to-day. When the money is donated, we know it is in the context of an existing relationship, and that there will be follow up: we’re not sending money to a distant organization, or to a stranger who came to the door, perhaps never to return (which I have lots of experience with). Furthermore, conversations are never only about how much money somebody needs–they touch on many aspects life and culture, and help us think more clearly about what we really have to offer. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, during these conversations, it is hard to get people to stop sharing ideas. As one dinner guest said last night, with a wink, “Hey, look, we’re getting more generous.”
Today, in a dream,
I saw a thing so far
denied to me.
That between my neighbor’s
and my home, there
would only be the shadow
and the dark at night,
and after sunrise
only questions about what might
bring us together. Now my eyes
have seen the dusky pathway
through the green—misty, wide, and lit
by lantern-yellow beams
in the friendly trees—I miss it.
Then, woods lie open: no fence
or line is needed, to remind
where my neighbor’s premise ends,
or to protect what’s mine.
A member of our community came out as gay/bisexual on Facebook a few weeks ago. Bravely and beautifully, I say. One can’t mean to say that it’s brave or beautiful to be gay, because what would that really mean anyway? But I think my friend* (and her gentle language in the post) is beautiful, and that it takes a lot bravery to speak up about such a controversial issue in public, especially when you carry the controversy inside of you. As a straight guy, I’m afraid to speak of these things in public, and I know that people with same sex attraction have considerably more reason to fear, especially when their culture includes friends of faith, where the questions are rooted in some pretty powerful old stories of meaning.
This friend came out in conversation with me a couple years ago, and we had many pretty amazing conversations, the three of us: God, the Beautiful Girl, and me. I’m telling you, they were amazing, but more about that in a minute. We had loose plans to talk to our community about these conversations, but she moved away and the talk was delayed. I’d been eager for it to happen primarily because I’m pretty weary of the sex talk in the church (when we talk at all) being about us and them. This kind of talk is problematic … for a couple reasons; first, we’re no longer isolated enough that it makes sense to talk as though we were part of a homogeneous demographic. Second, it’s reductionistic to suggest that any of us are firmly planted on one side of a black/white issue. If we can believe it, God wants to meet each of us in our desire to be whole, healthy, and connected to the ultimate good. If this is so, then everybody might stand before God with the same posture of trembling anticipation. So anything that helps us talk more about just us, than about us-vs-them, is good.
If you are used to reading articles and posts on questions of sexuality where people are quick to let you know where they stand, you may have noticed I am not doing that. Sorry. It’s not because I don’t have anything to say. It’s because I’m just not going to say it in print. You don’t get that part of me unless we’re face to face, deep into the conversation, and maybe not even then. What I will tell you is how the conversation with my friend went down, and maybe it will help you understand why I don’t give away my convictions lightly.
I wasn’t ready for it. That’s the first thing. That is, I knew that pulling a community together in this day and age meant that the question of who gets in (you know, to the community, to heaven, etc) was going to come up, because, that’s one of the ways people like to mark out the boundaries of community. It’s been this way for ever … really since we were children—especially so when it comes to boys and girls, and boyishness and girlishness: witness the little kids’ clubhouse where no boys (or girls) are allowed, because the gendered mysteries taking place inside could never be understood by the opposite sex. I knew years ago, long before starting our community project, that there was going to be a moment when we’d feel the pressure to decide how the boundaries get laid down. There’s no getting around it. Even no boundaries is a boundary, one that is as constraining and fixed and meaningful as any other. I knew the questions were coming, but I wasn’t ready.
One reason I wasn’t ready is that, while I have beliefs and thoughts and convictions, I really did not like the way the conversation was going, in both the faith-culture and the wider culture. Much of the language that gets published has been isolationist and combative … words thrown around like dumb-bombs dropped on cities in wartime, with most of the language shamelessly generalizing the enemy as a unified force with an agenda to destroy Our Freedoms, or Our Values. I wanted nothing to do with it, and was really not looking forward to being drafted into battle.
But as it it turns out I didn’t need to be ready. See, I’d long thought that the business of the church is to gather together to listen for God’s word to us, both as a community and as individuals. I also believe that church leaders are not here to dictate or direct, but to lead the way to the God Who Speaks. It’s a good theory anyhow, and God was going to give me a chance to test it. When I got together with my friend, each day I wondered if we were going to have the conversation I feared … the one where we draw lines in the sand and stand on opposite sides. While I was prepared to do whatever I sensed God asked of me, God never let me draw that line. I know that is a loaded statement, but you’ll have to trust me on that. In fact, as God had me stand with her it was as though we were on one side of a line, both desperate for the same thing—a word for us, for her, for me.
We had the conversation. Over months, we aired out the Big Secret, talked out fears (many of which we shared), shared articles, critiqued theologies, and questioned philosophies. We cried, laughed, and prayed a lot. Throughout, I never felt free in my spirit to talk about my personal perspective or to say what I thought in a bottom-line sort of way, and maybe I’m just now realizing that this was because it wasn’t about me. What I could do was make room for God to talk. And wow — like wow — we witnessed some amazing action in that department. … But no, I’m not going to talk about the things we heard or experienced, because, while I was there to bear witness, they do not belong to me. They belong to her and will remain with her as long as she can carry them or until God speaks a new word.
I bet, if you were to ask her, she could tell you how I might answer certain questions. But I never came out and spoke them. I never felt like that was my role. Still don’t. But here’s how not-simple this is. I don’t think my role is fixed—as one of only listening, or of silence, or passivity, or civil disengagement. At any time I will try to be whatever kind of pastor/leader/friend that God calls me to be. With my Beautiful Friend, my role was to stand by her in God’s hearing, as she heard God’s words to her. Another way this is not simple: having gone through this, I know that I am not any more ready to have this conversation with someone else, because no matter how much experience I have in the conversation, I don’t think I ever get to know the agenda ahead of time. Maybe that’s another piece of what God is doing with my little part of the church: no more agendas for a while.
If I have to move like a beginner for the rest of my life, never leaning on my experience or understanding, but always looking to God for the way forward, then this, at least, is a very simple thing. Simple, yet hard to grow into. Some days I’m less afraid of the conversation; some days I can see how little I have to worry about how it all goes down.
For a couple years now, I’ve been eager to share this story with our community, but I wasn’t going to do it until our friend was ready to share her part of it. We never got to do it live, but now that it’s out on the network, we no longer have to put it off. While waiting for it to happen, I’ve been postponing conversations about sexuality, because I didn’t want us to begin talking about these things until we were able to recognize that it was personal. Recent conversations where an opinion about sexuality or gender have come up have been a bit hard and bruising for many of us.
Now that our friend has made herself known to us, it will change our conversation. “Those people” are now our people. And we have to listen carefully, to God and to each other, if we are to go forward in any respect—together or separately. My dream is that even if we walk out our faith with different understandings, that we will continue to share a humble awe at the fact that each of us is free to face God in Christ with, at the very least, the expectation that we will hear what we need to hear.
*She’s out and public, but I want her to be able to control her name and story online, so I’m not going to identify her. Anyhow, while I shared this with her before publishing it, I’m only confidant that this is my story, not that I’m doing a good job of telling hers.