Blogs (Faith), Life, Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

Music is “Creation” Too

A photo of the tree on Sunday :)

This last Sunday I was commissioned to lead the music and singing for Cornerstone Church South Side and I arrived somewhat early – which was all fair and well for me as it gave me some time to reflect and enjoy the wonderful Autumn morning. I sat by a tree (pictured above) and enjoyed its yellow-orange leaves shower over me, while the sun warmed me up and the chirping of the many birds all around were my soundtrack.

This is the kind of guy I am. I love nature. Creation. Sunrises and falling leaves and blossoms and mysterious, starlit evenings. It’s moments like this when my heart lights up in gratitude and worship. When my restless body finally gets what it needs to settle down – beautiful views, sounds and smells. When my voice shuts up and a greater voice speaks.

I thought to myself, “Now, if only I could bring this creation – all this beauty – into our morning worship.”

Then it hit me. Well, music is also a part of God’s own creation! I’m doing just that!

It seems to me that I’m often distracted by the sheer business of music. Most of my music ‘career’ has been about cool bands and cool hair. Thankfully I grew out of that several years ago. But even still, getting the music right for a Sunday morning; choosing the right songs; working on the dynamics of those songs; keeping up with trends; making sure I get all the cues right… all this business of music makes me forget the beauty of music in itself, its very nature, the fact that God created this stuff. I didn’t invent this. Playing music is, indeed, God-glorifying – it works toward this end just like all of creation works toward this end.

As the heavens tell of the glory of God (Psalm 19:1) so music tells of the glory of God. That’s if we’d let it. If we would get the business of it out of the way – the preferences of style, taste, and skill.

I do believe that sometimes we rely too much on music in church to make ‘things happen’ (whatever that may mean). I do believe that the lyrical content of much of our modern church music is pretty lame and sometimes even damaging to people’s relationship with God. But I have to admit, when sounds and notes go together, the very nature of that… the very nature of music… tells the glory of God. And that makes music joyful for me again, because when eternity comes, we’re really not going to care at all about the business of music. And that’s why we fill our church meeting places with these notes and the sounds of voices that echo the many facets and many stories of a relationship with the same person, Jesus Christ.

Blogs (Faith), Life, Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

When Your Job Sucks: The Doctrine of Vocation pt 2 – No Day is a Waste

In the first part of this series I introduced the Doctrine of Vocation – the Reformed Christian doctrine that basically says that God actually cares about the work you do during the day. I need to expound what the heck this means so that it’s clear why I find it so liberating.

In the “Lord’s Prayer” Jesus says we should ask God to “give us our daily bread”. But how does he answer this prayer? Does bread fall from heaven? Usually, no. What we usually mean is that God would give us a salary so that we can afford the bread. What we usually miss is the larger and ordinary means that the bread comes to us – through the work of wheat farmers and cow milkers and bakers and truck drivers and retailers and cashiers and probably others. Our daily bread comes through jobs – those people working to bring the bread to us are serving us, their neighbour.

What did Jesus say were the two greatest commandments? He said we are to love God and love our neighbour (Luke 10:27). The work we do every day is us loving our neighbour. It really is. That’s why the work is important – God sees it as part of the ‘good works’ he encourages us to do.

The idea of loving our neighbour has become very abstract these days. We often think it entails doing charitable things – giving a poor person some food, being nice to those at the office, or standing up for justice. All that is true, of course, and encouraged. But how many of us think the physical day to day work we do, regardless of how menial it is, is actually an act of loving our neighbour?

The Reformers called this our “vocation”. Vocation means “calling” but it’s a better word, I think, because it doesn’t come with the baggage that modern charismatic extremes have pinned onto the word ‘calling’ – God zapping some world-changing idea into our heads, telling us how we are going to do ‘big things for God’ and be ‘God’s man / woman of the hour’ and all those cliche phrases the televangelists like to use to pump us up. That idea, however, is exactly like the old Monastic idea where the only work God sees as important is work done in the Church because it means ordinary work isn’t big enough for God.

So we look for our ‘calling’ in the Church. What is it I can do? For some reason, we feel that serving tea on a Sunday morning at church is more important to God than serving tea at the office during the week; or serving tea at home to our family. We couldn’t be further off the mark. God sees them equally and is just as pleased with all of them.

