I’m So Very Hungry

I was ready to be home. I’d been in my office all morning and afternoon and I followed that with a long band practice that night. As I left the church, I debated making my customary stop at the nearby RaceTrac to take advantage of my free Sodapalooza refill. I decided to splurge and get a Dr. Pepper. As I walked out of the gas station indulging in my favorite soda, I caught sight of a disheveled man looking at the ATM. He was just standing there looking at it…no attempt to grab a wallet or reach into his pockets.

He noticed that I had noticed him and began patting the outsides of his pants and jacket as if he was searching for something. I immediately recognized it for the act that it was. I walked past him toward my car when I heard him speak up from behind me.

“Excuse me, sir.”

I stopped.

“Excuse me.”

I turned around. He stumbled over his words as he began informing me he had forgotten his wallet at his house down the street. He spoke of his embarrassment. I mentally prepared myself to inform him that I didn’t carry cash.

“Sir, I’m so very hungry. I haven’t been able to find any food today. Would you mind if I asked you to buy me a sandwich?”

I was pretty shocked. I have a standing rule that I don’t give cash to strangers approaching me in parking lots. Both because I have no idea what their real intent is for the cash and also because it is genuinely a rare occurrence that I carry cash. I typically offer to purchase them some food, something to drink, put gas in their car…help them in the way they say they need help. Sometimes, people accept. Sometimes, people decline. Sometimes, people get angry. This was the first time someone had just asked me for food.

His eyes were sunken. He look tired and hungry. I couldn’t tell if he was as old as he looked or if a rough life had just taken its toll on his physical body. I asked him his name.

“George, sir.”

I laughed a little on the inside at his insistence on calling me, someone so very much younger, “sir”.

I took George inside. We stopped at the sandwiches in the cooler and I told him to pick one. He asked which one he could have and I told him whichever one he wanted. He looked for a second before settling on a simple ham and cheese on wheat.

“George, I don’t know about you but I don’t like sandwiches without chips. Why don’t you pick out a bag?”

He looked surprised but didn’t hesitate to seize the opportunity. He talked about his love of BBQ chips as he grabbed a bag.

“You’re going to need to wash that down with something. Let’s grab you a drink.”

We walked over to the fountain drinks and I grabbed the biggest cup they had. “What’s your favorite?”

He looked at me and hesitantly responded, “Coke, no ice please, sir.” I filled his cup up and we walked to the counter.

“What’s your favorite candy bar?”

He stood for a moment staring at me like I was about to drop everything and walk out on him. He didn’t respond.

“Do you have a favorite candy bar? I can recommend a couple if you don’t.”

“It’s been an awful long time since I had a candy bar. I do like a Hershey Bar.”

I walked over to grab a Hershey bar.

“With almonds.”

I grabbed the Hershey bar and put it on the counter with everything else we had accumulated. I paid the cashier and asked her for a pen and a slip of paper. I wrote my name and number on the paper, handed it to George, and told him about the church right up the road that had breakfast on Sunday mornings and dinner on Wednesday nights. I told him to call me if he was hungry or if he needed a ride. He promised he would as he thanked me.

I didn’t buy that food for George because I’m a Christian. I didn’t buy that food for George because I consider myself to be morally superior. I didn’t buy that food because of any inherent “goodness” I have. I bought that food for George because he was a human being who approached me broken and hungry.

I didn’t ask George his thoughts on gay marriage. I didn’t ask George what his opinions were concerning the Confederate flag. I didn’t ask him how he intended to pay me back. I didn’t ask him his thoughts on the welfare system. I didn’t ask him when was the last time he held a job. I didn’t ask him if he was or ever was on drugs, when was the last time he possibly used drugs, or if he planned to use them in the future. I didn’t ask him who he voted for or if he could vote at all based on any criminal record. I didn’t ask him about any of his political or religious views. He didn’t seem concerned with mine either.

You see, while we were arguing about who has the right to marry who or which flag should be flown where…while we argued about whether or not a baker should be forced to make a cake for a wedding they don’t support, George wasn’t eating. I’m sure George would have eaten any cake he was offered.

