Thursday, August 29, 2019

Rules Were Made to Be...wait...Why Were Rules Made?

Over the summer  my son started riding in the front seat of the car.  "Back in my day," this wasn't a big deal.  I've been riding in the front seat since before I can remember, and I clearly remember the complex restraining system that deployed in case of accident or sudden stop.

Image result for mom's arm seatbelt
Like this, only no seat belts.
At the time my mom drove a 1969 Charger.  It had lap belts, but we almost never used them.  I also remember some kind of shoulder belt on the inside of the roof over the door, but I never knew how to use it (because I couldn't find anything for that one to clip into).  Those were the days.  They'd toss a crib mattress in the back seat, pile us in on top of it, and head for South Carolina to visit my grandmother.

And I lived to tell the tale.

Child safety equipment has changed a little in the years since.  Car seats (I didn't have one that I can remember).  Booster seats (those were only in restaurants when I was little).  Seatbelt positioners.  Backward facing.  Forward facing.  Latch.  And of course accompanying rules, which include keeping your kids in the back seat as long as possible because it is safer than the front.

So for a number of years prior to this summer we had a "driving Miss Daisy" situation going on.  We talked about things like how school went, but since he was sitting directly behind me we had to talk a little louder than was normal or comfortable.  I never realized during that time how much that served to limit conversation.  No, I didn't realize it until he moved to the front seat when...shall we say, uninhibited conversation...began.  This may come as a shock to you, but I'm something of a talker, and this kid is definitely my son.

Image result for loquacious
Usually I'm the guy third from the left.
To be fair, most of the time it's not just idle chatter from him and dad jokes from me (which is what you were thinking, I know).  Actually we've had some pretty deep conversations.  Usually they begin with what seems like a simple question, but when you really start trying to answer you find out simple questions with simple answers are few and far between in the world of a middle schooler.

We were on our way to school earlier this week when he asked me, "Dad, why do we follow rules?"  Something in his tone let me know he wasn't going to be ok with the first thing that came to mind, which was, "Because I said so."

"A lot of rules exist to keep you safe."  Seems true enough.  In fact, most of the rules he has experienced to this point in his life in some way or another relate to his safety.  For example, he is just now riding in the front seat because of rules aimed at keeping him safe in the event of an accident.  I felt like I was on pretty solid ground with this until he pointed out that some rules aren't about safety.  Like when they play music in the lunchroom and say you can't talk while the music is playing.

"Well, sure.  That rule is in place so that you'll eat, because if it weren't a rule you'd just talk through lunch, throw your food away, and be worthless for the afternoon because you're hungry."  But he was right.  That rule isn't about safety.  It's about behavior modification.  And we have a lot of rules built around the concept of behavior modification.  We want to encourage a particular set of habits, so we use rules to incentivize the desired behavior...or disincentivize the undesired behavior.  Often rules are combined with consequences for maximum effect.

Some rules exist in the interest of fair play or leveling the playing field.  If someone has a disadvantage, one way to correct it is to create a set of rules that will correct it.  A goodly number of our laws exist for this reason.  Think about the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example.

And sometimes rules serve no other purpose than creating the game itself.  Like when my brother and I were bored when we were younger.  Any floor can be turned into a playing field, and any object can be fashioned into the instruments of a game by the simple addition of rules.  ESPN actually made a funny commercial about this truth years ago.  [Editor's Note: If you go looking for those commercials on YouTube, you'll find hundreds of funny Sportscenter commercials, but you may not find those particular ones...either way you'll waste a lot of time over there.  You've been warned.]


Of course rules can be used for ill as well.  The laws that supported slavery, or Jim Crow laws, or red line laws, or voter ID laws, all of which serve to tilt the playing field in favor of the already-privileged.

None of which really answers Wesley's question, which wasn't "Why are there rules?" but was actually, "Why do we follow rules?"  And that's an even trickier question.

I'm not one for absolutes, so I can't say for certain, but as I think about it most of the time we follow rules because of the consequences for not following them.  If you talk while the music is playing in the cafeteria you have to go sit at a certain table.  If you quack at the principal, you have to write "I will not quack at the principal." on the chalkboard.  And even if there aren't physical consequences like these, there are nevertheless consequences.  If you violate the rules of honesty, people will no longer trust your character.  This is true even if the rules aren't fair or just.  If you violate the rules of "normal social behavior," you're likely to get laughed at, cast out, or bullied.

There are, of course, times when we choose not to obey rules on principle.  Civil disobedience.  Rosa Parks.  We make this choice when the consequence of breaking the rule is overshadowed by our need to challenge the rule.  That requires a special kind of courage.

The Bible sets out rules too.  Why do we follow them?  Is it because we're afraid of the consequences if we don't?  Sometimes I feel like that's where the legalists are.  If we don't follow the rules as written we will be condemned or lose favor with God.  But if that's true, then the whole exercise of faith is nothing more than celestial fire insurance.  I'm not sure that's what God had in mind.

And then Jesus comes along.  You'd think if following the letter of Biblical law to avoid eternal damnation was the way to go Jesus would have carefully observed every law.  But that's not what happened at all.  Jesus broke laws all the dang time.

