Monday, June 30, 2008

Albert Mohler + Prophetic Dancing

Albert Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary located in Louisville, KY. (Southern is where my good man Steve Halla directs the Center for Christianity and the Arts.) A Reformed Baptist, Mohler is one of the go-to guys for the news media when they want a comment from conservative evangelicals. He's also one of those rare creatures who has an informed opinion about almost everything, from stem-cell research to double predestination, and if we looked hard enough probably also the correct uses of dental floss. He thinks about everything.

At a recent New Attitudes conference (an effort begun by Joshua Harris, he of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, now continued by Eric Simmons and supported by an association of like-minded churches under the umbrella of Sovereign Grace Ministries), Mohler fielded an open Q&A about anything from Scripture.

One of the questions asked was this:

How do we as twenty-first century Christians evaluate and critique the value of the arts? What relationship do the gospel and the arts share? What role and service do the arts play in the church?

As relayed through C. J. Mahaney's blog, Mohler made the following comments:

So what we should learn from that is that ideally Christians should be involved in the arts. Absolutely! But we’ve got to learn to make art the servant of the gospel. And that is a tough challenge in every generation. . . .

And when you ask about the Scripture, well . . . . It is the sole sufficient guide for understanding all that we are and all that we hope for and all we trust in, in Christ. That had better be the substance of our art. That doesn’t mean that we only draw representations of Bible stories. It does mean that we test everything we do, not just by the cannons of art—which are truly culturally constructed and constantly negotiated and changed, an evidence of both human greatness in terms of ability and human depravity in terms of the morality and the rebellion against God that so quickly comes in and the idolatry that is our reflex.

And we use Scripture to ask, “How do we judge the good, the beautiful and the true—always to be necessary and necessarily linked? That which is good is beautiful—that which is true is good—that which is good is true. They’re all the same thing. . . .

The rest of his transcribed comments are here.

What I appreciate is Mohler's strong encouragement that we be involved in making new work, new "cultural products," and not just, as he says, only representations of Bible stories. Amen to that. I also am grateful for his reminder of the profoundly important connection between the canon of Scripture, with its vast and variegated landscape of faithful thinking, living and loving under Christ's lordship, and our life and work as artists. Too often we view these as unrelated in any significant way. But in the Scriptures we find a lively, robust and substantial, even wild Christian imagination at work. Believer artists need to be soaking their imaginations in the biblical imagination. It'll do their souls a world of good.

Yet while I recognize that Mohler's comments come off-the-cuff, and so should be given the benefit of the doubt, I am surprised and dismayed by his sloppy use of language. To state, simply, that the good, true and beautiful are "all the same thing" is not only un-careful philosophical language, it is dangerous to the listener. It does not adequately equip the listener to discern either the connection or the distinction between the three transcendentals; instead it blurrs them, robs them of their native power.

It can also too easily lead us to believe that a) making art in the light of these transcendentals is an easy matter (far from it), and b) by neglecting any comment on the actual earthy conditions of art-making and thus leaving the matter at an abstract level--"art as the servant of the gospel," "Scripture had better be the substance of our art," "in Scripture the good, the true and the beautiful are always one thing"--that making art Christianly is essentially to make art that is pretty, lovely, inoffensive, noble, pleasant, etc, or very much like Northern Renaissance art of Dutch Protestantism.

I have encountered this thinking in plenty of circles. There are too many generalized and therefore both sloppy and dangerous statements. Modernity is essentially X. The gospel is obviously Y. For the "Christian artist" to be a servant of the gospel is manifestly Z. These are not helpful statements. They do not produce clear-headed artists. Without careful explanation the believer devolves, passively, and again I say therefore dangerously, to the thinking of his or her sub-culture, which may in fact be quite anemic thinking or actually anti-gospel thinking.

If I had the chance to ask Dr. Mohler if he really meant to say that the true, good and beautiful are "always one thing" or "always the same thing," I imagine he might give me a more nuanced explanation. Fair enough. Perhaps I will have that opportunity sooner than later. But the reason I draw attention to his poorly phrased (perhaps misguided or even false) statements about art is that he is a man of great influence with an audience that believes him implicitly, as many do folks like Billy Graham or Chuck Colson. Mohler is a man of seemingly boundless energy. He has the capacity to retain an immense amount of information and so often to speak thoughtfully about it all.

