Marcellus Coleman and “Worship Performance”

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine, Marcellus Coleman, or Mars the Writer, had a video that went viral. The video consisted of live “altar time” at the church where he helps in the worship department. The video went viral because something went wrong during the start of the set. It turns out the keyboard setting got transposed, making the electric piano, the main instrument for most “altar times,” out of tune with the rest of the band and the lead singer, Marcellus Coleman.

Afterward, it was decided that in order to draw more traffic towards the church and encourage other worship bands (a weird title in its own right) that mistakes happen and you cannot get caught up in one bad song. This is true of any “performance” or service or job or activity in general.

The first part of the plan worked: more people checked out the church than before.

However, the second part, as reflected in the types of comments the viral video acquired showed something else: people were overwhelmingly critical of Marcellus.

The comments that followed consisted of many “pianist and singer got beef”, “I guess we know who didn’t come to practice”, “are they hitting on the same girl”, and “that boy shouldn’t be singing anyway.”

This is the danger of publically showing mistakes: everyone’s a critic and everyone has a comment.

After talking with/checking up on Marcellus, he appears to have taken it all in good humor and said they had accomplished what they set out to do: draw attention to the church.

This brings up my observations: the danger of “worship performance.”

While it is true that there is a certain amount of theatricality to a service (there are clear acts and scenes and beats and audience participation) and while it is true that the goal of the service is to tell the story of Christ and his life in us, there is a notion it all has to be perfect. Churches will spend hundreds to thousands to millions to make the service and experience.

Before we go further, it must be said that there is nothing wrong with professionalism. Even without the lights and projectors, the small town local churches (many of which are in my own conference) also desire a “good show,” that the service “goes well.”

But what does this mean to a small local church in comparison to a larger or even a megachurch?

Ultimately, the same thing (I hope): that the gospel was presented in an understandable way and it was received by the congregation, member or visitor alike.

A few days ago I posted a meme of a businessman asking what the church needed to do to bring more people into the church. One suggested “hip music.” Another “coffee.” The last one suggested, “just preach truth.” The last one was thrown out of the building’s second top floor.

One response to this was from a former college classmate: (sarcastically) “People can’t get saved if there is coffee and lights going.”

His point was humorous and witty. And missed the point completely.

Can people be “saved” if there are coffee and lights? Of course. But can they be saved without them? There is nothing wrong with coffee and lights, but we should recognize that these things aren’t the Gospel nor are they part of the Christian experience: they are fads that will appeal for a time but will ultimately fizzle out because they are not essential to the Gospel presentation.

As long as the Gospel is being presented, do what you will; but do not neglect the Gospel.

Marcellus wanted the “mess up” video to be shown to encourage other worship teams that mistakes happen, no matter the platform or budget, and that you have to move on.

I hope they get his message and not the alternative: we can’t mess up.

The danger of “worship performance” is that if we are not careful we will think that “make a joyful noise” really means “make a joyful noise that doesn’t screw up because then we will ruin someone’s “worship experience” (whatever that means).”

To Marcellus, I am grateful for a heart that is genuinely shaped by compassion and hard work: I hope that is seen in the rest of us who have much smaller platforms to spread the Gospel.

Even if our videos do/don’t go viral, even with/without the coffee and light, I pray we are doing our best in our services to present the Gospel to the best of our ability (whatever that means).

Little Women 2019

This film touched me on a level few films every do – so much so that it is not in my top ten films of all time.

That is no easy feat.

There are great films, and there are masterpieces.

This is a masterclass in filmmaking. I have often been asked what makes a film a masterpiece and there is a checklist for this sort of thing:

  1. Story
  2. Character Arc(s)
  3. Visuals
  4. Sounds
  5. Editing
  6. Costuming
  7. Emotional impact
  8. How the film deals with its “ideas”

There are plenty of others, but these are easily the fist that comes to mind.

1. Story:

This film’s story(ies) is(are) exceptionally depicted. The plot is simply a story of people growing up and dealing with life…and that sounds boring. However, the characters are so rich and the narrative so engaging that we come to care for almost everyone we meet.

2. Character Arc(s)

To my recollection, only two characters remain static: this is no easy task as there are close to ten characters that the film has to juggle about a dozen characters. Every actor does something rarely seen in film – they all make their characters personable, believable, interesting, and empathetic. Each character matters and no one is thrown away. Since the film follows two different narratives (explained below), the actors easily transition from children to adults without much difficulty.

3. Visuals

Sometimes, the simplest technique makes the biggest difference. The film’s narrative is told in a traditional “present” with “past”  flashbacks. What makes this so easy to keep up with and differentiate is the color palette: the past is colored as a rich summer day with warm colors and an arid glow, while the present is a steely blue and stark greys. This effortless technique allows the audience to easily maintain the chronology of the narrative.

