Category Archives: Music

All things music appreciation.

Thank you, Dear Friend, for Exposing My Manifold Sins

My Dear —————,

I was recently made aware of your letter of complaint submitted to my supervisors regarding my participation in a rock band called Foreplay. Of course, I did not see this letter before its submission, but I’m sure that was a mere oversight on your part, considering that my best interests are always closest to your heart.

I must say, my friend, that when I became aware of your letter and the nature of your complaint, I wept. I cried bitter tears. I did not mourn the harshness of the accusation. Certainly not! No, I mourned my own spiritual blindness and hardness of heart that led to this latest deviation from the straight and narrow road of good Christian values and morals. How could I have ever thought to dishonor Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, by playing rock music in a band with such a horrid, filthy name? How could I have dared to transgress the Word of God by deciding to go the way of Sodom and Gomorrah, taking part in this band called… “Foreplay”?
No ForeplaySo, my friend, I am eternally and gratefully indebted to you. It is always gracious friends like you, folks who persistently point out my sins, faults, foibles, oversights, and transgressions, who make the most profound difference in my life. After all, where would I be without you? I suppose I’d be on the wide road to death and destruction every single time, were it not for your close scrutiny and righteous outrage over a fallen Christian like me- and a pastor, no less!– playing secular music in a band called “F*r3pl@y” (just the sound of the name is now bitter gall in my mouth). What a lewd and vile word that is!

And yes, I can now see how the mere appearance of a Christian and Man of God in a rock band called “Foreplay” would only send the worst of messages within the highly impressionable minds and hearts of those poor, witless souls around me, especially our youth and children. Why, they might walk away with the impression that “foreplay” is something other than the disgusting, sexually impure and filthy act it is. After all, we want people to enter into good, holy, wholesome Christian marriages, free from even the slightest hint of any base, sexual deviancy of which “foreplay” is a prime example. Oh how I mourn the irreversible damage I have done to these poor souls who now fully embrace… shall I say it… “foreplay”. God forbid it!

My friend, as always, your assumptions about my motives and behavior are, of course, flawlessly accurate. While I play all of this secular trash we dare to call music, I have fully succumbed to every evil influence around me. I have made a mockery of Christ! There is no possibility that I could have ever been the light of God, the grace of God, and an example of Jesus Christ to those around me who would ordinarily flee from righteous saints such as you.

No, I confess that I have sunken into the most miry pits of sin and thrown myself into dens of iniquity filled with sinners destined for the very fires of Hell. I have drunk the unholy, ungodly wine of debauchery and have drowned myself into an orgy of lust, filth, and sexual perversion to the point that I fully resemble a very child of the devil. But now, because of your stern, most godly of criticisms, there still may be hope for me, the chiefest of sinners.

So now, I begin my season of repentance. In sackcloth and ashes, I wail over my manifold sins.

Once I have spent an adequate amount of time fully steeped in the guilt and shame I so fully deserve, I will take action. It will be the necessary course of action which surely you would expect. I will immediately resign from “F*r3pl@y”.

I will individually call my band mates to inform them of my decision. Furthermore, I will follow your most godly example, and roundly condemn the depravity of their wantonly foul, sexually lewd, corrupted hearts. I will plea with them to run from the blazing hot grip of Satan and become like us- upright, godly folks who shun and roundly condemn even the mere appearance of anything we perceive to be sinful in other people.

Alas, however, they are probably reprobate, Hell-bound, souls created for destruction. But at least they would have heard the righteous decree of God- Good News for us, but a deserved pronouncement of condemnation to everlasting death for them. Hallelujah!!

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Owens, former bassist/vocalist of the evil group known as “F*r3pl@y”

P.S.

NOT!!!!

P.P.S. Read Matthew 7:1-6. If you’re still reading, you might also want to ponder Mark 2:13-17.

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Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Music

Black History Month: Remembering Dr. Mack Statham

In honor of Black History Month, I want to remember an accomplished African-American who not only shaped our world for the better, but also shaped my life, too. I think we need to take the time to remember these everyday heroes– those who truly blessed the world even if their names are not emblazoned in the history books.