The Doctrine of Vocation affirms something that I’ve found to become more and more important – how God works in ordinary ways. His means of answering our prayers usually comes through people’s vocations. Sick? Well, he might heal you supernaturally, but the doctor has been called by God as his means to make us well. In need of some inspiration or entertainment? Lo and behold, God has actually called the artist, musician, actor, director, video game designer or sportsman to serve you in that. Every job is a calling from God, besides the obvious ones like drug dealing and sex working.

Suddenly menial work is just as grand and important as the pastor who is ‘saving them by the millions’. God calls some to be evangelists, some to be teachers, some to be pastors, some to be video game designers.

Vocations don’t need to last forever they can often be seasonal things. We also have a number of vocations – serving our family is a vocation from God. We can get into finding our vocations in another post. For now, the point is that all work is seen by God as ‘good works’. See Eph 6: 5 – 7 in this light and things change.

This has been liberating for me for this reason: all throughout most of my twenties I did a job I hated. For eight years I did regular two-o’clock-in-the-morning stints, found myself constantly frustrated, and pretty much hated life. It was an endless slog that sent me into deep despair. Day after day I saw myself sinking into this deep dark pit of meaninglessness. Life felt utterly meaningless. I mean, it sucked. I tried to console myself through my music and my work at my church, but it all just wasn’t fitting.

At last, about five years ago, I grabbed at a chance to get out – I took a voluntary retrenchment and started freelancing as a writer. That, too, over the years has brought its own frustrations – especially the frustration of not being where I want to be yet. I want to be writing books, not writing articles all day. And that dream is nowhere near coming to pass.

Here’s the thing: I always looked back at those years as wasted years. I felt my job meant nothing to me or to others or even to God. I felt I had no impact on anyone’s life and did a botched up job not only in the work environment (ultimately, everything I worked at failed) but also never did anything I thought God would be interested in (no one got saved, no one cared). But, looking at it through this new lens, not one day was a waste. God saw all the hard work for the company as good works. God is not just interested when we help old grannies cross the road. He sees it all as good works. And he rewards good works.

His rewarding I’ll need to expound on in a further post as this one’s getting a bit long. For now, though, you can see why the Doctrine of Vocation had such an impact when the Reformers saw it. None of our work done is in vain. In fact, the idle rich are the ones who, despite living the ‘good life’, are going to be in trouble sooner or later. Jesus said that many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Matt 19:30). The guy who collects the rubbish, who works harder than the rich man who lives off an inheritance, will collect a far larger reward either in this life or the life to come. The rubbish collector doesn’t need to have a zillion people ‘come to Christ’ or stop slavery or create some new technology for God to count his work as good. He may die in obscurity to us, but never to God.

Suddenly, everything carries meaning as everything is counted as love towards my neighbour. That’s liberating. Motivating. And inspiring.

Blogs (Faith), Life, Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

When Your Job Sucks: The Doctrine of Vocation, Pt 1

(Read part two of this series here.)

For many (or most) of us, Sunday nights are often dampened by a feeling of dread, more or less. Tomorrow is Monday and it’s back to the grind. We feel that our work carries very little meaning and that everything actually requires work – even raising a family is work. It’s work, work, work all the way.

Is this sheer negativity? Or honesty? Well, perhaps a little bit of both. All of us are somewhere on the job satisfaction scale. But I think it’s true that we all do seem to look for some kind of meaning in our work – we want to know that what we do matters. We want our work to have impact in some positive way, but for most of us we feel that it’s either only the rich, company owners, presidents, CEO’s or pastors that seem like they can have any real impact.

The trouble here is that all five of those people get those jobs and – if they’ve managed to keep themselves from being influenced by corruption – find they are just as frustrated as the next person. Presidents can’t do whatever they want, they have layers of politics to sort out first. Business owners have to answer to shareholders. CEO’s have to walk a thin line to keep themselves from being fired. Pastors are frustrated with a lack of finances or may find that most of their job is just tied up in administrative work.

Most days are filled with menial tasks, regardless of your kind of job. Regardless of the PR surrounding people like Steve Jobs, I’m not convinced that he was always 100 percent happy with his impact.

