Friday, August 24, 2012

Part VII - My How Things Have Changed - Check Your 6

 

Last night, I re-read my own postings on this series, and while I had planned on making this installment more focused on what I’ve been driving toward, I feel like I need to explain further:

I was born in April of 1964, and that makes me 48 at the moment.  I don’t know what the average age of the players I see in church is, but whatever that average is, I’m fairly certain that I’m either not in it, or I’m on the high side of that average.  

When I was younger, I had a very interesting “conversation” with my father about music.  He is not musical at all, and never really understood how and why I was- and, to be fair, I don’t really know why either.  My mom played a little piano (always the same tired pieces- there was some Edvard Grieg piece that she kind of knew…..) and my paternal grandparents were somewhat musical, and my entire family was really more geared to classical music.  In this “conversation” my father was telling me that the music that I was listening to was “just noise” and that it “made him nervous” and he just didn’t understand this “rock ‘n roll, heavy rock” thing.  The music I was listening to that started this conversation was Supertramp…….hardly “heavy rock”……but let’s not go there.  Yet.

All through the years, every new piece of music and composer of music has met their detractors.  J.S. Bach met them.  W.A. Mozart never got credit during his lifetime- he was viewed as a rebel, and his genius was only really recognized after his untimely and early death at age 35.  Acceptance for new art forms is never when they are first released in any fashion- and that has been borne out from the likes of Henry Purcell, through the Baroque period of Bach and Vivaldi, the classical revolution of Beethoven and Brahms, the 20th century movement of Edgar Varese, Igor Stravinsky and the early jazz and blues movement.  The Beatles were hated by the establishment of the day, and are now revered by our current establishment.  At the forefront of that hatred has always been people of my current age who don’t understand the youth of that particular’s cultures need to push things and find new things- and, invariably, people who lead the charge against whatever is the newest musical form’s raison d'être decry it as the fall of society and the world is going to end because of it – dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria – except of course, it never does.  And it never will.  (Not because of that, anyway.)

So, what this old codger is trying to say is that just because there is no apparent desire in the church today for excellence or originality in the music of the day – that does not mean that we’re all marching towards a precipice of total and unrecoverable disaster.  No one is gonna die from this, and I’m 100% sure that God will continue to be glorified in what is delivered.  I’m also not trying to say that I, nor anyone in my age bracket, has all the right answers here, and that if you don’t listen to us, you are doomed.  Nothing of the sort.

BUT: (and you knew that there was one)

This time, in this particular incarnation of societal revolution, there is something that actually is more malevolent than you might think: and that is that as a society (and like it or not, the church is part of that society) we are getting more and more lazy in our objectives, and paying less and less to really important things.  This is especially true in the current forms of pop/secular music (most notably rap where it is acceptable as a practice to steal from others – oh, sorry – I meant “sample”) but I’m not concerned about that- or am I?

Here’s why the pop/secular thing is important to note – pop/secular (non-Christian) music has become so pablumized and diluted as an art form that it almost isn’t recognizable anymore.  There’s a lot of reasons for this- “pro-sumer” recording gear; lack of originality; lack of knowledge on the part of producers; lack of knowledge on the part of record companies; the downslide of record company’s influence on listening trends; pirating; illicit and illegal music sharing; the “loudness” wars from mastered digital recordings – the list goes on and on and on.  On top of that, today’s mark of influence is met out by reality TV shows like “American Idol” (or, as I like to call it, “American Idle”) where the people who “compete” honestly and really don’t have any talent.  (With the notable exception of Carrie Underwood)  No talent?  What do you mean?  I’ll quote the latest Bobcat Goldthwaite movie, “God Bless America” on that:

They don’t have talent.  They have good pitch, and they are relatively clean. They’re non-threatening to little girls and old ladies. They have the ability to stand in line with a lot of other desperate and confused people – but, I assure you, they are talent free.

As this character, Frank, waxes on about why there is no talent, and why this is bad, he makes the following statement, too:

This is the same freak show that comes along with the collapse of a mighty empire.

(Here’s the whole speech- the video is NSFW and there is language, so be careful)

While some may bristle at the method of Bobcat’s overly violent delivery, he has it right.  What we are seeing in these types of programs and what we are listening to is a freak show delivered at the end of a mighty empire.  And, because the church – now – wants so desperately to appear secular, this is doubly troubling.  Or, it should be to every single Christian on the planet, because we are not supposed to be part of that “mighty empire”.

What?  The church wants to appear secular?  You think I’m kidding or I’m being hysterical?  

Think again.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the following phrases or paraphrases:

  • “I love Coldplay.  They’re my favorite Christian band.”
  • “I know that The Doobie Brothers are Christians.  They did that song, ‘Jesus Is Just All Right With Me’.”
  • “Have you heard that Joan Osbourne song, “What If God Were One Of Us”?  Man, that really made me rethink my faith.”
  • “Sure Bono of U2 curses, but he’s an ambassador for Christ.  Listen to his lyrics.”

You’ve simply got to be kidding me!  Please, PLEASE understand that I’m not saying that a non-Christian “approved” song can’t touch you spiritually- I, personally, find Kansas’ “The Wall” to be one such song – but I know that these people who’ve said these things have almost no idea how to equate these things to actually internalizing them or thinking them through critically.  How do I know that?  Because I asked them.  We as Christians – like the Bereans – are supposed to check these things out against Scripture, but now, it’s all about how we “feel” versus how we “know” – and that is extremely dangerous.

And, going further- in “Welcome To The Machine” – my last installment – I mention that every single smaller church who so desperately wants to be like Joel Osteen’s Houston Mega-Church – they’ve gone and turned their worship services into full fledged rock concerts and unless they’re simulcasting their pastor into 5 different satellite campuses, they aren’t really a player- and, really, all they’re saying is that “size matters”.  (You can read into that however you like.)

I have a good friend – who is not a Christian at the time – who told me about 30 years ago that he found some of the Christian music I was listening to, to be the best produced, best written songs of the day.  He found a great deal of comfort in the lyrics and the obvious passion that was being conveyed.  He got saved, not by this music, but by the songwriters of the day’s ability to make their case intelligently and originally instead of some stupid, nonsensical “fan boy” sound-alike of some other ne’er-do-well secular group who had the audacity to just mention Jesus/God/Holy Spirit the prerequisite number of times.  (Well, he got saved because of Jesus, but you understand what I mean.)

On top of that, artists like Roby Duke, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green, Phil Keaggy, Bob Bennett and a bunch of others understood that in addition to GREAT lyrics, that chord forms and chordal movement was a vitally important part of doing what they did.  They weren’t afraid to write and perform music that had a certain amount of challenge –either melodically, chordally, rhythmically – and lyrically – instead of today’s “microwave” music.  Consider this lyric – this is one that I wrote a long time ago for my band Crimson Fable, and the tune “Blue And The Gray”:

Do you feel better now, now that you’re “wiser”?
See that time still awaits you; a void, unnamed sorrow.
Go and wait for the day, 
When no one needs tomorrow.
See a world full of “choices”,
Trading “moral” for “mortal”,
Who say they will bring a new day;
In colors mixing the fray;
The Blue and The Gray

I can almost guarantee that a lot of people who listen to “praise” music of today will read this and not get it.  As the lyricist of this song, I can explain it: in the color spectrum, there is almost no difference between blue and gray, and yet, they are very different.  Someone who says all the right things and even does a few of the “right” things may be selling you something that really isn’t the right thing.  They will trade what’s really important and long lasting for something that isn’t, and if you lack the ability to discern the difference, you’ll be caught in The Blue and The Gray. 