Dr. Mack Statham 9/24/1934-9/2/2013

Dr. Mack Statham
9/24/1934-9/2/2013

Today, I am remembering and honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Mack Statham (September 24, 1934-September 2, 2013). Dr. Statham, or “Dr. Mack” as he was fondly called, was at heart a church musician. I met and befriended him while I served at First United Methodist Church of Laurel. He was a quiet, gentle, and warmly personable man, and yet he possessed an almost unstoppable energy to play prolific music every Sunday, even while his health was failing. He took the time to help anyone further their own musical expressions, especially in worship. He was an accomplished classical pianist and organist, but far from being a diva, he was an accessible, down-to-earth musician who could work with anyone under any circumstance. His approach to music and people, given his tremendous gifts, was marked by an uncanny, Christ-like love and patience. In my eyes, he was a humble giant of a man.

Dr. Mack was born and raised in Baltimore as one of seven children. The Stathams are a musical family, and so quite naturally, Dr. Mack began taking piano lessons as a child. He excelled in music and later graduated from Hampton University with a degree in music education. (He was later honored with an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater.) He taught music in several school systems, was a veteran of the Korean War, and was a successful businessman, too.

He also spent his adult life as a church musician and music director with several churches in the Baltimore-Washington area: Metropolitan UMC in Baltimore, Asbury UMC in Washington, D.C., and First UMC in Laurel. Dr. Mack never did truly retire. In fact, he played the organ at First UMC on a Sunday morning and died that night. He truly lived out all of his days doing exactly what God had created and called him to do.

But I believe Dr. Mack’s greatest vocational accomplishment was his ability to unite whole communities of people around the gift of music.

Dr. Mack was not only a world-class musician, but he was also a prolific composer. His hallmark composition was “Trilogy of Dreams” in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote it for a mass choir, two pianos, an organ, and a small orchestra. Here’s the beauty of this music: it united so much of the Laurel, MD community, black, white, different denominations, Christians, Jews, politicians, and anyone else who attended what became a yearly event called “Sing for King” on the Sunday of MLK weekend. During the six years I participated in “Sing for King” as a member of the choir, I was awed by the power of one man and his music to gather a wide diversity of the Laurel community. For one day, there was no separation of white and black, Jew and Christian, religious and non-religious, and even church and state. We were one people. The bonds these yearly events created were long-lasting.

Dr. Mack demonstrated that things as simple as music and love can unite people and form new relationships of trust and cooperation. All it took was one person with a vision, good friends, a lot of persistence, and grace to make it happen. In that way, not only did Dr. Mack advocate for peace, equality, and justice, he made it happen by offering the best of himself.

That’s an example we all could carry on.

As for me, Dr. Mack instilled many valuable lessons that shaped my life in the 6 years I knew him while serving as pastor of First UMC in Laurel. Here are a few of those lessons:

  • Whatever you commit to do, give it your all. Avoid half measures.
  • Whatever you commit to do, do it with excellence, striving for perfection. Avoid any notion of “good enough”.
  • Make the time to invest in someone else’s growth. Every person is worth our time because they, too are a gift.
  • Do what you love, and don’t stop, no matter the struggle.
  • Slower with excellence is far better than faster and sloppy.
  • Practice, practice, practice… It’s the only way to get better.
  • Trust God above all things and believe in yourself. No, that’s not a contradiction. (Dr. Mack showed how that is possible.)
  • Use your gifts wherever they are needed, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. It makes a difference.

As I write this, I miss my good friend very much. Mack, as I called him, was a rare gift, one of those few people I’ve met who profoundly impacted me for the better. For all the reasons he has touched my life and the lives of thousands of others, Dr. Mack Statham is worthy to be remembered and honored during this Black History Month. May we all live his kind of legacy to the glory of God and the blessing of others.

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Filed under Music, Race and Culture

Christian Music from the Dark Side

I once had a seminary professor who described the vast majority of contemporary Christian music as “la la la fluff”. It’s lots of smiles, joyful praise, beautiful strains of melody, uplifted hands, etc., etc. Of course, music is meant to be uplifting and inspiring. The power of music stirs within the deepest crevices of our souls. Even the most simple melodies can lift us into a near-heaven euphoria.

(I’m convinced there are several earthly things which give us the greatest foretaste of heaven to come: stirring music, savory food, and being loved by another human being. I’m going to be partial here and say that Mozart and Bach, Indian and barbecue, and a child’s hug and kiss bring the veil between heaven and us to its very thinest membrane.)

