Monday, August 24, 2009

It Might Get Loud, Indeed

Matthew, Chris (two of my sons) and I went and saw "It Might Get Loud" -- a fascinating patchwork of history, viewpoints, concert footage and a present day guitarist pow-wow featuring Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Yardbirds fame, Jack White of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, and The Edge from U2. The film was nicely done as it bounced around between the three personalities representing three generations of rock guitarists and their influences, recollections, various guitars and equipment, artistic distinctions and philosophies. As the audience, it was easy to appreciate the three very different musicians - the white hair, the black hair and the no hair.

It was nice to see each man stripped down to his own equipment, telling his own stories and stating his own unique points-of-view. After it was over (it was inspiring), I was struck again by the way any true artist, no matter what media he or she is working in, is a product of their decision to make a total commitment to their art and then follow wherever that should lead them. As each man in the film looked back, it was easy to see that they could not possibly have known that their love of music would take them to high places of fame and fortune. Nevertheless, they poured themselves into their craft, their influences, and their opportunities (large and small) with the result that each came up with a history quite unlike the other yet remarkably connected by a love for what six strings can produce. As Babbette says at the end of the movie "Babbette's Feast": "In the heart of every artist there is a cry: let me do my best!"

Whether it is wordsmithing, musicianship, visual or performing arts, or what-have-you, the need to sacrifice in order to produce something truly lasting and unique never changes. It is so easy to tell the difference between an truly devoted artist and a hack performer. Artists have a commitment as vivid as the blood stains left on Jack White's instrument after playing some particularly energetic shows while the hacks, well, they just go for the cheapest rewards. I know there are others (such as athletes) who understand this kind of unfettered commitment. It is always inspiring to drink in that spirit. That's why I found it worthwhile to spend time with my boys hanging out (on film) with these three musical craftsmen as they allowed us to see behind their stage personas.

I thought it was great for Matthew (who is learning the bass and getting into bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush) and Chris (who has long loved music and the arts) to sit with me and enjoy seeing "It May Get Loud". I recommend it for anyone who needs a refreshing dose of artistic inspiration!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lessons From a Festival

So, last Sunday, a bunch of us from our Foothill Ranch House Church threw a neighborhood festival in the cul-de-sac by our host home. There was a giant inflatable waterslide. There was a water balloon fight, a cake walk, a cupcake eating contest, crafts, balloons, bean bag toss games, facepainting, free hot dogs, popcorn and snow cones for all. The afternoon/evening culminated in an open air street concert featuring "Dean-o" of "Dean-o and the Dynamos" whose rapid fire songs about the value of the Bible and trusting God were illustrated by four young ladies from two families who had gone through the trouble to learn the songs in advance and provide interperative choreography for each. Too fun!

Here are some things that stood out to me about the whole event:

* It was amazing how much was pulled off by such a relatively small number of people.

* The old "80-20" rule did NOT apply (20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work). In our case, it was 100 percent participation from the host families and singles right on down to the smallest of our tribe. That was SO gratifying!

* This was not a "staff driven" or "pastor driven" event. I guest preached two services at a church an hour from the neighborhood that morning, picked up the sound system and a few other things from our storage unit, and arrived an hour before start time. All preparations were either already done or finishing up. These folks worked hard. They made and distributed the flyers, came up with the ideas, involved the neighbors, coordinated the expenses, designed the set up and did all the work. We were all very tired by the end of the day, but it was stunning how productive these people were -- all because they wanted to bless a neighborhood as the local house church.

* This was our second event of this kind (last one was in November, a couple months after we had started up). The first one was good. This one was even better.

* The cost for us to put on this event -- one that put us in touch with dozens of folks outside our house church -- was 1/3 of a month's rent for the building we were leasing for our traditional church in Rancho Santa Margarita. That's not to say our event was cheap. It wasn't. It is to say that the "bang for the buck" factor in terms of outreach was immensely greater than any of the events we used to do that depended on people coming to our church campus to experience. There is a big fat lesson here.