This is a Biblical precept, too.  The Word warns us that there will be people who say they are of God, and really they are not.  This deception comes in a lot of forms- some easy to discern and some not so easy – so, as Believers in the Risen Christ, we have to be diligent and keep our wits about us at all times – “Sheep in Wolf’s clothing” as it told to us.  I am not saying that the people who espouse this new, lazy church and music are Satan- but I do say that this laziness is exactly the tact Satan uses to divert our attention from the real task at hand.  Satan is not stupid enough to come up out of the ground and start yelling and screaming that God is false, for that is easy to identify and ignore or act upon.  What Satan can and does do however is take away our ability to effectively show God in a true light and a true fashion, and eventually thwart our efforts so that WHEN he does show himself as the Anti-Christ in the last days, people are so wont to accept anything spiritual that they just will.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?  Am I just a guy who’s getting older and is railing against accepting his own mortality and relevance?  Am I just a guy who doesn’t get today’s music or mindset?  Am I wrong to think that all these efforts to reach the lost with Woodstock sized venues and simulcasts and guitarists who just can’t play without a delay pedal are being deceived?

Perhaps.

Perhaps not.

What if I’m not wrong?  What if what I’m saying is true, and all this fall-de-rall being stupid and self-indulgent while we ignore things like feeding the homeless in our own neighborhoods – or even more immediate – finding real and meaningful relationships and nurturing (feeding) our own congregations something more meaningful than just a poor imitation of some other community thousands of miles away is the wrong thing to do – what’s the worst that could happen?  What if, instead of tweeting about church services to others (a very first-world thing to do) who have absolutely no vested interest other than to start imitating you, we start demanding more of ourselves –demanding more excellence and participation from those who serve in our communities – what if we did that instead?  What’s the worst that could happen?

Let me leave you with this actual story: years ago, Paul and Jan Crouch of the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) embarked on setting up a world-wide television network with the sole purpose of tele-evangelizing the entire world.  A truly noble concept.  They went to great lengths of effort and money to set up one of the largest single networks on the continent of Africa.  They waded through an almost endless sea of red tape and corrupt officials to do it, but they did it.  Only one big problem: the nations and people they were broadcasting to had no televisions.  Or electricity in many places.  Or water to drink or food to eat.  As a result of this, something that had all the hallmarks of a good and proper mission was an epic failure – not because their hearts were in the wrong place – but, because they didn’t CRITICALLY think it through, and they lacked the original concepts and actions that really could have made a difference.

We, as a church, are on that same path.  And, that’s why I’m not just an old(er) guy who’s just trying to grind an ax.  Wake up and check your 6.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Part VI - My How Things Have Changed - Welcome To The Machine

 

So, if you’ve read any of Parts I to V, you’re probably asking yourself, “What the heck do I care about any of this?”

I can’t say that I blame you.  I’m not even sure I care – except that I do.

If you’ve spent any time in the church – whether in ministry or not – you have no doubt heard “sour grapes” stories.  They’re nothing new- and let’s face it- if we are going to embrace the immutable fact that all human beings are imperfect and sinful by nature, and the church is run by these imperfect and sinful beings, then it stands to reason that inequity can and does exist.  It’s unavoidable – but, more than that- it’s ordained by God, Himself.  (Sorry- my inner Calvinist is showing here.)  Simply put, if the church were perfect in every way and did nothing but the right thing, then there would be no need for Faith, and ipso facto, no need for God, either.  That, too, is unavoidable.  So, obviously, I’m driving at something, right?  Let’s tighten that noose a bit.

I’ve been party to both the giving and receiving end of the “Sour Grape Saga” – I’ve facilitated it, and I’ve received it.  I’m not proud of either, but it would be far less than obvious if I didn’t call out the fact that I’ve been a contributor.  I’d like to think that in the cases where I contributed to it, that it was done for good reason, and I’d equally like to think that as a receiver of it I did nothing to warrant it- but neither of those cases is entirely true.  You see, I am a sinner just like everyone else, and I am capable of committing egregious acts just as anyone else is.  I don’t like it, but there it is.  I do, however, seek to change that whenever and wherever possible.  (And, it’s always possible, too.  I won’t let myself off easily here.)

But, in the last 15 years or so, there has been a shift within ministry in dealing with these types of things.  The change is that now, churches and staff, in their dealings with their congregants, are so busy trying to engender a “one size fits all” type of approach to their congregations, they can’t be bothered to actually deal with problems when they arise.  They just dismiss it with a wave of the hand, and a cliché statement like, “Yeah?  Well, you know those things are bound to happen,” and then go back on their way adding more and more to their own particular machines without thought as to the aftermath.  Before I go much further on this, let me explain about “machines”.

Lately (within these same 15 years) part of this shift is that every single church I’m involved with has a desire to do great things- well, that’s nothing new – but there’s a new metric in town that is making this somewhat hard to keep up with.  That metric is this: “We want to be like….” and then name a church like Willow Creek or Hillsong United or <insert name of mega church here>.  The standard is always something grand and glorious (and there’s nothing wrong with that) but what’s lacking is the knowledge and perception to get there.  And what’s worse is that when places don’t achieve it, they tout that as failure.  All of these churches that I mention here – every single one of them – are doing nothing more than trying to duplicate what someone else has already done without thought or regard to what might actually be needed by their communities.  They continually feed their “machines” in the hopes that if they do things a certain way it will return certain results, and if it doesn’t work (and, it often doesn’t) then they either push harder while ignoring their membership, or they just disband and slough it off as “it was God’s will, that’s all”.

What’s lacking here is deliberate thought and acquisition of knowledge.  Critical thinking has gone by the wayside.  It’s no longer a matter of pushing an envelope; now it’s playing it safe/don’t rock the boat/do as “they” did but don’t ask too many questions.  The church now views things like folks like me who push that envelope as liabilities, or worse- expendable.  We get pushed into the machine, but because we don’t react the way that their already-ascribed-to metric would have us act, we are literally chewed up and spit out of the same machine – and then waived off with the aforementioned “Yeah?  Well, you know that those things are bound to happen” statement, and the blindness continues.

Let me say what this is, and be very, very clear: This is bad; this is not what the church is supposed to be; it is dangerous; it is short-sighted; it is not of God.  It’s also not of Satan.  It is of men.

Now, most of my experience has been in music and the facilitation of music.  Either performance or creation, so that is but a microcosm of what I’m talking about, but it’s the one that I am most qualified to speak about – so I will.

In 1995, I moved my family to Seattle, Washington.  One day, while perusing the internet, I found a mailing list called Churchbass- a community of Christian bass players who sought to commune about a shared topic- unimaginatively enough about playing bass in church.  I signed up and start participating right away.  (I’ve made some really cool and lasting, close relationships with that list, too.)  Almost immediately upon joining, a topic came up about “performance in worship” and how paying attention to performance was a bad thing.  It should really be about the heart and nothing else.  I said it then, and I’ll say it now: that’s bullshit.  Performance is part of worship- they are NOT mutually exclusive.