In comes the Doctrine of Vocation, Reformed Christianity’s solution to the problem of work. It’s this doctrine that helped shape a prosperous Europe. The American Puritans were influenced heavily by this doctrine, forming their own out of it (the Puritan work ethic) that helped shape what America is today. Of course, in both cases secularisation has come in and tainted the original thinking – a focus on individual gifting in the doctrine is warped by secularised culture where the individual is the centre of the universe. A focus on hard work has led to abuse by secularised culture. And so it goes on.

But the doctrine is incredibly important yet extremely neglected in our modern day churches. Gene Edward Veith, a college dean, believes that the Doctrine of Vocation is second to the doctrine of ‘faith alone’. This is the doctrine that allows Christians to impact the world regardless of what they do.

Martin Luther is a forerunner in the forming of this doctrine. Back in Catholic / Monastic Europe, the only ‘holy office’ that God approved of (ie. the only work God saw as holy and important) was the work of the clergy. In many instances, ‘good works’ were relegated to prayer and spiritual disciplines rather than, well, feeding the hungry or doing a good job. This is because farmers and milkmaids and whatever else were not seen to be doing anything that God actually cared about. The Doctrine of Vocation put that thought right and set people free to approach their work with vigour, joy, and a great deal of meaning. Regardless of what they did. Because even the most menial jobs actually carry meaning.

The unfortunate neglect of this doctrine, particularly in evangelicalism, has led to a kind-of return to the old Catholic Monastic teaching above. Many Christians have no idea how their daily work can have any impact – they’re not content with their work – so they think the only impact they do have that’s meaningful is what they do in church – their contribution to the programs and activities of their church. Not that their contributions are not important or should end, but when life is only ever about our ‘ministry’ then we feel it’s only ‘ministry’ that has impact, rather than the ordinary, every day work that most of us do.

I’m on a journey of discovery here as I study this doctrine. I’ll be putting more posts up as I go. I’m currently working through Veith’s book called God at Work (link to the Kindle version below) and am convinced he is right – this doctrine needs a much more central space in our church life and teaching. Join me as a I post my findings and thoughts on this line of thought, which I have already found quite liberating, in the next couple of weeks.

Read part two of this series here.

Life, Life-Ecstatic (Faith), Worldview & Culture

Kurt Cobain and Jesus

Kurt Cobain from Nirvana

Kurt Cobain (centre) with Nirvana band members Krist Novoselic (left) and Dave Grohl (right) in a fabulously 90's-styled photograph

Last week was the 20th anniversary of Nirvana‘s Nevermind album, an album (and a time) that had a profound effect on my generation and culture – a middle-class Generation Xer who was just entering high school when the whole ‘grunge’ music scene broke in America. This little write-up is my way of commemorating the album.

I watched a documentary on the making of the Nevermind album with my dad on Saturday and walked away with a buzz of thoughts in my head. The question of what made Kurt Cobain (the lead singer of Nirvana) so influential and moving was on the mind. I then delved on the thought of how people called Cobain ‘messianic’ in a way and began to wonder about this phrase and think of how Jesus and Cobain could possibly be similar.

The crunch is an interesting one. The thing about Cobain is that he was aregular guy getting on with the struggles common to his generation and he sang about these. That was the instant connection many had with him. In a world that was, prior to the grunge revolution, dominated by glam, fashion, corporate perfectionism, Christian religious conservatism, and a myriad of other voices telling us how to live, act, and be; a lone voice singing about how things really were and how we really felt – alienated, different, misunderstood – was a welcome change. Even though many times no one really understood what he was singing about (he would regularly say that people got it wrong) there was some understanding that he was singing about something you knew all too well.

Cobain’s struggles and the struggles of my generation, in retrospect, were actually not that unique. Many people trumped the whole thing up to teen angst, but the reality is those feelings of alienation and frustration with this world are not unique to teens. As adults we might have learned to handle those things in various areas in various ways, or we might have just given up and gone with it, or learned to hide our feelings better etc. but the simple truth is that most common people, like me (and probably you reading this) are still, quite truly, powerless in this world and frustrated with its voices and the pressure it puts on us to be what it wants us to be.

