Monthly Archives: October 2011

Thirty Days to Thanksgiving

Last Wednesday night I shared “thirty practices you can try in the next thirty days.” It was a reflection on Philippans 4:8-9:  “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.  Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”  In this time of so much turmoil and uncertainty, I don’t find most people losing their minds, killing strangers or giving up.  They are hunkered down, pulling together, depending on one another, and finding their own solutions to the times.  So I thought a series of sermons on “Simple Gifts: Thirty Days to Thanksgiving.”  The imspiration, grace and God-givenness of life cannot be conjured up, but we can surely put our attention on it, practice and implement them.  I thought it might help to have a simple action each day that we can try that can express, encourage and deepen our sense of gratitude. I hope you find something here that might help.

1. Express appreciation to someone important in your life verbally or with a note. Call or write an old friend and tell them what their friendship has meant in your life. Write your favorite teacher and express what their teaching meant to you. They never got paid what they were worth. Appreciation is about all they get.

2. Volunteer to help in a ministry to those less fortunate. It’s as easy as calling your church office, local service organization or other place of caring and signing up.

3. Choose to forgive someone who made you angry in the past and act toward them as though it never happened.

Sharing a little song

4. Sing with some other people, not just your ipod. Sing with a baby if you can.

5. Give until it hurts and then give some more until it quits hurting and becomes second nature. Get where you can see somebody else getting help and enjoy it.

6. Change the way you talk about your life. Make a list of the negative things you say most often. Can you turn them into positives instead? Reframe them into deeper truth?

7. Get to know one person you walk past, see every day, sit near in church, work with or see at the store or interact with regularly without ever having bothered to ask their name.

8. Create a behavioral set for your devotional life. Clear out a space or have one place for prayer time. Light a candle, or do the same thing every day to create readiness.

9. Carry your Bible to church as a physical reminder to yourself to read it daily. Memorize some verses. Encourage our children to bring it.

10. Read Psalm 4:8. When you go to bed tonight, pray this prayer. “Lord, I turn the world over to you. I have carried too much of it on my back and it was never mine anyway. Be with me in my dreams, my weariness, and my endless lists of things to do tomorrow. Now go to sleep.

11. Laugh, hard, at least once today and remind yourself that you are not the center of the universe. If you need a little help, go to the funny birthday card section at the drugstore, watch children playing together, or look at your high school yearbook picture.

12. Sit in silence and breathe calmly for ten minutes. That’s all. How was it?

13. Do something for someone you love that tells them you do.

14. Fast from the internet and television for 24 hours and give some of that time to loving someone in your life instead.

15. Put a short appointment on your calendar today and leave it fallow. Sit, even for 15 minutes, and absorb a spiritual truth, look at something beautiful, or pray.

16. Share time and attention with someone who is suffering, in trouble or who needs you. It will pull you out of yourself quickly.

17. Make a list of people who have been mentors, encouragers and who have blessed you. The length may surprise you.

18. Give money and pray for a missionary you know or for a country in the world as you do

19. Practice acceptance. Accept God’s acceptance of you—remind yourself that because of grace, you are free to forgive, free to love and free to welcome

20. Get reacquainted with your inner child—play, do something you’re not good at, draw, or roll on the floor with a baby if you know one. Give it a rest with the serious adult for a while.

21. Accept that God has given you spiritual gifts and start using them for the sake of the church. They have nothing to do with how other people see you and everything to do with what God wants to do through you.

22. Pray without ceasing by spending a whole day praying a verse or thinking about God. Just be there.

23. Make a list of your close calls and then think, “It could have gone really badly for me. I was given a second chance.” Now consider giving someone else a second chance.

24. Put a dollar in the mission offering of your Church for every complaint you make today about your life, the government, Congress, the schools, society, “those people” (whoever they are), your parents, your loved ones, or anyone else. At least you can help missionaries.

25. Read Philippians 4:6. When you start worrying about something today, turn it into a verbal prayer.

26. Try praying all the way through the church prayer list. You don’t have to know what their issue is. Someone was distressed enough to put it there.

27. Spend some time in nature and pay attention to its joyful truth to you.

28. Think back to when you were at your most difficult time. Did you learn anything as you went through it that could help you now?

29. Give out ten affirmations today. Don’t go to bed with one or two still in your mouth unoffered.

30. Spend a little time jotting down everything that touches your life today that took other people to get it to you—at work, your food, every part of your life. In your time of prayer, consider the complexities of God’s giving through others to you.