If you read the last sentence and you’re wondering where I might get off making a statement like that, then quite simply, you might be part of the problem.  (I didn’t say you were- I said “might”)  We’ve all heard the old adage that more people leave a church over the music than any other reason (which is statistically true, btw), so I ask you- if a worship team gets on stage and stands there like deer in headlights while singing or playing like they’re on Prozac, how "into it" can you expect people to be?  If you were a new attendee and saw that, would you come back?  Of course not.  The same is true of the pastor- when he gives his sermon, he is “performing” it- do you really want something that is just delivered like it came straight out of an M. Night Shymalan movie?  No- you want/expect something dynamic and thought provoking; you want your worship music to be the same way – and all of this REQUIRES performance. 

From a musical perspective, being able to know how to harness and replicate “performance” requires time and study, and there are many, many facets to it.  Musically, this usually starts with “dynamics” – loud or soft – and then goes into pacing – fast or slow – and eventually extends into……uh-oh.  I actually need to know how to play.  And, that’s where it gets personal- because if you don’t know how to play your instrument, there’s bound to be problems.  And, I feel compelled to mention that 99% of the measure of how well someone can play their instrument is their ability to communicate what they are doing to others, either by playing or by talking.  (Yes, that’s right.  99%.  It’s actually only about 1% what you actually play, and 99% how it’s communicated to others who are playing with you.  Sorry to burst your bubble here.)

The ability to communicate effectively is the key.  Communication, in order to be effective, requires a common shared language that contains all the necessary information in order to convey the message.  “Common” is the operative word- if I tell you to “mambo dogface to the banana plant” – what do you mean you don’t understand?  I used English, right?  You have to have some point of reference to understand that, or I’m just making noise.  The same is true when dealing with worship team members and music is concerned.  And, like English, your command of it gets better over time, although sometimes it requires special explanation from someone with a better command than you might have in order to understand.  (Daddy?  What does ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ mean?)

In Parts I thru V, I think I demonstrated that I have some – certainly not all or even close to all – of the knowledge by virtue of time and trial to be able to make these cases.  I’ve also demonstrated that while I have participated successfully, I have failed in many areas –but yet, God has seen fit to continually mold and shape me, educate and humble me, and my desire has been to do just that, but…….

….now I’m told I am no longer relevant.  This is where this age old argument – “you sound like your parents did” – really starts to fall apart, especially given the wave of the hand sentiment that I and others have seen happen more and more often. 

I have many, many friends my age who have played at least as much a part in the shaping of the contemporary praise and worship field – and in a lot of cases, they MUCH more so than I – and all of us are, one by one, being cast aside in favor of merely duplicating other’s efforts with this expected metric – and NOTHING else – in mind.  This has never happened before in the history of the church that an entire generation is being passively driven away in this fashion.

Now, here’s the deal: it’s very easy for you to dismiss me and my arguments as just one man’s viewpoint.  You would be partially correct in that- this is my view – but, folks, I’m tellin’ ya- you’d do well not to dismiss it.  It’s not Generation Y (the generation after mine) that is going to feel this, it’s the one after that that will, because if you dismiss the ability to critically think and learn, you’ll have no way to teach the next generation how to do what it is you do.  They’ll just be duplicating YOU instead of your metric- the larger, more “successful” churches – and what I’m trying to say (and taking a long darned time saying it) is that duplication eventually breeds nothing more than non-relevance.  Stagnation.  Loss of message.  People leaving.  Loss of topicality.

Loss of the ability to know how to bring people to redemption in Jesus.

And, yes, music is a big, big part of this.  The excellence of how that music is delivered has an undeniably tremendous part.  The ability to do things from an original standpoint; to say things in a way that have not been said before; to portray God in an unvoiced but real and meaningful way through the organization of sound cannot be underestimated.  Music is a universal language, and it was designed and given to us by God in order to move people in a way that mere words cannot, and by losing the ability to know how to facilitate and perform that language means that we are giving away that universal language.

(And if you want proof that what is lost like this cannot be regained, ask yourself why it requires years and years of Latin classes to learn a language that was the native language for most of the world for almost 1,000 years.)

Please understand that I am not saying that for people to be able to play in a worship band that they need to be able to recite the first 3 chapters of Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns” from memory.  But what I am saying is that if challenged to do something like that, they should be willing to do the work and not say something profoundly stupid like “that’s performance and we’re here to worship, so I won’t” and expect to just stay on the team – or worse – influence it so that no one else is required to do anything to excel at what they do.

In Part VII, I’ll start really driving to my final points.

(BTW- although the Slonimsky book is great, it’s even better at curing insomnia, so really- don’t bother. And, yes, I’ve read it, and no, I can’t quote it.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Part V - My How Things Have Changed - Buzz

The very first time I really remember the sensation was in about 1996.  I had a migraine headache (I have had them for years) – but this one was different.  I was really dizzy like usual (a certain amount vertigo is usually part of a migraine), but there was something else with it- the only way I can describe it was that I felt like I was “buzzing” everywhere.  Not audibly.  Just a persistent sensation of buzzing.  So, like usual, I swallowed a handful of pills and went home to get into a dark room and try to sleep it off.  After 2 hours or so, the pain and vertigo were gone, but the “buzzing” was still there- and, it had localized to both my hands.  It felt like the inside surfaces of my fingers – the sides – were asleep.  I could move them, but…..really weird.  Didn’t think much of it, and it lasted about 2 days and went away.  A few days later, I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.  I could move my legs and feel my feet, but I couldn’t get out of bed.  I also couldn’t talk.  I was basically frozen in motion, but my bladder was working fine…….you do the math.

And, thus began a long and persistent slide downhill for me, physically but more mentally.  Honestly, I thought I was losing my mind.  I saw doctor after doctor and solicited prayers from any and all takers, and no diagnosis or intended cure came.  By 2001, I was at a breaking point.  I didn’t know what to do.  These weird symptoms would come on with no order and no warning.  Almost never was it the same thing twice.  And when they did come, they were steadily worse.

Some 5 years earlier, I had joined a church almost immediately after settling down in Seattle.  It was a very different church than any I had ever been in before- not only did they have the single coolest music ministry (that had a jazz-fusion septet that would gig in clubs) – but they had an incredibly charismatic leader in their senior pastor.  He had been a very successful and famous professional sports star; retired from that; and after serving in a large-ish church in a suburb of Seattle, elected to start his own church.

His ministry was different, too.  He advocated multi-ethnicity in all things, but more than that, he preached with a near fire & brimstone demeanor.  Completely fearless in all aspects- as an example, one year they started a series where the pastor was going to preach starting with Genesis 1:1 and just go through the Bible.  As luck would have it, they got to Genesis 38:4 – on Easter Sunday – and this pastor did not change his message one bit.  (If you aren’t acquainted with this passage, it’s known as “The Sin Of Onan”, a rather notorious set of passages.  Highly recommended reading.)  At the end of his sermon, he gripped the edge of the dias, beamed out to the crowd and said, “Are ya glad ya came to church TODAY??” very loudly, while the congregation squirmed away.  He was very vocal about a great many things- a lot of which I really didn’t cotton to- but he was learned and articulate.  And, very Biblical.

