Art Too Monday, Mar 26 2007 

When Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge set out to “cleanse” the Cambodian people in the 1970’s, their targets were very specific. Not only did they take aim at the crippled and lame, but the educators, the social elite and those who had close ties to the West as well. In addition, to make sure they would not only gain but also maintain control of millions of people’s bodies and minds, they targeted and killed all of the artists.

I remember watching in horror a few months before the attacks of 9/11 as two ancient Buddha sculptures, which had been chiseled into the sandstone cliff’s of Afghanistan in the 3rd and 5th centuries, were packed with dynamite and exploded into a million tiny pieces of rubble. I’ll admit I didn’t know much at the time about the horrors happening in Afghanistan, the Taliban was something I was familiar with only in passing. But as I saw those beautiful works of art and religion crumble to the ground, a wave of pain and sorrow overtook me and I knew we were all in trouble.

Art can be a very dangerous thing. Tyranny requires a silencing of opposition, and art has been used throughout history as a sometime subtle, sometimes bold form of resistance. Even when a people are kept ignorant and uneducated, unable to read or write, art has given them not only an outlet for dissention, but also a way of discovering the differing points of view of others.

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
John Keating

Any artist who tries something new, something different, who is honest and unguarded has my respect, whether I enjoy and appreciate the art form or not. Pushing the envelope, risking, is as much a part of the artistic expression to me as the end resulting art itself. Even when I find things distasteful, I generally respect an artist’s attempt at something new, as long as it’s done with complete honesty.

Does art have to inspire the entire world to be important or is effecting one person, one community enough? Great art does not have to alight a revolution of ideas but the potential for it should always remain and never be dismissed, especially by the artist himself. I have been witness to artists who dismiss their creations out of hand, as if they had done nothing more important than take out the trash. Thankfully dismissing the significance of ones own work does not dilute it of it’s potential.

“It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.” Anais Nin

Throughout the years I have rooted for artists to make a living at their art, but almost none of them do. Most must do some other form of it to survive. Producing artists they don’t necessarily believe in, writing music for television or film, working on commercials, all to be able to fund their true creative endeavors. I don’t slight them for doing what is necessary to earn a living, quite the opposite; I’m impressed with how hard they work for it. But when they cease to purely create at least on occasion because being creative doesn’t pay, they cease to be an artist. I have seen artist start down a capitalist road, taking work that will pay the bills so they can afford to continue their creative pursuits, only to eventually refuse to be freely creative in their artistic expressions because doing so might jeopardize the cash cow they have found at the tit of the record companies. It is sad to witness artistic brilliance quashed sacrificially by an artist, for fear of rocking the boat. The same boat that artist refused to ride in at the beginning of their journey, and that by all rationale should have been sunk years ago by it’s own acceptance of mediocrity.

So when I hear someone who wants others to believe that they are an “artist” ask “What is the incentive to create, I will not see a dime from it.” I begin to question everything they produce, where is the passion? Can true art be created dispassionately? If you cannot create for the sake of creating, but only when it has the potential to offer you a paycheck, then go become an accountant already, because I want to hear about your heart, not how big your mortgage payment is.

So why create without the guarantee of financial reward? Because it is your passion, if it is no longer a passion, you have no business doing it. Art and commerce are mixed together in a soup that cannot easily be separated. But an artist who puts commerce before art, is no longer an artist, at least in my opinion.

“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.”
Paul Gauguin

I have heard some artist claim that music is all the same, there has not been anything new in rock and roll in the last forty years so what’s the point. I’m trying to imagine My Chemical Romance or Powder performing on the Ed Sullivan Show, somehow I don’t think they would have made it past the 1950’s sensors.

Louder or offensive does not necessarily mean new, the music my nephew listens to does have it’s roots in blues, jazz and rock after all, but it certainly doesn’t sound like any of those to me, so I do consider it something new.

Seeing a band on stage that is free and passionate in what they do makes me love their music even when the style is something other than what I would normally be drawn to. Watching someone who is passionately free in their expression is liberating to my soul no matter what form that expression takes.

This summer I walked through the Chicago Institute of Art. I saw all of the “Great masters”. I stood and cried at the self-portrait of Van Gogh, yet felt no emotions in front of the Rembrandts. I appreciated their beauty but they did not speak to me. Dali’s “Birth of Monster’s” however disturbed me so much I felt sick to my stomach. I hated the subject matter; I hated what I was looking at. But I forced myself to study it for a few minutes until I got chills and had to leave. He had something to say to me. It may not have been something I was comfortable hearing, but it was passionately expressed – so I listened.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
John Keating.