But not here. Not this time. Mohler is a public champion, hardly frightened to make a stand in the public square with the best and the worst of them, and that's why he must be more careful than most; he must be held to higher standards (as per James 3:1).

In these comments about art made, reported, and published before a large and listening audience, he fails to show appropriate patience with the ideas and their implications for the believer artist. And for that I hold him accountable. So I'm holding up here a friendly red, or maybe only orange, flag that says: You could do better than that, Albert Mohler, I encourage you to do better.

On Prophetic Dancing
If dancing can be simultaneously awful and innocent and joyful, then young Matt shows us how: here. By the end of watching this video I found myself almost crying, I'm not exactly sure why. But there was something almost prophetic in his globe-trotting dance-athon. I kind of wished a Christian had thought of the idea first.
But that rarely happens, I'm afraid. We're not light-hearted enough. Here Matt's dancing is like a kind of announcement, like that of a jester, or a child, of the new Kingdom. And oh how sweet and unashamedly goofy it is.

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Rolling Black-out Sabbath

“One of the most terrifying aspects of the technological society in which we live is its loss of intimacy. Many people in our culture are desperate for affection and . . . do not know how to give it or receive it. To keep Sabbath offers us the possibility for learning to deepen our relationships and to embrace others with godly affection. Sabbath keeping offers us a deepening of relationships because of its emphasis on one’s relationship with God, its rhythms of community and solitude, its gift of time and its call to cease striving, productivity and work. Furthermore, the intentionality of the day lends itself to a conscious enjoyment of our relationship with and delight in each other as the outgrowth of our delight in Yahweh.” ~Marva Dawn

Phaedra and I have just picked up a new habit: sabbath-keeping. I knew it was a good idea back in the Regent College days; the "in" thing amongst the seminarians. I practiced here and there, but my conscience always told me I was dumb for the "here and there" part. Why not an "on-goingly" practice? I had work to do--an arts ministry to build, conferences to dream, essays to write, film festivals to concoct, millions to save--who had time to actually regularly do nothing?

But here we are, finally, stopping, when we're supposed to be stopping because of this alleged three-month sabbatical. And it's still hard to stop: stop thinking, stop planning, stop worrying, stop planning, stop anticipating, stop trying to be productive. Or this: What books should I not read on my sabbath day? Books about art? Willard-ian books? Would these keep me in work mode?

I've decided for now I will only read memoirs (maybe a re-read of Buechner's) and books about golf and what I call TV-novels--John Grisham, Michael Crichton, et al--maybe a PEOPLE en Espanol mag, spy tales, stuff that will ween me out of a reading-as-utility mindset where so little is read simply for pleasure but must always have a purpose to produce something. The A-type disease: I must never waste time. I must be needed.

Marva Dawn's book on worship uses that word, "waste," A Royal "Waste" of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. But the one she referenced at the Laity Lodge retreat was Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting. She reminded us that sabbath-keeping can teach us how to live deep lives. She said: learn to be a resevoir, filled to overflowing, not a canal that simply pours itself out as soon as it knows something. She also said that because they eat oatmeal all week long, they treat themselves to chocolate maltomeal on sabbath day. I like that.

One of the agreements Phaedra and I have is not to turn on our computers on the day we keep sabbath. We looooove that idea, but it's amazing how much our computers loooooove us equally intensely when we ignore them. Our first sabbath a couple of weeks ago I walked by our study twice with the primal urge to check email. It was all inertia, man, my body physically bending into the study. It spooked me. Was I this addicted to checking email? What's happening, who's out there, what needs fixing, who can I help, where's the gossip, who needs me?

Typical exchange in the younger Taylor household late in the evening: "Why're you checking email?" Blank look. "It's late." Blank look, shrug of shoulders. "Because." "Hmm." Exhortative sigh.

We both know it's dumb. We get dumb-sheep-itis with email.

At first you feel like you're not going to make it if you don't turn your computer on. But what's happening in the world out there--ferries sinking to the bottom of the ocean, great basketball rivalries like mean bison head-butting for glory and girls, the latest short-shorts, Zimbabwean madness, the falling price of my home--it's gotta all matter.