His staff, however, tried as hard as they could to keep up with him, but never quite got there it seems.  He had the single most talented composer I have ever met in my life on staff as the Pastor Of Worship, but he was very dissipated in a number of other ventures, and really smacked of the ADHD Poster Child.  This pastor did not know (and still doesn’t) the meaning of the word “simple”- everything had to be at a Christmas Eve Service level or beyond – casts of thousands – and no one was ever really prepared for anything – or worse (and more common) – everything would change after a lot of preparation.  I distinctly hearing him say, “the Holy Spirit is telling me to play this song now”, to which the drummer leaned over to me and asked, “How come the Holy Spirit only tells *him* these things?”  But, I digress.

This constant problem, and my own physical problems reached a fever pitch in May, 2001.  We were supposed to do a multi-church event, and this Worship Pastor volunteered my own personal amplifier for all the other bass players (there weren’t supposed to be any other bass players- I had been tasked with learning all the other church’s songs and had done that) and had neglected to tell me that.  In the middle of the gig, another bass player walks up on stage, unplugs me and plugs into my amp and muscles me out of the way.  I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I left the stage and would not return.

The next day, I wrote an email to the Music Director of this church (different guy) who was a good friend and the trombonist in the fusion band.  I basically told him that I was very confused as to what was happening – about church, sure- but more about my physical and mental well-being.  I felt like I should step down because I was angry and confused all the time, but I didn’t want to step down out of the fusion band.  His reaction was truly shocking- I received a ranting email asking all kinds of inappropriate questions and suggesting that perhaps my Christianity was all in my head – just go ahead and return all the music from the church and he then thanked me for my 6 years of service.  (I had only been there not even 5) I was fired.  I tried to call him- clearly there was a miscommunication on my part – but he wouldn’t take my calls.  I was out, and there was no way back in.  To say I was devastated would be a vast understatement.  I felt like an outcast, and I dared not show my face there again.

About 2 weeks after all this happened, the final diagnosis came in: Multiple Sclerosis.  EDSS Scale 4, Remitting/Relapsing.

The word got out quickly.  Through some other friends, this diagnosis was transmitted to a bunch of churches in the area over a period of days and weeks.  I expected to hear from my friend the Music Minister, or the Pastor of Worship or the Senior Pastor of the church I had been serving at for 5 years, but nothing happened.  A friend of mine in the choir at that church sent me an email with an attachment of a screen shot showing that I was on their online prayer list – so, they did know – but still, absolutely no one from that church contacted me to call, to see how I was doing, to see how my family was doing- absolute silence. 

On a Saturday afternoon, my wife and I came back from running an errand and there was someone sitting on my front doorstep.  I didn’t know them, and neither did my wife.  I got out of the car, and they stood up.  I asked, “How can I help you?”, to which the gentleman replied, “Oh- I am here to find out how you are doing.  We heard about your diagnosis at church, and I thought I would call on you.” 

Problem, though- he wasn’t from my church.  He was from another church that I had played at just a few times.

(I’ll jump ahead a bit for you- it’s been 11 years since I was diagnosed, and to this day, no one from that church has ever called on me.  Not one, single time.)

It’s taken a long time for me to get over this- and, in many ways, I’m still not over it.  I have had several occasions to interact with this church since then in some capacities, but every single one of them has ended very, very badly.

The problem here is that this church, and many like it nowadays (especially in the Seattle area, where “controversial” churches are really en vogue) are quick to take on anything that will quickly gain them a reputation without having to work very hard at it, and worse- to really know the reasons why they are doing it.  In the case of the church I am citing here, they DEFINITELY “had it going on” from a musical perspective, but lacked any way to really minister to their body at large.  They would attend every single anti-gay marriage initiative and would rail against that; they were militantly pro-life; militantly conservative in political viewpoints – your basic, what the press would call “Conservative Christian” – but really all they were was militant.  If you opposed them on anything within the church the reaction was swift and severe.  I consider myself to be a post-tribulationist (look it up) but the church was pre.  Any thinking, rational Christian will tell you that post or pre doesn’t matter- what really matters is that Jesus is coming back and that’s the main thing, right?  No- not these guys.  I was told that because of my view, I wasn’t allowed to lead any groups of any kind for any reason- Sunday School, teach, head of a prayer group- nothing.  Ridiculous.  Another friend of mine was divorced, and as a result there was real consternation as to whether or not he could serve in any ministry at all.  Again- ridiculous.

What’s worse were the 2 other large-ish churches in the area that were trying to be just like this church.  They paled in comparison- one was (and still is) run by a pastor who is really more of a used-car salesman, and the other is run by an absolutely brilliant young man who has a breadth of theological knowledge and absolutely no people skills whatsoever.  Together, these three churches take delight in going down to Olympia each Christmas and protesting loudly over the atheist “There Is No Christmas” signs and have even gone as far as to try and enact legislature to get those signs banned.  When that doesn’t work, they resolve to calling the governor of Washington names and making accusations about other people’s character.  Also, true to the character of such a shallow imitation, the young man that I mentioned that is the pastor of one of these armed camps called “a church” is happy to tell anyone who will listen that he knows he’s right about the things he says because he has received death threats, and that the congregation shouldn’t question his authority because he’s the pastor.  All three of these churches have no problem with shunning people out of the church – I was actually witness to an elder losing his elder status because his “fault” was that his unwed daughter had gotten pregnant- and another time when my church was shunning an entire other church because their pastor, who had been accused of a sexual impropriety, refused to step down during the investigation.  (I completely fail to see how one can connect the shunning in either of these cases.)

I’m calling shenanigans on this whole thing.  Why?  Not because I am anti-church or anti-Christian or anything like that.  I’m calling shenanigans on it because all they really do is either:

  1. Attract the type of Christian who is all about being “edgy” but has no grounding.
  2. Alienate the people who need Christ the most.

And, in both cases, when a church member really, truly needs them, they aren’t there for them.

How does this play into worship?  It’s simple- this church, as I said, “had it going on” musically.  Nobody could touch us.  For the non-musical portions of church, we had the appearance of “having it going on”- we were edgy, different, and fearlessly evangelical- and yet, just below the surface, nothing was there.  NOTHING.  Both musical and non-musical aspects of the church require the exact same degree of excellence and completion with regards to depth of knowledge and ability to execute.  Each of these steps requires thought and deliberation, or they really don’t serve the intended purpose now, do they?  At some point, in either a worship or non-worship environment, the rubber is going to meet the road, and the real important stuff begins.  We all have to be ready.  To be edgy and different, while fun, serve no purpose at all other than to generate noise.  To be the same as everyone else without the knowledge of how the ship gets from Point A to Point B – or why a Gmaj7 is related to a C9 chord – is equally inappropriate.  At some point, these kinds of topics are going to come up.

When I first started out working in the church, none of this was ever questioned.  There were standards by which people acted and were measured by. (Notice that I did not say “judged”)  It was clear to everyone – not just a select few – that having a heart to do something was not enough.  It was about being ready for the tasks – the unplanned tasks – dealing with life and all its warts and carbuncles – that is what mattered.  Just talking or saying the right things were never enough- there had to be substance – and in 27 or so years, that has changed drastically, and not for the better.  For the worst.