For centuries art has been a catalyst for change, from Shakespearean plays, renaissance paintings, to counterculture poetry. Satirically poking fun at the king or calling for the overthrow of a tyrant has been tolerated through art when freedom of speech was not even a concept. Most of us have come to take for granted those freedoms, and it seems therefore we have stopped expecting artists to move beyond the pale.

So what of those still oppressed by tyrants, held in poverty, consumed by the ravages of ethnic cleansing? I wonder, given the tools of artistic expression what they might have to say. Is there a young Van Gogh, Mozart, or Yeats wandering amongst the refugee camps of Darfur? Is there someone there, who, if given a voice, the tools to express them selves might someday set their world on fire?

“ I don’t tell the other kids I am sick because they will bully me and torment me. I just wish I had some crayons and some books to write in.”
Noah age 8 – HIV positive – Africa

http://www.invisiblechildren.com

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Bar Stool or Church Pew Tuesday, Mar 20 2007 

“Do you feel more comfortable sitting on a bar stool or a church pew?” That’s a question I have asked numerous times over the last year while I’ve been interviewing musicians from several “Christian” bands. I thought I knew the answer for most of these boys, but I haven’t received the responses I expected. Some were honest, a few who said church pew, the ones who I expected to say bar stool either glossed over the issue or said they didn’t have an answer.

Honestly I have rarely felt uncomfortable in a bar, I wish I could say the same about churches. I don’t drink or smoke and I rarely dance in public, still, I can walk into almost any bar and feel completely accepted. Contrast that with the fact that I have actually been accosted at churches when I showed up not dressed “appropriately” or when I haven’t played by their rules of when you need to sit, stand or get up to use the restroom. A church I went to for years began filming the service for television broadcasts and suddenly there were rules about when you could get up to go pee! I left and have only been back once years later, by then the imposed structure of the service had become extreme. I was nursing an infant, who I brought into the sanctuary with me, the ushers were not happy. “He might start crying” they said. I was also saving seats, apparently a mortal sin. My nephew who attended this church, a somewhat mellow kid usually started panicking. “They’re about to start,” he said “they’re going to come and we’re going to get in trouble, you can’t save seats.” My heart was broken, he was terrified of these people, a child should never have a sense of fear going to church, I’m fairly sure it’s unscriptural.

Twenty years ago, at the end of the service, the pastor of this church would walk down the front steps of the stage and head directly to the back door where he would stand and talk to anyone who needed him. When I went back to visit all these years later, he was ushered to the pulpit, preached for thirty minutes or so, then was quickly ushered off the stage not to be seen or heard from again until the next week. I would not have been at all surprised to hear an announcement as the service was ending, “The pastor has left the building.”

Contrast this to the first time I visited my parent’s church, a medium sized community church in the mountains of Southern California, I guarantee you there are no visions here of a worldwide televangelism empire. During the worship I went to check on Cole, my youngest who was about three years old at the time. I heard him before I saw him. He was in the nursery kicking and screaming; furious that he had been left somewhere he was unfamiliar with. Seeing the teachers pleading look, I took him out, brought him to the lobby and began trying to calm him down. After a minute or two a middle aged man dressed in kakis and a Hawaiian shirt approached me and said, “It’s ok you can bring him in with you. I don’t mind kids making a little noise – they’re kids.”

As I walked into the sanctuary a few minutes later with Cole in tow, now sufficiently calmed down, I looked up to see the man from the lobby approaching the pulpit. This man who had graciously invited me to bring my screaming child into the sanctuary was the senior pastor. Quite a difference in attitude to say the least and given the choice, which church do you think I will return to?

“Suffer the little children, do not hinder them from coming to Me.” Matthew 19:4

SUFFER:
A verb – To put up with someone or something unpleasant.

A few months ago while on my way to my tiny store front church with a teenage friend, we drove past the “mega church” in our town. She jokingly said, “Hey, let’s go there instead. We could go shopping at their mall.” I have never once heard any of the tatted, pierced, smoke-covered teenagers I know, mention that church with a positive reference. One had gone there while homeless, and stood looking on, his stomach empty, as patrons excuse me – parishioners, filled up on Lattes and donuts at one of the TWO overpriced coffee bars. He doesn’t go to church anymore.