Art, Worship and All That Jazz: Inspirations from a Jazz Legend

Cleve Eaton, Alabama Treasure and Count Basie's bassist

I’ve met two people in the past ten years who made me believe the bass was the most wonderful instrument in the world.  Got to know Dave Pomeroy when he played here a several years back with the put together acoustic jazz group with Rob Ickes (of Blue Highway) on dobro and Andy Leftwich, fiddle and mandolin player from Kentucky Thunder (Ricky Skaggs).

The other man is a legend I met a few months ago when a member took us to a little jazz dinner theater here.  A group was playing called the Sonny Harris Trio—drums, piano and bass.  The pianist was terrific, a young man from Cuba named Pedro Mayor, and the bass player was Cleveland Eaton.  Cleve is one of Alabama’s treasures—in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, gigs with Ramsey Lewis Trio, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ike Cole, and more people than can be remembered in the legends of jazz.  But mostly he was renowned as Count Basie’s bass player, “The Count’s Bassist.”  Here’s a clip from 25 or so years ago.  at Carnegie Hall with Basie playing “Booty’s Blues.”

Elvis and Sam at Sun Studios

We had them come and play for a lunch at the church this week, and Mr. Eaton spoke to my class.  I’ve been teaching a bible study called, “The Year of Alabama Music,” an observance going on this year honoring musical greats of Alabama (Louvin Brothers, Vern Gosdin, Sam Phillips, Hank Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, W. C. Handy,  and on and on)    I’ve been talking about music found in scripture, about spiritual and theological issues that arise out of the stories in

both scripture and these artists’ lives, and so on.  It’s been pretty interesting—how many artists in the blues, country, bluegrass, rock and jazz got their start in the church.

It’s also interesting how many of them harbored and pursued spiritual longings in their music—Hank Williams’ maudlin talking songs under the penname “Luke the Drifter,” Sam Phillips seeing his calling as a spiritual one, to bring the soulful music of African-Americans to white America, and the oddity that he recorded and released “That’s Alright, Mama” the same year of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Era began in earnest.  It’s astounding how much the Bible has to say about secular art and how many spiritual pursuits dwell at the center of supposedly secular art.

The Great Count Basie

In Jazz, of course, we have a totally different creature altogether.  Perhaps the most truly American and original art form of all—pure innovation, in which artistic creations might be recorded and played again and again, but never performed live the same way ever.  Cleve told me this week that Basie once hit an incredible riff on the piano and a guy said, “Hey, man, play that again, what you just did.”  Basie said, “Aw, man, that’s gone and it ain’t never coming back.”

Makes you think that there is something deeply spiritual, letting our music be creature, born,  living and full of delight, and then dying to rise again some other way, some other time.  Cleave said he practices all day every day.   That’s why he’s never nervous.  A lot to teach us, I think.  Watching he and Basie in this clip I thought, “That’s holier than many a song with Jesus words in it—you can feel the Creator smiling.”

Frankly, for a long time, much contemporary Christian music left me hollow not because it was rock and roll or “indie” or whatever, but because it was musically second-rate, lyrically hollow and generally uninteresting.  It was too much like the old Billy Graham movies churches would turn out to support as the supposed answer to Hollywood.  Movies like The Restless Ones may have been productive evangelism, but they were, truthfully, awful movies.  You could see the ending coming a mile away, and it all got tied up too neatly at the end.  It failed to be true to life, to Creation, to story.

Ah, the prerequisite "praise team." They seem to be enjoying themselves while we spectators watch.

Great art IS spiritual.  Our efforts (mostly among evangelicals, who often have an advertiser’s lack of confidence in their “product” to appeal on its own) undermine the creative process.  Artists, write great songs.  They WILL speak.  Superficial, artistically inferior music is nearly always the result of subordinating excellence to some other motive, even if it is a good one.

10 Qualities of a pERFECTionits

deadline coming...

1.  Perfectionists cannot stand it when something is not completed.  For example, when a person…

2.  There is a rigidity about things always having to be a certain way or else they become very upset.  Things cannot be out of order, altered from their usual place, etc.