Now, lest you think that my entire purpose in this installment is to grind an ax, I have a couple of epilogues that do show that God is still at work, and the situation got better, but just not as a result of this (or the other 2) churches:

  • My friend, the Music Minister and I finally talked – for the first time in 9 years – about 1.5 years ago.  He told me that he left my former church about 2 years ago- because (as he put it) he realized that everything that church stood for was completely hollow and had absolutely no meaning.  All they were doing was forcing “the ideal Christianity” on people, but had no way to back it up and really minister to anyone.  He also had no idea that I had been diagnosed with MS, because no one in the music ministry had taken it from the choir prayer list to the leadership of the church.  He and I have since renewed our friendship, and that is a GREAT thing.  He continues to struggle with the fallout of having ever participated with that church.
  • I have retained good, solid relationships with all but one of the players from the former church’s fusion band – despite my former church’s meddling in those relationships.

 

One last thing – in case anyone is wondering why I haven’t used the word “cult” in describing this church (or the other 2) that is on purpose.  They are not cults.  They don’t get that pass.   They are Christian churches, and are therefore held to that standard.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Part IV - My How Things Have Changed - Walking The Walk

In 1990, a good friend (who has since passed away) introduced me to a guitarist.  Now, this wasn’t just any guitarist- this was one of those guys who was a real game changer, and would have a profound effect on my life, both from a playing perspective, but more than that.  Much more.  This friend was a drummer- a very, very good one.  He had been recommended to me by the keyboard player from a former band I had been in.  This drummer, Rick, had been basically railing on players that he had met, but when he met me, he said “I have GOT to introduce you to my buddy..” and thus it began.

Our first meeting was an interesting one.  We met at a mutual friend of the drummer and guitarist’s- a guy who had just opened a little recording studio in downtown Santa Ana.  He was shaking the bugs out of his new studio and wanted to have some capable musicians come in and jam and he’d record it.  It wasn’t gonna cost anything, so we could just have fun.  We did several things after introductions- one of which was a really schmaltzy swing version of Rush’s “YYZ” (as a joke) and a stab at John Scofield’s “Protocol”- and I knew immediately that this guitarist was good.  REALLY good.  Not just at lead playing- he loved doing rhythm guitar and had interesting instincts.  He was also a fellow Berklee guy, and that made it all the more enticing.

Immediately after meeting, he kind of fell off my radar.  I didn’t know it, but he had moved to Iowa with his then girlfriend.  I then joined a new group – a prog band of all things – and we set about gigging and recording, rehearsing and writing – all the normal things.

Somewhere along the way, the wheels started to fall off in this new band with our guitarist.  We finally ended up letting him go (and he also quit on the same day) and the keyboardist/singer in the group and I started talking about a new guitarist.  I remembered this guy I had met and tracked him down- and I found out that he had just moved back into the area after breaking up with his girl-fiend.  (No, I did not misspell that)  He was interested, since prog was his first love.

After about 4 notes in his audition, the guys in this band were completely hooked- he was in.  He had it all – chops, tone, looks, ideas- and he was a good hang, too.  Only one thing was missing:

He wasn’t a Christian, and we all were.  This was also a Christian Progressive Rock band, too.

It turned out to not be a problem.  Our new guitarist was one of these rare individuals who had his beliefs (he was raised Catholic, but had some bad experiences and now wasn’t interested) and knew we had ours, but he wasn’t going to let that deter him, nor were the rest of the band members threatened in any way.  He told us early on that if, during a gig, someone wanted to discuss Christianity, that he would just refer them to us.  While this might sound kind of “lumpy” to some (or, “unequally yoked” in Christian parlance) it worked out great.  The rest of the band members would attempt – every now and then – to witness to this guitarist – and every time we did that, he would respectfully listen but would lightly turn us down.  It just was never a problem, and when the occasion did arise that someone would approach him at a gig, he did just what he said he was going to do- refer them to the rest of the band.  No problems.  No issues.

Unfortunately, in early 1993, despite our best efforts, the prog band broke up.  There were lots of reasons, but not one of them was our disparity of beliefs.  (The real reasons are unimportant for this entry in my story)  We all went our separate ways, but this guitarist and I stayed in touch, and we remained good friends.  (So much so that my kids, to this very day, refer to him as their “uncle” –and he very much is just that.)  And, in late 1995, I moved my entire family some 1,200 miles away from Southern California to Seattle, Washington.

In 1998, my guitarist friend came to visit me and my wife in Seattle.  I arranged a recording session so that he and I could play together again, and he even got paid on his vacation.  He then mentioned to me that he was really sick of Southern California and was thinking about moving.  I suggested Seattle, and he was intrigued, but I didn’t think anything would really come of it.  A few months later, he called me and said that his younger brother was moving to Seattle, and he wanted to know if it was ok for him (the guitarist) to come visit – and could he bring his new girlfriend?  “ABSOLUTELY!!!” was my unhesitant reply.

So, my friend and his girlfriend come to visit.  She seems nice enough, and we have a great time.  The upshot of it all- they had already decided to move to Seattle!!! This was pretty much a fact-finding mission.  My wife and I were thrilled, and we even went as far as to help them find a place.  They moved up and all was well……for a bit.  (For the purposes of this entry, I shall not go into the details of their break-up, but it wasn’t pretty.)  This guitarist and I were tight right from the get go on the Seattle music scene- and we even toured Europe and Australia in 2000; performed at the Winter OIympics in 2002 in Salt Lake City; trips to various parts of the US- it was like we never stopped- and all of this done with Christian groups in Christian settings – and my friend was not a Christian.  Still.  (The occasional “witnessing” still happened, but it just didn’t seem to take.)

About this time, I help actually start a new church in 2001.  My part was to help facilitate the band and the music, and I talked with the pastor of this new church and told him about my guitar player friend.  I told him that my friend was not a Christian.  The pastor wanted to meet him first, and that seemed reasonable to me, so I set that up.  Being that the pastor was also a guitarist – and, another Berklee guy at that – once they met, they became great friends.  The pastor agreed that my friend should be the guitarist at church- now, remember- this guitarist was not a Christian – and that didn’t matter to the pastor. 

By this time, it’s 2002.  I’ve now known this man for about 12 years, and he’s as close to me as a brother.  Closer than most brothers in fact.  My kids refer to him as “uncle”.  He doesn’t knock at my front door when he comes to my house because he doesn’t have to.  If he’s in town, he has Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at my house- we don’t even ask.  We don’t have to- he’s family, all the way.  I’ve been through thick and thin with him, and he with me.  We’ve played all over the world together; we’ve got a shared history – hell, we even went to the same college (about 6 years apart, but…..) and even though there is this potential for a tremendous barrier between us- I am a Christian and he is not – it just doesn’t matter.  I’ve introduced him to many, many Christian musicians over the years, and every single one of them loves him and they don’t care that he’s not a Christian, either.  He’s just a quality human being.  But, all that said, I ache for the fact that, as much as I dearly love my brother, he doesn’t have the Blessed Assurance that I have in Christ- a fact that gnaws away at me.  I pray for him constantly, and my talks with him become pointed- but there’s so much history between us, it is difficult for me to witness to him without getting dogmatic- and he’ll retreat and I won’t chase him, so I stop after a while.  I decide that if he’s gonna be Christian, it’s pretty much up to God how and when – and if that happens.