Cobain might have been a kind of messianic figure in that he resonated with the common person (and this is an interesting point which I’ll delve into below) but the problem is that I think he both didn’t really know his enemies – he was almost boxing the air, rebelling against a system but not knowing exactly how to do that – and he provided no actual salvation out of the situation.

Now we look at Jesus and we see some connections here. Jesus was also a revolutionary, a rebel, but he wasn’t boxing the air. He knew who the enemies of mankind actually were, and these are precisely the things he rebelled against.

When you look at Cobain’s music you see these enemies pop up but he doesn’t know how to deal with them and in many ways he actually just accepts that he’ll need to live with some of his demons – indeed, just do what those demons tell him to do. I’m using the word ‘demons’ first metaphorically but I’m going to come at it a different angle later.

One of the three enemies we see Jesus rebel against is the system of the world. And this is precisely where, I think, many Christians have misunderstood and have actually lost their ability to be relevant. Cobain was relevant because he rebelled against an oppressive society (that’s what the Bible refers to when it talks about ‘the world’). Jesus was relevant because he did as well.

In the society of Jesus there was the religious society which hated him, because he rebelled against their oppression. Religious society was intrinsically linked to politics and Jesus rebelled against this whole idea as well. Now, in our days, we see this all too often (especially in America) – religious ideas are tied into political ideas and vice versa. The result is an oppressive system that tells you how you ought to look, what you should eat, how you should talk, what kind of music you should listen to, who you should vote for, what you should vote for, and so on. It tries to control every area of your life – your private and your public – and sets itself up to be God.

God is very interested in every area of our lives but not in the same way. The life of Jesus shows how God is interested – he wants to bring healing, restoration, joy and life into every area of our lives. Rather than tell us what to wear, he wants us to be ourselves. Jesus is not that concerned over who you vote for, but there is a reality that the Kingdom of God is about seeing society transformed from an oppressive society to a free society. A society where my freedoms actually don’t encroach on yours, either. (This requires more explanation and I don’t have the space.)

Jesus also understood the powerlessness of the ordinary man, mainly because he lived like an ordinary person. He wasn’t even some rich king who give up his goods to live amongst the ‘common people’ but was a common person from birth – the son of a carpenter, living in dusty desert towns.

In those days, much like these, if you didn’t have a lot of money, weren’t of noble background, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time you were powerless. Consider today, how common people like you and I are powerless in the face of corporations, governments, banks, and even religious institutions. Cobain often sang of this powerlessness as a young man starts realising that, quite honestly, all the dreams of his childhood are crushed by real living. It’s not because real life sucks, it’s because the system of the world sucks life out of you, oppresses you, ensures you’re powerless and that all the money and power goes into the hands of the elite which we must serve with our hearts and lives.

I realise this might be a melodramatic picture but it’s not too far away from my reality as a middle-class white guy living in South Africa. If I’m not careful the banks, as an example, will own me for the rest of my life. If I don’t know how to discern religion from what the Bible calls ‘true’ religion, I will be driven by a religious organisation that wants to control my life. If I don’t know how to separate my political opinions correctly, politics will dictate to me for the rest of my life. If I don’t keep my wits about me, corporations will tell me what to buy and why I’m not a success if I don’t buy their car, product etc. and consumerism will start consuming me. The system of the world oppresses us on every corner.

If Christians, like me, want to be relevant we better know how to relate to the common person. In many ways, I think God doesn’t take us out of tough situations sometimes so that we know how to relate to the common person. If I didn’t experience the oppression of the world in my own life in some way, then I would never understand just how the world oppresses the common person and I would be irrelevant to the common person. Rebels are relevant because they’re really the common person who understands the common struggle. Jesus is relevant today because he not only knew the struggle, he experienced it himself – eventually experiencing the ultimate injustice as the systems of the world put him onto a cross when he was the least deserving of such a death.

There are two other enemies which haunted Cobain and which Jesus understood and looked to defeat through his life, death and (yes) resurrection. These other two are sin and Satan. These two are difficult for people who hold different beliefs to me to really take seriously (indeed, sometimes I struggle to as well because of our culture) but they’re worth bringing up.