Another after getting saved at this church was told by a youth pastor there if she continued to dress the way she did she would end up pregnant by the time she was sixteen. It’s been a long time since I attended Health class but I remember it fairly well, I must have been absent the day they showed the “Clothing That Can Get You Pregnant” filmstrip. This girl never went back to that church and I wonder exactly what has been gained by berating and embarrassing her. Is she in more jeopardy now that she doesn’t go to church? But perhaps the question really should be, “In jeopardy of what?” Would it have been better for her to stay there, change her appearance and become as judgmental of others as this man was of her? Honestly I think it may be more prudent not to attend any church if the message your getting there is that you’re unacceptable to God simply because of the way you look.

I’m sure there are many wonderful people who attend this church, but it’s a sad commentary that all I have heard from those on the outside looking in are negative experiences. In fact the one time I set foot in the parking lot of this church on a Sunday morning I was accosted by two security guards before I could get anywhere near the buildings. To be honest I was not in anyway trying to attend the service, I was there, dressed in shorts and a tank-top hoping to find someone in the office on this Sunday morning who could answer a couple of questions I had about their bookstore. As I walked towards the office – which was closed by the way – two men approached from different directions and asked quite sternly, “What do you want?” Don’t be mistaken, I was not being offered help, I was being told, in a not so subtle tone that I was the wrong person in the wrong place. As I turned to leave, a little shaken and ticked off, I heard one of them ask the other, “Did you hear the alarm go off?” I picked up the pace walking back to my car. I was more than a little upset and angry as I drove away, not because I had not been given the help I needed and was treated rudely but because I could have been a woman who needed some real help. If I had been a someone searching for love and assistance from Christians I would not have found it there. What I found instead was condemnation which I can only assume was because of the way I was dressed. It saddens me and turns my stomach that there are people seeking God who will forever be turned away from Him because of the way they look, act or dress.

Are you uncomfortable sitting in church when the infant in front of you is crying, or that teenager next to you smells like smoke and is wearing a pentagram pendant over his “f*** you” t-shirt? If, in your discomfort, you welcome that person in without condemnation or judgment you are doing exactly what Christ requires.

I’ll admit I’m guilty of being judgmental myself. I tend to be more than a little uncomfortable in a church where all the men are wearing suits and ties and none of the women are wearing pants. It’s because of my history. Last year I went with my father to a church in New Mexico that has supported him for over 30 years, I wore very conservative clothes yet still was prepared to be judged for the way I looked. To my surprise after the service I found myself talking to the youth pastor, who was a little younger than myself, about alternative music, his tattoo and his Harley. I had prejudged the people of this church based on my past experiences of such churches – shame on me.

Everyone should be able to find a church they are comfortable in; I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is our insistence that every church and every person in them must look something like us.

I wonder if it’s just too simple for us? Have we become so arrogant that we think Christ might have actually missed some requirement for salvation that we have somehow stumbled upon? Or is it, that in our selfishness, in the protection of our comfort zone, the idea that we must be right is so much more important to us than someone else’s soul?

Jesus died and ripped the veil between the Holy of Holies and us. He gave us, for the first time since Adam, the freedom to walk “naked” before God in all of our filth, humanity and failings. But instead of rejoicing in that freedom, we –and I mean all Christians – seem to have in our complete arrogance, rewritten that law, one law at a time only it now mirrors our own prejudices. I do not understand why we insist on making it so complicated, when Christ made it so very simple.

My father tells me that when he was a youth leader at his church in the early sixties, the youth services were held on Friday nights. When he asked the Youth Pastor why and could this be changed, the kids wanted to go to the High School football games on Friday nights, the pastor said that was exactly the reasoning behind it. “What would happen if Jesus returned and you were at a football game,” he asked. “How could He possibly find you amongst all those sinners?” I’m happy to say this man has changed significantly over the years but the underlying problem remains, we’ve only shrouded it better. I hate religion, because all religion is, is a means by which we can take Gods words and twist them in such a way that Christians feel holy and justified by separating ourselves from the world. Yes Jesus spent time in the temple but that was not where he lived.

I’m fairly confident that when Christ returns He’s going to go to the streets, filled with the lost and needy looking for His church. I think He’ll be more than a little disappointed to find most of us not there, but sitting in our air-conditioned sanctuaries sipping Lattes and lamenting the sinful state of the world.