I would give up my right to marry if it meant George didn’t have to go hungry again. I would stop flying any flag if it meant that everyone would not have to experience the deep pain of malnourishment. I have a feeling there are a lot of people who wouldn’t. The sense of selfish entitlement in this country, both amongst liberals and conservatives alike, is deeply embarrassing. It’s shameful.

Conservative Christians, you keep arguing that a man shouldn’t be allowed to marry another man. LGBTQ people, you keep suing those bakers who won’t bake you a cake. Northern liberals, you keep trying to outlaw a flag and southern conservatives, you keep daring to defend your right to fly it.

You do you. I’m going to go buy George a sandwich.

Music Monday 04.27.15

“Simplicity” Rend Collective

I recently wrote about the church’s habit of containing worship to a certain style. There is a well known struggle between traditionalists and modernists as to what is the appropriate kind of worship to use in services. I am very vocal about my middle-ground stance. I try to pull both ends of the spectrum to a place where we can appreciate the idea that worship isn’t about us, its about our desire (and responsibility) to glorify God with our talents. That brings me to this week’s Music Monday song.

I’ve used Rend Collective in this series before. They’re a great band who combines excellent music with a great depth of theologically complex and challenging subject matter. One of the lines from their song Simplicity actually serves as the namesake for this entire blog. I’ve written about the song before (not in this series) and it’s humble plea to be overtaken by Christ. It’s a plea from the singer that they would be stripped completely of themselves until the only thing left inhabiting their spirit is Christ.

Lord strip it all away, ’til only You remain

The song encapsulates everything I think worship should be. We need to step back from our pride, strip ourselves bare of ambition and insecurities, and lift up a broken song to the only One worthy of our worship. Our first and foremost love.

 

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Music Monday, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

(Insert Name Here)

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

Ernest Hemingway

I’ve never been exceptionally talented at any one thing. I have attained many average or “slightly above average” skills. Because of this average “jack-of-all-trades” life that I’ve led, I have oftentimes found myself in an almost constant state of comparing myself to others.  I was a decent baseball player but not on the same athletic level as my older brother. I was a pretty good public speaker but didn’t size up to my youth pastor’s ability to draw in his audiences. I am a good musician but can’t even begin to list the countless people I’ve met who are far more talented and hard-working than myself.

I admired these people for what they were able to do and what they were able to accomplish in their field of expertise. I admired them and I compared myself to them. I compared myself to them and I put myself down in my own mind for my inability to live up to them. In turn, I would find people less talented or less intelligent than myself and feed my own ego off their “inferiority”. I would tell myself that I might not be as good as (insert name here) but at least I’m better than (insert name here). I caught myself in this trap of feeling insufficient through comparison while also needing to gain self satisfaction through further comparison.

We live in a world of constant comparison. Competition is not only encouraged, it’s expected. Survival of the fittest is ingrained at an early age. Work harder, move faster, study more…be better. The error is when we step back and realize whom we are supposed to be better than. We’re told to be competitive with those around us which is not totally wrong, healthy competition is good, but are we really improving our lives by holding our heads higher from having defeated someone else? Isn’t true improvement, the truest “betterment” in character attained when we can look in the mirror and say, “Today, I am better than I was yesterday.”

I’m a remarkably competitive person and I won’t lie and say I have this completely figured out. Comparison and competitiveness is something with which I struggle on a daily basis. I have, however, come to a point in my life where most days, I can shut out the rest of the world, stop worrying about others achievements, look in the mirror, and know how I size up to the man I was the day before. Some days the man I see is better and some days, that man falls short. On the days where I have fallen short, I pick myself up and find ways to be better the next day. On the days where the man I see is better, I find ways to be even better the next. On this day and every day after, don’t concern yourself with being better than (insert name here). Concern yourself with simply being better than (insert your name here).

Music Monday 03.02.15

“My Lighthouse” Rend Collective

There’s something special to me about the imagery of God as a lighthouse. I’ve had my share of shortcomings, grief, and dark times throughout my life but my faith in God has always been very important to me. He has yet to fail me.

