Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A defining moment

Sir Ernests Shackleton and the Crew of ENDURANCE


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost -

I read another blog today that reminded me of an old quip: "There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide the world into to groups and those who don't."

With all the wisdom of his divine nature, Jesus made the true division: Those who choose the broad, flat and easy way in life; and those who choose the narrow, steep and difficult way. He called his followers to choose the narrow and more difficult way. The way that is disciplined, generous, thoughtful and perseverent over a life time. "Therefore, choose the narrow gate that leads to life." Matthew 7:13,14

William Barclay, the great Biblical commentator once wrote, "all life concentrates on man at the crossroads." He was right you know. We are called to choose hundreds of times a day. "How will we use our time? Who will I reach out today? Should I help that homeless person by the side of the road? I wonder if I should buy this item." Choices...sometimes we make good choices. Sometimes we make bad choices. Sometimes the choices are inconsequential really. After all, in the long term does it really matter what color socks I choose to wear today or which route I should take to work?

The Bible indicates that the believer is regularly confronted with choices that do make a difference - an eternal difference; not only for themselves but for others.

Moses, delivering his last sermon to the Israelites before they passed over into the promised land, was inspired by God to challenge them, "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death blessings and curses. Now choose life...for the Lord is your life and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."
(Deuteronomy 30: 19,20)

Standing at a crossroads; a time of choice and a time of great opportunity, God's people could have chosen to believe the reports of the spies sent out earlier who came back and reported "giants in the Land." (Deut. 1:19 - 25) Though easier in the short run, this choice would have resulted in death and curses. The choice of blessing and life, on the other hand would turn out to be fraught with great challenge.

Choices aren't always easy.

And so Jesus, as he preaches about the way his Kingdom People should live, addresses the point in the seventh chapter of Matthews Gospel. It is nearing the grand climax of the Sermon on the Mount and he is summarizing the teachings he has already put forth: that blessings belong to those the world considers to be of no account; that one can only experience forgiveness from God and others if they are willing to be merciful and forgiving of those who have hurt and offended them. He has reminded his hearers that they should first take the 2x4 out of their own eye before they worry about the speck of sawdust in their neighbor's eye; and that there is no reason one of Jesus' followers should ever worry about the things that God alone, by virtue of God's gracious providence, can provide.

And so he begins this passage (verses 7 - 12)with an exhortation to keep asking, seeking and knocking because God is a loving God and like a father will give generously to his children that for which they ask, that for which they knock, and that for which they seek.

We want God - no we pray for God to be generous with us and to answer our prayers. Jesus adds a little bon mot here though. He says, "in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you." This is an echo of the forgiveness theme. We want to be forgiven? Then we should forgive. We want God and others to be generous to us? We should treat them that way. Or, as it was often expressed in its negative form, "I must not do to others that which I would object to their doing to me." That really doesn't do justice to this "Golden Rule" of faith.

Too truly follow the spirit of this rule and not just the letter, one can only do as they are compelled by the love of Christ. As Barclay says, this will clearly make that person's life more complicated for he/she will have less time for self and will, by choice of following Christ in the narrow difficult way give up what he/she wants to do or is doing, to do what he/she is being led to do as a disciple of Jesus.

Bob Pierce, the founder of the great Christian Relief agency WORLD VISION, used to pray, "Dear God, please break my heart with the things that break the heart of God."
As Jesus put it, "treat others the way you would expect God and others to treat you."
That is not easy. It is a road less traveled. It is the narrow, steep way.

One of my favorite stories revolves around Sir Ernest Shackleton's third attempt to reach the South Pole aboard the ship ENDURANCE. The year was 1914 and he was having a difficult time finding a crew who were willing to make the journey simply for the fame or financial reward and so he posted the following notice in the London Times:


That is the adventure that Christ calls his followers to embrace. Wouldn't you agree that it is a far cry from the promises of prosperity and ease that we hear so much of in the "American church" today. Christ's call is a call to rugged, costly discipleship. It is a call to take up the cross of Christ and deny one's self. It is not just the narrow way of correct "christo-centric" doctrine. Many people wear that mantle. The challenge is living that out because the way we live is the truest indicator of what we truly believe.

No, the narrow way is following Christ to the cross with a spirit and mindset of selfless love. “Have this same attitude in you that was in Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider his equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…and became obedient even unto death.”

Be careful what you ask for. When you ask and seek and knock at God’s throne, he will always give you what you need and what is best for you. For those who seek to live as citizens of Christ’s kingdom, that means God will give you the opportunity and the challenge of following the difficult and narrow way of generosity, forgiveness, service, sacrifice and obedience. And you will be the better for it. It will lead to life.