Not speeding laws.  I'm sure he kept his donkey under 25mph in the school zones.  He broke laws of exclusion, both religious and societal.  He openly challenged people who would use God's law to marginalize others.  And he told us why.  According to Jesus, all of the laws and prophets can be summed up simply: love God, love neighbor, love self. 

Life isn't a game with a score that determines whether you head upstairs or down.  It's a journey on which we choose to love or not to love.  As a Christian, I seek to follow the simple rules of Jesus.  Not because I'm afraid of hell.  I follow them because I believe the way of love is the way of Christ which is the way of God.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Somebody Was Wrong

This morning a friend sent me a link to this Wesley Brothers comic and asked what I thought about it.  I'm guessing it's because I'm a church music dork and everyone knows it.  The conversation dredged up some thoughts I've been having on music and its role in the church.

Note I didn't say it's role in worship.  I didn't say "it's" because that's the wrong form and I would have failed a paper in Ms. Schneider's 9th grade English class for what she called a "Major Mechanical Error."  No lie, she'd write "MME" on your paper in gigantic red letters and fail you.  She would have failed her own mother, I think.

I also didn't say "worship."  Because this world does not need even one more blog or article or poem or musing about what kind of music is best suited for worship.  Writing such a piece is something akin to going to a family reunion, standing over the dilled chicken salad and yelling, "Conservatives are heartless, democrats are gutless, and I never, ever eat Granny's fruitcake when she sends it.  I don't even give it to the dog."  All you're going to do is stir up a lot of anger.  And your feeble attempt to unify everyone at the end with a common truth (the bit about the fruitcake) will not overcome the political battle royale you started.

Image result for battle royale wrestling
No, it's YOUR turn to host Thanksgiving this year!!!!
No, I'm thinking about music and the church.  Merely drawing that distinction is a good indicator of how I think about this. There are a number of folks who believe music to be strictly a worship endeavor.  Our church's music budget, for example, falls under the greater heading of worship.  And I can understand why that's the case, because if you have to pick a category, it makes the most sense.  Most of my time is spent preparing for or serving in worship with one choir or another.  But that's an awfully limited view of what music ministry can be.

A Workhorse of the Church's Vision

Worship will always be a central part of any church's vision...or at least it should.  But Christ's call to us actually wasn't just to worship him (actually he never instructed us to worship him in the same way he gave other instructions).  Christ called us to love God and neighbor and to make disciples.  Faithful churches should have visions that move beyond worship, and music ministries that function as part of those churches should make it a point to live into those visions.  If a church's focus is working with people experiencing homelessness, the music ministry should be a part of that effort.  Maybe it's by providing music at programming.  Maybe it's by starting a choir for such people.  If a church's focus is to reach out into the community, then the music ministry should figure out how to reach with it.  Maybe concerts outside the church are the best way to go.  Maybe starting some musical opportunities in the community or retooling some of the opportunities offered by the church itself.

It's important because music is unique among ministries and programs in the way it can work alongside them.  Because music can be a powerful ally.  Think of a movie and its accompanying film score.  A movie can be visually stunning and artfully rendered, but the addition of a powerful score can make it transcendent.  In this way, music can serve as an intensifier for the work and vision of the church.

The Ultimate Community Builder

As the universal language, music can build bridges where none have existed.  And because music is both produced and received so close to the heart, it can connect people in ways nothing else can.  Not just the hearing of music, but participating together in creating it.  And it works for any song you can sing together.  Hymns?  Great!  Choruses?  Great!  A bunch of middle schoolers sitting around a table banging on their cups?  Great!  When we make music together we breathe together.  We literally conspire ("breathe with").

As long as someone has taught them how it goes.

Building community, I'm convinced, is the way to make disciples.  Most people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.  Creating a community to accept them...isn't all that difficult.  But you can't do it if you immediately start arguing about what music you can do and what music you can't.  Such arguments miss the whole point of doing music ministry in the first place.  We don't exist to exclude.  We exist to include.  Because all God's children really do have a place in the choir.

All of which brings me back to that comic strip.  We don't pick music to entertain people, and we don't pick it to educate people.  We pick music to engage people.  To touch their hearts or their heads or their imaginations.  To bring them into community and to inspire them.  At the top of this blog you can see that the music ministry at Decatur First seeks to build relationships through music.  That means relationships with God, each other, and our community.

Somehow, somewhere, somebody got the idea that the church exists to serve music.  Somebody was wrong.  It's not about making flawless music.  It's not about picking the "best kind" of music (as if that were actually a thing: de gustibus non est disputandum).  Because the music (the tunes, the texts, all of it) should be about finding what kind of music best helps the church (Church?) answer the gospel call making that music together to the very best of our ability.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Last Words

I recently received word that one of my college professors passed away.

Mr. Dean taught me second year music theory and music history.  I also took organ lessons from him for part of a semester.  His classes were notoriously difficult.  He was tough.  If you wanted to pass his tests you needed to know your stuff.  But he was fair.  I earned my only B in college from Mr. Dean in second semester music history (there's a longer story there I'd be happy to tell you under the magnolia tree).

