Sunday, February 15, 2009

This Too

"Behold, I am making all things new."
                            Revelation 21:5

Since about the year 2000, when I began to be a part of the New City Community in Knoxville with some regularity, I have been increasingly immersed in dialogue about and surrounded by the action of redeeming culture. In my own cynicism toward the church, an attitude which I have regretfully done more to disseminate than I have to debunk, I neglected and sometimes rejected the idea that the Western church and her often silly sub-culture could even be redeemed. To me, she was a grown woman, holding the scruffy remnants of old gaudy dresses over her figure in the looking glass, fantasizing about the glory days. I still speak sometimes as if I'm not a servant on this storm-tossed ship, as if I'm not terrorized enough by billows and gales to wake Jesus in the bow and scream, "Do something!"

In our seeking for a church, in our strained and distracted attempts to listen for the quiet breath of the Holy Ghost, Kat and I have walked through expressions of corporate worship like wings in an art museum. We have sung, studied, taken communion, prayed, supped, rejoiced, and lamented with people from a couple handfuls of backgrounds. In all of them, I have seen the working of Christ. I have seen the rivers of grace flow through hearts, clearing the jetsam of flood and storm until the banks are clean. It has been humbling to watch the limits that I imagined for God's grace fall.

This past two weeks, we have attended a church that, for all practical purposes, puts on a rock concert every Sunday. Now, I don't use this terminology lightly, having been to enough rock concerts to know the difference. But when, to go with your music, you break out the fog machine, the gobos, the down-looking-up camera angles, and did I mention the fog machine, you have a rock concert. My inborn distrust of all things done in Dog-and-Pony-show style has put the rock show as corporate worship experience fairly low on my list. Now, I've taken part in good preparation and worship with a back beat. I've even taken part in the rock show as worship, especially at student retreats. And musically, I worship more easily with an instrument in my hands. So this probably sounds quite hypocritical. In truth, that's accurate. But it's not accurate for the reasons you might think. More than condemning something with my words and blessing it with my actions (which is a way of further crippling the culture), I have doubted the power of God to redeem, to "seek and to save that which was lost."

Standing in the auditorium today, I couldn't help but hear him say, "This too, shall be made well." And now I can't help but remember Paul telling Titus that "to the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and their consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for doing anything good," and also speaking about those "having a form of godliness but denying its power." (2 Tim 3:5)

So God is the God who redeems fog machines. And gobos. And for those of you who don't have a clue what a gobo is, next time you see a spinning light design on the back wall or the stage floor, you'll know. Now, if we could just get some in every house church in China, the world would be a better place.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Weilding Weaponry

I am given to an appreciation for words. If you follow this blog long enough, my overarching delight in delicious diction will likely become annoyingly obvious. I love to arrange them and watch them dance into a revelation or a recollection in someone's mind - even in my own. I also love to do the same with music. These are the tools given me, but wielding them in the work of the Kingdom is something else. I have said before, and I continue to find it true, that inspiration comes at the oddest times. Ask a thousand artists where they get their inspiration, and you'll get a thousand different answers. Rarely, if ever, will you get the answer, "When it's convenient." Inspiration for me comes when I'm riding in the car, driving, listening to new music, and oddly enough, showering. Most of the time, it's not convenient, but it cascades like a vernal mountain stream when it comes. Then, an even stranger thing happens. I sit down with a pen and paper, or I go to the piano or pick up a guitar, and, sometimes instantly, the wellspring dries up. Where did it go? Here I am, ready for the muse to sing. But she has become a shy ghost, a thinning apparition in the air. While I would like to blame it all on this, it's not true. What did happen? Two things, I think.

First, it is proven that I had expectations of ease. When I picked up the guitar or the pen, I wrongly supposed that the music or prose would flow from it like magic from a wand (though, as Neville Longbottom proved to us, wand-waving is not as easy as it looks). Truthfully, it might be easier than usual at that point, depending on my inspiration, but the creative mechanism is a sort of Chinese finger trap. If you pull on it too hard, you'll only get stuck. It can't be forced. Second, I don't practice enough. There's a scene in The Last Samurai (yes, the Tom Cruise movie) where Nathan Algren is learning to fight with a katana. After badly losing several practice bouts, one of the other warriors comes and tells him he has "too many mind."