This song, by one of my favorite worship bands, perfectly encapsulates that idea. No matter where we are, no what we are experiencing, no matter who is involved, there is a “lighthouse” that will lead us safely to shore. He doesn’t give up on us and He doesn’t fail. It might not always be the way we hope or imagine but it will always be what is best for us according to His glory.

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify featuring all the songs from Music Monday, feel free to follow it along with the posts.

My Ecumenical Christmas

Yes, I know it’s January 27 and I’m posting about Christmas. I started writing this a while ago and had planned to finish it the week after Christmas. When that didn’t happen, I thought I’d just not write it but I just couldn’t make myself trash it. So here it is, one month and two days after Christmas.

Last year, as Christmas approached, I found myself without Christmas Eve plans for the first time in my life. Growing up, we always had a “big-family” Christmas party with the entire side of my dad’s family. It was always one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. As my siblings, my cousins, and I all got older, got married and had kids (myself not included on the kids), the party started becoming harder and harder to organize until it finally stopped.

It was during the same time (my college years) that I started working for churches as a paid musician so my plans switched from family Christmas parties to singing in Christmas Eve services. I enjoy church so it wasn’t anything I dreaded, actually I enjoyed it quite a bit. After college I started working my first “real” job in ministry at Christ UMC in Plano, TX. CUMC is a large church, large enough to warrant having seven services on Christmas Eve. So for the last three years, I spent my afternoon and late evening performing various tasks and participating in the services. I would also always take out a little time to attend a Christmas Eve party with some dear friends, a party that became very special to me.

This year however, I found myself with no plans. No Christmas Eve parties, no responsibilities to fulfill at the churches for which I now work, nothing at all. At first I didn’t know what to do. Then one day the week before Christmas, as I was looking at some old photos, I came across some pictures from a church performance during my old youth choir’s tour to Chicago. We sang at a predominantly African American inner-city church on the west side of Chicago and the atmosphere was electric. I remember thinking how awesome it was to watch two groups of people with very different socio-economic, political, and theological backgrounds come together to worship. That’s when I decided to have my ecumenical Christmas.

I decided to visit 4 churches around Birmingham representing a wide range of the theological and political spectrum. The night of Christmas Eve, I set out with my step-sister to visit Mountaintop Community Church (Non-denominational), Bluff Park United Methodist Church, Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, and Cathedral Church of the Advent (Episcopal). My goal was to experience various styles of worship…to gain an understanding of how different people choose to celebrate Christ’s birth. I thought it would be a nice evening filled with pleasantries associated with my favorite holiday. What I got was a renewed spirit.

There was something so sincere about each place I visited. Each church worshipped in different ways…some used guitars, some used organs, some used projection screens, some used hymnals, all had sermons and all had candles. What I found was that even though they chose different styles with which to worship, it all came down to the same thing: thankfulness for a God who chose to take on human flesh, bear our sins, and save each of us.

So much of the church’s energy is spent arguing things like who God loves or doesn’t love, how to get to heaven, how to avoid hell, what is a sin and what is morally appropriate, do we choose God or does He choose us, is it wrong that I used “He” to refer to God…the list goes on and on. But this one night I visited 4 very different churches and left each one feeling a renewed spirit about how the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present Creator of all things and time itself took on human flesh for each person I worshipped with that evening. He took on human flesh for each person worshipping around the world that evening. And He took on human flesh for each person NOT worshipping around the world that evening.

I know that it’s January 27 and that this post has been mostly about Christmas but as I think ahead to the rest of this year, I find myself wanting to keep those feelings alive. As I prepare for Lent and Easter Sunday, I find myself thinking about the initial choice God made to come to Earth in human form. Christ knew His destiny was to end up on the cross. He knew his destiny was to take on all the suffering of this world in the most painful act of love ever displayed. Yet he made the choice to come anyway.

I think about all the different people I worshipped with that evening. I saw a wide variety of social, economic, professional, political, and theological backgrounds. I saw males, females, heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, blacks, whites, asians, hispanics, and ethnicities I would not have been able to identify without asking. I saw many different people coming together to glorify God for the greatest gift ever given and it gave me hope.

