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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The 13th tribe...

It's awesome when the Lord takes you to a portal in the Scriptures through which you're led into a labyrinth of luscious life.

I was reading Psalm 139 and a verse from Psalm 137 was underlined off to my left from years past.  It caught my peripheral vision and drew me to itself like a magnet.  It was the verse that said, "and on the poplars they hung their harps."  At first, I wasn't taken by the phrase, but the longer I looked at it and the verses that surrounded it, the more my heart leapt within me.

It spoke of a time in Israel's history when they were exiled in Babylon because of their disobedience to God.  The Levites, who were the musicians and storytellers of the Hebrew community, found themselves so downtrodden in spirit that they hung it up and with their resignation, the whole nation lost their song.  

My heart for the artist within the church community has never beat stronger.  I've always felt like the artist has been exiled for far too many years.  So many artistic hearts have hung up their harps (their hearts) and the larger community of faith has suffered much in the wake of that decision.  

But the Levites where always the "starving artists" in the Hebrew culture.  They were the 13th tribe!  They didn't have land, or home, or occupations, or income in and of themselves.  They were called "unto the Lord" to speak for him and to be the go-betweens for the rest of the people.  Everyone else gave a tithe to support them.  They didn't fit anywhere, but they were scattered everywhere.  They had no tribe to call their own, but they infiltrated each of the 12 tribes with the presence of God expressed through the mediums of music and storytelling.  

They were invited into this "13th tribe" by Moses.  When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and the people were worshipping the golden calf, Moses asked who would stand with the Lord and the Levites rose up and stood next to him.  They had always had a sensitivity to the presence of the Lord, they were guardians of His presence, keepers of the flame.  Their hearts were tuned into the heart of God and they bore his heart to the remnants of Israel.  

And yet, they were not part of the now famous 12 tribes of Israel.  They were outsiders.  They were the artists who injected meaning into truth, carried people to God, carried God to people, spoke on behalf of the tribes, shaped stories to be remembered and retold.  

And when they hung their harps on the weeping willows next to the Euphrates River in Babylon, the whole community wept with them.  Whenever the artists "hang it up" and give into the desire to quit, the whole community suffers.  For wherever the artists' go, so goes the community.  They are the spirit, they are the life-givers, they are the dispensers of hope, they are the awakeners of the heart.  When they falter, they community convulses.  When they resign to the fact that nothing will change, nothing changes.  When they give up on expression, whether it be music, art, storytelling, prophecy, and mediation...the very oxygen of the camp is drawn out of its lungs.  

They were the ones who led Israel into battle against Jericho.  They played the instruments and blew the ram's horns, they were the ones who led the march around the wall before it fell, they were the ones who stepped into the Jordan River before it parted.  They were the ones.  The 13th tribe with the 6th sense.  The tribeless tribe.  The third wheel. The artisans.

And I'm calling them out of exile.  I'm calling myself out of exile.  We simply can't hang up our harps calling it a day.  I can't begin to imagine the church without the artist.  We won't survive another generation without them.

More could be said...but I'll leave it at that.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My conscience...

"Hey, Jason!  Dude, under here.  Yeah, it's me, your inner man, your conscience.  Remember me?"

As I closed my eyes they rolled backwards as if to look into my own soul.  I always wondered why eyes did this when you closed them.  It didn't take long for them to locate the source of this inner voice trying to get my attention.  

"Hey, what's the big idea jumping me like that out of nowhere?  You scared me there for a second."

My conscience seemed sensitive to my alarm, but wasn't about to apologize.  I had heard from my conscience before, but somehow over the years, his voice has changed, or my hearing has changed.  It's hard to say sometimes which is which.  Anyway, I could barely recognize my own consciences' voice.  It was raspy and weak.  Like it hadn't been used in a while and needed a drink of water to moisten drying vocal cords.  

"It's been a while since we've talked.  Where ya' been?"

I knew where I'd been, but I didn't want to admit it to myself, my inner man.  It's funny how over time you can hide certain parts of yourself from yourself, or at least you can try.  I hadn't struck up a conversation with my conscience in quite sometime.  It felt like meeting up with someone in the mall that you used to be good friends with and starting the conversation with a flurry of excuses about your absent-minded vacancy.  I could tell he wasn't buying my disclaimers.

"The guilty man runs when no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion."

My conscience knows all these verses from the Bible and without opening his mouth throws them upon me with his telepathic mind powers.  I can feel them bore into my heart like a tic.  This verse in particular hit with an almost customized force.  It spoke of my story as of late.

"I'm not running from nothin'."