Nobutada: Please forgive, too many mind.
Cpt. Algren: Too many mind?
Nobutada: Hai. Mind the sword, mind the people watch, mind the enemy. Too many mind.

I'm going to bend this a little bit, but I think it still fits. The point is, the more I practice the foundational things, the less I have to think about how to accomplish what I'm trying to accomplish musically or prosaically. Not to sound too acid-trippy about it, but when I've practiced to where the guitar is simply an extension of myself, I don't have to fight against it. I simply play, in the most common sense of the word. No mind. I don't worry about how to play, I just do. In music, this quite obviously comes in the irritatingly banal form of scales, arpeggios, and chords. I also try to play back what I hear others play. In literature, it's not so black and white. Most good writers who give us advice (and I would recommend Anne Lamott and Madeleine L'Engle) tell us to write something every single day. Write anything. Start by describing an apple and let it take you somewhere. Let your mind wander - let it out to play. Or, if you're like me and you're trying to figure out who characters are, put two arch enemies at a coffeeshop table together and see what they say to each other. It's like your own little highbrow version of Jerry Springer, if there is such a thing. It's quite entertaining, and, more importantly, quite revealing.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Cheapest Cabinet Money Can Buy

In our constant quest to keep the house in ship shape, Kat and I bought new wooden filing cabinets with some gift money to replace the old metal one which was buckling on the sides. So, after watching Kat assemble the beastly things, I did some fixing and drilling and general manliness to them to make them work, since not all the parts that came in the box worked. Not being a construction worker (though I have before) or a soldier (though we employ women as well) or a wrestler/football player/professional decimator of things, I greatly appreciate opportunities to express the general manliness of lifting, sweating, laboring, and dirtying perfectly clean flannel.

So I was feeling pretty good about myself. Enter: conundrum. We were left with the tragic-looking stack of our old filing cabinet sitting around the house. Now, a friend I know from work roams around in his truck (again, manly) picking up sheet metal and taking it to the scrap yard for extra cash. Aha! says I. I can stuff this sad thing into the car and get money while recycling and feeling masculine. Nobody loses here.

I entered the scrap yard on Fifth Avenue in our Toyota Corolla with a bike rack on the back. I knew something was amiss when I pulled the car up into a muddied moon-scape of a parking lot beside grimy, indestructible pick-up trucks with massive trailers and beds. Further along, past imposing mountains of rusty rubble, the obligatory magnetic crane, and a guy wielding an acetylene cutting torch, there were enormous dump trucks full of rusted out buckets from front-end loaders and pieces of bulldozers and barges. You get the picture. So, I pull up and find out that, no, my filing cabinet is sheet metal, and we only take big chunks out here in big chunky metal land. I'll have to go over to Central.

I navigate the Corolla out of the junkyard (if only cars could gawk like those Wallace and Gromit characters), and we head over to PSC on Central. Same deal, smaller piles, sharper objects. I ask around and find out I'm supposed to get on the scale. I do so and am then directed toward what can only be described as Hyacinth Bucket's worst nightmare. There's a toward with a magnetic crane and a tiny metal shack on top. Around it, piles of scrap metal sit in a moat of stagnant mud like strange pagan offerings. People have backed their cars up to it and are flinging engine blocks, AC parts, and all manner of flotsam into the muck around the proboscidean crane. What is there to do, except do likewise? I back up to the mud and toss the filing cabinet in onto a scattering of metal shelves lying half-submerged in nasty water. Then, I am directed off to the scales again. After a second weigh-in, I park and walk into the building. I expect to wonder what desk to go to, but there is no question. I find myself in a paneled hallway, eight feet by three feet, maybe. There is a teller window, covered in two-and-a-half inch thick bulletproof glass. The lady takes my ID and gives me a paper upon which I put my signature and my left thumbprint. She gives me back my ID, a receipt, and the check they cut for our filing cabinet - one dollar, and eighty cents.

At the time of this writing, I feel a little sorry for our old filing cabinet, sitting out there in that nasty pond in the skeletal shadow of that malevolent tower, which might any day pick it up to be chewed into bits and melted down. It was a good filing cabinet while it lasted, holding our documents like the most patient secretary.