Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reflection for Direction

Something happened to me on stage at the Showbox Market in Seattle on April 6th, 2010. Something that I don't want to ever happen again.

I wrote most of the of the lyrics to our album Vagabonds in 2009, which was a positive year for me. It was the year that I let go of my desires to have more - more respect, money, recognition, fame, etc... essentially what every guy in a band wants. 

Lots of the dynamics of our band and our musical careers were changing, and I simply decided to give up stressing out about it. It was freeing, and a lot of the lyrics on Vagabonds were written out of that sense of freedom.

But something happened on stage in April 2010, the night our CD was released. I knew going into the show that our band wasn't fully practiced and on the same page with the new songs, but generally speaking that never stopped us from performing well before. We could always fall back on the emotional energy of our live show, lock in with each other and pull it together.

The new songs relied less on the wall-of-sound-energy that many of our older songs did, and relied on more of a joyful, whimsical energy - one that's hard to fake. No matter how happy you are, you can always direct any residual stress, anxiety, or emotional anguish into a song that tackles big savory issues like the meaning of life... but it's really, really hard to fake happy songs when you're not happy.

As a band, it was clear that we were not happy. We weren't together, unified, invested in the music, and how could we be? The writing process for the record resembled at best a lack of unified enthusiasm. To put it simply: we got jaded. I remember looking around at my bandmates on stage and feeling contempt. Not for them per say, because they were feeling the exact same thing I was, but I felt disgusted by our lack of energy. It was like we lacked the integrity to believe in the words of the songs we played. We were just going through the motions. I'd felt like this a few times in performances leading up to this show, but this was a home show, where our crowd was the most supportive. It was our CD Release Show and we couldn't even pull it together for them. 

I felt sick. I hated every word to every song. I didn't want to be in a band that made me feel like this. I couldn't talk to anyone after the show. I couldn't go out and celebrate the release of our record afterwards. I went straight to bed. 

Then we went on tour, and it got worse. Whatever happened on stage that night kickstarted a long, grinding period of hopelessness, and you may remember some pretty depressing blog posts I wrote from the road that year. Sorry for that... sometimes life sucks.

A couple weeks ago we were able to fully redeem ourselves on stage at The Showbox Market. We played old and new songs and we embraced them all, diving headfirst into the energy that inspired them to be written in the first place. Time apparently had set us straight, and I honestly believe we played our best show in years, to one of our smallest crowds in years (at the Showbox), that Friday night on July 29th, 2011.

It inspired me because I think I learned to accept where we've been and embrace where we are going. I can't deny the past and I can't force the future. My focus on our next record will be to capture the energy that comes from not only loving, but living the music we create. Music made and played with integrity is good music. I'm in a mental state now where I can play A Perfect Voice, Vagabonds, and Four Chords and mean them again, and they feel and sound better when we play them with the same positive energy that wrote them.

I can see the new record start to take shape, and I can see already a huge progress in our collaborative effort. We're writing together more, and enjoying the songs we're playing. There are stressful moments, but no good album was ever made without them.

I can say that I never want to feel contempt for my music or my band again. I don't want to half-ass the calling we have. I don't want to give less energy to it than it requires. I don't want to hate what I create. I do this because I love it, and if I some day I stop loving it, well, I'll spare you the disappointment and hang up my tour boots. I won't cry. I'll just wave goodbye and say thanks.

But for now LP4 is in the slow-cooker, and I think it's going to taste great.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Smoke, Drink, Cuss

Since the Jesus Movement in the seventies, the average church-going Christian could probably be outwardly defined in action as someone who doesn't drink, smoke, or use rough language - a fact that has kept pastors awake at night and inspired thousands of sermons. 

It's not because the conviction to not drink, smoke or cuss is a bad conviction, it's because the average Christian is defined by inaction rather than action, a problem that Jesus spoke so passionately against.

I can see the heart of the conviction to not do certain things. It's a good heart. Christians are called to live differently, and not drinking, smoking, or swearing is a practical way to show that you've set yourself apart. It's not just because the Bible says to watch your tongue and not be a slave to anything, it's also a great conversation piece, and I'm sure many a spiritual conversation got started when someone asked, "Hey Joe, I noticed you don't say the F word, you only drink soda at the bar, and you don't laugh at my dirty jokes... what's your deal man?" And Joe gets an opportunity to share his deal, which is Jesus, and that's a good thing because Jesus is good.

But somewhere along the way this inaction became the Gold Standard. The frosting on the cake became the entree, and church-going Christians all across the western church have been primarily viewed as people who don't do what other people do because of religious reasons.

There are a number of problems with this. One is that the same thing that attracts some people to christianity, this projected cleanliness, has at times alienated others. It's also caused self-righteousness (which is the most unattractive thing in he world), and it's been used as a ruler to judge a persons spiritual healthiness. "Do they drink, smoke, use coarse language? Then no, they're not walking with the Lord." I can't count how many times I've heard something along these lines. 

For a lot of church-going people, the definition of a true Christian means a person who does not drink, smoke, or use foul language.

I'd be remiss to not point out that one could define a Mormon, Muslim, or a Buddhist the same way. In fact, I'd wager that so many other religions do a much better job of "living righteously" when it comes to vices and speech. These are religions that would make the average western Christian uncomfortable to be categorized with, but when it comes to the category of inaction, most religions reflect the same values.

