Monday, July 21, 2008

Runnin down a dream

"Yeah runnin' down a dream That never would come to me Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads I'm runnin' down a dream"

I was singing these and other familiar lyrics last night with 15,999 of my closest friends as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, armed with their six stringed axes, held the crowd hostage from the stage and transported all of us back to 1979.

I love rock and roll.

It was the riffs of Tommy Shaw and Joe Satriani that did it for me. Still to this day, when Blue Collar Man comes on the radio, I always have to bump the volume a few ticks, regardless of who is in the car.

Music was the first dream I really seriously pondered doing. Those sounds the artist could generate from the instrument were the same ones in my head. I thought it must be an incredible satisfaction to have the ability to deliver the song from mental concept to aural reality.

So I took a stab at it. In college I bought a guitar and started learning to play.

Growing up in the community of faith that I did, there wasn’t a high value placed on any kind of technical virtuosity, as it was seen as a distraction from a focus on God by drawing attention to the performer. Musicians I knew, myself included, carried a confliction of guilt, which influenced our attitude toward getting better. If there was no place to perform well in the Church As We Know It, why work at improving?

So I had to allow other artists to do that for me and this is what I recognized at last night’s show.

Steve Winwood started the ball rolling with his rhythm and blues style of tunes. Several times I closed my eyes and envisioned myself playing what I was hearing. My guitar was in his hands and he was playing it for me.

Then Petty and company take the stage, bigger than life. In an instant, I was 17 again and had the chance to make a different decision about music. There was no guilt, no worry about whether or not it was about God or musician. All that was lost as all of us in the arena transcended the ordinary via the extraordinary sound generated by these qualified players.

I often wonder how my life would look different if I hadn’t had that yoke placed on my neck. Would I be a musician instead of a restaurateur? I know it’s a moot point, but I can’t help it. So instead I have to allow others to play the music for me, and who knows, maybe its arrogant of me to think that I could have been that good.

But it’s a hard question not to ask.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Would Jesus drink Coke or Pepsi?

It was great to see two college friends, Jeff and Tena, as they stopped in on their way to Minnesota. It seems however and whenever you meet people, if it occurs at the heart level, it’s always easy to pick up where you left off. Such was the case in our visit yesterday.

We talked about our jobs, kids, and the increasingly visited subject as you age; health. But eventually the topic came to our career change, and we dove down from there.

“How did you do it?” “How did you know?” “How long did it take to get going?” “Where did you start?” The questions all had the same theme.

That theme is faith.

I recalled to them the day I realized I was telling 15 year old stories to my students. There was nothing fresh, nothing current, and nothing that indicated my faith was growing. I was only maintaining it, and not doing a very good job at that. This is how I knew something needed to change.

People in my tradition refer to having a “calling” to describe how they got into their vocational path. I know many who go back to a childhood experience and believed God told them to be a missionary, and they are living that out to this day. I don’t discount this kind of encounter. Sometime I wish mine were so certain.

There was a time when the WWJD (What would Jesus do) idea was in vogue. The assumption was that if Jesus were in my shoes, he would do things differently than I would normally do, and the challenge lay in determining what choices he would make.

There seemed to be a problem with the WWJD scheme. The situations were mostly moral in nature. What would Jesus do? He wouldn’t not go to church or be late to work or cheat on his homework. He wouldn’t steal or look at porn or feel up his girlfriend. Nor would he go 60 in a 55 or, depending on your denomination, drink caffeine or eat red meat.

If Jesus lived to be 45 instead of 33, what would he do to combat midlife crisis?

Changing the career direction of my life was not some kind of act of moral obedience to a divine command. It seems a whole lot more ordinary than that. It wasn’t so much about trying to figure out what Jesus would do if he was me, but more like him asking me what would I do.

I can’t picture Jesus owning a restaurant, but I do believe he is interested in my faith being alive.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is everything as you expected?

It seems like I am having epiphanies on a regular basis as of late. Maybe epiphany is a too strong a word. Realization might be more apt. This would make sense if you understood how different my life is now than just a short time ago.