I wasn't going down without a fight.  I'd come too far to give up that easily.  Besides, a conscience is nothing but a nuisance these days, a useless drag that prevents you from upward mobility.  Nobody listens to their conscience anymore, it's outdated and antiquated.  It's like listening to your grandpa drone on and on about how things used to be.  That was then, this is now.

"This is going to be harder than I thought."

It was almost stated with a sigh, like my conscience felt sorry for me.  I hate feeling pitied.  But I can't say that I blame him, my convictions were becoming pitiful.  I'd noticed a slow loss of nerve endings leading to numb sensations in regards to things that typically sent a stab of pain through my innards.  Sin was not met with the same resistance it once was.  But I had several very logical reasons for my different approach to sin, reasons that more than justified my new sense of justice.  

"What is that supposed to mean?"

I feigned a cluelessness in order to turn guilt back upon my accuser.  It always worked before.  Make the one asking questions or making comments seem like the one out of line.  He wasn't buying it.  Not one bit.  

"Drop the dopy disguise, bro."

I wanted to open my eyes letting them roll outward, but I knew diving back into life on that side of my skin would eventually kill me.  I was dying a slow death and I had no one to blame but myself.  Years of muffling the inner voice left me drowning in my own devices.  Drunk judgement replaced sober judgement.  I don't need to elaborate on where this sort of inebriation takes you in time.

"Let's talk about that mouth of yours, Jason."

Say no more.  I was well aware of how half aware I was in regards to my tongue.  Filters had worn out over the last few months making little slits in the meshing that once acted as a protection for my mouth.  Large pieces of carnal garbage were slipping through these gapping lacerations finding their way out into the air waves.  Swearing that for years had either laid dormant or had been screened out by my conscience surfaced like cat urine covered by new carpet.  It was only a matter of time.  Words that I would have never uttered came out in the car, in the garage, sometimes even around close friends who shared a similar non-conviction with regards to language.  I had given over some serious ground in this area, but I didn't need to tell my conscience that, he'd been tracking that like a blood hound for months.

"What's there to talk about?"

I still didn't want to admit to my embarrassing lack of verbal propriety.  Pride stands fast as the last line of defense, and it will not give up the ghost or lay down arms without a counterattack.  But right under the arrogance there was a admittance of wrongdoing.  I was slowly breaking with every additional ball hit over the net in this volleying match with my inner man.  I had the strength to hit one more ball over the net before I crumbled to the clay court.  Looking back, I'm glad that my insides are so much more athletic than my outsides.

"Do you really want me to answer that stupid question?"

I buckled and hunched over in broken embarrassment.  But I needed to.  I had been playing around for far too long.  I needed someone to take me to my knees and then get on their knees with me to let me come to my senses, discovering my own waywardness, willfulness.  And that is just what my conscience did.  He stooped down and let me vent my venom.  He let me recount how I got here.  He let me do everything but beat myself up.  That's where he stepped in and drew the line.  I'm glad he did, cause I'm not good at doing that.  I stood to my feet after what felt like hours of bloodletting and made my way back into life.

"Will you stay closer and speak louder from here on?  I need your counsel."

My conscience just smiled and nodded.  He had his hand on my heart and on my shoulder.  I wasn't going this alone.  We walked into life like old friends.  He didn't have to say another word, I could feel him now.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Trick or Truth...

We walk by faith and not by sight.  2 Cor. 5:7

my rendering...

We walk by faith and not by feeling.

I finding this to be very hard lately.  There are times when I'm fired up and wired up to take life by storm or by the horns, whichever, and to just decidedly enact my values, virtues and vision.  I feel alive, hopeful, confident, successful and wanted.  These are the times when faith isn't needed because I have everything at my disposal, tools hanging off my proverbial tool-belt waiting to be employed.

And then there are days when feelings are nowhere to be found.  You can't locate them, you can't conjure them.  About all you feel like you can do is fake them.  You don't know where they went and hid, but they aren't accompanying you anymore.  You have to move forward without them.  These are the days when you don't feel like praying, don't feel like caring, don't feel like moving, don't feel like obeying, don't feel like following through, don't feel like going to church, don't feel like meeting with friends, don't feel like nothin'.  Which makes sense, cause feelings have deserted you, as they often do.

Then comes along this pesky piece of theology called faith.  It tells us that we don't have to rely solely on temperamental passions anymore to drive us toward obedience.  We don't have to wait for a gust of whimsical wind to fill our sails anymore because we have the breeze of belief.  The fresh air of faith to carry us along.  Doesn't that sound so pretty?  It sounds so cutesy and perky.  It doesn't sound inviting or exciting.  But it's the truth.  And the truth has never cared much for gimmickry and seductive tricks--sleight of hand.  The truth doesn't need tricks and it doesn't pander to tricksters.