* In the less than a year that Foothill Ranch House Church has been officially constituted, we have put on: another similar festival to last Sunday's, a Christmas Eve service including a live nativity play (held in the garage for all to see!), an open air Easter Sunday service held on a beautiful spring day right on the street, and countless smaller touches on neighbors including a gift basket delivery / prayer session for one that had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, etc. If it is true that, in sharing the gospel, we ought to count "conversations" and not just "conversions", I cannot remember a time when so many "conversations" about Christ, the church, and the kingdom have been so plentifully initiated in such natural and even fun ways.

* In giving up our traditional church modality, we have faced new problems -- mostly related to how we will organize ourselves, care for our kids and teens, and a few other issues that are mostly about what we miss and what we were used to. But that price is so small to pay for what I have seen in terms of active participation in ministry from all ages, quality fellowship and interpersonal ministry among our small group of house church people, outward flowing stewardship of money and efficiency and MEASUREABLE commitment of our mission to "empower everyday people to take the ministry of Jesus to everyday places."

This has been a year of experimentation, lessons learned, saying some bittersweet goodbyes to the familiar, speedbumps, and so on. But I confess that -- combined with what I have seen in our other two house churches in our network and the individuals involved in them -- I'm pretty darn spoiled for ever wanting to go back to the old way of doing and being church. In that regard, what I mostly miss is the people and, in a way, we still get to have each other and the memories we have made, the growth we have gained and the love we have engendered. But when it comes to modalities of church life, I've never been more encouraged about actually seeing what I believe to be important put into actual practice.

One year later, this festival reminds me that saying "yes" to change, though difficult, can be very, very rewarding.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

King Leonard and the Lesser Poets

Bow down, Bono. Be still, Bruce (Cockburn). Van the Man, raise up your hands. And yes, you too, Bobby Dylan -- stand aside (I can't believe I just wrote that). Leonard Cohen is back on stage and you all must take your proper, lesser places.

If you don't know who Leonard Cohen is, don't feel bad. The man is in his 70's now and has not had the kind of musical career that has churned out a string of radio hits. But, if you've heard Jeff Buckley sing "Hallelujah", or even Judy Collins warbling "Suzanne", then you've been with Leonard's work, perhaps without knowing it. So subtle is his magic that "Hallelujah" even showed up in "Shrek". Not bad for a Jewish Canadian word and songsmith in his seventh decade.

I've been a Cohen admirer for some years and even spent some time with a book of his poems this past year or so. Maybe that's why, when I saw that he has just released a "Live in London" 2-CD set with a lot of his best stuff on it (and backed by a crack band), I jumped without hesitating and placed an order. Boy am I glad for my reunion with his particular brand of genius.

Now, to be fair, not everything Leonard does is mind-blowing. Some of it is simply stirring, some of it merely amazing, and some just mildly astounding. What you don't get with Leonard is a soaring, beautiful voice (more of a rich baritone sometimes half-spoken croak). But, given what it is, that voice still communicates depth, poetry and a lifetime of experiences in its own inimitable way. Compare to, say, my dear Bobby Dylan's once-supple-now-poor voice which has descended into a state of (for me) total unlistenability.

And Leonard can do Dylan as good as Dylan does Dylan. Check out these lyrics from "Tower of Song":

"I said to Hank Williams: how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasnt answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the tower of song"

Leonard Cohen does not have the pure volume of output of a Dylan, but what he lacks in volume, he makes up for in purity. And, one thing you can't miss about Cohen, is his obsession with religious imagery. There are few of his songs that DON'T refer to something like a midnight choir, angels, Jesus, The End of the World, judgement, prayer or some other religious notion. He has made no secret that he has long been a spiritual seeker -- even spending a year at a mountain monastery above L.A. studying Buddhism with a personal teacher. In spite of this, Cohen also freely drinks of the sensual and even erotic side of life which leads me to warn the squeamish not to look too closely into his poetry, lyrics and way-of-life. On the live album he quips that he has long indulged his fascination with studying various religions: "but cheerfulness kept breaking through". Nevertheless, he has done us the favor of reporting a few of his findings in lyrics such as: "everything beautiful is cracked, that's how the light gets in".

