twentybydesign

the life and times of a twenty year old designer

Posts Tagged ‘culture

journeying through babel: a story of carpentry and redemptive community

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yesterday’s story:
this bookcase had been three days’ work for a team of five. planning, laying out, preparing pieces, squaring each corner, framing the stand, painting and molding. the finished dimensions were over 16 feet tall, 9 feet wide, and 15 inches deep.
at ten minutes after five, we rolled it into the theatre and decided to quickly pivot it from horizontal to vertical so that it’d be ready for the additional work happening this weekend. one final push after a week of working ourselves sick and tired. a weary crew of carpenters gathered around and began to lift.
the scenery began creaking in protestation, but we figured it would settle once it was righted, so we kept pushing.
and magnificently, almost poetically, at the point just before it would tip into place and right itself, the strain became too much. the plywood boxes collapsed into each other like a fragile rectangular card house, and the whole unit flattened itself straight down onto the ground.

everyone walked away uninjured, but you can bet our pride had been put in check. and my mind couldn’t help but wander to the story of the community gathered at Babel.

 

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.  And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”  And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.  And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Babel is our story. As I watched the towering scenery crumble, stood in the wreckage of the edifice of our competence, I saw how clearly Babel is our story.  But we were never called to end our stories at Babel, the place where we are confronted with the shame which seeps from seeing clearly our hubris, self-centeredness, and idolatry. We were called to journey through Babel. Babel is a place of “yes, and…” where the “yes” of our failed attempts at eternity meets the “and” of our gaze straight into the source of eternity Himself. Afraid of being dispersed over the face of the earth, the people of at Babel attempted to create their own fortress of power and security. The Lord’s response was to scatter them to the the winds, and remind them that they could not create their own name or hold themselves together. He alone is the provider of rest, strength, peace, and unity, and without Him, we are confused in language and scattered across the globe.

I know this story. Deep in my heart, I have been reenacting this story since childhood. I have built these walls in my life and around my heart. High and wide and deep. Testaments to my strength, accolades to my name, badges which honor collective accomplishments. I have built these walls. For years, every single thing I did with a group of people was only meant to raise my own profile. And I have been so afraid of being dispersed over the face of the earth, forgotten in the margins of history, unable to account for myself or measure up or matter. I know that I cannot find within myself the capacity to create a beauty that is pure and great and true, but something in me aches to be reunited with perfection, and so I replace attentiveness to the great Creator with working extra hours, taking extra projects, accepting additional leadership responsibilities, and caring for more people so that…at the end of the day, I can feel my time has not gone wasted.

When, in fact, attentiveness to the great Creator is the only worthwhile use of time. I don’t mean that every hour of every day should be spend in silent prayer. I do mean that we are called to be attentive to His breath in our lungs, and pour out our praise accordingly. When we rush and bustle and push the margins of our own strength, building towards the impossible goal of “reaching the sky” we are ignoring the power of the only One who can hold us together. Walking with Him through Babel itself  has re-centered my gaze on the only One who deserves my full attention and devotion. I am seeing my desire to recreate Babel in every facet of life, to center my focus on idols, foolish facsimiles meant to  supplant the Creator.

Growing up, Babel was always a bit of a sad story, but rather odd because it didn’t quite seem to impact me directly. What a tragedy, I thought, that these people spent all of this energy building something only to have to abandon it. I learned this week what I had never understood as a child. The tragedy of Babel is not the loss of the citadel. The tragedy of Babel is the loss of community. These people had a gift we can’t comprehend in modern culture (no matter how we strive for it) – complete unity of communication. No cultural barriers, nothing lost in translation, and a completely common vision. Trouble was, they turned their unity in praise of themselves, and their gifts towards creating a place of certitude and permanence on Earth, a promise Adam and Eve lost when they rejected the Creator in Eden. The utopia imagined at Babel was doomed from the start as it was founded on arrogance and lacking in gratitude and respect. In scattering the languages, God erected a barrier to natural understanding between people. He saw our desire to unite with each other in ways that denied our need for Him, and made certain we would no longer be able to confuse perfect unity with one another with the God our hearts were designed to seek and to serve.