One thing that I have maintained throughout my walk of faith is that talk is cheap.  James 2:17 says that faith without works is dead; I can think of no better work that walking the walk instead of just talking the talk.  Throughout my walk, my goal is simple: exhibit faith by doing that that is right, even when no one is looking, for that is the true measure of a man.  It’s easy to say the right things, it is quite another to do them.  In the relationship with my guitarist friend, that meant being a friend first, Christian second.  When he was doing things I didn’t approve of, I told him that, and I always tried to be gentle about it.  Sometimes he heard me, sometimes he didn’t.  Sometimes he would course-correct, sometimes I would have to do that.  No matter what, though, my love for my friend and my support of him – no matter how difficult or trying – was paramount.  I am happy to say that the people that I introduced him to in Seattle felt the same way.  They recognized that he was a “true human being” – the kind of quality individual that any thinking, rational person would want as a friend – and took the same action – without me having to say anything – that I did.  My friend was becoming very influential in all the same circles as I had become, and even though everyone knew he wasn’t a Christian, for whatever reason that just didn’t matter.  All the while, though, it hurt me, and I never told him that.  I just kept quiet and just kept being his friend.

On a sunny, Sunday afternoon, my friend and I were crossing an overpass on 124th Street and I-405 in Kirkland, and I was driving.  We were just yacking about nothing in particular, and the conversation went something like this:

“So, what have you been up to this last week?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing really.  I had a gig with so-and-so last week.  We had a rehearsal- man, those tunes were hard.  And, then we talked about a few things……yada…..yada….yada……and I accepted Christ as my Savior……yada….yada…..yada……”

I about steered the car right off the overpass.

“WHAT???!??  What happened???  How???? Why?????”  I was shocked.

“Oh, it’s no big deal, really.  I didn’t really know how to tell you”, he says, sheepishly.

Now, if my friend (whose name I have not mentioned and I’m not going to) is reading this, it probably wasn’t a big deal to him, and I tried not to make a big deal about it, either – but in my mind, I was reeling. 

12 years. 

12 YEARS. 

12 YEARS!!!!!

 I’ve been praying for this to happen – thick and thin doesn’t even begin to describe it – countless numbers of times I’ve talked to him and I know others have, too- and in a very small, still moment – when my guard is down (read:gone) he drops this bomb on me.  I know that if my friend is reading this, he has no idea that it had this much impression on me, but it just simply did.  As I was driving, I was literally choking back tears of joy.  (I don’t remember if I was successful or not.)  All I do know is that the rest of the conversation is a blur.  My joy was overwhelming.

You see- this means one thing.  My beloved friend and brother – I now know, beyond the shadow of any kind of doubt, that I get the honor and privilege of getting to spend Eternity with you.  Your masterful guitar playing and your quality human-beingness means nothing- that God, the Father of Heaven and the Creator of the Universe, has chosen you to be His child, and I along with you get to worship the Almighty together, forever.  This life – this moment in the morning of our day – means nothing in terms of that Eternity.  I am overwhelmed.  I am blessed.  I am thankful beyond measure.  The angels may be rejoicing in Heaven, but I am…….I lack words.  I am undone.

My point in this entry is to exhibit that God does answer His children’s requests, and the answer is always “in My Timing, child, and not necessarily yours”, and it is incumbent upon all of us as Believers in a Living and Holy God to make the effort and let the chips fall where they may.  That is all we need do- to pray, have faith and follow through, and do so with reckless abandon and boldness.  People and the church spend far too much time holding others accountable, but not as much when they are faced with having to hold themselves accountable and to put their self-accountability into action by just trusting that God will do as He says He will.

Since that day, my good friend’s life has changed immeasurably.  I don’t know if he attributes these changes in his new found faith, but from where I sit that is the single source.  In 2006, my friend married a fantastic woman (everyone who knows her approves beyond measure- she is as quality a person as he is, and they make a great couple) and even though we don’t see each other as much anymore (and, if you are reading this, we really need to change that) I know that we will get Eternity in God’s house to catch up.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Part III - My How Things Have Changed - Reckoning

“Hi.  My name is Marc, and I am an addict.”  I spoke those words for the very first time at about 9AM on Saturday, November 23, 1985.

If you’ve read Parts I & II, you might be thinking, “WHAT??!??  You’re a church dude.  You play music for God and you’ve……you’ve……preached!!  WHAT??!??”  Yeah, that’s right- I did do those things, and the whole time, I was an addict.  And, a drug addict at that.

When I was 12 years old, I started smoking cigarettes.  My mom was a 2-3 pack a day smoker, and had smoked while she was pregnant with me as well.  Part of the reason I was a smoker that early was because it was behavior I knew, but most of it was because I wanted to rebel.  My home life was absolutely miserable- my mom and dad had divorced when I was 7, and I went to live with my mom- a prescription drug abuser and addict.  In true addict form, she then married a man who was also extremely angry, and together they would spend a lot of time beating the living shit out of me for anything resembling a transgression.  We’re not talking spanking here- I was regularly hit with things like a ruler with a nail driven through it; spent several minutes on my back with my stepdad on my chest punching me with a closed fist in the face on more than once occasion; had my arms bent behind my back to where my shoulders would almost dislocate- yeah.  Stuff like that.  My dad tried many, many times through repeated trips to court to get custody of me – always to no avail – and only when I successfully ran away from home (after bailing out of a moving car while my mom was driving it and hitting me) and refused to go back did the court take notice – and they put me in a mental hospital for a month for observation, and then finally placed me with my dad.

So, you might say that I had some anger issues.

In junior high, I got turned on to marijuana.  Then speed.  The tranquilizers – stolen from my mom.  Then PCP.  I’d try anything.  There were more than a few times I went to church stoned out of my gourd- and I would play for God.  I considered myself a Christian this entire time, and while some of my friends knew my true nature, for whatever reason, they never made it known to their parents or mine or any authority figures.  I was able to very easily compartmentalize my drug use and my relationship with God.  It was easy to do. 

While I was away at college, I tried heroin.  I was hooked instantly.  I managed to get a job working on an ambulance crew where I could trade needles to keep my habit running.

I was really good at hiding it, too.  I was one of those rare individuals who could actually dose and still function.  I could play stoned, too- it really wasn’t a problem.  I never OD’d; I never lost a job; I always had money- I actually had a good time while doing drugs.  As long as I was high, that is.  I met the love of my life in 1983.  I knew the day I met her I wanted to marry her.  She knew, too.  We were married in October, 1985, and I was still an addict.  And, she didn’t know it.  Until it came out.

(Now, here’s where I have to curtail part of the story, because I have agreements with several people about the actual mechanism that changed 2 weeks before I made this part’s lead-off statement, but suffice it to say that it almost cost me dearly.  That is all I can say about that.)

 When the secret was out, I was faced with a decision to make, and I made the right one, but all of the sudden, my friends who had kept their silence for years and years became the most self-righteous jackasses you’ve ever seen.  I was literally “ratted out” by many of them, and there was a mass exodus from my inner circles who thought that I was going to drag them down- even while I was trying my best to come to grips with what had happened.  I already was very attached to a new church and involved in the music ministry there, but now it was time for new friends.  And, to boot, there were more than a few folks who found this whole news a little hard to bear, and left this new church of mine as a result- but the leadership did not abandon me in the least, and allowed me to continue on.