It gave me hope that the church universal would return to love. It gave me hope that the church universal would preach a gospel that is never contained by any parameters of a person’s identity. It gave me hope that the best is yet to come. It gave me hope that the church would, in the same way that the candles illuminated each building that Christmas Eve, do it’s job of shining the light and life of Christ to a dark and dying world.

 

“Christmas means you don’t have to be afraid of the dark ever again.” -Pastor Doug Ferguson (Mountaintop Community Church)

“The people most attracted to Jesus were those who could recognize their own inabilities best.” -Rev. Andrew Pearson (Cathedral Church of the Advent)

“We live in a world where everything is a problem needing to be solved when the real solution was laid in a manger 2000 years ago.” -Pastor Gary Furr (Vestavia Hills Baptist Church)

“Christmas is a time to trade in our pessimism and receive the life changing gift of joy everlasting.” -Rev. Mike Holly (Bluff Park United Methodist Church)

A Different Kind of Gift

I really enjoy giving gifts. There’s something exciting to me about picking out a gift for someone and giving it to them to celebrate a holiday, commemorate an occasion, or just brighten their day. That’s just another reason Christmas is exciting to me. (Side note: I feel like all my recent and near future posts are about Christmas but meh, ’tis the season). I spend a good deal of time thinking about the gifts I give in hopes that they will be wanted, practical, and appreciated.

I try to take the same approach when people ask me what I want for Christmas. A few days ago, as I was thinking about who I was buying for this year, what I was buying them, and what I wanted, I was shown a video for an organization called Advent Conspiracy.

Numbers can be very shocking…and the fact that Americans spend $450 billion a year on the holiday season is hard to swallow even without taking into consideration the fact that $10 billion would solve the worlds water crisis. Here’s another shocking fact: that video was made in 2008…it is currently estimated that Americans spend close to $601 billion on the holidays. $601,000,000,000.

There is another organization called Sole Hope. Sole Hope was founded by friends of a friend to provide shoes for children in Uganda who otherwise wouldn’t own a pair. Not only do they have to walk around barefoot in rocky dirt, they have to encounter jiggers that live in that dirt (Jiggers, not chiggers). It only costs $10 to provide a pair of shoes for child. $10. I own a pair of Cole Haan wingtips, they are my favorite shoes and they cost $250. The cost of those one pair of shoes could literally put shoes on the feet of 25 children.

Now, this is not meant to be a guilt trip. I don’t feel bad for owning my Cole Haans, I don’t feel bad for buying Christmas gifts for my loved ones and I certainly don’t want you to feel bad for it either. My goal is not to get you to give up everything for Christmas and give all your money to solve the world water crisis or put shoes on the entire continent of Africa. However, imagine with me for a second what could happen if we just cut back. Instead of spending $100 on a Christmas present, we spent $50 and then gave $50 to Advent Conspiracy. Instead of spending $1000 on Black Friday, we spent $500 and gave $500 to Sole Hope.

I’ve decided to cut back on my gift giving and holiday spending this year and I’m asking anyone intending to buy me a present, to donate instead. I’ve chosen Advent Conspiracy and Sole Hope for my own purposes but you can donate to whatever cause you see fit to be best served with your money. For every dollar I spend on a Christmas present, I’ve chosen to put $2 towards one of these two charities. I live within a budget as do most people so I simply can’t spend what I might normally spend on presents, I have to cut back…but it’s something I believe can make a difference.

I don’t know, maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m too hopeful, but there is something incredible about the idea that I can make a difference just by cutting back. If we’re just willing to adjust our lives slightly, together we can change someones life.

 

Make a difference by donating to Advent Conspiracy or Sole Hope.

Weird Kid

I was a weird kid. The only reason I use “was” is while I’m definitely still weird, I’m no longer a kid. When you’re a kid, everyone always asks you what you want to be when you grow up. All of the typical answers are baseball player, ballerina, doctor, astronaut…you know, all those jobs that seem really cool to little kids. In first grade, I remember my teacher at Creek View Elementary School, Mrs. Lovelady, asking everyone in class that very question. As she cycled around the class, everyone was giving those typical answers that you’d expect, then she got to me. I proudly proclaimed my desire, at the age of 6, to be a district attorney. I was a weird kid.