But, the beauty of life after Jesus in the second chapter of Acts is the restoration of community. People from every walk of life had been brought to new life in Christ, and “all who believed were together and had everything in common….and day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” The Spirit descended, and speaking in tongues was not a mark of hyper-charismatic spirituality, but a genuine blessing which allowed the disciples to communicate across cultures, creating new families where the generations of divergent cultures had only bred cynicism and distrust, and banishing established dynamics of power and fear. Among themselves, these first disciples saw unity which could only come from a shared understanding of what it meant to once again live at peace with one another.

And He himself is our peace. This incredible unity which once allowed all of humanity to come together on a project through which “nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them” is once again available. In ourselves, our speech is too confused. There are too many of us, speaking too many different languages. But in Christ, we are not only reconciled to the God we tried to depose in Eden, whose sovereignty we challenged at Babel, and to whose authority we have never submitted quietly. We are reconciled to our brothers and sisters who were standing right beside us as we did so. We who goaded each other on, stacking challenge on challenge, convincing ourselves we could live free of consequence, that we could create our own eternity and immortality. Our actions against God are doubly painful for their repercussions in our communities. When we seek healing in our own hearts, the inevitable consequence is the healing of our communities. And as we learn to center our community life around something outside of ourselves and our own abilities to create perfection, achieve greatness, and support each other completely, our hearts begin to come home. 

I am walking away from the tower I have been building, the places where others keep encouraging me to stack brick on top of brick on top of futile brick in an attempt to reach the sky. I wonder what would happen if we became less intent on reaching the heavens and spent more time marveling at them. If we yielded our desire to control and achieve and perform and stood awestruck at the mere mention of the name that has been whispered directly into our hearts. Hands raised in praise are incapable of doing any competent work. You cannot build a permanent structure with your arms outstretched and your palms empty. But it is precisely this posture of worship into which we must reorient ourselves if we are ever to be a part of the only Kingdom worth building. 

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Written by Taylor Webster

November 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm

a week in four parts: roots, celebration, obedience, benediction

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I promised I’d write about last week. And so, before last week become two weeks ago, here are some ruminations on a week so thoroughly saturated with a restoration that I’d forgotten it’s important to ask for. I think, for the sake of touching on everything a bit, I’d like to chronicle that week in four particular movements. It’s really more like a journal entry than a blog for me, so that I don’t forget anything, but I’ve tried to highlight and refine the lessons I’m learning in hopes that they speak to your heart as well. If I were a good blogger I’d probably make this a series, publish each of the movements separately so that you don’t get overwhelmed and I don’t have to write anything else for the rest of the month, but this is my story, and i am evidently more of a novelist than a blogger, and somehow I think it all needs to be told together. so pull up a chair, brew some tea, and find the story that speaks to you. it was truly an incredible week.

movement I – remember your roots
“it’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise to you only”

I am realizing more and more that there are two parts of my life that have been fundamentally shaping me for longer than I can remember. One of them is my deep-heart love of music. The other is my tumultuous journey to calling the Church my home and God’s people my family. Both have always been connected to a pursuit of beauty, truth, and community.

A lot of times, when I’m trying to encourage someone or to help them understand how I’m feeling, I’ll send them a song. There’s something about the emotional quality of music that transcends words or chord patterns or form or structure. Music is. That’s all there is to it. I’ve been aching for ages to see and hear songs rise up from the church that are written by musicians, not by praise bands with agendas or rockstars seeking performance highs, but the people who see the beauty and life and breath in music that is layered and complex and interesting and honest and through all of those things, deeply joyful. With the rise of sites like noisetrade, bandcamp, and kickstarter, this is finally coming to life. Music is no longer controlled by an industry – artists are able to connect directly with those who have ears to hear and create something together that brings joy to both of their hearts.