The inevitable question: "How can you be doing the things you do in church and be an addict?  How does that work?  How can you be saved and call yourself a Christian with that hanging over your head?

The simple answer is this- I didn't.  I wasn't.  I was a hypocrite of the highest order- or, to use a "Christian-ese" statement, I was a sinner.  Now, I know/knew what a sinner was- or, I thought I did, but one of the things that I didn't really get or accept that in order to fully receive redemption and salvation one must learn to forgive oneself.  Honestly, I hadn't done that.  And yet, despite my best efforts (to the contrary), God was using me.  I mentioned that friends disowned me when I made my addiction known- a good many of them were Christians who were hurt by my actions, but many were not.  It floored me to think that God- whom I clearly did not really know- could use someone as broken as I was in such a broken state, but clearly He did.   And, God was glorified.

Why am I telling you this?  Here is why: back in these days, churches really weren't as afraid as they are now to "push the envelope" and take a chance- musically or more importantly, personnel wise.  Even in the face of some people walking away- or running away- the people in the church were empowered to think for themselves and act accordingly.  Some people did not share the same viewpoints, but never once did I hear "if he stays, I'm gonna go"- they just either stayed or they left.  Simple as that.  And, most important of all, the people who did stay got along side of me and "pushed" with me in a spirit of atonement and accountability.  Many, many times, people would tell me "There but for the grace of God go I", all the while earnestly seeking to better not just me, but themselves, too.  This extended to all areas in the church- preaching, teaching, music, etc.  (I honestly don't want to indict the church today and make a comparison here, but one is probably inevitable.  I'll leave that to you, gentle reader.)

With the help of some good friends (who never waivered), my church, my church leadership and Jesus Christ, I was able to overcome and adapt to this situation, and the relationship(s) that I jeopardized, I eventually got back.  (The important ones, anyway)  Even though I made my start back that Saturday morning in 1985, I have had only 2 full-fledged stumbles and 1 near-stumble along the way.  None of these "bumps" lasted more than a day, and all of them were identified and dealt with - by me and some very close friends - immediately and completely.  I still regularly attend meetings, too, btw.  The point here is that God - and the unafraid, deliberate people around me- were able to rebuild me, although there were two more very difficult things ahead of me some 6 years later - the death of my child in 1991 and being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001 - through all of those things, God has manifested Himself to me time and time again, in real and very tangible ways, and has allowed me to either share the experience or show Him to people as a result.  I will show you one of those tangibles in Part IV.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Part II - My How Things Have Changed - Turning Point

So, in Part I of this series, I outlined the very first time I participated in a modern day worship experience in church.  The upshot of it was that it was nothing like I expected- we had nothing but good things coming out of it; the congregation dug it; God was glorified.  All good.

In the days that followed, we saw a ground swell of acceptance and real change towards this mode of service and participation.  By early 1983 (I was gone by then) this type of service was becoming more and more the norm in a lot of places.  The "youth" service (as it was referred to at my church) had a congregation that was growing by leaps and bounds, and easily made the ratio of 2:1 over the more traditional services.  Some of that ratio was borne out of the fact that the more traditional folks were older, but a lot of it was that we found that the traditionalists were starting to come to the more "youth" oriented services because it made them feel "more alive".  This presented a bit of a challenge, actually.  While the music was more "up" and the interaction was on a more personal - rather than corporate - vibe, the need to provide more meat to the message was something that just wasn't quite there.  The traditionalists were concerned that "the show" of it all was becoming the focus, rather than the teaching and applicative parts of the message.  Their concern was somewhat founded.  It was on one of the occasions of me being home from a rather hectic touring schedule (I had left college early, as I managed to get a really good playing gig while there) that I was picked to give "the message" (no longer called "the sermon") to the younger crowd's service.

Before I go too far in telling you this part of the story, I want to make one thing abundantly clear.  I had no delusions of grandeur, and I had no intention of doing something that would translate into a trend-setting, neauveau-riche style of preaching.  I wasn't really trying to make a new "statement"- I just wanted to give my side of the story.  I had left a rather small community and had been travelling a good part of the world while still extremely young, and to some that made me a bit of a celebrity.  (That is a VERY relative statement.)

The topic I picked was "Why is it so difficult to be a Christian?".  The immediate thing that most people think of is "we are in the world but not of it" or "we are light in the darkness" or a host of other Christian platitudes/cliches - and those are good, solid messages - but I think of those as too ambiguous and too referential.  I wanted something more applicative.  So, I decided to use an analogy - and props, too.  My props were a small, metal lunchbox (it was a "Gentle Ben" lunchbox, from the 60's TV show- one of my faves when I was very young) and a 6.5' x 4' wooden cross, made hastily by me out of 2x4's.  After playing with the band, I went to the stage (pulpit) and brought out these two props and placed the lunchbox on the dias, and then leaned on the cross while I talked.  My topics of discussion were:

  1. Both of these can represent faith.  They are nothing but objects.
  2. One is small and fairly easy to hide or forget to take with you.  The other is not.
  3. One contains faith; the other can hold faith, but it is in the open where all can see it.
  4. One can contain other things, but the things inside it must shrink to fit other items; the other can contain far more items, but the world will see them all, eventually.
  5. One is easy to carry; the other is not.  They require different commitment levels if they are to be carried with you.
  6. One can be leaned upon.  The other will be crushed by that same action, even if there are things inside it.

Our senior pastor worked it out so that he could be in attendance for this service.  I did not have a chance to tell him what I was going to do - I was supposed to run it all by him, but never managed to do it - and he was absolutely stunned by this delivery.  He never used props - it just never occurred to him.  He sat in the back, watching and listening, and when I got to point #6, I could see him crying.  So was most of the congregation - and so was I.  Even though I had written the words to "The Cross And The Lunchbox", until I read the words out loud, I hadn't fully grasped my own concept.  It was a pretty cool moment.

At the end of the message, I did something that to this day has never been repeated in that church- I had an altar call.  I hadn't planned on it, it just happened.  I looked into the audience, and I thought, "if I have had any impact at all, now is the time to find out", and asked if there was anyone who didn't know Jesus but wanted to.  Come on down to the front, and we'll pray so you can accept Him.  (Yes, I had seen this done several times)  I won't aggrandize this- I had like 4 people come forward out of a crowd of about 200.  At the time, that bummed me out, but in retrospect, this was just something that most weren't comfortable with in a Presbyterian/Methodist-ish tradition.  (I have since come to terms with this.)

This church's tradition was to pronounce a Benediction to the congregation from the pulpit (which I did) and then to go outside to shake hands with the congregation as they leave.  I did that, and had some mixed reviews- about 50% of the crowd thought it was one of the cooler things they'd ever seen/heard, but the other 50% seemed to vary from shell-shocked to non-plussed, but there was no overt "Man, I just HATED that" type of comments.  At the end of the line was my pastor, who waited until everyone was through the line.  He walked up to me and kissed me on the cheek and whispered in my ear "I loved it", and then motioned me to his office to talk.  (We had planned to "debrief" after the service, so not a surprise)  All he wanted to know was how I came up with the topic and execution, and my answer was, "I dunno.  I just wanted to be different, and I wanted to challenge folks."  In the time that followed, I heard that the senior pastor was now fond of using props, and was challenging the congregation more and more each week in much the same way.  No altar calls, however- but that's ok.  The dynamic had changed again, and although the traditionalist service went through a period right after this of dwindling numbers, the youth service seemed to be gaining more momentum.