We see Cobain struggles with his own sins regularly – it seems to me they troubled him and he was frustrated because the world and not even religious institutions had any grace. This is true – there is no grace in the world system. If you’re not on the top of the game (and even if you are) you are vulnerable and, if you make one mistake, you can pay with it for the rest of your life (think of debt and so on). Religious systems are the same in their own way. It’s unfortunate that, from a spiritual perspective, Cobain turned towards more religion (Buddhism) as an answer. Buddhism doesn’t really have any grace but, as far as I’m concerned, ties you into an oppressive system of karma that insists you will pay, if not in this life, in the next for everything you’ve done wrong and the only way of changing that is to do right. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to indicate just how much you need to do right before you’ve satisfied Karma – and besides, even sometimes we do the right thing and people still get hurt.

Jesus attacked the enemy of sin and how our sins haunt us through grace. That’s what his death is all about – he paid the price of sin so that we don’t need to. God has come to heal, not condemn. He gives us His spirit if we trust in Him so we can change and sin can rule over us less and less (sometimes even instantly with certain sins) but we now sit under a system of grace, not oppression, of acceptance not performance. Again, this can be explored in many books but I think the basic point here is made clear.

The last one, Satan – the spiritual evil of this world that tempts, deceives, and so on. People believe that they’re doing the right thing by oppressing others because they’re deceived into thinking that. People think their sins can save them because they’ve been deceived into thinking so.

I don’t believe there’s a little red man sitting on our shoulders telling us what to do, but I do believe that demonic oppression is very real and we see Jesus dealt with that thing over and again in people’s lives and, ultimately, by defeating Satan on the cross and being raised up to life on the third day. Satan’s deception into bringing us all into sin has brought death into this world. Jesus conquered death and promises all those who believe in Him that they will too.

The reality is while there isn’t a little red man sitting on our shoulder there is certainly a world system that truly looks like it’s influenced by some sort of spiritual evil. You don’t look at the Nazi ideology and think that humans came up with it all themselves. There’s always this underlying Madness, this strange Insanity, a dark spiritual evil that looks to influence in various ways.

I realise this may come across to some as superstitious but it requires some thought and also a clearing away of cartoonic ideas of a man with a forked tail and a pitchfork. Jesus knew that his enemy was not people but the spiritual evil influencing those people and that’s precisely what he targeted. Cobain, unfortunately, fell into the trappings of such spiritual evils and as a result couldn’t love himself, with the end result seeing him dead on the 8th of April 1994. (And, then, unfortunately pop and rubbish music went back to being the mainstream. Man, I miss those days in music!)

Jesus has defeated this spiritual evil and will one day bring His final justice on it by throwing Satan and his demons into the place reserved for them (not reserved for humans) – the lake of fire. I’m not keen to get into a discussion about hell here but if you struggle with God as a judge, read the Gospels and see that Jesus’ heart is not to judge mankind but to judge Satan and his demons, sin and the oppressive systems of this world. (Unfortunately, though, some humans have decided that Satan, the world and sin are all pretty good ideas, and they will be judged appropriately.)

Cobain was a legend in his own way and it’s a huge pity that his life was ended by the very enemies he tried to rebel against, but this is the way it goes when you don’t fight with the right weapons. I don’t believe we can rebel against the unholy trinity of the world, sin and Satan without the power of God – which God gives us through his Holy Spirit when we decide to put our trust in Him and not in ourselves or the unholy trinity. Cobain is an example of how we are unable to save ourselves.

I don’t mean to set up the sad death of someone as some sort of moral example, trivialising the sadness of his death, but in a way it is also honouring to him (I believe) to learn from his life.

Nirvana were never a technically good band in terms of music but I have to say that I miss that whole time of music when the scene wasn’t dominated by fashion and glam and image and, frankly, stupidity like we have to be subjected to today with Lady Gaga and the like. The record industry did, admittedly, make a fashion out of non-fashion (as true Capitalists would) and make a trend out of rebellion against the trends, but heck it was still a lot more real than Lady Gaga who thinks that being bisexual makes you relevant. I don’t think it does. (Yes, I know Cobain once said he might be bisexual too, but anyway.) It just means you’re a part of this oppressive system that hates us. It doesn’t make you a rebel it makes you a conformer.

I, for one, refuse to conform to any of it. That’s why I follow Jesus.