This last week, I was able to attend concerts of two artists who have a remarkable gift for calling me back to where I’m from. I’ve always had an uncanny love for live music, and these bands reminded me why that is a good. thing. (And why banjos are completely essential to any live performance.) These first guys, The Oh Hello’s ( their album is pay-what-you-can at http://theohhellos.com/ and you’d be doing yourself a huge disservice to not at least listen!) are intentionally independent and self produced. They do their own CD art, dye their own t-shirts, and are a beautiful model of radical community. Seeing this troupe of 11 young people playing a sold-out Bluebird show in their first-ever tour stop outside of their home state of Texas, the joy and love and passion were evident. They seemed so surprised and humbled that we were all so excited to see them, and their songs called us to worship with reverence and joy, honesty and love, in a chamber-folk style that far surpasses even the charms and talents of the famed Mumford quartet.
The second group, also playing their first shows outside of their home state this summer, are a trio of gents known as Judah and the Lion. We saw them for free at a church in Littleton, but they play with energy that rivals some of the best arena concerts I’ve seen. It’s Americana at it’s best, with banjo, mandolin, and guitar playfully intertwining, singing true, deep, and pure, straight to your soul as your foot can’t help but stomp and your hands can’t help but clap. Musicians like these, who are so willing to have a good chat with the audience after the show, who have the faith to put their music out for free on the internet, and who have the artistic integrity to create exactly as they are called to. These are the ones who give me hope, that someday our national imagination will be recaptured by the artists who understand how to sing to our souls.

Speaking of music. Last week I had the opportunity to worship with the body of Christ in five different communities. The youth camp outside of Colorado Springs, the hipster church in Denver, the student community gathering at the YMCA in Winter Park, the small and focused ministry of a sprawling megachurch in Highlands Ranch, and of course, my home church in Fort Collins. In the past I have attended such varied worship gatherings, but always with a critical eye. Were the people genuine, was the music well done, was the stage design attractive, did the speaker give me something to think about while I drove home? Such questions have their place, of course, but when you attend a family gathering, you shouldn’t be there to criticize your less-fashionable aunt or wonder why the sweet tea was brewed so much stronger than you like it. You should be rejoicing to simply be together again.

And so it was this last week. I saw things in these communities that I’d never seen before, glimpses of beauty and truth and the kingdom bursting forth. And while the differences in background culture, shape, and style were indeed visible, what was more striking were the similarities. Whether we were gathered in a basement, an aging chapel, a mountaintop tent, or a converted gymnasium, so many elements were the same. The call to sing out to our creator, the sense of sacred space even in the most ordinary location, the need for us to teach each other and share our stories, the desire to connect as a family, and all the love that is only possible when it is proclaimed in Jesus’ name. I was raised in churches that met in a good-sized suburban facility, a strip mall/movie theater/ a burgeoning megachurch campus, and a well-established community chapel. And for all the grief it’s given me, for all the heartache and questioning, there has also been more joy in these places than any earthly kingdom should allow. Wherever else I go, the North American church will always be my first home.

movement II – celebrate who you are.
“now i am a heart, with a head on my shoulders, and i’ll say that i’m a different child”

If you had told me one year ago that my heart would grow to be so stretchy, I would have laughed and told you it was time to get back to work. A year ago I was fighting to establish new, grow-up rhythms, and just barely beginning to concede the fact that the only rhythms that matter are the ones which stem from my identity as the beloved child, one of a multitude of beautifully created siblings.

Last week I had the opportunity to reunite both with my newly-formed heart family and with one of my dearest friends. As a bit of background, having a “best friend” has always been inordinately important to me. I have suffered from “Best Friend Envy”. I want to know that I matter to someone else as much as they matter to me, and the label has always seemed to be the surest way to guarantee continued closeness. And what I’ve been learning, most especially in the last year, is that I don’t need to cling to “best friends” any more.

Because I have been invited to join a family. A family who rejoices when someone new is invited in, whether it is a child, a spouse, a long-lost cousin, or a soul sister. Saying goodbye to a family member isn’t so scary, because you know how that no matter how many many miles or months, states or seasons come between you, you’ll always be at home when you’re together again. If you asked me today who my best friend is, I’d have to list probably more than a dozen women. (It’s probably good I won’t have to narrow these fantastic women down into a manageable wedding party anytime soon. But you ladies know who you are – and there’s no question in my heart you’d all be standing up there with me.)