So it’s no wonder that most Christian music aims to be beautiful, to stir us towards joy, a passionate love of God, and the peace of his embrace. It’s happy music- lush, melodious, and beautiful. The problem, however, is that in some seasons of life, this kind of music sounds all too bland, sappy, and shallow.
Psalm 137Life is not an unbroken chorus of harmonious melodies. There are dissonant times- more often than we care to admit- in which the journey of faith is jagged and broken. We live with grief, anger, depression, confusion, betrayal… the darker things. Indeed they are painful to talk about, much less sing about in Christianity, but they exist. And we ignore this darker side to our peril.

The book of Psalms stand as a constant reminder that worshipping God is not always a pretty affair. One third of all the psalms are lament psalms. These psalms of lament push us to bring our darker, doubting, confused selves into worship, too. It’s not nice. In fact, this kind of worship is rough and ragged and seemingly impolite among mixed company who would rather us focus merely on the good, lovely things, meanwhile ignoring those parts of ourselves not yet healed and reconciled to God, to others, and to ourselves.

Again, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to our darkness with any kind of integrity.

Take, for example, one of the more ugly, disturbing Psalms. It’s Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Try putting that into an average contemporary praise and worship song! It can’t be done. Why? By and large that genre of music doesn’t allow for despair, anger, and thoughts of revenge. A prayer for vengeful infanticide doesn’t quite fit into a nice Sunday morning song of praise, does it?
But psalms like this must be sung. At least I thought so.
Over the last three years, I’ve suffered from two bouts of depression. If you’ve ever been depressed, you know that the serene “la la la” music doesn’t always fit where you are. In fact, it can be quite grating.
As I was recovering from depression, I turned to writing music that captured some of where I had been and the determination I had to get better. Here is one example of that:
http://youtu.be/9mthCkZiJNU
But I also wanted to capture the jarring feelings I had of feeling stuck in “the pit”- the feelings of despair, feeling displaced, hopeless yet longing, humiliated, worthless, silent but wanting to rage out, and just raw. For this, I had written some music, but couldn’t find a suitable text. Then, I stumbled upon Psalm 137, and with a little adjusting, the music and the Scripture became a perfect match:
http://youtu.be/mplW1JzwrYU
Aside from sharing some of my songs (and I thank you for taking the time to listen!), I also want to encourage all of us who call ourselves Christian or any other people of faith to not be afraid of bringing our whole selves to God. There is room enough at God’s altar of worship for every part of us of us– the good and pretty as well as the dark and “unpretty”. Not only can music capture the more rapturous side of faith, but it can also powerfully affirm a faith that sputters and struggles in our brokenness.
We can bring our wounds to the nail scarred hands of God who walks with us on nail scarred feet. In our pain, we walk side by side with a God whose side was pierced and whose head bore a crown of thorns. This God, Jesus Christ, welcomes my pain and my wounds, especially in music.
Only when we’ve been honest with God, with ourselves and others, can we take those next steps to healing and wholeness. As we do, our praise and worship of God will be that much more authentically deep and riveting. It will be unstoppable.

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Filed under Music, Spiritual Growth and Practice

End of the Summer Update: Music, Depression, and New Focus

It’s been a while since I last ventured into the blogosphere, over four months in fact. In the world of blogging, a four month absence is often the equivalent of  a four year absence anywhere else and thus a quick recipe for irrelevancy. (Keeping a blog is much like “feeding the beast” as a friend of mine once put it.) But life happens in seasons, and some seasons nurture more fruitful conditions for blogging than others, at least in my life. It just happened that this past life season, which loosely corresponded with summer, was one that demanded me to unplug from social networking. I needed that. If I hadn’t, you would have eventually demanded it, I’m sure!
As the title suggests, it was a painful but grace-filled summer. Music. A clinical depression. Hopes for new focus.

A Musical Renaissance
Almost two years ago, the band I played with during my college years got together for a reunion show, and that deeply satisfying experience reawakened the “playing bug” in me. I sing and play a variety of instruments, but my love for playing the bass and singing in a band took on a whole new life. Eight months after that, I started playing in a rock trio that has played a handful of times.

But then in the late spring of this year, it occurred to me that I have had an unspoken yet desperate need to do more things outside of church life. Any pastor will tell you that ministry can be all-encompassing and smothering unless there are invigorating activities we can enjoy that have nothing whatsoever to do with church. Given  my lifelong passion for music, that translated into playing in a band that could gig out.