4. Sounds

The score is delightful. The mud under the characters’ feet sounds rich. The icebreaking, the snow falling, the wind through the trees, the horses trotting, the silverware clinking, everything sounds right.

5. Editing

With the back and forth narrative, the pacing of the film is brisk and whimsical. For those who have read the book, the film lightly skips the non-essential parts and focusses more on the cause/effect dynamics the characters enact upon each other. The film holds the shots it needs to and moves on when appropriate: all the shots are there that need to be and nothing is wasted.

6. Costuming

This film’s authentic costuming doesn’t feel clumsy or forced like some period pieces can. Instead, it feels lived in and worn. It looks like how the characters sound.

7. Emotional impact

If you don’t care about the characters, the film doesn’t matter. The characters carry the weight of the film’s message and theme. As a parent of three girls (we’re not trying for a boy nor do we desire another girl), this film resonates with me because it tells the story of sister daughters growing up with conflicting personalities, character quirks, desires/needs, and philosophies. The fact that you don’t think about these or have to constantly remind yourself about what each character “means” because it is so engrained into the performances and costuming (two characters costumes were made to appear that the two characters share clothes even though they never draw attention to it in the film advertently).

8. How the film deals with its “ideas”

The film is feminist but not in a misandrist manner: women can be themselves and “don’t need no man” to discover their meaning, value, and purpose. This is the type of feminism that Christians should/can embrace: just as a man’s identity isn’t contingent on their spouse, neither is that of the woman’s. With each of the four daughters are radically different from one another, there is one consistent thread that weaves them all together: they are all discovering themselves under the watchful care of their Christian mother, and though faith takes a backseat in the story, it is impossible for the viewer to accept the four different philosophies as true/believable outside the Christian faith.

This is not an SJW film, although many people will read that ideology into it: its a fascinatingly subtle film that wrestles with identity, faith, meaning, purpose, and the value, not only of the Little Women, but of us all.

 

A Lost Friend

Today, something happened on FaceBook that has never happened to me.

A person commented on a post and then blocked me.

The post explored how sinful impulses shouldn’t be followed and that just because a person was born with sinful impulses doesn’t mean that’s who that person is.

The person who commented, I assume, didn’t not understand this or because this matter was personal for themselves or with someone they know. However, they made clear that “My temptation to get your garbage off of my feed overcomes me.”

And that was it. No longer friends on FaceBook. No messages. No further conversation. No more discussion. I actually respected and had fond memories of this person. I would have liked to have heard her out.

My immediate response was “I have to fix this. I have made a mistake. I thought the post was clear. How can we be reconcile.” But, like the post said, not all impulses should be acted upon.

After thinking and praying, I decided to leave it alone. I replied to the post, attempted to “tag” the person, and have opted to leave it be.

Why?

Some people don’t want to talk.

Sometimes, we must leave people to their silence when they leave a conversation.

God has used silence to convict and comfort both sinners and saints.

Should we attempt to re-establish a severed relationship? Of course, but we can only do so much, as can the other person involved.

Sometimes, we must leave people in their silence.

Leaving What You Love

“I will learn as much from you as you will learn from me.”

The class looked at me confused and unsure of what this promise meant. They knew the words that came out of my mouth, but the order and context was a mystery.

This is how I begin every class I teach. As a teacher, I generally know more than my students about the given topic (there are the exceptions). However, I will relearn how to teach my subject because though the content is the same, the group of students rarely is.

A few years ago, I took a characteristic and strengths test, and to my surprise, my top characteristic was “Learning.”

Learning.

As I read the results, looking at the top defining characteristic of my being, “learning”, this was not what I expected. In that same moment, however, so much of myself now made sense. In particular, an indescribable part of myself now had a name, a part of my being that I could never put into words, perhaps partly due to laziness in merely accepting who “I am” and partly due to an idea that “there’s a not a word to deal with this.” Nevertheless, the ambiguity dissipated as I stared at this one word:

Learning.

And underneath it: Teaching.

And underneath that: Music.

I had always thought that my education in the classroom I taught in came second to my students’ education: I was wrong. The two happen as an event that parallels simultaneously. I grow as my students grow; my students grow as I grow.

I have always had a ravenous curiosity. This insatiable appetite expressed itself through writing music, reading fiction, studying theology, exploring philosophy, analyzing typography, dabbling in vexillology, and so on. I wanted to know know about “things” and luckily for me, “things” is a very broad category to gain knowledge from.

I now knew that I loved learning, and that learning was a definitive part of my being.

Thankfully, learning is a great characteristics for teachers.

And I love teaching.