Life or death? Blessings or curses? A narrow way that leads to life or a broad way that eventually leads to death and stagnation. You Choose!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jazz Shaped Faith

An American institution; pure music; a metaphor for life. I don't know. I think I am biased. I love jazz. I love to listen to it. I love to play it. I wish I were better at it. I think it has a lot to say to followers of Jesus. If the saying is true that "are imitates life," then it must also be true that jazz is a reflection of the varieties of human experience and faith.

I think it must also be true that had Jesus come to earth in the 20th century, some if not all his parables might have been about jazz instead of farming. For many years I thought being in ministry and holding this deep desire to play jazz were so vastly different that "ne'er the twain shall meet." But about 15 years ago, I remember reading about J.I. Packer, an inscrutable, articulate, reserved British/Anglican theologian teaching at Regent College. He was a huge jazz fan. He had an extensive collection of jazz recordings and even dabbled in playing.

I thought, wow, if J.I. Packer could keep both those things balanced, I ought to be able to as well. After all, jazz really had its roots in the sacred music of Gospel and Spirituals. It's improvisation, free form, collaborative style suits it well as a model for the spiritual life.

It's too bad that back in the 50s, which musically was kind of the heyday of American jazz it got hijacked into a world of drug and alcohol abuse and other somewhat sordid lifestyles. Too bad because many of the jazz artists of the period had their start playing or singing in churches.

A few years ago, Donald Miller wrote a book called blue like jazz. He observed that many people don't like jazz because it doesn't resolve. Faith in God is a lot like jazz because, try as we might, we just can't fit God into a neat little package, resolve every minor discordant doubt or problem. We wish he did. We wish everything in life would turn out on a strong, victorious major chord with an AMEN (I,IV,V) chord progression tagged on for good measure but life just doesn't work that way except in movies.

I used repeat over and over to my wife that "jazz is pure music." She would just roll her eyes and go back to listening to contemporary Christian music. There is nothing wrong with that or with most other forms of music either. What I mean by that statement is that jazz is pure music because it stems directly from a person's heart and life experience. Though it may seem made up on the spot to the casual observer, jazz is a reflection of a deep underlying knowledge of music, a life time of practice, a careful listening to the playing of others, and then bringing one's own interpretation of that tune and basic chord structure into the mix.

I admit it's not for everyone. And in our postmodern culture, it may seem that jazz is to music what postmodern thought is to truth; namely that you can believe and do whatever you want if it works for you. But that really misunderstands the basic nature of the heart of jazz.

Jazz is music in community. When I formed a quintet back in 2007, we struggled for a name. We finally decided on "BY COMMITTEE." It has less to do with the Presbyterian roots each of our members shared at the time and more to do with the understanding that in jazz, each person brings his or her own unique gifts and expression to the piece. It is not unstructured relativism. It is like the Body of Christ. Each person is uniquely gifted to offer their own skills and background to the edification or building up of the others.

Jazz does imitate life. Or perhaps we could even say life imitates jazz. I am not quite sure which is more true. But the fact is that life has blues periods; times when our loss, grief, suffering or pain just cant be neatly resolved. It's okay to express ones self in that way.

But life has many joyous, serendipitous moments as well; moments that are best described as happy, upbeat and joyous. And then there are those in-between times as well. In all of life's experiences, part of God's design for our humanity is that we not perform as a solo act but as part of a combo; part of a group of other believers whose interpretations and applications of God's grace, love and truth, enrich others with their variations on a theme.

Today, I picked up my Denver Seminary Alumni magazine and read about another pastor/graduate of that fine institution. Robert Gelinas describes himself as lead pastor at Colorado Community Church and as a jazz theologian. (he also plays pretty well from some of the video I've seen). There is a lot of theology in jazz. He travels around the country, playing and speaking in jazz clubs about the correlation of the two. I am waiting for the time he comes to Western Washington. I would love to meet someone whose love of jazz and theology of the Gospel seem to be so interwoven and authentic.

One of the myths about jazz that many people have is that it is not rehearsed. Sometimes it is true that a group of musicians who have never played together will somehow get together and begin "jamming" as though they had played together forever. But it would be a mistake to think that much rehearsal had not gone into the outcome of their music. No doubt each of them has brought hours of lessons, practice, performance and knowledge music - both particular tunes and music theory alike - so that their music becomes an existential expression of what's in their heart based on all that lifetime of preparation.

Robert Gelinas, in his website suggests that Christians who have spent all their lives studying theology, the Bible, principles of Christian living, should find ways of sharing the music of their souls in the community of faith. A jazz shaped faith.

As I think about a meeting I have tonight, I am not sure exactly how it will go. However, in some way, I know I will be enriched by what each participant will share just as I hope my variations on the common theme (the meeting is a reunion of our team that traveled together to Zambia a year ago)we all share.