So, I sold some things I had to get a better bass amplifier and then began thinking about my bass. I have had a bass guitar I bought from a guy I knew when I first started seriously playing. It’s the equivalent of a Ford Fiesta in the bass world– nothing fancy or special, but a good, reliable instrument. I bought it for next to nothing and made some modifications that made it even better.

But then a neighbor of mine lent me his Fender Jazz bass. I had always heard of the Fender Jazz and knew of many prominent bass players who have sworn lifelong allegiances to them, but I had never tried one. Well let me tell you, after adjusting my neighbor’s Fender Jazz a little bit and putting it through its paces, I fell hopelessly in love with it. I would have thought Leo Fender himself had personally designed the shape, tone, and feel of that bass exclusively for me. I won’t inundate you with all the frilly details because it would bore 95% of you non-bassists, but let me just say, it was like the experience of meeting someone and realizing you’ve found your soul mate. (Blech! Sorry, only a musician would not gag over that last sentence.)
After months of research and playing several models, I discovered the one– a Geddy Lee Fender Jazz. So I talked it over with Blairlee, sold a few more things and went out to get my treasure! With a great amp and a killer bass guitar, it was time to get out there and do some more playing. Through Craigslist and a musician’s website, I advertised myself and contacted prospective bands. To my surprise, I got bombarded by the number of bands looking for a bassist, especially one who can sing.

Stepping into established bands was an entirely different musical experience for me. I had a hand in conceiving every other band I’ve played in. So, conveniently, there was never anything I had to prove. This time, however, I had to step into existing bands and audition. Fewer words will curdle the blood of a musician more than audition. (You’re too loud is a close second.) Indeed, auditioning was a nerve-racking  prospect, but it was good, hard medicine. Being forced to work extra hard in practice and preparation for an audition notched up my professionalism quite a bit. And it more than paid off. Thankfully, every band I auditioned for offered me a job!

As of now, I’m playing in a trio that plays classic and modern rock and in a second band, a foursome, that plays harder modern rock. Once in a while I get calls to step in and play in other projects, too. I have been blessed to find and play alongside band mates who are solid musicians and decent family guys who love music as much as I do.

That itch to get out and play is getting plentifully scratched…

A Clinical Depression
Most of you probably know that on January 26 of this year God gave me the incredible opportunity to donate my left kidney to a woman from my congregation. It’s almost impossible to put into words how powerful an experience this has been for me. But I had also taken for granted how physically and mentally challenging it was, too. From the time I began the tests and evaluations to become a donor until a week after surgery, I lost about 70 lbs. The weight loss combined with the rigors of major surgery, the loss of an organ, and recovery, put my body through taxing, heavy changes.

All of that physical trauma infused into the demanding life of pastoral ministry that requires nothing less than my absolute best, even when I’m fully healthy, created the perfect storm for a personal melt down.
Well, the perfect storm found me. It took the shape of a clinical depression. I have suffered depression only once before during a time in which my personal circumstances were far worse than now. This depression, however, made that one seem like a skip through Candy Land. I went through some very dark weeks. And I’m not yet at a place where I would have the heart to elaborate on them now.

I am just so thankful to have been continually surrounded by such a patiently loving wife, family, and church family who have been more than able to nurse me through the worst of it. They did not give up on me, even when I had gotten to the point of wanting to give up on myself. Through their encouragement, I took the necessary steps of getting diagnosed and receiving medication which I’m still taking today. About two months ago I started getting some therapy, too.

Working through depression has reminded me again how inept we are at understanding and relating to people who struggle with any kind of mental condition, whether it be dementia, ADHD, bipolar disorder, or depression. They are medical conditions that are diagnosed and treated just like any other part of the body. And yet, the rampantly running misunderstandings and ill-formed attitudes people hold about conditions and illnesses of the mind are mind-boggling (no pun intended) given the age of information in which we live and the number of people who struggle with conditions like depression, dementia, and ADHD.

By its very nature depression is isolating enough, let alone the additional barriers of isolation created by fear, shame, and ignorance. But it is what it is. Thankfully, I have had an understanding web of people to support and hold me accountable.