With respect to all my other teachers at Centenary who taught me a so much, I learned more from Mr. Dean than any other teacher.  He built the framework that supports my entire understanding of music.  He taught me its basic forms and building blocks.  He trained me to hear rhythm, melody, or harmony and write down what I heard accurately (which I put to use a few years back when my friends Jonathan and Katy asked me to play the medal ceremony from Star Wars as their wedding recessional!).  He taught me that something new comes along in music history about every 150 years or so, and he taught me what was revolutionary and remarkable about composers who seemed distant and unimportant before.  And he taught me how to work hard for a grade.

He could sit down at the piano and improvise in the style of any composer you asked, and you'd believe it really was that composer.  Honestly he might have been playing music written by that composer because I would believe he had committed every piece of music to memory.  I know that's not possible.  But is it?

And he was funny.  Not in a cool way.  Funny in a dad joke kind of way.  Dry as Phoenix in the summer.  We played "spin the Steinway."  When he had a stack of test papers on his desk he'd stand them up on end and make magical gestures at them as if his magic was holding them upright.  I still sometimes do this when I have a stack of papers.  I like to think I'm channeling a little bit of his magic.  He'd make up words to the pieces we were studying that were ridiculous...ridiculously genius because all these years later I remember not just the words to the songs but the forms those words taught me (like my personal favorite Mozart: "Clo-sing sec-tion, clo-sing sec-tion, yes this is a clo-sing sec-tion...").

Sometimes when famous musicians die we talk about the influence they had on the music world.  I'm not sure if anyone is saying that about Mr. Dean, but I know about the influence he had on my music world.  And all the others who he taught.  And because of the six degrees, well, maybe we should be talking about the influence he had on the music world after all.

I'm not sure what we talked about the last time I saw him, and it's bothering me.  It's bothering me because I'm fairly certain it wasn't me telling him how much I appreciated his teaching, and I wonder if he knew.

It reminds me of Father Tribou, who was the principal of my high school and also highly influential in my life.  Did I ever tell him?  I don't think I did.  In fact, I think the last words we ever shared consisted of him telling me (literally as I walked out the door from graduation) that I needed a haircut...and me telling him I felt like it would probably be a while.

The truth is that most of the time we just don't know.  We don't know which conversation will be our last conversation--which words will be our last words.  That's as true for the people who mean the most to us as it is for complete strangers.  We can't see when our paths will cross again--or if they will--until it's too late.  It's too late for me to thank Mr. Dean now...unless I bump into him in the great beyond, no doubt improvising Mozart-like melodies on a harp.

What if we treated every interaction with every person like it was potentially our last?  Would we brush all the petty things aside to make way for the words that really matter?  Would we waste breath on platitudes and pleasantries (or worse, bickering and back-biting)?


We would want to be remembered for spreading love and encouraging.  We would want to be remembered for setting a feast of the fruits of the Spirit.  If we could control our legacy, we would be caring and patient and fair and kind.

We do control our legacy.  One last interaction at a time.  Let us not waste our breath on anything short of living in love.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

God Is In Our Mist (?)

Have you ever seen The Patriot?  It's that Mel Gibson movie about the Revolutionary War.  It's not exactly history (the genre is historical fiction...heavy on the fiction), and the plot of the movie reminds me just a little too much of Braveheart, but overall I'll admit I liked it.

At one point during the movie, Ben Martin (Mel Gibson) and his unit discover that the evil British guy has learned their identities and begun hunting down all their families.  He dismisses all of them to take care of their families and says that anyone who chooses not to return will not be considered a coward or uncommitted.  When the time is passed, he goes back to the Spanish mission in the swamp to see how many of them will return, and you can tell he's pretty sure the answer will be not many.

And then, through the mist (because Hollywood), you see a figure appear.  And then another.  Spoiler alert.  Everyone comes back.

Image result for the patriot spanish mission
It's a cool shot, though.
About this time of year I always feel a little bit like Ben Martin.  Back in May or June I dismissed most of the music ministry (including myself for a significant part of July).  And I'm nervous, because I've heard the siren song of the IHOP.  Throughout the year I almost forget how tempting it is to stay home or have a leisurely brunch on Sunday morning...and then I take a couple of weeks off and think to myself, "I could surely get used to this...why does anyone go to church anyway?"

So I send out notices that choirs are starting.  I put a note in the bulletin.  I send texts.  And then I wait.  For some reason the closer the start time gets, the more I worry that nobody will show up.  By about a quarter till the hour, I have convinced myself that this will be the year choir consists of me, my accompanist, and 14 crickets...if the crickets show up.
Image result for crickets
Ok, everyone.  Please open your hymnal to page 57...

Through the mist, a figure appears.  And then another.  Not everyone comes back, of course.  Some have graduated.  Some have moved.  Some won't have time anymore.  But most do come back.  The choir room fills with music once again, and laughter.

I am reminded why we don't sleep in on Sundays or take brunch at IHOP.  I'm reminded why we go to church.  Because when we come together in community we are reunited not just with friends but with the Divine, shining in and through us and those around us.  And God is in the mist--and in our midst, just as the scriptures promise.