Monday, August 24, 2009

Wiley Pittman and Five Notes that Changed the World

Several years ago I watched the movie “Ray”, a biopic on the life of Ray Charles. There was one scene from the movie that really struck me as a musician. Ray Charles as a child of about three-years-old lived next door to a cafĂ© and general store owned by Wiley Pittman who happened to be a great boogie-woogie piano player. In those earliest years of Ray’s life, before he had become totally blind he would drop by Pittman’s not just to listen to him practice but because he wanted to learn how to play the piano himself. The scene from the movie that really got me was how Wiley Pittman was able to teach Ray to begin playing the blues by introducing him to the pentatonic scale – five notes which provide the foundation for many styles of music from around the world from Chinese to Celtic to Blues to Country. The scene really connected with me because it reminded me of how those same 5 basic notes of the Blues scale changed my musical life as well.

I started taking piano lessons when I was around eight years old, but for the most part the first five years of piano lessons failed to really engage my heart. But one day, when I was probably about fourteen years old, I walked into a local music store to look at keyboards. That keyboard salesman will never know how, in trying to sell me a keyboard, he changed my life by introducing me to the very same pentatonic scale which got Ray Charles going as a child. Up to that day I had known how to play the piano a bit and I was even beginning to write some of my own songs but the simplicity of pentatonic scale brought it all together in a way that piano lessons never did. It connected the dots to what I had been stumbling on intuitively. All of the sudden a whole new world of musical possibilities opened up for me.

Within weeks I was writing blues songs and beginning to figure out some blues licks. Over the next four years that followed, my musicianship grew exponentially in all kinds of ways. It wasn’t that I had learned nothing in those few years of piano lessons. It’s just that I got more out of that few minutes with a keyboard salesman because it connected with my heart and my mind in a way that my lessons never could—in a way that changed the course of my life. Had I not had that encounter at that point in my life I might not have pursued music the way that I had and my life would have certainly taken a different path.

The Word Became Flesh
John 1:14 (The Message) says,
14The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.

This is a scripture that is no doubt familiar to many Christians but one which doesn’t seem to inform how many Christians practice their faith much. In this simple verse John kicks his gospel off with the revolutionary truth of the incarnation—God loved us not from a distance as Bette Midler once sang but by entering our neighborhood, our world, the place where we live, as one of us... as a human, with everything that goes with being a human—hunger, physical limitations, morning breath, and so on.

Throughout the gospels the Pharisees seem mainly concerned with the trivialities of following the law, with how to be righteous, with who’s in and who’s out, with religious rituals, and with the fine points of doctrine. But Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t waste time on long theological statements or religious platitudes, rather he related the realities of the kingdom to things that people encountered in everyday life: “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed”… “There once was a guy who owned a vineyard”… “A shepherd lost a sheep”… “A son asked for his dad’s inheritance”. It wasn’t that Jesus was incapable of debating religion with the most intellectual minds of his day but to do that would have missed the point of why he came. The reality is that he loved us enough to not only enter our world as a human but to engage us on human terms, in familiar language and in the everyday places where everyday people live whether at a wedding feast or on a fishing boat or at a party with tax collectors. While the Pharisees were busy avoiding people and making it hard for others to be a part of their “club”, Jesus was busy meeting people right where they were with the good news that no matter their background, social status, race, or moral state they could enter into the kingdom of God.

What might it look like for us to enter into the world of others and to relate to them on their terms?

I read something by Henri Nouwen once that I think gives us a great starting point:
“From experience you know those who care for you become present to you. When they listen, they listen to you. When they speak they speak to you. Their presence is a healing presence because they accept you on your terms, and they encourage you on your terms, and they encourage you to take your own life seriously.”

Have you ever known someone that embodied the above quote? I think we all have at one time or another. When you feel like someone is genuinely interested in you, and sincerely listening to you, and right there with you (as opposed to somewhere else in their mind) you feel like they care. Why? Because in a very simple way they are entering into your world and meeting you right where you are.

Let’s look back at Ray Charles for a moment. Wiley Pittman provides us with a good analogy of what it looks like to enter into the world of another and help them understand something in a very simple way. Had Wiley Pittman not tried to show little Ray music in a way that he could get it, or had he just been too bothered by the pestering of that little kid wanting to bang on his piano and interrupt his practice, our world would have missed out on the amazing treasure of Ray Charles’ music. But Wiley Pittman instead met him right where he was with a simple idea… simple enough for a three-year-old… five notes that changed his life.