In my years as a pastor on the university campus, I always carried this stigma of feeling like a ginsu knife salesman. Sure I was free to be there with my wares, but did anyone really want what I was selling? I never really felt a part of the community as a whole. Even though administrators might give lip service to the value of religious groups, I always got the feeling that our presence was obligatory at best.

I’ve flogged myself with the bible passage about being in the world but not of it whenever I confronted this feeling of disconnect and assumed I was supposed to revel in my lack of being accepted by folks with whom I interacted. This world is not our home after all and we should be glad that we feel rejected.

But I was never good at this disparity in my vocation as ministry. On the one hand I had the need to feel good about my work and yet on the other I knew my significance should rest in something deeper than that. I never knew how much this affected my self esteem while I was in the midst of it, but now that my day to day life is just the opposite, the contrast is startling.

Now I get to meet people everyday who have somehow heard about my work and come to find me. I don’t have to get up in the morning wondering if I will have a place to meet and gather in or be in threat of being shut down because I am too loud or because we were double booked with another preferable group. No, I have a little spot out of which I get a deep sense of satisfaction, not unlike some of the best days in campus ministry.

I guess what I am saying is that I love what I do today as much as I loved the best parts about collegiate ministry. Some might look at me and think the two are somehow different. It might appear that I have fallen in love with the things of this world and have taken my hand from the proverbial plough. Could I be guilty of giving up eternal for temporal ones by giving up the guitar and taking up the chef knife?

Maybe its not you I’m cooking for.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Let me ask you two questions...

I spent many years in the university community and would always come across the perennial discussions of faith and belief, and even this morning as I was looking at a bulletin board at a campus coffee house, there again was another flyer announcing a meeting to discuss the accuracy of the Bible and the textual errancy that exists and the problems that it creates and so on. But I find there is always something missing in these kinds of debates.

The Bible refers to our having a mind, soul and body, interpreted by many as being a kind of Trinity to man’s existence. I have no problem with that kind of categorization. Where my problem comes in is when you try and split those apart and consider them as separate entities, independent of one another.

Arguments about the Bible are almost always intellectual, and we cite all the rational reasons why we should believe one way or another, but we do so without consideration to our whole being. We are not just walking brains. We are living, breathing stories of humanity. This is why I do not make a good Evangelical.

One of my favorite encounters as a campus pastor was about a two month stretch of interacting with folks from the Campus Free Thought Society, formerly known as the Campus Atheists, but they changed their name since they felt that was too restricting. I’m not sure how the initial meeting was initiated, but one evening several of their group and a few of my friends met at a coffee house to discuss our points of view.

There must have been 15 of us, all packed tightly in a circle so as to hear each other over the din. There was the usual bit of chit chat at the onset, but when it started to get a little awkward as everyone became aware that no one was in charge of moving the discussion forward, I decided to jump in.

My first question seemed to surprise everyone, because it was not aimed at finding out our differences. Instead, I asked the group to cite any church or religious experience they may have had growing up.

That’s all it took to get the party started.

To my surprise, everyone had something to say, and further, everyone had something heartbreaking to tell. Stories of abuse, neglect, disillusionment, abandonment, all from parents or church people. People who should have been trustworthy were not, and the results were sitting in a circle clutching coffee mugs.

This scene is one example why I was always uncomfortable with my Evangelical heritage. I hated to argue and defend a point. Intellectual arguments act as shields behind which we hide and toss spears of attack. I couldn’t put a finger on it at the time, but I see now what I am more comfortable with is finding out what you and I have in common over how you and I differ in belief. Commonality in our stories lead to trust, which is something these young people in the circle had very little of.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Play that saxaphone, man, play it!