At the same time, I have found depression to be a gift. Far from a being a demon to cast out so that I can “get back to normal”, depression can lead to healing, growth, and clarity through the hurts and difficulties that might have been lingering just below the surface far down enough that I could conveniently ignore them. Depression strips away this veneer. It completely exposes those old open wounds. With its awful, deafening silence in the rawest parts of my soul, depression insists I do the hard work of healing, discernment, growth, and change. That takes time. It also requires firm intention. But I’m getting there, one day at a time with the help of this shadowy gift.

Renewed Focus
As gratifying and agonizing as this summer has been, there are still some budding seeds of hope. I can’t think of too many other things as hopeful as a renewed sense of focus and purpose. Somewhere in the thick of this year’s happenings and in the time leading up to it, I began to lose my focus, my purpose and indeed myself. In order to keep the masses happy and my home at peace, I had fallen headlong into the trap of giving so much away to satisfy the needs and demands of others that my life became enslaved to the tyranny of the phone, the clock, and the constant barrage of “I need you to do _____.”
The phone will always ring. The clock will keep ticking. I’ll always be needed, but now I’m beginning to rediscover a truth I have known but forgotten. That is, God has given me unique gifts, strengths, abilities, and talents, and it is time for me to intentionally operate solely out of these things. That will be my gift to the world around me.

There will always be things I can’t do or don’t do well. There will always be things that despite my best efforts will drive my wife and kids crazy. But I don’t have to be nearly as burdened by all this when I’m living from the fountain of my personal strengths and gifts, realistically aware of my liabilities, yes, but not worrying about that so much. As for growth, why not grow where I’m already strong instead of trying to grow where I know I’m weak only to find myself frustrated time and time again?

Part of the renewed focus means writing, writing, and more writing, discovering and probing in ways that get myself and others to think and grow while laying new paths for more authentic, sincere spirituality through a vital connection with Jesus Christ. The blog will undoubtedly be a part of that and far less neglected than it has been of late.

In the meantime, I want you to know how much I appreciate our exchange of ideas and the ways you enhance my thinking and writing by your comments and conversation. Let’s keep at it together…

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Filed under Bodily Health, Grief and Healing, Music, Spiritual Growth and Practice

Reunions… Dreamscape and Beyond

Dreamscape back then

Dreamscape back then

This past weekend a ten-year dream of mine finally came true. I got to join up once again with the guys from Dreamscape, the band I played in during my college years. In the mid-90’s, we were all high school and college-aged guys with the whole world in front of us. We worked hard at our music, played all over the Annapolis area, and had the time of our lives. We became the best of friends and the best of combined musical talent. Looking back, those were definitely the “wonder years” of my youth.

Leading up to Friday night, the five of us spent a lot of time hashing up memories of the band days– the events that led to the creation of our band, crazy gigs we did, songs we used to play, people we remembered, etc., etc. And while it stirred up a lot of joy to recall those stories, it led us to the realization that we’re far gone from being the kids we were back then. While I don’t consider myself “old”, the experience elucidated the fact that indeed we’re all getting older.

However, the first hint I was given that perhaps we’re no longer the young guys we used to be came from my daughter, of all people. After the band agreed to get together, practice, and do a show, I got very excited and gleefully broke the news to my family. I thought they would be elated! But immediately, my oldest daughter began to laugh…I was crushed!

Disappointed, I asked her, “What’s so funny?”

She replied with an innocent smile, “Daddy, you all are old!” Hmm… That was a sobering dash of cold water. Needless to say, I tried to not ponder that thought for too long.

the guys from Dreamscape

the guys from Dreamscape… now!

Well, after a few months went by and a handful of practices, the Dreamscape reunion finally happened, and in a nutshell, we had the time of our lives! Playing music with guys who were my dearest of friends and listening to the cheering of the crowd who came to see us was simply electric.

Another nutshell word to describe the evening: surreal. Here were the five of us from Dreamscape, after eleven years, playing all of that familiar music in front of many familiar faces, some of whom we hadn’t seen since high school. It felt like deja vu. I looked around and found  that not only was the evening a band reunion, but it also shaped up to be a high school reunion of sorts, too.

And then somewhere in one of our sets of music, it hit me… My daughter was right. I am getting older.

I realized that when we were ten years younger, we got together to have parties, concerts, gatherings, hang outs, and all of that. That’s what young people do. But what do older people do? They– and now, yes, we in their company– have reunions. Reunions are all about the joy of nostalgia, memories, recreating former bonds, and reminiscing on the effects the years have had on us. Young people don’t do that, but older– dare I say old!– people do it all the time.