As Christians we are faced with a couple of options: Like the Pharisees we can make it harder for people to grasp what God is about with confusing language, customs, and traditions, or we can go the way of Jesus and connect with people right where they are—listening more than speaking, meeting folks on their terms, being present when we are with them, and being deliberately simple when talking about God.

Perhaps our biggest enemy is our own experience. Sometimes we think because of our experience with God that we have somehow become experts and like the Pharisees we can so easily begin talking like experts and alienating the very folks we want to encounter God. Jesus once encouraged his disciples to become like children for “such is the kingdom of Heaven”. While Wiley Pittman was a seasoned piano player of many years he had not lost the ability in his experience on the piano to connect with a child. Perhaps this is a bit of the childlike quality Jesus is calling us to.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Connect 4

In the last blog, using John 15:1-17 as the text, I wrote about how important it is for us to understand the context of our spiritual life as connected to God and others (I highly recommend reading the two preceding blogs before reading this one if you haven’t already). In this blog I want to begin working out practically from the last blog to discuss how these connections will look for the Northshore Vineyard in our philosophy of ministry. In this blog I want to give the idea of the connected life a little more definition by looking at four aspects of a connected life—1.God 2.Christ-following community 3.Non-believers and 4.Our own hearts. These are four fundamental connections that, as a church, we will strive to give expression to in everything we do. Though we will look at each of these connections more as directions of movement they can also be thought of as the legs of a stool that will keep the stool stable and firm.

Connection 1—God
Our connection to God is the meaning that brings meaning to everything else in life. It is the fundamental connection and the foundation of everything else that we do. We must remember that the fruit of the Christian life comes from our connection to God—it’s his life living in and through us.

Have you ever been to a Church which didn’t seem to have much of a connection to God? There may have been a lot of God-activity or even rituals and traditions but somehow the church had become disconnected from God. Something that will be conspicuously absent in such churches is—LIFE. As Jesus said, “if you are not connected to me you are deadwood, ready for the fire.”

I think Bono summed up this sentiment well in a 2004 interview with Michka Assayas in which he said, “Religion can be the enemy of God. It's often what happens when God, like Elvis, has left the building. A list of instructions where there was once conviction; dogma where once people just did it; a congregation led by a man where once they were led by the Holy Spirit. Discipline replacing discipleship.”

As individuals and as a community of Christ-Followers we need to mind the God-connection in our lives. We do this by actively seeking God, by carving out time to listen for what God is saying, by worshipping and praying, by living life with eyes wide open to what God is doing. In John 5 Jesus made an amazing statement, “The Son does nothing of himself but only what He sees the Father doing.” Jesus was making the point that his life had nothing to do with following tradition, pleasing the expectations of people, or even just trying to buck the system. Everything he did was connected to what the Father was doing. Everything Jesus did flowed from this connection. In the same way we need not be a group of people who are just running around like busy little bees for God or just mindlessly following rules and traditions, instead we must seek to remain connected to God in everything from mundane everyday tasks to worship gatherings with other Christians, from times of joy to times of sorrow.

Connection 2—Christ-following Community
Though we often talk about going to church or use the word “church” to simply speak of a building, church in its most fundamental sense is the community of Christ-followers.

We live in a world that is fragmented, divided, and broken. People live in “broken” homes, groups are divided among class and status, and even the very technologies that have promised connection have left us alienated, fractured and alone.

The earliest pictures of the church that emerge in the Book of Acts were of a community of people who had chosen to orient their lives around Christ and live in community (common-unity) with one another. Though they were from many different races, ethnicities and walks of life they connected around Jesus and His purposes. God created us to experience his life not as lone individuals but in relationship with other Christ-followers. Our connection to fellow Christians breaks the individualization, self-sufficiency and alienation that is so prevalent in the world and keeps us in relationships where we learn both how to give and receive. Being in relationships with others is really hard because it will involve learning to communicate, learning how to work through conflict, and learning how to hurt with the hurting and hole up the weak but the fruit of our connection to others is a deepening of God’s love in our hearts and the transforming of our own brokenness into the nature of Christ.