So this heart family. These crazy undergrads who burst into my life unkempt and uninvited. The students I vowed I’d never live with. They have grown my heart exponentially. None of us make sense together – last year it was two sophomores, two juniors, and one recent graduate cohabiting this condo which has its own thoroughly awkward beauty. We represent the math, psychology, biology, hdfs (prepping to run a daycare facility), and theatre design departments of this university, and our personalities are as diverse as our disciplines.

But from these women, I have learned the beauty of seeking God together, cooking extravagant dinners with open invitations, holding hands and giving hugs when words are insufficient, embracing hospitality which calls us to truly love our (next door) neighbors, operating with an emotional range which allows for crying and laughing to occupy the same moment, seeking to love family and friends and those the world rejects with deep passion and a strong commitment, and daily choosing fierce love and friendship which claims family where there should be none. I am humbled and thankful and in no way deserving of how well they love me. The weekend reunion was our last time to all be together (we just shipped one off to Australia for a semester!) and our first instinct was to find a place to pray and simply give thanks. It’s the first time I’ve prayed with a group and heard the words flow so freely and without hesitation from every single person’s heart. What a beautiful, beautiful gift.

And then to visit this dear, dear friend, who has walked closely with me through every twist and turn the last year has thrown my way. What a blessing to have a few hours in the midst of a hurried summer to simply be in the same place. To share stories of triumphs and challenges, to acknowledge frustration and hope, to be able to see clearly that we were both exactly where we most needed to be. To know each other enough to know what was cause for celebration, which circumstances would prove particularly obtuse, and how each other’s hearts would respond and what we needed most to hear. And to rejoice in God’s goodness weaving through all of it. It was a time for city-lovers to rest in the garden, to see the beauty of where we’re from before we rush headlong into where we’re going. (For more on gardens and cities, see Monday’s post at https://twentybydesign.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/garden-to-a-city-living-the-story/)

And so. I may seem to be a bit of a different child. But I am rejoicing at having found my family.

movement III – step. in.
“in the silence, i heard you calling out to me”


Have you ever been asked to do something which seems outrageous, so far outside of your comfort zone and what seems to make sense? In my experience there are two responses to this invitation. The first is to shake our heads, both at the foolishness of the asker in assuming we’d be capable, and to express our own thorough conviction that this is not what we were made to be. The other is to see the joy in the eyes of the asker, to trust that they have considered all of the possible pitfalls and still want you to join in, and to step in. Whether out of hesitant obedience or joyful compliance, step in.

Relatable Scenario A: When random internet browsing across the blog of a songwriter you’ve only recently discovered yields a book recommendation that intrigues you, step in. Don’t look up the book, delight in the first few chapters, but assume the $12 Amazon price tag won’t be worth it because, I don’t know, you were going to use that money for a cheeseburger and a milkshake or something. Get the book, not knowing entirely why, but knowing it’s going to be important. Devour it, letting the words and stories and experiences wash over you like a tidal wave. And then, respond. 

When I ordered Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor, I wasn’t expecting my heart to find a home there. I wasn’t expecting to suddenly realize that this book expresses, clarifies, and confirms so much of what has felt both called and disconnected in my own heart for so many seasons. As I wrote in a letter, attempting to describe this joy and confirmation:

“You know how it is once you admit something that you’ve been unsure of inside of yourself for a long time and all of a sudden it just seems to make sense? That’s what reading Eugene’s book was for me. Verbalized a lot of things I have discredited inside of myself because no one ever gave me words for them before
Outside of God, I can’t explain it, but I do know that whatever happens from here on out, and whatever form it takes, somehow there is nothing I am more deep-heart excited about than serving, loving, and growing with the Church. Nothing sounds more challenging. And nothing sounds more worth it.
I know I am young and I have so much to learn, and life experience has taught me not to get excited or have dreams or hope for things or ask for things. I am excited about this. I am hopeful about this. Learning to verbalize my dream is helping me to find a new joy in reading, praying, and living – and even to be challenged by the vastness of what I don’t know and seeing how growing as a disciple of Christ is going to be a series of small arrivals as He continues to stir up and turn over the rock-riddled soil in my heart.”