Then, when you've managed to outlast the irrational gravitational pull, you feel like you've been set free from Egypt. We like it so much we're threatening each other to take two sabbaths a week to make up for all the years we missed out.

Eugene Peterson told us in class back in the Fall of 1995 that sabbath was a way of saying "Stop, you idiot. It's not all about you." Ok, he didn't say idiot. But he could have. Consciously I don't think it's all about me. I suspect my behavior says otherwise. My pastor pal Geno Hildebrandt gave us a gauge for judging permissible activities on our sabbatical: Whatever genuinely rejuvenates your body and soul, do those things in increasing measure, the rest drop-kick.

So we're going to the pool a lot. I'm hitting at the driving range. We putter around in the yard. We cook. We experiment with home-made bread recipes. We don't answer the phone (which, well, we do that all the time so it's not really legitimately sabbatarian). And I realize this sounds like a lazy, bucolic idyll, but it effectively cuts against the grain of our achievement-oriented personalities.

Psychologists tell me I'll accomplish more if I rested my brain more. The book of Hebrews hints that my present sabbath-keeping is a rehearsal for a great rest; not a great nap or a great eternal lie-around, but a feeling of true rest in my mind, my body, my emotions, my spirit. I'll be living according to a true and truly life-giving rhythm. I'll have lots of energy and know wisely how to use it.

We've given ourselves grace to get our sabbath-keeping wrong--now and down the road. We don't want to ruin it with high expectations. We just had a "high expectations" conversation today and it didn't go so well, so we're keeping a close eye on it with the sabbath stuff.

Mostly we're chilling. Mowing the lawn usually quiets me down. Phaedra likes to get her hands dirty with mulch and garden-friendly, poop-rich dirt. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said, "I feel as if God had, by giving the Sabbath, given fifty-two springs in every year." I wonder how many years I've lived rushing from summer to fall to winter and back to summer to do it all over again without the refreshing grace of spring.

I wonder how weird my soul must look under a microscope after living most of its life running breathlessly from week to week without a sabbath day, that great leveler of all men, rich or poor, where both rest as God ordained from the very beginning; that day on which Jesus rose from the dead and the Holy Spirit was poured out on the beloved at Pentecost to announce to all that our great rest was at hand, not far but near.

Burritos with Gabe Lyons
I shared a meal of burritos and chili rellenos with Gabe Lyons last week. Gabe is the mastermind behind the Fermi Project and their fertile outburst of auxiliary ventures, including the Q conference that will take place in Austin next April. Norton Herbst was with him. Norton works on staff at North Point Community Church in Atlanta. I'd met Norton a few years back when I'd visited First EV Free with announcements about the Ragamuffin Film Festival. Both were in town to scope out spaces and connections for the Q; good guys both. Here's the bio bit on Gabe from the Fermi site:

Gabe and Rebekah Lyons founded Fermi Project in 2003, a broad collective of innovators, social entrepreneurs, church and societal leaders working together to make positive contributions to culture. Gabe recently engineered Fermi Project's first book, unChristian, which reveals exclusive research on pop-culture's negative perception of Christians and convenes 27 of Christianity's most influential voices to address what he describes as "the steady erosion of Christianity's reputation in America". Prior to Fermi Project, he co-founded Catalyst, a national gathering of young leaders, while serving as Vice President for John Maxwell's INJOY organization.

I'm grateful Gabe is out there doing this work. It's important and complimentary to so many, very encouraging efforts on behalf of the Kingdom.

Cowboy JI Packer has a few words for Cowboy Rowan Williams
When Packer says that archbishop Williams should step down, that's cowboy talk, mano-a-mano. As a once and future Anglican I'm all eyes and ears on the current turbulence. Here's a very interesting development in the cross-Atlantic Anglican tussle: Packer's statement. Praying and fasting, that's what I hope we're doing plenty of these days.

All My Friends from the United Arab Emirates
It's dangerous to put a visit tracker on your blog. I got the cheap version: MapClusters with little, big and bigger blobs. It can become a dumb obsession; or like a really slow video game where red blobs pop up on the screen once a day. It gets you to thinking about your world fame. For instance, I noticed yesterday that I got my first visit from somewhere in the vicinity of the United Arab Emirates. I thought, "I have oil-rich fans!"

