Monday, August 30, 2004

Observations from a Traveling Musician

Friday night a friend and I spent an evening with singer/songwriter Allen Levi.
Now as a disclaimer, that might sound like it was me and him just hanging out – and that’s not entirely true – but in the intimate venue it felt like it was just Allen, me and a few friends.
Allen pointed out that as a singer/songwriter his main job is to notice things.
I thought that was a good job summary.
As an editor/columnist/storyteller, I think that’s my main job as well.
So in the spirit of my new job summary, I want to share some of the things I noticed (with the help of Allen).
People are big. Houses are small.
I think we’ve all seen drawings done by younger children.
People are not proportional, but yet nine-times-out-of-ten, they’re all smiling as big as they can.
They may have eight fingers on one hand and two on the other.
They may be as skinny as a blade of grass, with a giant pumpkin for a head, but they don’t mind.
They may have no clothes or feet, but the people in drawings by children, don’t seem to mind. They’re a part of a great big happy universe, where judging and laughing at others does not exist.
Allen told the story of a four-year-old friend of his who loved drawing with chalk on the sidewalk.
Her drawings were a wonderful representation of how she viewed the world.
And Levi noticed that in all of her drawings, Olivia would always draw the people big and the houses small.
These giant people that Olivia saw would never be able to fit into their tiny houses, but that wasn’t important to Olivia.
She put the importance upon the people.
And that’s what Christ did as well. He didn’t care what house you lived in, what position you held, whether you were a leper, a blind man, or a He-man. You were important in His eyes.
People are big. Houses are small.Southern Living vs. Southerners living
If we were to take two houses, you might find a stark contrast in their make up.
The house at 610 might be the picture of beauty and class.
While the house at 612 might be cluttered with bikes in the yard, mud on the floor and a wet dog chasing kids over the couch.
610 has a ghost of a man, with a wife and two kids who are never seen.
612 is a family of five who love each other and those around them.
610 never has company, they’re too busy with their job and school and soccer games.
612 never minds the interruptions of “happy lightening,” when people stop by unexpected, just to enjoy the company of friends.
It’s never really known if the people at 610 are home or gone.
The house looks the same; no one outdoors, no bright welcoming lights on and no invitations to the neighbors to visit.
You can always tell if the family at 612 is home, there kids are playing in the yard with the neighbors, the barbecue is smoking, there is laughter and music in the air, and an unwritten “Welcome” sign always hangs in the yard.
610 was pictured on a post card and a part of Southern Living magazine.
612 is the picture of where real southerners live.
Which house are you?
Are you concerned with the appearance of perfection, or the appearance of a friend?
The moon is round.
As we left the gathering Friday night, we looked up in the sky to see that the moon was about the shape of a football.
Some days, the moon is full and bright in its glory.
Other days, it’s a sliver of silver that fell to the floor from a carpenter’s bench.
And some days it doesn’t matter what shape the moon is, because the clouds are so thick you’ll never be able to see it.
But in all of its seasons, in all of its changes, the moon is round.
The moon is round on your day of birth.
The moon is round on the day you find your first love.
The moon is round on the day you get your first kiss.
The moon is round on graduation day.
The moon is round on the day you get your first promotion.
The moon is round on your wedding day.
And the moon is round when you discover you have cancer.
The moon is round when you company closes down.
The moon is round when your parents pass away.
The moon is round when your child is hurt in a car accident.
The moon is round when your spouse passes away.
And the moon is round when you pass away.
And in all of its changes and in all of its appearances, we know – the moon is still round.
“The heavens declare the glory of God. The skies proclaim the work of His hands.”
If the moon is faithful to be round, isn’t its Creator the ever more faithful?
There are many more things I learned Friday night from a storyteller, a songwriter and a singer who took the time to notice and chose not to hold it all inside like the house at 610.
What will you notice this week from the Creator?