Connection 3—Non-believers
You may have been a part of a church that was very connected as a community of Christ-followers but to which those who were outside the faith would have a very hard time connecting. This likely happened because as that community began to form its identity it began to form its own sub-culture of customs, expressions, and insider language. This is one of the greatest dangers of Christian community because without a connection to the larger culture it will begin to erect a wall through which the very ones who need to connect with Christ have a hard time getting through. This means that even as we work to be in relationship with other Christ-followers that we must be diligent to connect with those who have not yet found themselves in God’s story. This means that as a church we seek to serve the community in any ways we can, from mentoring kids in the public schools to building homes for the poor. This means that rather than harping on the evils of society we seek to connect with the larger culture through art, music, and creativity. This means that in everything we do we try to maintain hospitable spaces for folks to connect with and encounter God. This is what gives meaning to the value of-Culturally Relevant Mission.

Connection 4—Heart
In the second century Ireneus wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

It is quite common to get caught up in a Christianity that is just about externals while never getting to the deeper levels of the heart. However, it is the journey inward which keeps community from just turning into social gatherings and that helps us more fully enter into the struggles of others because we are becoming more and more aware of our own struggles within.

I recently heard Rob Bell talking about how the church could learn a lot from Alcoholics Anonymous. He noted that AA starts with everyone admitting their weaknesses. Because of this there is no pretention in AA, no acting like folks have it all together. One comes to AA precisely because one knows his/her life is a mess.

In our world people frequently just live on auto-pilot going through the motions of life struggling with addictions, habits, anger, resentment and jealousy because they have failed to ever encounter God very far beneath the surface. And when there is no connection to the heart, Christianity ultimately just becomes something external and certainly not fully alive.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” There is something about becoming aware of our poverty of spirit, of our own brokenness that opens us up to the kingdom of heaven, to the richness of kingdom life. Staying connected to our own hearts helps to keep us living more authentically and more passionately whether around Christian community or those who have not yet come to faith. What might it be like to be around Christians who took the inward journey seriously and who helped one another on that journey?

These four connections will be what we will be about at the Northshore Vineyard no matter what we are engaged in. In the coming months we will explore each of the connections more fully.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Meditation on Tiger Truck Stop

Where else but Louisiana might one find the rather unique blending of live tigers and a truck stop? Such is the case with the Tiger Truck Stop or Grosse Tete, Louisiana. Being that the Tiger Truck Stop is located on I-10 between Baton Rouge and Laffayette I have travelled by this wonder of the modern world on more than a few occasions over the years. I have even succumbed to the urge to visit said truck stop once or twice (perhaps because of just how bizarre the thought of tigers in the swamps of south Louisiana seems to be).

I didn’t realize until doing a little research for this blog that the Tiger Truck Stop is actually at the center of a debate between animal rights groups wanting to see Tony the Tiger (the name of the tiger at the truck-stop) set free and the owners of the truck-stop who say they have cared for the tiger since it was just a cub and feel that he would be better suited with the love and care of his owners and his humble existence at the truck-stop (besides, they say, it’s all he’s ever known and to throw him out in the wild would be much more cruel).

While this blog is not about animal rights I do have to say that each time I drive by the Tiger Truck Stop I can’t help but feel a little bit sad for old Tony. Why? Well because a truck stop is not where a tiger belongs; a cage on the edge of a parking lot of a second-rate truck stop in the swamps of Louisiana is a pretty pathetic existence for such a majestic creature as a tiger.

Why is it that we frequently feel sorry for animals such as these tigers in a truck stop (or a lion in a zoo for that matter)? It’s not like they are sickly or even being abused or tortured (though some animal rights groups might disagree with that statement). We feel bad for these tigers because there is a sense that they were made for something much greater. It’s the sadness of failed potential, of purpose thwarted, of a life that will not be fully lived. There is a sense of sorrow that these giant cats are alienated from what life as a “big cat” should be—namely running around in the wild stalking prey. Though these tigers of the Tiger Truck-Stop are alive they certainly are not thriving in any sense of the word. They technically have everything they need for life—food, water, shelter, but there is something big that they are missing—namely their natural habitat (encountering one of these big cats in the wild, their natural habitat, would be a completely different and possibly even quite terrifying story).

Too often we have a tendency to look at the spiritual life as just a matter of working moral principles or formulas without any regard to context and we wonder sometimes why we are not thriving. Just like those tigers in the Tiger Truck Stop we may have food, water and shelter (technically alive) but we aren’t thriving because something or should I say somewhere is missing. We are living our lives out of context!