4.  If you’re going to do your best, you can’t always worry about pleasing everyone else (“You know you shouldn’t be writing this blog.  I told you to major in something else in college.  You’re an idiot.  Nobody cares what you think.)  Pay no attention to that voice in my head…

3.  Practice makes prefect.  Practifect makes perfice.  Aw, you know what I mean.

5.  If you are a Christian, be happy all the time and when you are mad, talk more piously.

6.  Almost perfect is never good enough.  Perfection is so hard to reach, you often don’t try.  This is so frustrating that I’m not going to list the last four.  It’s too overwhelming.

I forgot the other four.

In an article by Elizabeth Scott at About.com, I came across this statement.

High achievers tend to be pulled toward their goals by a desire to achieve them, and are happy with any steps made in the right direction. Perfectionists, on the other hand, tend to be pushed toward their goals by a fear of not reaching them, and see anything less than a perfectly met goal as a failure.

That rings true.  Sometimes our goals are so lofty with a song, recording, preparing a presentation, aspiring to a project, or writing, that we are immobilized.   My friend, the late John Claypool, used to say that there’s a difference between wanting to do something and wanting to BE somebody.  The first group accomplishes a lot.  The second group tends to make themselves and everyone around them miserable.  It’s all about “how you look.”  Faggetaboutit!

In this culture so shaped by the visual dimension of life, are we so oriented to expectations that come from without us that we cannot find the “push” from within?

So, here is my advice to perfectionists.  Lose yourself in the task once in a while.  Don’t worry too much about how to sign your autographs just yet.  Just write good songs.  Sing your best.  All that obsession with fame, stuff, adoration and making a million is too much about being PUSHED.  Let yourself be pulled by something that offers so much joy you just HAVE to find it!

note to self

Accept the process and enjoy the ride.  The journey of healing will not be automatic and instant.  Taking something in, getting somewhere, growing, all involve time, faith, hope and love.

Strive for reality, not perfection. A friend of mine was struggling with some people whose behavior disappointed him in his church.  He expressed his disappointment and I replied, “You have to learn to lower your expectations.”  He asked, “How do you do it?”  I answered, “From reading the Bible.”    Have you ever noticed what a sorry lot of people are in the Bible–Jesus being the exception, of course?  If you want to feel good, read a Bible story.  But it ought to encourage you.  God works with the available material.

Try on a new self-assessment based on reality, not what you have experienced, come to mistakenly believe, or adapted to as a reaction to life.  Work on those voices inside your head.  Turn off the editor when you want to be creative.  Let it flow.  You’ll be surprised what comes forth when you aren’t worried about what someone will say about it.

Finally, lie down and sleep when you run out of ideas.  You’d be amazed what the acceptance of our limits can do to unleash creative power.  Turn the world back over to God every night.  It’s liable to still be there when you open your eyes in the morning.

Imagine

John Lennon

“Imagine” was not one of my favorite John Lennon songs, mainly because I take lyrics seriously and, truthfully, it’s about the most preachy song he ever wrote.

Imagine there’s no Heaven,  It’s easy if you try
No hell below us, Above us only sky
Imagine all the people, Living for today

Honestly, I think the rhyme, “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too” would never survive a songwriting 101 class.  “Looks like you were just looking too hard for something to go with ‘do’ there,  fella.  But then, this is the same man who wrote,

He bag production he got walrus gumboot
He got Ono sideboard he one spinal cracker

Too much Ono on his sideboard.  But let me talk about two real “imaginators.”  They both died, as fate would have it, yesterday, on the same day.  One performed the marriage of human aspiration and technological revolution, the other a visionary of the human spirit and the resilience of its dignity.

I wrote earlier about the “three sides of the coin” in another post—that between the tired oppositions that we often see as our possibilities there is often something great and possible but unimagined.   The world changes when someone goes there begins to feel toward something as yet unknown.  It is the creative “edge” of life—thick, textured depths where new things emerge.

If “Imagine” was not all that great a song, imagining is.  Steve Jobs, as someone put it, created things people didn’t know they needed yet.  He was relentless, perfectionistic, incredibly demanding of himself and those around him, and brilliant.  He revolutionized the worlds of business, music, communication and politics with his computers.  The same software that once cost $10,000 in a professional recording studio now sits on my little iMac at home, happily creating digital recordings at a fraction of the cost.  His death sent a shudder across the world.  One of our most innovative and brilliant entrepeneurs had died.