The New Yorker article: the gospel according to Bergman and Holman Hunt
Here's a poignant piece in the New Yorker about two fellows who went to see a Bergman movie in the winter of 1970 in Oxford, England. The movie, "Winter Light," was being shown at a church. Both came out of that evening two very different men. I highly recommend reading this piece with a few friends and discussing it over a drink of choice. It'd be a great discussion topic for a small group.
Insanely audacious animation
The guy who pulled off this animation project is the dude. Sent to me by my friend Brie Walker, this art is impressive, zany, astonishing, envy-inducing, Eastern bizarro surrealism. Here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Begbie on Worship & Sentimentality

The weather man says a cool front is coming in today. Only 96 degrees high, he promised. It's a temporary break in our long, oppressive run of triple digits. The swimming pool is our refuge.
Congrats to the Celtics. That's some pretty happy dudes up in Boston. I 'm also watching MSNBC's video recap of Tiger's US Open win. I've never watched a golf video recap. Now I'm cheering along with the rest of the fanatics.
I do feel a little sorry for Rocco Mediate, the little train that couldn't. Will there really be a next time for him? But I give him points for colorful name. It sounds like a very fine cartographical term.
I woke this morning thinking about why I keep a blog. Two reasons came to mind. One, it's a way for my future children to see what their father was on about in the first few years of the 21st century; since they're not getting to witness it firsthand.
Two, I use it as a writing discipline. Something's better than nothing, I figure, and fiddling around is better than dreaming. It keeps me from getting dumb.
Arts & Religion
I've just read Begbie's chapter on "Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts" in The Beauty of God. One thing I appreciate about Begbie's writing, as I do equally of Frank Burch Brown's for that matter, or NT Wright's, is his pastoral kindness. He doesn't shy from calling a turd by its right name: a turd--whether an idea or a behavior. But he's never mean-spirited. Nor does he fall into the trap that I so often encounter with academics. They imagine they're preaching the gospel to the laity "out there in readership land" without actually demonstrating any love for them. It easily comes out as harsh generalizing ("All those charismatics do X. Every Presbyterian does Y. Evangelicals, the lot of them, do Z"). Or I get that feeling I'm being condescended to: You stupid non-enlightened people.

If you've done pastoral care for any length of time, with regular folks who rarely have their act consistently together, theological or otherwise, but still need as much divinely inspired TLC as anybody, you learn to let compassion replace frustration. It's something many of us really do have to learn. It's not like lay folks want to be theological idiots, or spiritually dysfunctional. They/we don't mind an occasional prophetic one-two punch, but don't talk down.

Anyhoo, I've reproduced a portion of his essay where he addresses the more praise-chorusy habits of recent church history. It's stuff I think regular peeps should pay attention to, not just worship pastors. A couple comments on his thoughts.

First, I wonder if the term "aesthetic hyper-simplicity" might work better than simply "aesthetic simplicity" to describe these kind of devotional love songs. It strikes me that there's plenty of material in the Psalms that's aesthetically simple. Nothing wrong with that, I reckon. I don't find the Taize music all that complex, but it still satisfies aesthetically while also nourishing the soul. What I do dislike is the hyper-simplicity, and the incessant hyper-simplicity that I frequently encounter in this kind of musical culture.

Second, if every church or musical culture suffers from excess, which can only be remedied as we hold up mirrors to each other to see where we've confused or exaggerated gospel and culture, then we charismatics do well humbly to consider Bebgie's admonishments. I wonder what he'd write of the other end of the cultural spectrum, the more mind-oriented musical culture. Wonderrrring.

As one who has worshiped in a moderate charismatic church for some time and wrestled with the heart-mind, simple-complex tug-a-war of music, I feel encouraged, not discouraged, by Begbie's words. I feel emboldened to love my kin more--while also wishing we did sing many more hymns.

I also wish I could put Matt Redman, David Crowder, the Hillsong mates and Chris Tomlin in a room with Begbie, FB Brown, John Witvliet, and Marva Dawn, and say: "You're not coming out until you've written a whole new album of songs and hymns that apply the best of your musical intuitions and theological convictions. Rock out! Feed the church!"
Or has this already happened?

"Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts": A daily meditation from JSB, the newly minted Tarheel

Over the last thirty years or so in many churches we have witnessed a burgeoning of a certain kind of devotional song, often directed to the risen Jesus: a direct and unadorned expression of love, with music that is metrically regular, harmonically warm and reassuring, easily accessible and singable. It would be disingenuous to seek to exclude these songs from worship on the grounds of their aesthetic simplicity.

The New Testament witnesses to the joy of an intimate union with Christ, and most Christian traditions have quite properly found room in their worship for such “plain” heartfelt adoration. However, questions have to be asked if it is assumed that this kind of song exhausts the possibilities of “singing to Jesus,” or if these sentiments are isolated from other dimensions of relation to God.

Devotion to Jesus, after all, entails being changed into his likeness by the Spirit—a costly and painful process. It certainly involves discovering the embrace of Jesus’ Father, Abba, but this is the Father we are called obey as we are loved by him, the Father who judges us just because he loves us, and the Father who at salvation’s critical hour was sensed as devastatingly distant by his only Son. If we ignore this wider Trinitarian field we are too easily left with a Jesuology that has no room for Jesus as the incarnate Son of the Father, even less room for the wide range of the Spirit’s ministries and encourages us to tug Jesus into the vortex of our self-defined (emotional) need.

Rowan Williams, while very sympathetic to much contemporary song writing, writes about the dangers of what he calls “sentimental solipsism,” where the erotic metaphors of medieval and Counter Reformation piety reappear but without the theological checks and balances of those older traditions, where “Jesus as object of loving devotion can slip into Jesus as fantasy partner in a dream of emotional fulfillment.”

This should not be taken as a wholesale attack on this or that style of worship (in fact, most traditions have fallen into these traps at some stage). But our three strands of sentimentality are not that hard to see in this genre, whatever precise form it takes. In a quite proper concern for intimacy with God through Jesus, reality can be misrepresented (the first strand)—if sin is evaded and trivialized, God is shorn of his freedom and disruptive judgment and taken hostage to my emotional requirements.

Most of us have attended services where we were invited to experience through music what Colin Gunton used to call “compulsory joy”—perhaps authentic for some on this or that occasion, but often disturbingly out of touch with what some have to endure in a world so obviously far from its final joy, the very world Christ cam to redeem. Most have known services where music has been deployed as a narcotic, blurring the jagged memories of the day-by-day world, rather than as a means by which the Holy Spirit can engage those memories and begin to heal them.

Emotional self-indulgence (the second strand) I have said enough about already. The failure to take appropriate costly action (the third strand) is sadly all too evident among those of us who sing most loudly. Comforting and immediately reassuring music may have its place, but something is amiss if this is the only function music is called upon to exercise. The widespread dependence on musical clichés in the church (especially those drawn from film music) should also give us pause for thought, even if there is a quite proper place for borrowing familiar idioms.

When Amos attacked music (Amos 5:23-24) it was because it was too “easy,” blinding God’s people to the downtrodden in their midst. We would do well to have Bonhoeffer’s words (uttered in the midst of a racist regime) ringing in our ears: “only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Mature Disciple: Part 2

"The hurrieder you go the behinder you get." ~old Quaker saying

A good time was had by all with the Marva Dawn at Laity Lodge this past weekend. She is one feisty, crackerjack of a lady, and a joy-filled, humble one too. More on that later, but suffice to say our souls were nourished by her teaching and we had a long conversation with Charlie Peacock and his wife Andi about their Art House that warmed our hearts. We also played a mean game of dice late into the night Saturday evening. I won--as you can tell from the picture featuring the lovely Phaedra Jean, Steven Purcell and his delightful fiancée, Amy Hodge.

Here then is the second part of the sermon I gave on June 1. Again, stories were told but not written down, only spoken.


#2: Talks to Jesus

Journal entry, summer 1997: “I’m more excited about the cause of Christ than I am about Christ himself. I’m happy to work hard for God. I don’t mind working hard. But please don’t make me sit with him and talk about emotional things, intimacy things. They make me uncomfortable. I don’t know how to do it. And at bottom I don’t trust that He’ll satisfy the deepest places of my heart.”