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Why we Enjoy Nostalgia

I was talked into watching a chick-flick this past weekend.
How that happens I never know, except that usually a “chick” is the one talking you into watching it.
I was assured that I would learn something about women in the process.
Well I didn’t.
But I wasted two hours confirming what I already knew about them.
Ok -- maybe that’s a little harsh.
I didn’t waste the two hours, but thanks to my mom, two sisters and previous girlfriends, I knew all the movie had to say about the opposite sex.
But after reflecting on the movie, I did learn something about society as whole.
If we look at that movie and at today’s culture there seems to be a strong yearning for a return to yesterday.
A search for nostalgia.
In the wrestling world, for the past few years, people have gone gung-ho when retired wrestlers make their return to the ring.
It didn’t take long for Hulk-A-Mania to catch fire like it did in the mid-to-late 80’s.
People went berzerk for Hulk Hogan, a.k.a Terry Bollea, as he came running down the ramp in his trademark yellow and red tank tops.
And I’ll admit it -- I was a Hulk-A-Maniac all over again.
I didn’t care that he was 50 years old -- it was great reliving the Hulk Hogan of the past, the one that I remembered watching growing up.
And to be honest, I was an even bigger fan this time around.
Nostalgia is not only rampant in the World Wrestling Entertainment Company, but all around us.
People have caught on to the nostalgia craze all over.
We want to return to the past.
A sign along I-35 advertises the city of Gruene, as “Gently resisting change since 1872.”
People will get up in arms anytime you mention any possible change to an historic site.
You can turn on VH1 almost anytime of the day and you can catch reruns of “I love the 70’s,” “I love the 80’s” and “I love the 90’s,” where actors, musicians and comedians reflect on the greatness of decades past.
And I’m just as big of a fan of those shows as I was to hear Hogan’s music hit and watch him tear into The Rock.
So, what is it about nostalgia that makes us yearn for yesterday?
According to Webster, nostalgia is “A sentimental yearning to return to an earlier time remembered as happier or more pleasant, or a former place evoking happy memories; a longing to experience again a former happy time.”
But you know what, they never teach nostalgia in a history class -- because nostalgia is an imitation or maybe better yet, a limitation of the truth.
We simply block out the bad and relieve only the good times in our mind.
Will Rogers said, “Things ain't what they used to be and probably never was.”
Historian Owens Pomeroy said, “Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect.”
I imagine most psychologists would tell us that nostalgia is good.
“We should spend time reflecting on the past,” they would tell us.
And I think it’s great to sit around and remember the past.
I always have a blast sitting around with my friends lying about how great I was in high school and college and how much better things were when we grew up.
But there’s also danger in enjoying nostalgia too much.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the past that we forget to look at the present and we forget to look to the future.
We want to return to the “good ole’ days.”
But if we really take time to look, we’ll see that the “good ole’ days” weren’t as great as we thought they were.
That’s why God tells us through the prophet Isaiah, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!”
There is something bigger and better going on right now. Today – Aug. 12, 2004. This is the best day ever – if you make it that way.
And change is a-comin,’ whether you or I like it.
I believe that if we stop and focus on the past for too long, we’ll end up loosing our grip on reality and the present.
While “I love the 90’s,” 80’s and 70’s highlights the great moments of each decade, there are also a number of fads and toys and music that no one wants to return to.
And there are also a number of issues that those shows would never touch on, because if they did, those decades would loose their nostalgia.
Does anyone really want to go back and relive the atrocities of the past?
The hostage situations?
The famine and AIDS outbreaks?
Does anyone want to go back and relieve the Challenger explosion?
Chernobyl, the Iran Contra Affair or New Coke?
Even talking with my grandparents as often as they reminisce about growing up, I don’t think they would want to return to the depression (there is a reason they called it the depression).
I don’t think anyone wants to return to World War I or II, the Korean War, the Vietnam war or Gulf Storm.
As nostalgia goes, I’m sure in 2044 I’ll all be sitting around talking about how great 2004 was and how great the 2000’s were.
I’ll pull out my PDA and laptops and show my grandkids how technologically advanced we thought we were.
I’ll talk about how great the Play Station 2 and X-Box was and how amazing the first High Definition TV’s were and they’ll look at me like an idiot.
Then they’ll go to history class and learn about terrorism and 9/11 and the fall of the stock market and think I’m nuts for wanting to go back to the “good ole’ days.”
And I’ll just smile and reminisce and wish things were the way they used to be, when kids respected their elders and you could buy a burger, fries and a coke for under $7.
“If you're yearning for the good old days, just turn off the air conditioning.” -- Griff Niblack