Fred Shuttlesworth died the same day, lost in the shadow of Jobs’ death, much like his life.  He was a fiery preacher whose house and church were bombed.  He was attacked by dogs, threatened constantly, but he stood his ground.  Until Martin Luther King arrived, he seemed to be the one who would

Fred Shuttlesworth (left)

lead the civil rights movement to many.    His biographer said, ‘’There was not a person in the civil rights movement who put himself in the position of being killed more often than Fred Shuttlesworth.”  Mr. Shuttlesworth moved back to Birmingham in 2008.  I had the honor of meeting him a few years ago.  He was in a wheelchair, fragile, barely able to speak.

One emerged into global consciousness, the other nearly was forgotten except to historians and the old guard of the Civil Rights movement.  But they died on Wednesday, visionaries of the human spirit, called to something greater, determined in their pursuit of everything that human life can possibly hold.

Imagination is one of the most mysterious of all realities in the human brain.  Even when scientists isolate it and explain it they won’t be able to control it or predict when it will come along again.  Oh, I don’t imagine only sky above us.  Something in me longs for more–not merely the denial of death, but the inexplicable existence of hope and vision that life, even death, go somewhere.  A creation that can produce two such beautiful human beings has to hold more.  Just imagine.

The Other Two Sides of the Coin

Do you remember the old television show, “Newhart?”   It lives only on reruns now.  Bob Newhart and actress Mary Frann played an author and his wife who owned an inn in a weird little rural Vermont town. Among the strange characters who inhabited the town were three goony looking brothers, only one of whom ever spoke, named Larry.  Larry introduces the group the same way every time they make an appearance: “Hi, I’m Larry; this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”

It’s crazy.  How can there be three brothers with two names?  Life tends to be flat in our minds a lot of the time.  A friend recently told me about something an old fellow told him one time:  “We often say, ‘There’s two sides to every coin.’ But there are actually three—heads, tails, and the edge.’”

Three-dimensional space is a geometric notion. These three dimensions are length, width, and depth (or height).  The edge of the coin is most frequently forgotten part of things—“depth.”  For me it represents the narrow place that many false polarities might share.  There is only one edge on a coin, not two.  It is, in a sense, its own place.  It gives a third dimension.

So many complex questions and problems require the edge for solutions.  First, the notion of creativity and depth requires the capacity to see the other side as well as our own, to truly sympathize with an opponent’s positions if they are not simply disingenuous.  Second, it means holding out in our deliberations for the idea that there may be a “thicker” set of possibilities than first appear in the “coin flip” approach to theology, ethics, and politics.

There was an episode of the old Twilight Zone called “A Penny for Your Thoughts.”  The main character, Hector, is a timid guy who’s never advanced in his job at the bank.  He’s likeable, but his life is stuck.

Watch out...there's the sign up ahead!

One day he buys a newspaper, and flips a coin into the collection pan, where it lands on its edge. As a consequence, all day that day, he can hear people’s thoughts, and it changes his life.  He discovers love in the thoughts of a woman who is attracted to him that he never had the courage to ask out.  He reads the mind of an old teller who is stealing from the bank and turns him in.  He negotiates a better position and a raise and even gets help for the old teller who had stolen the money.

At the end of the day he stops by the newsstand again and buys a magazine and throws in another coin, this time knocking the coin off its edge and his telepathic powers are gone.  But he is a new man.  He has seen into the depth of his life, discovered things he did not have the courage on his own to see.

A lot of public issues turn into coin flips these days—somebody wins, the other guys loses.  Never is there the possibility that it could land on the edge and find another possibility.  This is different from compromise.  Compromise is resolving without the coin—both of us agree to be mildly unhappy.

Gandhi

The creative depth of life offers possibilities yet unimagined.  We have to learn to look there.  Who would have thought that the 2,000 year old teachings of Jesus about non-violence would bring down British rule in India or Jim Crow laws in the American South?  But it happened.  Gandhi and Martin Luther King saw a new possibility between violent overthrow and acquiescence and discovered the creative possibilities.

It makes me wonder in our political landscape of the moment—what are we missing?  If ever we needed the dimension of depth to apply to problems of economy, work, immigration, homeland security and the other vexing issues of our time, it is now.  The great problem of politics is not merely electing different people from the ones we have at present, but in putting forth solutions that move beyond the impasses.  For that, we will require a level of creative possibility that is largely unknown in the landscape of the culture wars, limited as they are to the  “heads” of progressive change from what is on one side and the “tails” of conservative resistance on the other.

Hope resides on the edge.  May the creative leaders who can see it find us for this time.