In John chapter 15:1-17 Jesus talks about the nature and the goal of the spiritual life. To make his point Jesus uses the analogy of a Vineyard: a famer (representing God the Father), a vine (representing Jesus), and fruit (representing our maturity as Christ-followers). What is interesting in these verses is how they speak more of our connection to God than our activity for God. Jesus makes the point that if we get the context right then fruit will be the natural product. And what is the context of which he speaks? It is our connection to Jesus and to one another. Jesus tells us to live in his love the way he lives in the love of the Father and in the same way to be conduits of that love to others. Too often we miss this aspect of the spiritual life and think that Christianity is simply about following rules, going through rituals, and staying busy with Christian activities. Yet, without a connection to Jesus and others we simply cannot thrive (or bear fruit) in our Christian walk. Principles (even Godly principles) divorced from context will never produce fruit and never bring forth life that is thriving.

Spiritual Fruit
In these verses it is quite evident that the goal of our connection to God is fruit. Why fruit? Because fruit is not only the part of the plant that frequently nourishes others but it is also the reproductive mechanism of the plant. In nature it is fruit that attracts animals because of its scent and taste and it is also fruit that contains the seeds of the plant that will cause more plants to spring up wherever the seeds are deposited. The metaphor of fruit speaks of the purposes of God in us and through us. As we live our lives connected to Jesus we will produce fruit (Paul writes about spiritual fruit in Galatians 5:22-23). This spiritual fruit won’t come with stress or anxiety but will be the byproduct of getting the context right. It is this spiritual fruit that will attract others to Christ and which contains at its core the DNA of the Kingdom of God. This is one of the ways that the Kingdom of God comes on earth. As Jesus said just two chapters earlier, “They will know your are my disciples by your love for one another” (John 13:35 )
I truly believe one of the greatest forms of evangelism is not the words of Christ-followers but the fruit of their lives—the fruit of peace when everything is chaotic, the fruit of joy in the midst of trials, the fruit of love in the very face of hatred and contempt. This kind of fruit doesn’t come from willpower, self-help books, or positive thinking but is the manifestation of a life connected to God. It is spiritual fruit that will help people to taste what God’s kingdom is like and cause them to want to be a part of it themselves.

Is the Context All That Matters?
Does this mean that the Christian life is just passive; that it is just a matter of believing God loves us? No, it's much bigger than that, because Jesus does not simply tell us to live in his love but to love other people as well (John 15:9-13). There is an inflow of his love and an outflow of love to others (in fact as we receive God’s love and love others we begin to realize his love for and through others). I know sometimes it seems as if the Christian life would be a whole lot easier if it didn’t involve being in relationship with other people, but the reality is that this is part of our natural habitat and thus the only place in which we will truly thrive. We were created to be in relationship with God and others and any attempts at the Christian life apart from these fundamental connections will be futile. The context anchors the activity of the Christian life. Think of it this way: A tiger in it’s natural habitat will get busy doing what tigers were created to do—hunting, eating, and running around (as well as a few cat naps) and in the same way when we get the context right we are freed up to live as we were created—to be a part of God’s restorative and reconciling work in the world—and that’s good news indeed!

Monday, August 3, 2009

John 15:1-17

This week I want us to read and meditate on the following passage from John 15:1-17 and wrestle with what it might look like to live the type of Christian life of which Jesus is speaking in these verses as well as what the larger implications might be for a community of Christ-followers living this kind of life.

John 15:1-17 (The Message)

1-3 "I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn't bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.
4"Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can't bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can't bear fruit unless you are joined with me.
5-8"I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you're joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can't produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce Fruit, when you mature as my disciples.
9-10"I've loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you'll remain intimately at home in my love. That's what I've done—kept my Father's commands and made myself at home in his love.
11-15"I've told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy completely mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I'm no longer calling you servants because servants don't understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I've named you friends because I've let you in on everything I've heard from the Father.
16"You didn't choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won't spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.
17"But remember the root command: Love one another.


What kind of ideas have you had about the goal of the Christian life and the means of achieving it? (In other words, what’s the point of being a Christian and how do I do it?)

How did you come by these ideas?

When you look at these verses from John 15 what does it say to you about what God wants to do with us?

And how does Jesus tell us this will happen?

Why do you think that Jesus uses the metaphor of a grape vine? Why not a metaphor from the world of economics, or politics, or even building or construction? (these would have all been familiar aspects of life to the original hearers)

This passage talks of our connection to Jesus. Are there any other connections you see in this passage?