Breaking the Cardinal Rule

In every workshop I’ve participated in there was a rule we had I hated to no end: “no disclaimers.” Oftentimes I’d be in a class with literary giants and to force them to read my “art” felt like a violation on their constitutional rights. But I understood why we had it. Disclaimers have a way of tainting our view and, therefore, disabling us to judge the piece for what it is.

While it’s true great art should speak for itself, every once in a while it’s the story behind the art that adds to its greatness. Take Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak.

After reaching a new level of success with Graduation, West loses his mother and calls it off with his long-time fiancée without taking a second away from the limelight to process. The result was his most vulnerable release to date. It was the moment Kanye saw things clearly – maybe for the first time ever. 808s is an existential record that points to the reality that sometimes what makes certain albums meaningful, whether we love them or hate them, is the hell they went through just to exist.

I’m reminded of The Glass Passenger from Jack’s Mannequin. At the ripe age of twenty-two Andrew McMahon wrote his magnum opus, Everything in Transit, and was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia shortly after. The Glass Passenger tells the story of staring death in the face (both musical and actual) and coming out on top – albeit a bit scathed.

Back in 2008 I graduated high school ready to conquer the scene with my band. I put my solo project on hold and started dreaming of our future only for us to break up in the fall. I spent the year doing some serious self-discovery. The result was the best music I’d ever written. I called it Of Triumph & Glory.

Unfortunately, no one heard it.

I moved to Tampa, found Jesus, and my life completely changed. One of the first things I let go of was my hope of being a world-traveling musician. I stepped away from music, the one thing I loved since childhood, to focus on Him; and on the rare occasion I caught inspiration, I couldn’t silence the voices in my head long enough to make something of it. Two years went by without me writing a complete song. I thought I was done for.

Until Cayman…

I’ve written eleven songs, five of them belong to a new EP.

It’s not perfect, nor is it my best material (I know: No Disclaimers), but for what it is, I’m proud.

In an interview at the Oxford Union, John Mayer said he released Paradise Valley to stay current with himself. When Born & Raised came out he lost his voice and couldn’t tour in support of the album. By the time he got well again he wasn’t the same person. Paradise Valley was a bonus record fans weren’t allowed to hate because it wasn’t supposed to happen. That’s this EP.

This is my People & Things. This is my Paradise Valley. It’s titled Wounds & Scars and I hope to share it with you one day.

Jesus & Ethics

Before I begin let me preface this by acknowledging I am in completely over my head. Though it’s implied with every post I feel it’s important to say with this one in particular that I have not arrived. I am still growing and learning. If you disagree, good. Chances are I do too. This is the beginning of a greater work in my thoughts on a given subject. With that being said…

I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion along with local and regional church leaders on the role of the church in preserving ethics, morality, trust, and values. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few moments, I found the experience mildly disappointing.

While part of it came from doing the hard work of preparation for nothing, the majority arose from the fact I work with students with questions – some of them in the room. It was the perfect moment for the church to demonstrate, as Rob Bell (love him or hate him) so beautiful stated, God is not an Oldsmobile. That, in fact, he is for, with, and ahead of us. But we dropped the ball. We debated semantics while hiding behind scholarly terminology, so heavenly bound we were no earthly good.

Just before our panel a man presented a keynote on fighting corruption with better laws. But as I listened I wondered if that was enough? As a society we’ve put our hope in education, legislation, and the advancement of technology only to find the problem is still there. We’ve put our faith in science and humanities and have come up short. You ask me what hope there is for a corruption-free society. I say Jesus. For more reasons than I can post.

I believe to follow Jesus is to subscribe to the highest form of ethics; the role of the church being, first, to remove the plank from its own eye before even thinking about the speck of sawdust in the world’s and to exude faithfulness to God in word, thought, and deed. And if we’re honest, we’ve failed. Simon Ponsonby in The Pursuit of the Holy writes

“Can a godless society be expected to be godly without seeing what godliness is? While the church may speak prophetically to the world about justice and righteousness, I don’t think we can entirely blame the world for its unrighteousness. The church as all too often blended in with the world rather than revealed Christ and his ways to the world. We have failed to be that shining light, that salting influence. And so, as we fail to conform to Christ and the gospel we profess, the church has at times hindered, rather than helped, the world in coming to Christ.”

We are called to be the most ethical people because while laws are good, if there’s one thing the Sermon on the Mount teaches us, laws are the bare minimum. Abstaining from murder is good. Dealing with the anger in our hearts is better.

As Christians we can talk about crime and corruption and we can even construct laws to make sure they don’t win the day but we must never forget the reason these things exist is because we are corrupt people and the solution doesn’t lie in laws but in a transformed heart.

At the risk of falling victim to my own critique, perhaps the issue wasn’t in debating semantics but rather the word we considered. Instead of deliberating on the problem with the words “preserve” and “church”, perhaps we should’ve been examined the premise of ethics all together. Ethics concerns what’s right and wrong, limits, and the most or the least we can do while remaining lawful. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus was never concerned about what was lawful as much as he was concerned about the will of God. The Pharisees cared about right and wrong – ethics, if you will – but Jesus cared about the will of his Father. As people called to model our lives after Him we’re called to be the same way as difficult as it may be.