The steps of becoming that this book is inspiring in me have been beyond expectation. Writing that letter sparked a conversation which was more honest than any I’ve ever had about these dreams that I have. And in that conversation, my heart was encouraged and affirmed and given space to continue growing. I am beginning to take the first small steps of doing, when up until now thinking and understanding have always seemed more important. And the joy in finally doing what your heart and soul were made to do is so indescribably full. All I can do right now is stand in awe, feeling just as thoroughly unqualified as Jeremiah and David and Moses. Who, through their following, didn’t turn out so bad in the long run.

Relatable Scenario B: When a close friend asks you to pray for a friend of theirs who is facing a tough season, step in. Don’t stop at the “Yeah, of course I’ll pray for them, mmmm, that sounds so hard” response. Recognize that perhaps you are being asked to be part of the answer to that prayer. You have unique gifts and resources, and you are being asked to actually do something about the needs of this person who up to this point has been only a marginal acquaintance.

When I sent the message I knew I had been asked to send, I knew I couldn’t control how it would be received or anticipate what it would mean. But this simple act of obedience has become a wellspring of blessing. I have since had the opportunity to meet with this incredible young woman. I was able see firsthand her passion and vision for the work God is calling her to do, and to be encouraged by her affirmations of what He’s been doing in my own heart, and to feel thoroughly blessed and humbled by the opportunity to partner with her in the next steps of her journey.
I’m learning that the absolute best kind of generosity is the relational kind. As much as I wanted obedience to look like writing a facebook message and sending a gift from the comfort of my own home, the beauty of generosity is the way that it calls us into each other’s circumstances as we begin bearing one another’s burdens and learning to walk the road together. Give as freely as you have received, all the while praising God from whom all blessings flow.

movement IV – benediction
“whatever may pass. whatever lies before me. let me be singing when the evening comes”

there are no clean endings or conclusions to these stories. all that is left is to continue living, to continue sharing our stories, and to remember. there is always a reason to sing.

i will sing, sing, sing to my God, my King
for all else fades away
and i will love, love, love, with this heart You’ve made
for You’ve been good always

reckless, scandalous, and out of control

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“Do not worry, because God is in control. He has a plan and a purpose for you. “

I have heard these words (or similar expressions) many times before. I have seen them written on home decorating products and facebook walls and internet ads. I have heard them come from the mouths of people I love, respect, and admire. And when I heard them spoken over a worship gathering I attended recently, I was hit with an overwhelming, essential realization. I wasn’t trying to find fault or be contrary, but the assurance came out of nowhere and hit me squarely in the heart.

I don’t believe God is in control. 

Ok. That is a statement. Breathe in and out with me for a bit. Come on in and sit a while. After that, blow up the comments, debate, engage, encounter, seek. But first, let’s walk through a few steps together.

Here is how I think we (middle and upper class USA culture) understand control. At the center of control is immense power. When we seek to control some aspect of our lives, we are often primarily seeking to exert power over it. We schedule our days to the hilt, seeking power over time and space and people. We plan our futures in month or year or 5-year increments, seeking power over spans of time that contain unforseeable mountains and valleys, praying that we will never “spin out of control.” We organize our relationships in rigid categories and strict expectations, seeking to control our friends, family, and neighbors rather than love them. We look down on those in our lives who have “lost control” or are “out of control” , assuming that their inability to align with our proscribed structures indicates a basic human failure. But our lawn is pristine, our house is in order, our shirts are ironed, our retirement is planned, our property is insured. We. Are. In. Control.

So when we say that God is in control, it is comforting to us. We want to know that there is plan, purpose, and meaning, and that God (like we so desire to be) has all of his ducks in a row and that nothing happens outside of his will. We want a King who is powerful, authoritative, and majestic. We want him to have all the answers, make all the decisions, fight all the battles, and always, always win. But our concept of control is a poor choice to frame our understanding of a God who is love.