So would I take part in another reunion like this again? Absolutely! In a moment’s notice I would. There are few pleasures in life that surpass the deep satisfaction times like these grace upon their participants. Yet as inspiring as the music was, the experience went well beyond notes and instruments. It was the human bonding that struck deep chords within me. If for nothing else, the hugs, the smiles, the surprises, and the conversations were well worth every one of our efforts to put on that Dreamscape show.

Late that night as my wife Blairlee and I drove home through the rain, Blairlee fell asleep, and in the quiet of our ride home, I got to thinking. I began to understand why people who are maturing in years look forward to things like heaven. Older people don’t see heaven primarily as an escape from life’s pains. That’s how young people tend to view heaven.  But heaven, properly understood, is a reunion– a reunion with God and with those who have gone on before us. Even in a noisy bar setting where my band played and people knocked back drinks through the evening, as people shared the joy of their reunion, perhaps way down in their souls, God continued to do some tugging, whispering to us all, “If you think this reunion is great, I have an even better one in store for you, if you’ll only listen, believe, and follow me.”

The Apostle Paul, always keenly aware of heaven’s imminence, once told an ancient church,

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

I love this passage. It’s comforting, beautiful, and quite powerful, too, especially if we can draw ourselves to believe the promise Paul points to. This, after all, is what all our earthly reunions foreshadow. Paul paints a picture of the Great Reunion in which both the dead and the living are caught up together into one final, eternal gathering. And it’s all made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus, who gave his all that we would never be estranged from God and from one another ever again.

What could possibly be better than to know that God has provided a way for us to never be parted from himself or from one another, even beyond the shroud of death?

Looking at life and eternal life this way, I have an even greater desire for reunion now. Call me crazy or maybe too far gone, but I pray that one day Dreamscape and all those people who came to see us would be reunited again one Final Day. Only this time, the music we play will be in praise of the God who made us, loves us, and died for us. And our hands would be clasped together and with the Lord’s nail-scarred hands in a great celebration of God. And this time, there would be no one to yell at us, “All right, it’s time to close up and go home!” For our Lord would be the host.

The food and wine would be served from his own banquet table, and the party would never end…

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Filed under Music

The Power and Passion of Simplicity

The more complex and scatterbrained our world gets, the more frequently I hear people voicing the need for simplicity. Simple offers a solace that resonates throughout the most iconic symbols of our day. For example, Macintosh found new life as a formidable challenge to the once-thought impervious Microsoft by offering a whole line of “simple” computers and MP3 players like the one button iPOD. The haircuts and fashions of our decade are more plain and simple (as opposed to the flashy, poofy styles of the 80’s.) Wal-Mart, capitalizing on our American love for bargains, has dominated the retail world with a rebirth of the general store, their simple one-stop shop appeal and their “Save money. Live better.” slogan. Even in a surging health craze, McDonalds thrives by their simple value meals and $1 menu. (By the way, each of these three companies has done more than survive in the current recession!)

simplicity + focused excellence = a new birth of passion and power

I’ve been reminded of this principle twice now in the last two weeks.
This past Christmas, my in-laws gave me a little known instrument called the Xaphoon. (My spell-checker doesn’t even like this word.) At first glance, the Xaphoon rarely makes a strong first impression. It’s a simple one-piece bamboo stick with burned in finger holes. But the difference lies in the mouthpiece. It is meticulously carved and sanded to hold a tenor sax reed and ligature. And the combination of that tenor sax reed with the warm resonance of bamboo offers an instrument with a complete 2-octave chromatic range capable of jazz, middle-eastern, Celtic, Gospel, or any other style of music one can imagine. The Xaphoon’s lilty, esoteric tone sounds oddly similar to a clarinet, soprano sax, or even an alto sax, depending on how it’s played.

The simplicity and soul-grabbing sway of this little instrument has created an indelible mark on me as a musician. How can this unpretentious instrument wield such an enormous diversity of musical voicing? The answer lies in two places: its careful craftsmanship and the humble demands it makes upon its player to focus upon drawing out its most expressive potential.

Then this morning, I heard U2‘s new song “Magnificent.” I was drawn into it almost right away and began to wonder, “How and why does this song live up to its title??”