Monday, August 09, 2004

Honest Worship

Sunday morning I got punk'd by several of my friends.
No, I don't quite mean Punk'd like MTV's hit prank television series, but it might have felt just as bad.
As I entered the sanctuary I headed towards the back where my friends typically like to sit.
For whatever reason they had not made it into the sanctuary yet and so I chose an empty row a few rows from the very back.
After 10 minutes or so, I heard my friends laughing and talking as they walked in, only to be surprised that they sat down in the row behind me.
"That's odd." I thought to myself, pretending I didn't notice them.
Shortly thereafter they realized their mistake and began to laugh at the situation without really acknowledging I was even in the room.
Finally after my pastor came by, shook our hands and questioned our strange seating arrangement did we really acknowledge what had taken place.
Yet oddly enough, my friends chose to leave me on the pew, directly in front of them, all alone.
And despite my tough macho front, it stung abit.
No one likes to be left alone and no one likes to be left out.
The situation made me feel worse for a young boy I saw at lunch later who was forced to sit at a table all alone because he was the odd man out in his group of friends.
But despite the temporary humiliation of being punk'd by my friends and the minor sting of sitting alone during the morning service, I had a moment of epiphany during the worship.
As we sang the final song, the words of the song hit me like a lightening bolt.
We sang about Jesus being our everything, and it hit me -- "That's not true -- is it?"
Only 15 minutes earlier I had felt alone and neglected because a few friends decided not to sit by me.
That doesn't sound like someone who believes Jesus is my everything.
That doesn't sound like someone who believes Jesus is even 50-percent of everything.
It sounds more like someone who finds completeness and happiness in the approval of others.
Needless to say, I had to stop singing.
How could I honestly sing words I had trouble living?
I have a feeling that God felt a sting about as bad as I did Sunday morning.
The Prophet Isaiah wrote, "The Master said: 'These people make a big show of saying the right thing, but their hearts aren’t in it. Because they act like they’re worshiping me but don’t mean it.'"
The Prophet Samuel told King Saul, "Do you think all God wants are sacrifices-- empty rituals just for show? He wants you to listen to him! Plain listening is the thing not staging a lavish religious production."
I believe we've become too concerned about looking good and finding approval from sinful man, rather than worshiping in "spirit and in truth."
What if I was to buy my mom a dozen roses?
What if I went out and made sure these were the best roses around? They were the right color, the perfect freshness -- everything was right.
And after I bring them home she gets excited and puts them in a vase on the table and says, "This means so much."
And what if I said to her, "Well I'm your son, its my duty," or "Well they were on sale. I wasn't really thinking of you, but they were cheap and it wasn't a hassle."
The flowers loose all their meaning. Does my mom even want the flowers anymore?
Probably not. If it's not from the heart, my mom could really care less.
One of the central prayers of the Jewish faith is this: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."
I can sing all day long about how Jesus is everything to me, but if it's not from the heart, where is the meaning or truth behind it?
I remember when U2 released their album "Pop" in the late 90's and people every where accused the band of leaving their Christian roots and faith behind.
People said they had lost their religion and were now caught up in the sins of the world.
Critics pointed to "Wake up Dead Man" as the prime example.
In the song Bono sings, "Jesus, Jesus help me. I'm alone in this world and a (messed) up world it is too. Tell me, tell me the story, the one about eternity and the way it's all gonna be...
"Jesus, I'm waiting here boss. I know you're looking out for us, but maybe your hands aren't free. You're Father, He made the world in seven, He's in charge of heaven. Could you put a word in for me? Wake up -- wake up dead man. Wake up -- wake up dead man."
How could a Christian sing those words? Wasn't Jesus alive and well?
Any Christian should know that Jesus isn't dead. Why would they write and sing such herasy?
Yet the more I study and the more I hear the song, I personally believe God was more pleased with that song than the empty words I started singing Sunday morning.
The song reminds me a lot of the first chapter of Habakkuk.
"How long, O LORD , must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, 'Violence!' but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted."
You would imagine that God might have come down and smitten Habakkuk for his questioning.
Yet God saw his heart and his honesty and reminded him to look outside his own world and see that God was at work in other places as well.
God didn't judge Habakkuk for his honest questioning, but we do see throughout scripture that God does judge those who bring empty praises and rituals to the table.
God takes no pleasure in our sacrifices if our hearts are not involved. They are a burden to him.
They're like the dozen roses. Meaninglesss.
Finally, it's interesting to note, that after questioning God and even hearing that God would bring destruction to Israel, Habakkuk sang praises from his heart.
"God, I’ve heard what our ancestors say about you, and I’m stopped in my tracks, down on my knees. Do among us what you did among them. Work among us as you worked among them. And as you bring judgment, as you surely must, remember mercy... Though the cherry trees don’t blossom and the strawberries don’t ripen, though the apples are worm-eaten and the wheat fields stunted, though the sheep pens are sheepless and the cattle barns empty, I’m singing joyful praise to God. I’m turning cartwheels of joy to my Savior God. Counting on God’s rule to prevail, I take heart and gain strength. I run like a deer. I feel like I’m king of the mountain!"
And similarly, the next song U2 released was "Beautiful Day."
"The heart is a bloom that shoots up through the stoney ground. There's no room, no space to rent in this town. You're out of luck and there's no reason that you had to care. You thought you found a friend to take you out of this place, someone you can lend a hand in return for grace. It's a beautiful day. The sky falls but you feel like a beautiful day."
May the words and praises of our mouth be true overflow of our heart.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Lessons from a Parking Lot