There is one who seeks complete control at all times, because he does not understand love. Satan, the fallen angel who sought power over God in heaven and continues to seek power over God on earth, approaches people with a desire for control that is unsurpassed. All of the sins that have plagued the world, lies, fear, addictions – they are all fighting for control of our hearts. And why do we give in to them?

In our fallen nature, we believe we would rather be controlled than loved. We would rather be given a simple, understandable set of rules about the way the world works, and, falling victim to the lie that through understanding the rules we will gain control over the system, instead fall prey to the lie of control and it’s immense power over us. We worship control, praising our own ability to order the universe as we see fit, and every grab for power builds the illusion that we are able, of our own accord, to hold everything together. And when the cracks begin to show and our attempts at perfection fall short, we are left with a gaping awareness that in our thirst we have allowed control to supplant the role of love in our lives.

Love is bigger than control. Love is more powerful than control.

Our lives are spent in a vicious spiral of control seeking – beating our head against the wall and screaming “Why isn’t this going my way!” At times, we feel we have succeeded – we are happy, successful, achieving, well off. In. Control. At other times we feel lost, alone, afraid, and as though everything we held power over has slipped from our grasp. And there are only two exit gates from this spiral. One is the aforementioned way of the Controller. To claim control as our right, power as our inheritance, and ultimately fall slave to the power which seeks to control us.

But there is another way. This way is the way of love. And this way is the way of surrender.

God did not choose to control the world. He chose to love it. In a radical departure from the way any ancient or present culture has or does understand what it means to be God. He made us, completely, from the ground up. He should have been able to claim what artists call “creative control” over his creation, the right to oversee how it is used, what it becomes, who can influence it, and how far it can stray from the original vision.

And then, in love, He set us free, desiring only that our response to this freedom would be to choose to love Him back.

In the absolutely crucial, most pivotal moment of our faith, Jesus could have rewritten the story we know so well. He could have claimed control as King, ruler, sovereign, authority. He could have broken the whips and shattered the cross, taken revenge on the men who sought to do him harm, taken the seat of the empire and seated his disciples in positions of power. That would have been a picture of a God in control. None would have been able to stand against him, and everything would have proceeded in exact accordance with his specific will.

But instead, Jesus chose to surrender. He surrendered his right to control his circumstance. He allowed himself to be consumed by the will of God, to be instrumental in communicating God’s great love for his people, and redeemed a relationship fractured by our desire for control. (In eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve sought equality with God, greater control over their circumstance, and power that was only meant to be held by God. This deeply fractured their love relationship with him, their ability to live fully in his presence and to walk in his ways. God has been calling his people back to himself ever since.) 

In surrendering control, Jesus gained a power that control-seekers could never imagine or understand. Jesus is the only human who has ever managed to perfectly exchange control for love. Jesus, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;  rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself  by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” And what a glorious deluge he unleashed. 

Because when we begin to understand God’s love, our response becomes so much greater than a simple acquiescence to a higher power’s control. Yes, God is the god who makes order from chaos, life out of destruction, bringer of peace, hope, and healing. And he wants us to choose to be part of his story. To choose to accept a love that refines, cleanses, purifies, makes whole. We love because He first loved us. And through his love, we are able to join him in the work of redeeming his creation.

So we cannot hold the freedom, the choice, the love that he lavishes on us and wishes to express through us in one hand, and tell others to “Relax, God’s in control” in the other. God’s power is so great, his sovereignty so vast, that he can choose to exert his power through love rather than through control – and it is through this love that He is calling us to come home to Him.

In summary. God created us. God loves us. God has immense power and is fully able to alter any circumstance, change any heart, fulfill any dream. But God does not control us. In him we live, and move, and have our being. We acknowledge and fall prostrate before God, from whom all blessings flow. But not because he has bent our necks. Because his love has broken our hearts. His reckless, scandalous, completely nonsensical and entirely out of control love. And no matter how strong the temptation to be controlled by the world may be, we who have known what it is to live in God’s love will constantly be searching to follow His light home, and to invite as many as we can to join the journey with us.