Epistemology in the classroom is wonderful. Teachers talk about the “lightbulb moment” when a student finally “gets it.” These to me have always been periphery to what I consider the two essential tasks of teachers:

  1. Instill a love of learning
  2. Instill habits of thinking

Beyond these two objectives, all else is either background noise or serve to fulfill these two outcomes.

And now, I am leaving what I love.

This transition from classroom to administrative position is immensely difficult. I am leaving what I love to do what I am competent in. In and of itself, this is a wonderful opportunity for me. The prospect, however, does not lessen the sting of change.

I am no longer primarily a teacher: I will always be a learner.

Today was my last day in the classroom until God should so bring me back. As is my custom, I asked the students what did they take away from the yearlong course. Their answers were kind.

  • You helped me with my faith.
  • You taught me its ok to respectfully argue with your teacher (this was an apologetics class – there were many disagreements)
  • You taught me the importance of words.

The finally comment: you helped me become a Christian.

And now, I am leaving what I love: the work, the classroom, the subject, the students.

There is no sorrow – only expectancy. “Every step an arrival,” as the poet once said.

Every step an arrival.

Prayer With My Children

Every night before our children go to sleep, my wife, Ashlie, and I sing and pray with our children. Sometimes, there’s a story about three princess, one for each of my children, but not always.

We sing the same song and we pray the same prayer.

Now, being raised Pentecostal, there was an unspoken idea that ritual was a bad thing, at least ritual in the church. I heard several sermons about how we shouldn’t just “go through the motions.” I found myself agreeing with the message but for different reasons. I was never able to explain why – it was just a gnawing feeling, a thought: the preacher is right but also not all right.

Then, I listened to a Liturgist explain why repetition is a good thing; that ritual is just routine with meaning. .

Ritual is routine with meaning.

It was in that moment when I understood why “just going through the motions” is bad: the meaning is missing, the purpose is presentless, the goal is gone.

Ritual is good as long as it has meaning. Ritual creates habits that inform everything else. Ritual helps us sort out life; when everything is chaos, ritual brings back stability and equilibrium.

My family ends everyday the same: we sing and we pray.

We sing The Doxology and we pray The Lord’s Prayer.

When we’ve had a bad day: The Doxology and The Lord’s Prayer.

When we’ve had a good day: The Doxology and The Lord’s Prayer.

When there’s been shouting and fighting: The Doxology and The Lord’s Prayer.

When there’s been anger and tears: The Doxology and The Lord’s Prayer.

When we’ve been unkind and mean: The Doxology and The Lord’s Prayer.

When I’ve had to apologize: The Doxology and The Lord’s Prayer.

When I’ve had to forgive: The Doxology and The Lord’s Prayer.

When there’s been laughter and joy: The Doxology and The Lord’s Prayer.

When there’s been warmth and love: The Doxology and The Lord’s Prayer.

When there’s been defeat and confession and repentance and healing and wounding and hugs: The Doxology and The Lord’s Prayer.

Regardless of the type of day, of the attitudes, of the sins and forgivenesses, we always return to the God who animates us by his Spirit. We do this by singing and praying.

 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow…Our Father who is in heaven…

Let your ritual’s have meaning.

Reflections from a Fast

I afflicted myself with fasting;
I prayed with head bowed on my chest.” Psalm 35:13b

This was the first time I have participated in a food fast.

It was immensely difficult.

As Foster writes, the purpose of a fast is to know God deeper. Fasting is a form and expression of worship. God delights when we fast, but only when we fast for the right reason.

I have a few observations about my own spiritual wrestlings as I come to the end of this fast. This is not meant to be a boast – that is not my intent. If this blesses you: wonderful. If it does not: read something else that does.

  1. When the fast began, my thoughts towards others was the first area that I experienced conviction. Through fasting a non-essential thing, God reinforced the truth that all people are of concern for God; every person is a potential adoptee into the Kingdom of God. While it is true that God knows who will accept or reject his mercy and grace, I do not: therefore, let me love all as I would want to be loved.
  2. I was reminded that rest is a source of energy. To not rest is to sin. While coffee and carbs can only go so far, rest replenishes and restore body and soul in a manner that food does not. While fasting, the need for more rest became apparent. I then reflected on my wife and her “restlessness” stage of life: she is home with our three daughters, all three years and younger. My compassion for her grew.
  3. Fasting has caused me to slow down my day. Since I was without as much energy as I was used to, I had to intentionally plan my day to accomplish my tasks and responsibilities without all the “fluff” and empty time. I became more productive (at least at work; at home, I was taking naps. My wife was very gracious). This does not mean that I see myself only as a worker – rather, to my surprise, I delighted even more in the accomplished tasks and participated even more intentionally in conversations and pleasant exchanges with strangers.
  4. Because fasting removes a thing you think you depend upon, two wonderful things happen:
    1. you start to trust God to supply for you what you are fasting once did, only to discover (or be reminded) that God is far more intimately involved with his children than just with their supposed needs – he is present, always;
    2. Prayer becomes a place: yes, we do pray, as an action – but as Paul says to pray without ceasing, then we arrive at a moment when we are intentionally in communion with God always. We learn that we end prayers just to begin another, as though passing from room to room, but never leaving the house. It could be expressed this way: prayer is a reality that we never depart, for if prayer is a dialogue between God and man, then the conversation never truly concludes since God is always speaking to us at all time, whether we are speaking to him or not.