Again Kyle Miller enjoins me: “David, talk to God. Talk to Him. Talk to Jesus. Talk to Him about everything—your exams, your car, your parents, soccer, your friends, your ambitions, your body—at any time. And definitely talk to Him when you’re about to give in to temptation; especially then. Right as you’re giving into temptation, talk to Jesus.” Today he would say to me, “Talk to Him right after you’ve had a fight with your wife. That’s the best time.”

It’s amazing how quickly and frequently we don’t want to. What would I rather do when hurt?

- Either: “I want to figure it out on my own first.”
- Or: “I want you [a person nearby] to figure it out for me.”

Yet Karl Barth calls out to us: Only God who made you can reveal to you who you really are, who He really is, who others really are. Jesus is the Mediator.

The church fathers had a phrase to describe a life of every day, open-hearted walking with God: en loco Dei, “on location with God.”

In such a life we discover our true nature. George MacDonald, “Who can give a man his own name? God alone.” What our hearts deeply long for is to be given our own true name, to know what we are and why we are on this earth and how to become fully alive.

In the end, the point is simple but often so difficult to apply. We must learn the habit of talking with Jesus about everything, at all times, no matter how small or silly or embarrassing or difficult, whether you're stressing about what you're going to wear or your computer is suffering a hissy-fit or your plans for the day are going all wrong or you're simply enjoying a stroll with your spouse or friend and you feel this simple joy stirring in your heart: Talk to Jesus. Welcome Him in as an every-day Person in your life.

John 6:35, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

#3: Traveling Companions

This may come as a surprise to you: I had no close guy friends in my 20s. None. I lived detached from male friendship from high school into my early thirties. Why? I didn’t trust easily. And I was looking for the elite friendship (“the reincarnated Inklings”)—the standard that honestly nobody would ever be able to meet, not even I.

The Jedi Kyle Miller speaks a third time: “David, beware of the Cool David Christian Guy Stuff,” which was only a mask for arrogance and false security.

Honestly, I don’t think I knew any more how to cultivate deep male friendship. It had been a long time since I’d experienced it, back with Nathan and Josh Sanford, Terri Macdonald, and Matt Henry in Russellville, Arkansas.

My predicament: I was for people, but I didn’t know how to be near. I could make things “happen” but not be intimate.

The problem, at last, was this: My self-sufficient grand plans were causing me to hurt the people closest to me—family and girlfriends—by sins of omission and commission. When it happened often enough I began to break. Eventually I started feeling the weirdest feeling: loneliness. And the longer I headed in this direction, I realized, the more I was becoming afraid of letting people know me, the real me hiding inside.

The turning point: I became exhausted. And I finally said to my friends, “I need you.” I was finally letting people in, letting myself be loved. It was a huge relief.

Dearly beloved, every one of us needs a few good, kindred traveling companions.

History calls out to us with encouragement:

- Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego
- Jesus and twelve apostles
- Jesus and the three
- Epaphras and St. Paul: Col. 4:7-9, 11-13!
- Franciscan monks and sisters of Charity
- The Cambridge 7
- The 5 Martyrs in Ecuador
- The Inklings
- The Beatles
- My high school buddies
- Mike & Jeffrey
- Phaedra

Traveling companions are those friends with whom you can relate openly and deeply about your life. They’re the ones that love you with their feelings, their wills, and their time. They’re the ones who provide you honest feedback about how you are coming across to people.

My friends, it’s not just that it’s hard to live the Christian life on your own, it’s that you can’t. You by yourself don’t have the resources. And the deep transformation of your soul that will make you an increasingly refreshing presence to others cannot come about through casual or occasional or small-talk exchanges with people; not a once-a-month lunch date or weekly bible study. It can only happen in rich community with a few people who call out your truest self and help you identify your “self-protective sinfulness as it occurs” (Crabb, Understanding, 205, italics his).

The point with all this? As Rick Van Dyke put it to me the other night, God accepts you as you are, but He doesn’t leave you there. So you should treat your friends: love them as they are but for God’s sake don’t leave them there. Ask them to be your kindred traveling companion. Ask for it. Choose it. Be willing to sacrifice for the sake of deeply satisfying friendships. Pray for them.

If I had to identify only three things that I come back to over and over and over again, it would be these:

1) Am I teachable?

2) Am I talking to Jesus about everything?

3) Do I have good traveling companions?