I feel as though I could write for days on this topic, and maybe I will someday. This is an attempt to follow the grace I’ve been given, to start a dialogue, to scratch the surface. Please, engage with me in the parts that  speak love to your heart, the parts that are poorly constructed , the parts that are jarring, the parts that wrestle and debate. How have you experienced God’s love? How has that shaped your concept of God ‘being in control’? 

Written by Taylor Webster

June 15, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Three Album Heart

with 3 comments

I think a lot about art and faith. How our culture mashes them together, and how it tries to tear them apart.  While writing this I went to the website of a Contemporary Christian Music radio station, and was greeted by a  challenge to listen to nothing but “Christian” music for thirty days and see how my life would be uplifted and inspired. And I thought “Oh. Ok CCM station. You tell me exactly what Christian Music is. And I’ll totally do it. Can I still listen to Sigur Ros? The Decemberists? Mumford and Sons? What about LMFAO in hip-hop class? Or Taylor Swift with my pals who have an inexplicable love for sappy country ballads? Or those Guinness-swiggin’, kilt-wearin’ heroes of Irish Rock, Enter the Haggis? Where do I draw the line?”

Because here’s the danger with labels. They’re exclusive. Anytime you try to define what something is, you usually define what it isn’t. So when we say that there’s one radio station on the market playing Christian music, we’re also automatically saying that whatever we exclude from the station isn’t Christian. Whatever else out there is dangerous, so you better keep the dial on CCM109.3 24/7. And that’s just not the way music works. A desire to engage with the arts should come from a desire to expand your horizons, not to narrow them.

This post was inspired by my attempt today to sum up the music I love as a gift for a dear friend. Because she doesn’t buy much music for herself, I had to make  three CDs to cover all I wanted to share. Each volume came out to a particular theme. Yes, theme as in label as in what I ‘m railing against. But people like categories. So stick with it.

The first volume was called “Church Music.” It had all of that that big, sweeping, anthemic, super-chorus stuff we love to sing really loud in big groups, and which could probably be found on a CCM station and in the Sunday service of many an American church. And I do love that stuff. I do. There’s nothing quite like corporate worship, gathering to loudly declare who we are and what we believe, in waves of stirring, encouraging affirmation. This disc had tracks which have all been close to my heart and lead to intimate moments in a corporate worhship setting. Some favorites are Mighty to Save by Hillsong United, You’re Beautiful by Phil Wickham, and of course, How He Loves by John Mark McMillan. These songs are beautiful, passionate, and inspirational, most with a decided and intentional upward swing. And they’re written to be sung by groups of people who are reading the lyrics off of a slide projector, often led by a band of volunteer with a basic guitar/bass/drum set up. In short. They’re written to be sung on Sunday morning. And just as the world has always needed psalms and hymns, there will always be a place for church music with memorable choruses and poetic verses. It can truly be a beautiful experience.

The second volume was called “Heart Music.” It featured the songs which have been closest to my heart in the last few months and may never have been played on any radio station that isn’t publicly funded. These songs met me in dark places and spoke hope, reassurance, and solidarity into my heart. Some are by Christian artist. Most aren’t. But all are remarkably honest and beautiful in their own way. From unreleased Mumford & Sons gems like Sister and Lover of the Light to the folksy brilliance of Wagon Wheel by OCMS and Down in the Valley by The Head and the Heart, from the ethereal, hopeful wonder of Med Sud I Eyrum by Sigur Ros to the deep faith of  Audrey Assad’s piano ballad, The House You’re Building, this playlist is much more sonically diverse. The musical styles don’t all quite match up. Some sing about God directly. Some indirectly. Some not at all. Some of the lyrics speak of being lost and sad and alone. But somehow, because they dare to encounter these lower depths, their ascent to the highest, most exuberant peaks seems more honest. More real. More like the life I encounter every day. The raw human desires for peace, belonging, homecoming, and acceptance pervade the work of the many secular artists I grew up listening to. Everyone’s heart music is different, but there’s something about music that we allow into places of our self that nothing else can touch.