As you fast (as we should), may we keep God at the center. Blessings.

 

Doubts.

Everyone has doubts.

I have them constantly.

How do you live with constant doubt?

I seek out answers.

Where do you find your answers?

Many places. Books. Music. Friendship. Conversation. Nature. Thinking. Food.

How can you trust those things?

What do you mean?

I mean, how do you know you can trust those things and not others for your answers?

It depends on the question(s) I’m asking myself.

How do you know you’re asking the right questions?

I don’t. But they are my questions. If the questions are wrong, then perhaps my bad questions will guide me to better ones.

Then how do you know where to look?

Look for what?

Your answers.

The answers aren’t mine.

What do you mean?

I mean that if I ask a question and the answer is not clear to me, I search it out. When I find it, the answer, I submit myself to it, even if I do not like what I’ve found. The truth isn’t something you get a hold of; rather it gets a hold of you.

Kiergegaard?

Yes. He influenced my thinking a lot.

Why?

He was a man of doubts and he wasn’t afraid to share and explore those doubts. He wrote in such away that his doubts made perfect sense, but his answers, or the answers that found him, made more sense, more sense than the questions.

What doubts do you have?

Depends on the day.

What about today?

Am I a good father.

Are you?

That’s a bad question: Am I a good father. The better one is “Am I fathering?” You are either fathering your children or you aren’t. It makes more sense to ask if you actually doing something before you ask how you are doing it.

So, are you fathering?

I am.

How did you do today?

Better than yesterday. Or worse. Depends on the area of focus.

Any other doubts?

Yes. That I’m unlovable. I’m no good to my family or my friends. That I only make things worse by being here. That I can’t do what I’m doing, or at least they will soon see that I have no idea what I’m doing despite the appearance I’ve worked really hard to maintain.

Is it hard?

Is what hard?

Wearing a mask.

I’m not wearing a mask.

But the appearance?

The appearance is more my covering my face than wearing a mask. A mask can just hang from your ears. Hiding behind my hands is more poetic and raw. I am constantly walling my face with my hands.

But if you’re using your hands to hide your face, your hands can’t do what they are supposed to do.

I know. That’s the struggle. To show my face in all emotional terrains. That’s where most of my doubt is produced, the emotional terrains.

Why is that?

Because emotions are your honest self emerging through the filter of your conscious. There are no bad emotions; just bad responses. Emotions are powerful things. Deadly, even. And yet, they make life far more experiential. We connect with other emotionally for more easily than we do ideologically.

Really?

No. Any emotion that isn’t ours is hard to understand. That’s why conversation and friendship is good: no man is an island.

Merton?

Merton.

You like a lot of outcasts, black sheep.

I find myself alone often, intellectually and theologically.

How do you cope?

Reading. Praying. Playing with my children. Making love to my wife. Eating good food.

Do you not deal with it?

That is dealing with it: sometimes you have to enjoy life to deal with doubt. By doing something productive in one area, you fix a problem elsewhere. Doubt is often rooted in emotion rather than reason.

Do you think you will ever not have doubts?

I don’t think so.

Why not?

Life is doubting something.

Does that bother you?

No, not really.

Why not?

Why does it not bother me?

Yes.

Because if doubt is my default worldview and I should doubt everything, then by default, I should also doubt my doubts, since doubts would be included in the “everything” category.

I don’t follow.

What does it mean to doubt?

To not be sure of something?

Sure. Lack of conviction, some say. But primarily it is a feeling of uncertainty: the very definition provides the human experience of doubt – a feeling. To live a life dictated by feelings is…

Is what?

…I was going to say dangerous. But that’s not the best word for it.

…Daring?

No.

…Risky?

No.

…I don’t know.

Impractical. That’s the word. If everyone did and said what they felt, unheeded, all the time, the world would be chaos and madness. No order, no justice ( no one would be wrong), no real sanity to compare the madness to.

I see your point. But you haven’t answered by question.

Oh, I apologize. What was the question?

How do you live with doubt?

How can I not?