I don't have a way to conclude this bit of thought, so I won't.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Leading by Letting...

I think oft of leadership.  I'm 35 now.  As I look back, I don't know that I grew up around that many good leaders.  My dad is a great man, but we've talked often about leadership and he readily admits his shortcomings in that area.  The men in my church growing up were nice men, but I don't know as I would call them leaders.  They may have been in their jobs throughout the week, but when it came to leadership in the church, they were simply nice.  Nice men.  I think I grew up around a lot of nice men who were trying very hard to be nice.

There was one man, though, that stands out in my mind as an uber leader.  Dennis Oulette.  He was my boss for almost seven years between the ages of 13 and 20.  I worked at Ontario Orchards, first on the farm in the fields, and then at the stand in retail and management.  I learned a ton about honest toil, the trade of fruit farming, and commercial landscaping.  Dennis had a passion for life like no one I'd ever met.  He looked like a combination of Dr. Who, Einstein. and John McEnroe.  He was fiery.  He was generous.  He was industrious.  He was resourceful.  He was a visionary.  He was a leader.

When you wouldn't know how to do something, he would teach you.  I don't mean just tell you what to do, I mean show you how to do it.  He would pride himself in his ability to empower young people who didn't believe in themselves.  He loved taking in a green heart and creating a seasoned veteran.  

He would treat his employees like royalty.  Taking us out to eat and footing the bill.  Giving us bonuses for jobs well done.  Throwing parties for the whole crew and celebrating our team.  
I remember him taking off every few months for a trip to Vermont to heli-ski or to British Columbia to fish for salmon in remote rivers.  He would try new things like sky diving, but he wouldn't be embarrassed to participate in a little dumpster diving if it meant saving money and salvaging something that had value.  He wasn't above anything and yet nothing was beneath him.  He was confident in his identity which produced a contagious freedom that spread to his crew that served under him.  People would die for him.

I wonder who I would be or where I would be had I not met him at the ripe young age of 12.  He didn't know Christ, but there was something about him that was Christ-like just the same.  So many of the Christian men around me growing up were duds.  I didn't relate to them, nor did they do much to try and relate to me.  I loved God, but I couldn't figure out "men" and what it was to be a real man.  I watched men around me.  What were they laughing at?  How did they interact in conversations?  How did they interact with other women?  What were their weaknesses and why wouldn't they let me see them?  What were they hiding?  Why were they hiding?  I watched, I wondered, I withered.

But there was this man, Dennis, who showed me stuff.  He believed in me.  He looked me in the eyes when he would talk to me...piercing me through.  He would have a vision, inject his passion into it, and when it was accomplished, he would sit back and laugh, enjoying the mirth of the moment before he entered his next adventure or misadventure.  I loved being with him.

I remember one time when I was 13 years old working in the fields picking acorn and butternut squash with the farm crew.  He drove the tractor trailer right to the edge of the field and we loaded up the 12 bushel bins into the trailer right there on site.  I operated the fork lift as well as the hydraulic jack which I thought was pretty good for a ruddy young man like myself.  

When the trailer was packed full, we load-locked the bins securely into place, closed the doors and hopped into the truck to take them up to the barn where we would unload them into storage.  I hopped in the passenger seat and buckled in.  Just then, he opened the passenger side door and said to me, "Scoot over, JayJay, you're driving."  I could tell by the way he said it that he meant it.

It was nearly two miles to the barn and the only thing I had driven with a clutch was my lawn mower and our little tractor.  I could barely see over the dashboard.  He told me to raise the seat by pulling a little lever on the side of the seat that released something that sounded like air brakes.  My thighs started getting squeezed under the steering wheel, so I relented.  And the steering wheel--oh, my word--it was huge.  I grabbed it ten and two and just sat there all stretched out and petrified.  He showed me how to pop all these switches before I turned the key and how to work the shifter.  It had about 223 gears!  

And then he just sat there and let me figure it out myself.  I turned the key and it fired up and shook the cab with violent power.  I felt like I was in the space shuttle preparing for a launch.  I flipped a couple switches, grabbed the shifter, popped it into gear and slowly let off the clutch.  I had to back it up first in order to turn around and face the road.  I looked out my rearview mirrors and, with sweat literally dripping off my brow, backed the trailer in between a few apple trees and got the truck positioned so that I could pull her out on the old country road.  