On a surface appraisal, “Magnificent” is four or five chords continuously repeated with a handful of phrases for lyrics. But as always Bono‘s words are carefully chosen, balanced, and deeply personal thoughts that resonate universal themes of love, worship, relationships, healing, and life. Musically, The Edge accomplishes his usual masterful blends of stirring guitar arpeggios and tastefully layered keyboards. When Adam Clayon and Larry Mullen add their reliably standard drive of bass and rhythm, the total result is that unmistakable, virtually unchanged U2 sound that fills stadiums with fans no matter where they go.

How has U2 pulled off their enormous popularity and riveting sound for well over two decades? The answer, much like the story of the Xaphoon, is in combining painstaking excellence, sincerity, and authenticity into an uncomplicated form. This unleashes an unlimited freedom of expression, passion, and power. If there was ever any hope of Rock n’ Roll changing and uniting the world, U2 would be the only act to ever accomplish it.

simplicity + focused excellence = a continual surge of passion and power

As for me, I’m looking to redefine my life, ministry, and church with this same principle. You and I make life and faith far more complex and busy-bodied than it has to be. It’s simple to understand. When we take the energy and opportunity God has given us and disperse it among lots of things, the result is a lot of things done cheaply. But when we channel that same wellspring of energy and passion into no more than a few things with lots of excellence, the world benefits from an undeniably divine power and passion.

Take another look at Jesus- a poor, Jewish rabbi from Palestine. How did his short span of life on our planet forever alter the shape and direction of humankind? It’s simple. He surrendered himself to do one thing only:

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself: he can do only what he sees the Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19

In other words, he gave his all to mirror God the Father, and so though Jesus, God poured out the totality of his love, power, and authority. From himself, Jesus gave away this same kind of obedience to his disciples, who in turn have discipled others.

simple obedience + focused excellence = the outpouring of God through one human being creating a global movement

So, I only have one hope for each of us: that we will not allow our compulsion to be overly complex and multi-tasked get in the way of God unleashing his full potential through each of us. A divided world dying from its own separation from the purity of God’s love depends on it!

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The Tragedy of Michael Jackson

Like so many today, I was shocked and saddened at the sudden death of pop icon and superstar Michael Jackson. As a Gen-Xer I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know his name or hear his music. Michael’s death reminded me that the first album I ever owned was a tape of Thriller. My mother bought it for me along with my very own walkman. (Do you remember those?) With my headphones on, I listened to that tape over and over again, non-stop. And when I wasn’t listening to the tape, I had the radio on, cruising from station to station to hear “Thriller”, “Beat It”, and “Billy Jean”. I don’t recall any other performer who held his kind of superstar power. He and his music riveted my imagination. When Michael Jackson came to town on his Thriller tour, the Washington Post had a full-page autographed insert picture of him which hung on my bedroom wall for several years.

Michael’s good friend Elizabeth Taylor rightly dubbed him “The King of Pop,” and that he was. His music and artistry captured the adoration and respect of a whole generation of young people. And I was one of them.
But then, right at the crest of his powerful career, the magic of Michael Jackson began to ebb away. His inwardly-focused, unusually exotic, outlandish lifestyle seemed to take a strange twist. We heard tales of amusement parks, zoos and other lavish attractions at his Neverland mansion. Then we began to see odd changes to his face– Michael’s infamous plastic surgeries. Speculations about his health and behavior covered the tabloids. We saw images of Michael dangling one of his children outside a window balcony. The stories of lawsuits over child molestation, breaches of contact, and his marriages flashed across the headlines. And it went on and on and on…

Only God knows the inner workings of Michael Jackson’s soul and the things in his mind that led him to the decisions he made over the course of his life. I’m sure the speculations about the kind of man he was will dominate entertainment shows and documentary specials for years to come. Frankly, I think it’s all pretty pointless. He was who he was.

The real tragedy of Michael Jackson, however, is not any of this, but rather the neglected opportunity he had to rally his massive influence to benefit the world who made him famous. When I was a preteen fan of Michael Jackson, anything he might have said or done would have motivated me to be a better person. Even his reclusive, quiet voice could have commanded so much in the lives of people who adored every aspect of his being. And yet, for whatever reason, he turned most of what he had onto himself. And that’s the true tragedy of Michael Jackson: he failed to use the influence he had to make more positive, lasting impacts on the world.
michael_jackson07Yet Michael Jackson doesn’t stand alone in this failure. I think of others like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, and others who died far too soon without living up to their full potential in using their gifts to accomplish untold amounts of  good. It makes their deaths all the more painful.