Monday night I headed to San Antonio with my good friend Chris Allman and Beau Heitmiller for WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the SBC Center.
And say what you want about wrestling, because we don’t care. We had a great time watching some of our wrestling favorites battle it out for glory and fame.
(On a side note for the Heitmillers, in case you were unaware – don’t ever give Beau caffeine after 10 p.m. He went nuts on the way home. And if he kept you awake after he made it home, don’t blame me – Chris bought the soda for him.)
Anyways, after the show we headed to the car to begin our trip home and Chris made a great observation, “Isn’t it funny how traffic brings out who you really are?”
You really show how greedy, selfish or generous you are on your way out of a traffic or parking lot jam.
We laughed as we watched people squeeze and push their way into the front of the line.
It reminded me of numerous times I’ve sat in parking lots watching people jockey for the front of the line almost as aggressive as the wrestlers we had watched earlier in the evening.
Of course my favorite cars to watch are those leaving Christian conferences and events.
You sometimes have to wonder if they attended the same event as you did.
I remember waiting almost four hours to get out of a parking lot at Southfork Ranch one year.
It was a ridiculous wait, but what I thought was more ridiculous is how rude some people would be just to get a few cars in front of others.
It’s just another reminder than no one -- including Christians -- are perfect.
I’ve been studying the Apostle Peter lately and I’ve enjoyed comparing him to myself.
When Peter was first introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew, Jesus told him, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas.” Which when translated is Peter, or The Rock.
I wonder what Jesus was thinking when He named Peter The Rock.
As you follow Peter through the Gospels, you see that he was anything but a rock.
He was impulsive, he was unreliable and he even denied knowing Christ three times in the temple courtyard.
Sounds like me and maybe some of those other drivers scrambling for position.
Impulsive, unreliable and its so easy to deny Christ if the storms begin to come.
But Peter’s life shows a remarkable transformation.
From the impulsive disciple comes one of great leaders of the early church.
Christ told Peter, “I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
After his denial of Christ (John 18:15-18 and 25-27), he became the bold leader on the day of Pentecost, testifying to the miraculous things the people had borne witness to, leading to over 3,000 conversions that day (Acts 2).
Peter also became the bold man before the Sanhedrin which was ready to condemn him and John for their witness and testimony (Acts 4:1-22).
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved,” Peter said.
When the Sanhedrin saw the courage of Peter and John and realized they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus.
What a change.
What a rock.
What an example.
So while I can laugh and become bothered by those aggressive, impulsive drivers in the parking lot I need to realize that like Peter too, I’ve been in just as impulsive and selfish.
I’ve wanted to get home just as badly as they have and I’m know I’ve butted my way into a line -- or two -- or three times.
And I might never be called The Rock, but I need Christ’s transforming power in my life just as badly as Peter did – and just as badly as the drivers in that parking lot do – and just as badly as you do.
Oh -- and before I close, big props to the guy in the white car who let us cut in line Monday night.