As I look throughout biblical history and Christian history and the people who’ve loved and influenced me along the way, from my family to my teachers to my friends to my wife and to many of you here, I see these three things keep popping up.

They’re what make, I submit to you, a mature believer—integrated, whole, holy, humble, confident, deeply at home with himself, with others, and with God, bearing fruit, continually growing into what he truly is, and full of unspeakable joy—over a lifelong of obedience in the same direction.

I earnestly commend them to you.

It is often said that the job of a preacher is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. I’m going to ask three afflicting questions and speak three words of comfort to allow each of us to receive the word of God in our hearts, and with this we will end.

3 Afflicting Questions:

1. Would you say you are teachable? Would the people around you say that?

2. Are you talking to Jesus about everything? Is there anything you’re afraid to talk to him—or to the Father—or to the Holy Spirit?

3. Who are your kindred traveling companions? Do they know they are your traveling companions? Do they feel invited as such?

3 Words of Comfort:

1. James 4:6. “God gives grace to the humble.” Receive his grace for you today.

2. Ps. 62:8. “Trust in him at all times, O people. Pour out your hearts to him, for God is your refuge.” Pour out your hearts to Jesus. In Him find rest for your souls.

3. Ps. 68:6. “God sets the lonely in families.” Ask and keep asking God to give you good traveling companions.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Mature Disciple: Part 1

Caravaggio's Salome with the Head of John the Baptist.
That's what this picture reminds us of. My friend Dave Huss took it this past Sunday during our farewell service. We were both worshiping. But by the looks of it you'd think Phaedra was holding my head in her hands. There is a good metaphor lying around here.

Well we head out this afternoon for a Laity Lodge retreat with Marva Dawn. Laity Lodge is the land where No Cellular Waves Can Reach. Forced rest. Fortunate for us Marva is speaking on sabbath-taking. We're entering a three-month long one, so we'll be all ears.

I'm copying an abbridged version of my swan sermon here: Parte uno. I have this thing about maturity you could say. I've written a couple of entries about a mature believer artist. I'll be speaking about it at the Nashville conference in August. Here we are again. It's a lifelong of sanctification, but I'm fascinated by how wonderfully long and adventurous it'll take to become my true self. My heart is definitely captivated by a vision of redeemed sons and daughters of the new Adam roaming the earth.
So I offer this as a little aid to prayer, perhaps even contemplation.
June 1, 2008
w. david o. taylor
My last sermon on staff at Hope Chapel

A Disciple of Jesus is Mature and Fully Assured

“[Epaphras] is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” ~ Colossians 4:12

What does this mean, to be mature?

Let me offer you the story of an apple tree. [Here Phaedra draws an apple tree on a white board behind me and I go into a story which I shall have to save for next time. The point is this. . .]

A mature apple tree is integrated, whole, holy, humble, confident, strong, deeply at home with itself, with others, and with God, deeply rooted, bearing fruit, continually growing into what it truly is, and full of “joy, joy, tears of joy” (Pascal).

But how do we go about describing maturity? It’s an important task. To leave it fuzzy is to risk slipping into behavioral management or what Larry Crabb refers to as externalized forms of approval and affirmation. . . .

Let me suggest that maturity is something we can attain (so the vision of an apple tree) and a movement. And there are three disciplines that help move in the right direction.

I’ll suggest a brief definition of the movement, what we’ll call “maturation,” then explore in greater depth the three disciplines.


What does it mean to become mature? That is, what does maturation look like?

Maturation is a disciplined commitment to growing into who you are in the light, power and fellowship of God.

It is disciplined because maturity doesn’t just happen. Gentleness or courage don’t appear automatically. It is a daily, exercised thing, persistently pursued—like my wife’s garden.
It is a commitment because you have to choose it. And we have to keep choosing it all our life. But happily enough, the more you choose what is right and good, the easier it becomes to choose it.
It is about growing because the Christian life is about the everlasting expansion of life; so CS Lewis’ Narnia in The Last Battle.
It is about who you are as lovingly and carefully made in the image of God: a “glorious creature” (again Lewis).
It is in the light of God because only He can show you who you truly are.
It is by the power of God because only He can rescue you from sin and strengthen your soul with grace.
It is through fellowship with God because everything good that has ever happened and ever will happen, happens in that community riotous with life: Father, Son and HS in an everlasting merrymaking dance.