Looking at Michael Jackson’s death, I’m also deeply challenged to examine my own life. If I were to suddenly die today or tomorrow, could I honestly say that I used every gift of influence and ability God has given me to accomplish the most good? It’s easy to pounce on a fallen giant, but do I stop to look at my own life with the same kind scrutiny? My former hero’s death has me thinking again. I hope he has even gotten you to think of your own legacy, too. Perhaps then, the ongoing influence of Michael Jackson, even in his death, could spur on some lasting good.

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Touched by a Piano

Over a year ago I began to fulfill a longtime goal: to learn the piano. As a lifelong musician and song writer with a proficient knowledge of music theory and performance in vocals, woodwinds, and strings, my lack of piano technique had been an increasingly painful sore spot. So over a year ago, I asked my church’s organist, Dr. Mack Statham, if he would take me as a student. After a while, he finally agreed. Since then, the journey of learning to play has been one of the most joyful and rewarding endeavors of my life. Of course, any piano student will tell you that learning piano can be just as frustrating as it is fun, but for me, that synergy of vexation and victory defines the essence of joy. While I don’t ever expect to be a concert pianist– God has me plenty busy as a pastor– I can little by little live into my dream of being able to sit down at a piano to play a piece of music.

I’m also blessed to be pastor of a church who thoroughly enjoys and celebrates God’s gift of music. They open any door for musical expression, and here, I have found a place to offer my musicianship in our worship of God. Plus, I’ve never seen a church with as many pianos as this one! Better yet, living next door to the church building grants me the luxury of going over at a moment’s whim to play my choice of one of those dozen different pianos.

But, a few nights ago, I had the time of my life playing one of the most gorgeous instruments I had ever laid my hands on. Here is how it happened…

Once a year, my church welds together our passion for music and mission work into one night and calls it “Missions and Masterworks”. Dr. Mack puts on the concert with all the proceeds benefiting mission work. I can’t think of anywhere else where Gershwin and malaria netting  for sub-Saharan Africa come together. But in our church, they do. For the last three years, Dr. Mack has been joined by his son Robert for a duo-piano concert. They rent two Steinway concert grand pianos and set them in our sanctuary, facing one another, looking almost like conjoined twins.

For the last two years, I eagerly await these concerts. From the moment the piano movers roll in the Steinways until the last chord is played, I am like a little kid in Disney World– wide-eyed, open-eared, ready to run and soak up every moment. It’s seems almost too good to be true having two gorgeous instruments like these with classically trained pianists who master their performance… all in my church!

But here is where my story really takes shape. Late Friday night, well after the concert was over and the lights were off, I walked over to the sanctuary where those Steinway pianos were still sitting. I had all the time I wanted to play them. With my etude and exercise books in hand along with Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”, I sat down in front of one of the Steinways to play… all by myself in the quiet of the night. The gentle, simple, intricately balanced, clarion sound of every key I pressed rose and resonated into the chancel area where they sat.

In a rare moment I shall not soon forget, that piano swept and held my spirit. It even seemed to carry along my mistakes with its gentle, graceful tones. It was as if that piano beckoned my hands and heart, sweetly calling, “Keep playing… Swim through my sound. Let me take the movements of your fingers, your hands, and your feet, and sing for your soul.” Novice of a player that I am, the piano seemed to help me play through passages I haven’t been able to play before.

I must have sat there in front of that piano for well over two hours. It was all I could do to leave it. But when the reality hit me of how tired I was and how early the morning would be, I knew it was time to go home. Getting up and walking away from the piano was like parting a good friend I might never see again. Yet as I walked home, those feelings of rapture diminished any feelings of grief. It was an experience, simple and yet deeply profound– one that will linger with me for quite a long time.

Being raised in a musical home by musician parents and grandparents, the appreciation and performance of music was a given. Not a day goes by that I don’t stop to deeply listen to some form of music and find myself singing or playing. My home is a musical haven now, filled with instruments, CDs, singing, and playing. Yet moments like that Friday night remind me how deeply spiritual of a thing music is. Music, I believe, was one of God’s first creations. It began the moment his first creatures raised their voices in praise or tapped their feet with any kind of rhythm or pattern. Humanity has revelled in its soul-stirring power ever since. It took a Steinway piano in a late night quiet sanctuary to remind me once again.

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