I grew up in the Evangelical tradition. By virtue of that fact, I have little bits of hardwiring in my brain that have been operating accordingly. It might be like a programmer trying to figure out why the computer is running a bit sluggish, only to discover that there are a few lines of FORTRAN code trying to communicate to the rest of the current operating system. The programmer is not sure how to delete or translate those lines, nor is sure he should. Right now, he is more consumed with finding out how that code got in its place. The bigger my world gets, the smaller my previous beliefs seems. And those beliefs will always be with me regardless. I can ignore them, but I can’t discard or trade them in, no matter how hard I try. My evangelical tradition taught me to be certain. We were right and everyone else was wrong. And it was our job as evangelicals to proclaim that truth at every opportunity. Why else would we be labeled “evangelical?” Evangelism was the centerpiece of party. My problem was, I just was never good at it. There was never any room for doubt. I remember one famous Oklahoma preacher who was known for his sermon on “The Wheat and the Tares.” I probably heard it a half a dozen times at camps or some kind of revival meeting. His text was taken from the words of Jesus comparing believers and non with the mixing of wheat-looking weeds growing among wheat stalks in a field. His main point was that you may look like one, but that doesn’t mean you really are one, and one way of knowing if you aren’t one is if you doubt all the time, so come down front, pray this prayer and be sure today that you are going to heaven. That pretty much sums up my Evangelical faith experience. Are you wheat or are you not? Have you prayed the prayer or have you not? Are you in or are you out? I’m now embracing that there is a whole lot more. I don’t want to be guilty of what I see in the stories of others who are coming to similar crossroads. Seems the common response is to scrap the whole thing in exchange for something a little more harmonious. But instead, I want to hang on to the tension that this past creates in me. As a musician, I know there is no music without tension. Without the force between the peg and the bridge, the guitar string lies flat. But crank the knob a few turns and the wire starts to move toward something that sounds in tune. John Coltrane was master of creating and manipulating tension in jazz, and as a result became a polarizing force among music critics and fans in the sixties. One man’s brilliance was another man’s cacophony. I fell into the later category when I first stumbled upon his music. Yet the more I understood what he was doing, the easier I could find the pleasure in the sounds of his saxophone. I would be embarrassed to try and describe how I feel as I listen and absorb his signature album, A Love Supreme. For me there exists a similar tension in the themes of Scripture, and I am currently trying to pluck the notes between heaven and hell, between free will and predestination, of Liberal and Conservative, of Evangelicalism and the rest of the world. Thanks for your encouragement to keep writing.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Out of the Woods

I feel as if I am running out of things to say on this blog, which may be an indication that my original intent has reached its end. I wrote to chronicle my transition away from a being a pastor as my vocation, into seeing if I can become one that serves the same function, only without getting paid to do so.

It has been three years now since I made the shift and I can safely say that I am out of the transition. It’s kind of like when I decided to cooperate with my genes and shave my head. It took I would guess six months before I could look in the mirror and not do a double take. But over time, the drastic change became normal and now to look at old pictures of me with hair seems nostalgic.

So much in my life has changed, and I could fill several pages detailing the difference, but instead I write this morning about what has stayed the same. It is this one thing that has been with me over 27 years. I remember it well.

It was fall of 1980 and I was leaving the locker room of my high school, otherwise known as The Swamp, when a random comment spoken by a fellow teammate acted like a virus infecting my brain, “You better get your shit together with God” he said. From that point on I could almost hear the virus growing.

That one statement started me thinking about God and his place in my life. It was usually when I was alone, mostly late at night, lying in bed, that an awareness of God started to form. It was something I could not shake or run from. It was always there.

I eventually acted on the prompting and decided to take it seriously. That was in June of 1981. It altered the course of my entire life.

I was no longer resisting that quiet voice. I was now able to listen. And this is the constant that is still with me as I reach into the midpoint of my forties.

What I have found in this three years is that much of my spiritual identity was formed by external factors and not that still, quiet voice. In my early development, it was the spiritual practices or disciplines that defined me. Eventually, it was my community of faith and the security it provided. Soon I was engulfed by an entire culture and never even realized it.

Now, as I have separated myself from all those actions and activities, I get back to that one simple persistent beacon. Oddly enough, it has not been easy. It was easier to trust my place in the Church As I Knew It, and all my duties and obligations, than my position now.

Maybe this is the topic of the next series of writings.