I always wanted to be a lawyer. I liked arguing, I liked talking, I had a keen interest in history and politics (yes, at 6) but, more than anything, I liked attention. And I didn’t just like having some attention, I liked being the center of attention. I loved the idea of standing in front of a courtroom and everyone watching me as I talked and argued about legal matters. As I got older, I would actually daydream occasionally about winning court cases. Let me reiterate, I was weird.

Obviously that’s not at all how my life turned out. I did spend the next several years with the same desire to be an attorney, all the way up until my senior year of high school. It was then that, with some nudging from my dad and my high school choir director, I reluctantly decided to give music a shot. In college, I fell in love with the idea of working in music and knew that’s what I supposed to do. Unfortunately, it was with the same mentality as wanting to be a lawyer…I fell in love with the idea of being the center of attention on the stage instead of in the courtroom.

By my junior year of college, I realized that I enjoyed performing and I liked having the attention, but I didn’t feel passionate about performing. I don’t typically like doing things “half-way” but I found myself perfectly content with it when it came to the stage. With some guidance from a couple of my professors, I came to realize my love for conducting. It was the end of my junior year and I didn’t really have any interest in doing music education so changing my major wasn’t an option at that point. Fortunately, I did land the opportunity to serve as an assistant conductor for one of the choirs.

I entered the field of conducting with the mentality of how much I was going to enjoy being, quite literally, the center of attention. I was going to get to make music with other people while being the focus of the rehearsal and the concert. In hindsight, I now see how I had slowly evolved from being a weird kid to being a weird jerk.

I entered graduate school with the same mentality; however, it was during graduate school that things began to change for me. For the first time, I started to truly appreciate working with others in a way that would give all of us glory. Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted plenty of the attention, I was just more willing to share it with others. While this new appreciation began to develop inside of me, I got my first job as a church music director in Texas.

I don’t recall any “lightbulb moment” or epiphanies. There was just this steady evolution inside me over time as I worked with my choirs at school and worked with the minister and musicians at my church. Eventually I got to a place where I realized, “Hey, this isn’t about me.” What a concept to grasp.

I left that first church and got a job as the youth choir director at a church in Plano, TX. It was here that I really and truly learned what it meant to be a servant leader. I fell in love with the youth of that church. They helped me to discover this passion inside myself for seeing them grow closer to Christ. They helped me realize that it really isn’t about me, it isn’t even about them, it’s really all about our ability to glorify the One who created us, gave us life, and gives us breath.

It was during this time that I received what I consider to be the greatest compliment I could ever receive. One of the youth wrote me a letter and shared that they had struggled with their belief in God, even considering becoming an atheist at one point. They went on to tell me that during one of our nightly devotionals on choir tour, they were able to begin the reconciliation of their faith because they “could see and feel Christ through (my) teaching”. As I read the letter, it became one of THOSE moments. I was alone in my office as I read the letter and I was overcome with emotion and just began crying. It wasn’t about glorifying me, it wasn’t about praising me; I was just the vessel through which the message was being delivered, I became emotional because I realized the powerful effect we can have when we get out of God’s way and let Him use us and speak through us.

I’m not one for definitions. I like things being a little ambiguous, I like gray areas, and I love playing devils advocate. Despite all that, I have decided to define, from this point forward, what success is to me. You can take it or leave it. I have decided that as long as people see or feel Christ through interaction with me, my life can be counted as successful. It’s not how much money I make, what possessions I have, it’s not even about bringing hoards of people into the church or making people happy. If I can shine the light and life of Christ into this dark and dying world, then I have done what I am supposed to have done.

It’s a process. Don’t think that I have this all figured out and that I am now completely able to set my own ambitions, cares, concerns, etc. aside and always have that mindset. Some days are easier than others and some days I find myself unbelievably impatient and frustrated with God. Then there are the days where I stop and remember that it’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about Him and what He has done for us. Soli Deo Gloria.