After this, for me, life would take a very different course, and my time in really being a participant in that particular community was at an end.  I had made a difference, though, and in the years to come, whenever I ran into someone from that community of Believers, they remembered these things vividly, and seemed to all think that, for whatever reason, that message was a turning point for them and their walk with God.  I, however, had other things on the horizon - some good, but many bad - and we'll go into that in Part 3.  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Part I - My How Things Have Changed - The Early Years

When I was growing up, church music meant one thing- "turn to page 319 in your hymnal" and the pipe organist would play the last 4 bars of the chorus, and the congregation would belt out "Blessed Be The Tie That Binds" as best they could.  As a youngster who was into rock things like Zeppelin, Cream, Floyd and jazz things like Miles, Coltrane and Adderly, these tunes left me really flat.

You see, by the time I was old enough to attend "big church", I was already a fairly seasoned musician.  It began with violin, then piano, then bass.  By the time I was in junior high school, it was also low brass (euphonium and tuba) as well as percussion (mallets and snare) and even more strings- viola and cello.  I found myself playing in high school and community college orchestras and even the occasional pit orchestra.  I had a fascination with the pipe organ, too- and whenever I could get into my church's sanctuary and play it, I did so.  Bach, Handel and Mendelsohn were some of my favorite things to play on it, but so were Procol Harum and Pink Floyd.  (You haven't truly lived until you pull out all the stops and play "Great Gig In The Sky" on a pipe organ.)

But, I digress.

Even though my walk with Jesus was, at best, tenuous, church played a tremendous role in my household.  My paternal grandfather was a highly thought of Methodist minister, and a musician, too.  It was he that first germinated the seed of playing violin with me at age 3, and my grandmother taught me piano for many years- and all of it was based on early Wesleyan hymns.  My immediate family considered themselves to be "intellectual Christians" and although they pushed church on me, they themselves didn't really believe it- even when my father and stepmother ran my church's junior and senior high school groups for a time.

I, however, found the church to be much more than a social thing.  Being the child of a divorced home (and my biological parents being absolutely horrible to each other) I found it more as a safety net- but also a place with answers.  Although I had a difficult time grasping the concept of a loving and fogiving God - in the face of a mother who was physically abusive - I knew that there was something here, and if I participated, I'd proibably find it.  What I did know was that music was very much part of the equation.  I latched onto the concept of playing music for God at a very young age, and was bound and determined to do that, no matter what.  My early attempts at that were to ask the organist at church if I could play piano with her during services.  I was 12 at the time, and she thought it was crazy.  After just pestering the life out of her about this, she decided to let me do that for a Wednesday night prayer service just to see how it would go, and the congregation LOVED IT.  The organist was impressed, and I was given a Sunday a month to accompany the organist on piano.  Still, I wanted more.

About this time, I started hearing about artists like Larry Norman, Keith Green and Randy Stonehill - the Jesus People movement.  I checked out their music, and although more initial reaction was "it's a little bit pedestrian" (and, remember- I was about 13 or 14) it was a means to an end.  I convinced the pastor to allow us to have a "Youth Sunday" where the kids would do the entire service, sermon and all.  I was picked to lead the band, and my best friend at the time (who was also a really good drummer) would do the sermon.  My job was to play piano on all but the special tune, and on that I would play bass.  I'll never forget it- the special tune was "The Victor" by Jamie Owens-Collins and sung by my new favorite singer, Keith Green.  It wasn't exactly a rocker (not like "American Dream" by Resurrection Band - which is what I wanted us to play) but it did have this cool 3/8 feel that was more like a dotted quarter note.....very progressive.......this would be fun.  We all practiced our collective butts off for weeks ahead of time.

So, Youth Sunday arrived.  This was such a relatively new concept that it had made the papers in town, and when that Sunday arrived, the church was really packed- and it was packed with more young people than I had ever seen.  Our congregation wandered in to the sanctuary - which now sported my friends Tama Superstar drum kit (double kick, too!) and an electric guitar amp and a bass guitar amp- and my then prized possession - a 1972 Rickenbacker 4001.  There were vocal mikes in stands at the front of the church, and we had brought in a Shure Vocalmaster to amplify the vocals.  Even the piano was miked!  This was too much for some of the congregation, and some of them walked out before the service started.  

I distinctly remember the organist, Susan, walking in with her husband and going down to the first row and sitting down while holding his hand.  She and I had become friends, and while she was most definitely in the camp of "this is a bad idea", she knew my heart and she knew that the church needed to change.  Several other old folks joined her as though it was "safe" to do so, and the front row's average age was something like 65.  There were kids everywhere else, and this being the mid 1970's, a lot of them were very "hippy" looking, which got a few more jaundiced eyes from our congregation.  Our senior pastor was also in the front row, smiling.  He was a great guy.

The service starts.  Instead of telling the congregation to open their hymnals, we had mimeographed a "set list" into the church bulletin.  I went to a microphone, welcomed the crowd and told them that we would be referring to that piece of paper for the songs instead of calling them out from the pulpit.  There were murmurs.  I went to the piano and began playing- and our singers from the band (I was one of them, too) began leading the congregation from mike stands and thru a PA system- murmurs ran through the crowd, but the front row all stayed and beamed and sang at the top of their lungs.  My friends sermon went off without a hitch, and then it was time for the special tune.

Everyone has those watershed moments in their life when something big changes.  Some of us even get the priviledge of knowing that when it happens.  This was one of those times.  I got up off the piano bench, and made my way to my bass guitar and picked it up.  Our guitar player, Rich, did the same thing.  My friend, who had just delivered the sermon, sat down at his drumkit, and older his sister (our lead singer) took center stage with a microphone in her hand.  The whole place was eerily quiet, and it made me look at the crowd- about half of whom I knew well, but not the other half.  It dawned on me- no one in the congregation that I knew had ever seen me play bass- and none of them had ever seen this kind of a thing in church.  My drummer friend clicked his sticks and we launched into the tune- and crushed it.  When the tune finished, the entire room erupted in applause.  Then they stood up.  A standing ovation- in a very protestant, non-charasmatic church- this was amazing.  The whole front row even cheered.  I was absolutely elated, as was the rest of the band.  We dismissed the service, and went outside to greet the congregation.

When we got outside, we were warmly greeted by everyone, and even the folks that were against the idea of the youth doing the service were complimentary- yeah, there were some who were guarded - "Well, that was.....different.......but I really liked it.  I didn't think I would, but I did!" - but by and large there were no bad comments.  The kids from town who came were exuberant in their praise of what we'd done - "Are you going to do that again?" and "Are you guys gonna play out anywhere" and "Where can I come see your band?" - that's what I heard.  That's what we all heard.  Even our senior pastor was elated at what we had accomplished.

That was the beginning of the change.  Our pastor agreed to a quarterly event with the band in the sanctuary (once every three months) but that only lasted two times, and then it was monthly.  Then bi-monthly.  When I left for college, that church had split into 2 different age group services - a "regular service" and a "youth oriented service" every Sunday, but even the regular service had an acoustic guitarist in it with the organist- who was now playing piano.

I had no idea what we'd actually done, and how much things in church were going to change.  That'll be Part II.