I made a third CD, filled with music that couldn’t be confined to either of the previous discs. This one was simply called Gungor. Partially because I wanted my friend to have the entire Ghosts Upon the Earth album and couldn’t bear to parcel out the tracks, but also because what I think Gungor is trying to do is vitally important. They’re looking to a generation of folks who were raised to distrust the musical shallowness and dishonesty they’ve encountered in radio-driven tunes (this isn’t just in CCM. Think about Top 40, country, hip-hop, pop, rock….they’ve all had their insipid moments) and who have turned instead to the honest creativity of  independently-fueled heart music. This generation is serious about God, but also knows that a lot of CCM stops short of what music can be. We long for music inspired by an infinite, passionate, overwhelming creator to hint at the redemption we have yet to fully experience. We ache for music written by other people to explain to us what it means to be human. And we gravitate towards music which tells the story of the interweaving of God’s beauty and our brokenness. To me, that’s what Gungor is all about. It’s not just the brilliant musical composition and deeply insightful lyrics. There are several bands I revere for those qualities. It’s that the music takes me beyond worship of the art itself into the vibrant, living presence of the eternal creator who made all things possible.

Music, like all art, isn’t inherently good or bad in and of itself. It is a vehicle which allows us to unleash and connect with a transcendence it is harder to encounter in an artless world. It is a tool. And, like all tools, the responsibility for damage or edification lies with the user. So I’m going to be a responsible consumer. I’m still going to listen to church music. I’m still going to listen to heart music. I may even get my groove on to some radio Top 40 every once in a while. And if I’ve learned anything from my encounter with Gungor, it’s to appreciate God flowing through all of it, transcending time and tempo and tradition to connect our hearts with His. And that’s worth celebrating.

(Michael Gungor’s  blog post, found here, inspired a lot of this line of thinking. Check it out. http://gungormusic.com/#!/2011/11/zombies-wine-and-christian-music/)

If you’re throwing a party – here are my “Heart Music” and “Church Music” Playlists.

HEART MUSIC

1)      Don’t Carry it All…………………….…….The Decemberists

2)      Helplessness Blues………………………………..Fleet Foxes

3)      Lover of the Light…………………………Mumford and Sons

4)      New Earth……………………………………….…….Zerbin

5)      Sister………………………………………Mumford and Sons

6)      Home is Not Places………………………..The Apache Relay

7)      The House You’re Building……………….……..Audrey Assad

8)      Down in the Valley……….………….The Head and the Heart

9)      Slow Your Breath Down………..………….Future of Forestry

10)  Orphan Girl……………………………………Horse Feathers

11)  Timothy Hay………………………..…………mewithoutYou

12)  The Perpetual Self, Or

“What Would Saul Alinsky Do?”……………….Sufjan Stevens

13)  Hold On to What You Believe…………….Mumford and Sons

14)  Wagon Wheel………………………Old Crow Medicine Show

15)  He Woke Me Up Again…………………………Sufjan Stevens

16)  Med Sud I Eyrum…………………………………….Sigur Ros

17)  Timshel……………………………………Mumford and Sons

18)  Sons & Daughters……………….………….The Decemberists

19)  Old Joy……………………………..…….Noah and the Whale

 CHURCH MUSIC

1)      Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone) ………….Chris Tomlin

2)      Our God………………………………..……….Chris Tomlin

3)      Manifesto…………………………………..The City Harmonic

4)      Give me Faith………………………..……..Elevation Worship

5)      How He Loves……………………….…..John Mark McMillan

6)      I Will Waste My Life…………………….……..Misty Edwards

7)      You Won’t Relent………………………………Misty Edwards

8)      Marvelous Light……………………………..……Charlie Hall

9)      Mighty to Save (Live)…………………..……..Hillsong United

10)  The Stand (Live)…………………….……..…..Hillsong United

11)  You’re Beautiful…………………………………Phil Wickham

12)  Twenty Three………………………….……..Aaron Strumpel

13)  Centuries……………………………….…….Aaron Strumpel

Written by Taylor Webster

January 4, 2012 at 12:50 am