The problem is obvious. If the focus is on inaction - the list of things you don't do - then you are free to live your life however you want. What I'm saying is there are plenty of people who don't smoke, drink or cuss, but do business like the majority in every other aspect. They are viciously self-centered at work, stepping on anyone to get ahead. They do what benefits them the most regardless of who gets hurt (which is usually justified under the guise of "What's best for my family"). They value money the same way everyone else does. They criticize the underprivileged and justify not helping people. They are vindictive and prideful and selfish. Their coworkers would not define them as loving, gracious or compassionate.

So if Christian really does mean "Little Christ," we should probably see what Jesus said about all this, after all it's His name Christians carry. What does Jesus say about what our focus should be? Turns out he said a lot. In fact, the entire chapter of Matthew 23 is Jesus getting angry with the Pharisees, the religious elite in Israel at the time, because of their lack of focus on the things that truly mattered. They followed all of the outward aspects of the religion, tithing, fasting, wearing the garb of "holy people." But they did it for the wrong reasons, for selfish reasons, and they had long lost touch with what truly mattered.

If you haven't read the chapter you should. It's a pretty good one, because Jesus is the underdog sticking up for the little guy, and he gives the bully a lashing like he never had before. My favorite verse in the NIV translation is verse 23:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Isn't that great? What wonderfully creative and harsh language. The truth is they were so religious and so focused on a thing like tithing - even down to their herb gardens! - that they forgot about justice, mercy, and faithfulness, the things Jesus says Christians should be characterized by. Of course, Jesus does validate Jewish law by saying "You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former," so he's not saying don't tithe, tithing is a good thing, but only when done out of faithfulness. You have to have the right focus, otherwise you risk hypocrisy like the Pharisees did.

Over the last ten years or so we've seen a gradual change in the western church. People are meeting for Bible study in pubs, Bible college students are picking up a tobacco pipes to look more like C.S. Lewis, and even pastors have shortened their list of forbidden words. Of course this has been met with resistance, especially from some in our parents generation, who have always defined Christianity as an alcohol-free, smoke-free, slang-free way of life. They struggle to see any good in even moderate delineation from these staple rules, and I can't blame them. I can respect their conviction, especially when it's out of a heart of faithfulness and obedience. 

What is hard for me to put up with is the type of pressure, criticism and judgement that sucks the joy out of a room. If you look carefully you can read the underlying script at some wine-filled conservative Christian weddings. You can look around and see it in some of the guests eyes, it reads "We disapprove of this, and thus we cannot fully celebrate with you." 

I find it sad when people are so tainted with judgement that they cannot see the beauty in something. They can't see the beautiful moral of a story because the characters used harsh (realistic) language, they can't celebrate the beauty of a marriage because of champaign toasts, they can't connect with co-workers on a deeper level because they refuse to enter a bar. (Side note: When I was 11 years old I was kicked out of my Sunday school class for arguing with my teacher that Jesus would enter a bar and love the people inside. I still believe I'm right about that.)

Convictions in the grey area can be wonderful until you try to apply them to the group, and then they start inhibit beauty and joy and love and all things good. We should be giving a reason for the hope that we have, not giving a reason for why we don't say the S-H word when referring to poop. Hope is beautiful, so let's make it part of the entree. Who really gives a shit about poop anyways.

In the last ten years there has been a movement in Christian culture trying to shift the focus from inaction to action. Some Christians are trying not to major in the minors anymore, and that means that loving, passionate people who give their time to the church and put others before them also enjoy a beer with friends and don't get offended when someone drops an F-bomb. 

I think this is a good thing. 

I also think it's a good thing that those who have convictions follow them when it comes to their personal choices. If you have convictions for not drinking, don't drink. Have a Diet Coke or something. The problem arises when we want to blanket a group of people with our personal convictions. We want to play God and decide what is wrong and right for everyone, but the Bible leaves a pretty grey area when it comes to consuming alcohol or using slang (For my opinion on language use, see blog post Profanity vs Slang), but one thing Jesus is very clear on is criticism. He starts out Matthew 7 saying this:

 1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.   3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
I think the point is you'll never get the plank out of your own eye. We'll never be righteous enough to be justified in our criticism of our brothers and sisters. Or perhaps the point is that the action of trying to pick the speck out of our brothers eye reveals the fact that something in our own souls is fundamentally flawed. That if we were truly living right, we would never criticize our brothers and sisters on the grey-area issues. Perhaps our criticism reveals the plank in our eye, the plank that is our lack of focus on the fundamental dietary staples that Jesus laid out for the Christian life. Our focus should be inward. Jesus was very clear when he said "Do not judge," so why do we allow judgement to run rampant in our churches?

I think we have to take a hard line on things like love, mercy, justice and faithfulness, and leave a lot of wiggle room for the little things. The Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 
and then...
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

It doesn't matter what you don't do, it doesn't even matter what you DO do, if you don't have love, whether in inaction OR action, your efforts are meaningless. Plain and simple.
Everyone will be convicted in a different way about the grey area, and we can't be quick to judge or criticize those who think differently than we do about the "frosting" issues. We have to show love. 

So for those who lean conservative, don't go sucking the joy out of the room when not everybody follows your convictions, and those who lean liberal, don't go criticizing those who choose to abstain. 

Let their hearts decide what is best, but in all things, may we have love.