And how, pray tell, is it that after all these many years I still choke up when I hear the maestro sing his masterpiece "Suzanne"(okay, one of his masterpieces anyway):

"And Jesus was a sailor. When He walked upon the water.
He spent a long time looking from His lonely wooden tower.
And when He knew for certain only drowning men could see Him,
He said "All men will be sailors, then, until the sea shall free them"
But He, Himself was broken long before the sky was open.
Forsaken, almost human, He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone."

If you are searching for doctrine, don't look to Leonard's religious poetry: "I'm the Jew who wrote the Bible", he smirks in "The Future", one of my favorite Cohen songs. But if you're looking for a window that opens the soul to seeing the spiritual smack dab in the middle of the earthly, I can heartily commend him to you:

"Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant"

(The Future)

Well, I could go on but I'd rather have you spend your own time with the man, and if you still doubt his genius, consider the soaring beauty of his sung prayer "If It Be Your Will"

"If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before

I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Secret of a Happy Heart

The secret of a happy heart is gratitude. Entitlement -- to whatever extent we nurture it -- is toxic to happiness. If I feel I am owed, then getting what I want or deserve only puts me back to baseline. There is no overflow of joy. A temporary feeling of being "paid up" is as good as it gets. That has nothing to do with true happiness.

The happy in heart draw their happiness from a well of gratitude. They feel blessed because everything they have, no matter how little, is not something they are "owed", but is something grace has provided. The happy in heart stop to appreciate their blessings, even if troubles also abound. "In this world you shall have tribulation...", Jesus said. They know this is true. They have reckoned the fact that reversals, heartaches, disappointments and difficulties are part of the deal. So they focus instead at the miracles of their blessings -- great or small. They see these blessings as gifts from outside of themselves (unearned) and give thanks to The Giver that they have been so favored.

Happiness is totally a matter of perspective and gratitude. I met a man last weekend who has lost everything he once took pride in -- four houses, a marriage, abundant money -- all kinds of things people consider desireable. All gone. Losing all these things has been the hardest part of his journey. However, he reported to me that he is happier now than when he had them. Why? Because he is grateful for what he DOES have and knows that he is blessed to have anything at all.

If just having "stuff" could make us happy, then the most affluent parts of town -- Newport Coast, Beverly Hills, Coto de Caza (!) -- you name it, should be bubbling over with joyful people having excellent days every day. Look how much they have! Those should be the happiest neighborhoods on earth!! I ask you: is that your experience of these places?

And the poor neighborhoods should be places without music, without any joy, without appreciation for the simple things. Just hotbeds of dissatisfaction and entitlement. Is there no joy or appreciation among the poor? And the middle class areas should be full of people who are sort of happy but not fully because they know there are others who have more. Are there no happy middle class folk?

The reality is that we find both entitlement and happiness in all classes, in both sexes, at all levels, and in all parts of the world. The determinant factor in happiness is gratitude for God's blessings, not stuff or power or adoration or anything else. We're happy if we choose to be grateful, no matter who we are. We are unhappy if we nurture entitlement, no matter how much or how little we have. That's the seceret of a happy heart.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Are You Happy?

While I was in Phoenix last weekend, I ducked out for a bite with an old friend from high school. We hadn't actually seen one another in decades and it was great to have time for a meal together.

Over the course of our dinner we swapped stories about our lives and reviewed some of the events, choices, and experiences that had filled the passing years. We laughed at old memories, caught up on a what had become of some of our friends and, of course, updated each other on our life histories.

In the midst of all our chatter, I paused and asked John this key question:

"Are you happy?"

It is a question I ask myself from time-to-time. I am impressed by the way those three words clear the air of lesser questions and moves me to focus on my true interior state. So, let me ask you now: "are you happy?"

If your answer is a solid "yes", congratulations. In my experience, you are a pretty rare breed. But if it is "no", I wonder if you can specifically identify what it is that stands in the way of your own happiness.

Go ahead, try it. Ask yourself: "Am I happy?" and then pay close attention to what happens next.

"The pursuit of happiness is noble. It benefits everyone around the individual pursuing it, and it benefits humanity. And that is why happiness is a moral obligation."

Dennis Prager