Desert Lessons

For the past week I’ve had an image from Thor 2 stuck my head: He and his crew have finished vanquishing evil for the day and all his men are celebrating the old fashioned way (with an overflow of drinks, women, and laughter). Yet Thor somberly strolls around the premises. He’s got other things on his mind. While there are victories to revel in for the moment, tomorrow is on the horizon and it promises even more challenges.

I relate to that.

Recently a lot of people have affirmed me in the ministry happening in Cayman and, though I appreciate it, it’s been hard to receive. Much like Thor, I often find my people celebrating but in my head are all the things we’ve yet to accomplish. I wonder if I’m making better disciples, better worshipers of God, more missional Christians, etc. and I grow frustrated.

Interestingly enough, I don’t think that’s all together bad. To be a leader is, yes, having people who follow but equally important is having some place they’re following you to. To be a leader is to stand in the “not yet” guiding people towards the “what’s supposed to be.”

But I’m finding it takes patience. More important for the Israelites than the Promised Land were the desert lessons. While our destination is crucial, it’s the journey that shapes us and makes the destination worthwhile.

This is the paradox of leadership: being content without becoming complacent. If we’re never content we will work ourselves, and those beneath us, to the ground. They become means to an end and God becomes our King but never our Father (though I would say the latter causes the former). However, if we grow complacent we will never become the people God has called us to be nor will we accomplish what he’s set out for us. Instead we’ll become stagnant, lose vision, and cease to exist. Though we may say Jesus is Lord our comfort will beg to differ. Leadership is longing for the destination but embracing the journey.

So how do we best embody this paradox?

1)     In God’s Presence – More important than the voices of those around us is the voice of the One we’ve been working so hard to gain the approval of. When we slow down long enough we find God is not nearly as concerned about our performance as we are. He’s more concerned about us and He’s not one to rush quality. But God’s presence also reminds us he cares about them just as much as he cares about us. We are sent out again.

2)     With Celebration – As silly as it sounds, celebration is a spiritual discipline. It’s the remembrance of what God has done/is doing and rejoicing at the progress made. We celebrate because we are not the same people we were in the beginning but we also recognize we have a way to go. Good celebration pushes back to the mission.

Even as I write this I recognize the reason receiving affirmations has been hard for me is because both of these have been absent, making it increasingly easier to rely on strategy than God. But do people need another strategy? I think not.

This week I’m making a concerted effort in restoring both of these in my life. Won’t you join me? Perhaps it will change the DNA of our groups and, more importantly, us.

Sharing What’s Sacred: Dreams We’re Tempted to Keep

It was early Friday morning and I was late to breakfast with a ministry partner I hadn’t seen in a while.  After exchanging formalities and catching each other up on our lives, he shared with me something he “hadn’t told anyone about yet”: he started a new business.

All he said was it involved investing in a field most people would be surprised at but it’d always been something he was passionate about. If it weren’t for the Christian mentor he mentioned who, on his deathbed, told him he should follow through with this passion, I would’ve thought it unsavory. But he kept going, speaking with more excitement and anxiety by the second. He voiced his concerns on whether or not he’d succeed, whether or not it was what God called him to, and what this meant for his future – all while masterfully concealing what he was actually doing.

While part of it was a fear of speaking too soon – like the expectant couple that waits to reveal their pregnancy until months after the fact – it occurred to me the real reason he wasn’t willing to divulge his business had to do with the fact this passion sat at the core of his heart. It was something too sacred to be shared.

As Christians, there are certain sins we do our best to keep secret for fear of being judged, to the point we lie to ourselves and justify the behavior so we don’t have to confess it. But for some of us, it’s not just sins we keep secret. There are dreams we hide as well.

While the two may seem opposite in nature, they sprout from the same seed: the fear of being misunderstood. Sharing either leaves us vulnerable and to be rejected confirms our worst fears: though people surround us, we are, in fact, alone. So we don’t share. Instead we pursue them silently, if at all.

However, the problem with secrets, especially big ones, is the isolation they bring. Some months after my wife and I moved to Cayman, some friends were over for dinner when the topic of the local church came up. As they began to voice their discontent, I sat on our stairs silently listening. Not because I disagreed but because I had such strong emotions about the subject that to share would’ve dismantled me. Though we were all discontent, my fear was our discontents were different. And when they drove away, I felt incredibly alone. Secret dreams weigh heavy on the soul and bring about the same isolation we feared would come via transparency.

If that’s the case, what do we lose in sharing? If we’re crazy then we’re crazy but at least our cards are on the table. As someone learning this lesson now, we must share our dreams. If not for the people who might feel the same ways as us, then for the people who may be able to help us discern the voice of God more clearly. Often, on the other side is a community waiting to embrace us, to silence our fears. And isn’t that true community? sharing what’s sacred?