“To the Moon”
By Sarah Groves

It was there in the bulletin
We’re leaving soon
After the bake sale to raise funds for fuel
The rocket is ready and we’re going to
Take our church to the moon

There’ll be no one there to tell us we’re odd
No one to change our opinions of God
Just lots of rocks and this dusty sod
Here at our church on the moon

We know our liberties we know our rights
We know how to fight a very good fight
Just get that last bag there and turn out the light
We’re taking our church to the moon
We’re taking our church to the moon
We’ll be leaving soon

Last week my father, who has been a missionary for over 30 years, stopped by a church he happened to be driving by to see if he could speak to the pastor there. He wasn’t dressed in a suit, but jeans and a t-shirt. He walked around for a while looking for someone to talk to and finally found the church offices. Walking down the hall still looking for someone to help, he was approached by a man in his early thirties who asked what he needed. The question was not posed as an offer of help, but rather a not so veiled accusation questioning his motives for being there. My father asked to speak to the pastor at which point he began to be interrogated by this man, who still had not introduced himself. After refusing to tell him whether or not the pastor was there, this man, who turned out to be an assistant pastor at the church, said to my father, a man he did not know but who was simply standing in his church asking for help, “Well I don’t know you do I? ”

“I don’t know you.” I don’t know you? Does that sound at all familiar? It should for those of us who are familiar with the Bible, it sounds an awful lot like Mathew 7:23.

21 Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’

23 And then I will declare to them, ’I NEVER KNEW YOU; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’

One friend I was interviewing when asked the question, “Bar stool or church pew” gave the most thought provoking and honest answer I’ve received thus far. He said, “I’m equally comfortable in both. In fact they’re very similar, there are a lot hurting people in both places.”

So ask yourself where do YOU feel more comfortable and if you have the courage, go and ask your neighbor. But don’t be surprised it they say they feel more comfortable sitting in the bar on the corner, then in the church down the street.

So then, what to do? We could start serving beer at church I guess, one church I attend does on occasion tap the keg after worship, especially when we have visitors from England. But better yet, perhaps we Christians should go to the bar on the corner with our neighbors, buy them a beer and watch the game. I could be wrong but I think that’s precisely where Christ is expecting to find us.

“ I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.”
John 17:15-18

Amazing Grace Tuesday, Mar 13 2007 

This is my favorite song in the world. I have always loved it, I think initially because grace is described as a sound, something physical. I like the idea that God’s grace is so powerful that it can be experienced as a “sweet sound.” I grew to love this song even more when I learned the story of it’s writer. I have heard recently some people say that they were saddened when seeing the movie to find out that John Newton, the lyricist of Amazing Grace, remained for years afterwards the captain of a slave ship.

How truly amazing that we are the recipients of Gods complete, unwavering, and continual grace, despite the fact that we remain in our sin. The same sin that has led us here to rock bottom, to this last ditch sinking of our souls, to a place where we have nothing to cry out for but Gods grace.

THAT is precisely the point. That WE are not required to be perfected at the moment of receiving grace, but that Gods grace is sufficient to cover us while we remain, as humans always will, in sin. I think that is why this song moves me so. I know the story of it’s writer, how while still on a ship full of slaves, while still caught in sin, causing such suffering and agony not only to the very being of so many others, but also to his own spirit, while still there he caught a glimpse of grace, perhaps had an epiphony like many of us have – fleeting, yet life changing. That it is not a requirement for us to become perfected or even palatable for God to bestow on us His forgiveness is the definition of grace.

If we can live with that truth in front of our eyes continually, we surely would be less judgmental not only of others but of ourselves as well. I have often disregaurded a leading from God to do something He put in front of me because I saw it as something that required one more holy, more worthy than myself. How many of those things He asked of me never got done because I believed the lies that Satan told me instead of believing in Gods Grace? The lies that I was not worthy, not capable, not deserving of that grace. God is gracious and we need to accept it readily because only then will we actually realize that there is no human being capable of doing Gods work, but God is doing it ALL through us. We are only a vessel and He is miraculous and gracious in His willingness to use such flawed and ugly hands.

Read the lyrics carefully. John Newton is not saying in those lyrics that he was a wretch, he is saying that he is a wretch. He WAS lost – now found, but still a wretch. That, I believe is why this song moves me so, because I understand his amazement. I am a wretch who has been granted grace, and it is amazing.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
We have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far
And Grace will lead us home.

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be 
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this heart and flesh shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me. 
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.