I remember looking over at Dennis--he was nonchalantly reading some magazine.  He appeared to have all the confidence in the world that I would get us up to the barn in one piece.  I, on the other hand, wasn't so sure.  I pulled out on the blacktop with fear and trepidation.  I had never driven on the blacktop before.  Not only was this illegal, it was insane.  And yet, his quite confidence in me bolstered me and I longed to make him proud.  

And with that, I shifted through nearly 8 gears and coasted down the road toward the storage units.  I struggled to see over the steering wheel and my legs just barely reached the clutch, brake and gas pedals.  With every 1000 yards, I was not only gaining speed, I was gaining confidence.  Someone believed in me and didn't just say it, they put their money were their mouth was.  I was driving an 18 wheeler and I was 13.  This, needless to say, was a right of passage for me.  I will never forget that 5 minutes of adrenaline.  When I pulled into the parking lot and came to a halt, I engaged the parking brake and just sat there stupefied.  I did it.  And he let me.

He led me because he let me.  I hope I can be that for people around me.  Thanks Dennis for your permission, your validation, your leadership.  

I owe a great deal to that man.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

the 10th Leper...

This was a response to an email I got from a student from my former youth ministry. He wrote a couple page email recounting the past, acknowledging the exchanges of influence and impact, spoke thanks into my heart, asked amazing questions and shared his own honest quest for truth. It was beautifully "out of nowhere". It was something that happens so infrequently in our "information age", our technologized friendship, where you become everyone's no one, lost in anonymity and triviality. I thought it might spark a revolution in a heart or two out there who is starving for intimacy in a world of information...(Thank you, Caleb Barrows, for being the rare "10th Leper")...
_____________________________________

Bro... As I absorbed your words, your affirmation and your thoughts yesterday, I was struck with several emotions. The main emotion is that of "meaning". It felt full of meaning, meaningful. These days there are few people who will actually sit down and take time to write a note of your size and scope. It's alot of trite comments on facebook and an occasional, "Hey, how ya' doin'...I'm good...hope all is well." And that's it. I, myself, am guilty of similar superficiality. I'm becoming sadly content with this triviality...thanks for the stark reminder of a different way of living. When I saying "Meaning", I am thinking more of substance, gravitos--a weight of glory as C.S. Lewis would have described it. Something that treats life with the affectionate handling it deserves. A life that labors for the preservation of that which matters...things like friendship, conversation, appreciation, family, legacy, history, beauty, kingdom...those everlasting blessings that we have been impregnated with by our Creator. When I get an email like yours out of nowhere, I am reminded that there are still souls who function as "keepers of the flame", souls who don't get so caught up in the frantic, frenetic flurry of aimless busyness that they lose touch with the "matters that matter". A soul who remembers the past (how rare is that) and comes back like the 10th leper to say "thanks". A soul who tries as hard as he can to put words to feelings instead of just settling for "oh, it's hard to explain" or "I don't have time to get into it". A soul that wrestles to know God and gets worn out in his quest for communion with the Ineffable. A soul that takes time to press beyond sappy sentimentality through three sentence, token emails of shallow reconnection toward thought-through, thought-provoking, thoughtful collections of paragraphs worth their weight in gold. Gold, I say. Thanks for being meaningful is a world of meaninglessness. The very thing that we are craving, "Power", I'm learning is found in these precious and priceless things like writing, taking time to ask one more question, listening to the inklings of our heart and responding to their textures. What you did was powerful. And in a world of powder, that was a welcomed change. To answer a question you asked, "I do sometimes wonder if I'm missing something." I've searched high and low for what that mystery-thing is. Is it the Spirit and the gifts? Is it artistic expression? Is it more education? Is it community? Is it kindred friendship? Is it stoggies and fine wine? Is it powerful narratives found within good literature or good movies? Is it more time in the Word or Prayer? What the heck is missing? Is anything missing or am I groaning for what I will always be groaning for this side of Heaven? So to answer your question by not answering your question, "yes, but I'm just as empty handed as yesterday and the day before that and the month before that, and the year before that and so on." But I must be on this expedition. This is the ache of my calling, this is the pang of my heart. The thrill of the hunt beckons me on, bids me come. I can do no other. I don't know if I'll ever find the "treasure of great price", the "crowned jewel", the "holy grail" if you will...but I will keep the hounds poised and the flashlight powered, and if I die, I will die searching, seeking, starving for truth, and truth in its nakedness. I hope this ambition will continue to be the throbbing passion of your soul. You make me proud and I'm honored to have a disciple like you following in my train. I'm eager to see what God has in store for your heart. Until next time. Grace, Peace and Love. Jason