But what are the disciplines, or the muscles, that help us thrive in this process? If I had to distill it to three, it would be these:

Teachable: a mature disciple is teachable his whole life.
Talks to Jesus: a mature disciple talks to Jesus about everything.
Traveling Companions: a mature disciple chooses a few people to be his kindred traveling companions.

Let me take each in turn.

#1: Teachable

Journal entry, August 7, 2003: “Do I believe God can take me down?” Answer: “No.”

Much of my 20s and early 30s I lived by the motto: “I don’t want to be wrong.” If I can do it, I’m going to do it and I want to do it right.

The Jedi Master cum counselor-friend Kyle Miller says to me: “David, memorize on the tablets of your heart, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’.” (Matt 5:3).

My friends, if I had to choose between the words “humility” and “teachability,” I would choose teachable. It’s a vibrant, muscular word.

To be teachable is not to have your act together all the time, but it is to have the grace to acknowledge simply, freely, graciously when you don’t.

To be teachable is to be humble enough to say, whether at 15 or 65 years old, “You know what? I think need some more counseling in my life.”

To be teachable is to be confident in who I am, but to recognize that I’m still learning and am open to be surprised by God if He wants to do something new in me.

To be teachable is to recognize that I can learn from any of the people God puts around me—even from the people I don’t expect or want to learn from. Jesus: gentle, humble, teachable.

To be teachable is to abandon your self-defense mechanisms in favor of an open, vulnerable posture from which you can really be loved and love the people around you.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

T Minus 1: Grace

It's done. I preached my last sermon at Hope this morning. We celebrated communion; Jack presided. Amanda and Graham put a William Cowper poem to new music. Saint Richard the Divine Van Dyke composed an original (artistic) liturgy. We were benedicted--and benedicted again--and again--and again. Hope is so good in the benediction department. We were saturated with words of blessing.

We were also commissioned to the city. During the commission elders prayed blessing, pastoral staff prayed, my parents prayed, our friends prayed, artist leaders prayed. My little sister Stephanie was there. Geno "cat-dog" Hildebrandt MC'd and did such a fabulous job of making the day special for us. And there were a lot of tears, the really good kind, profoundly happy and sad but full of gratitude. Deb Dorman played Dennis Jernigan's "Blessing" song, which is really one of my favorite songs ever.

My sermon was "A disciple of Jesus is mature and fully assured," working from Colossians 4:12. I may post my notes later. But the three disciplines I suggested marked a mature disciple were:

1. A mature disciple is teachable--his whole life.
2. A mature disciple talks to Jesus--about everything, all the times, on all occasions, no matter how silly or embarrassing or difficult or small it may be.
3. A mature disciple chooses a few people to be his kindred traveling companions.

If I were stranded on a desert island and could only say three things, those would be they.

Then we lunched and fested and eulogies of the living were declaimed and an eight-minute slideshow of all my hair styles through the ages was shown. So many ridiculous hair cuts. And I was a gifted a new set of golf clubs! I can't tell you how happy that made me. I was like a little kid.

Phaedra and I feel so well loved by this community of dear people at Hope Chapel. We are going to miss them sorely. God has used them to help me grow up, to become a man, a Christian, a husband, a good friend, a better preacher and pastor. I am what I am because of this sweet church that has been known through the years as full of love, acceptance and forgiveness. My personality type (A-type, self-sufficient, strong-willed, driven, achievement-oriented) needed a thorough soaking of these. Thank God!

I have been well loved. I am well loved.

If there were a sacrament of closure, I experienced it today. I am no longer the arts pastor at Hope Chapel. But I have been anointed, and Phaedra along with me, we have been blessed in the Triune Name, we have been sent, we have feasted, we have laughed, we have cried good tears, remembered old days, and we look forward now to a new season and station of life.

Tomorrow we enter officially a three month sabbatical season where we'll rest, play, nap, garden, swim, watch "Planet Earth," muck around with our nieces and nephews, read loads, nap, re-organize the garage, and play golf.

I'm very excited and frightened about this new season. But that's ok. Phaedra and I will walk it out together, one day at a time, baby steps.

All is grace.

A General but Very Heart-felt Thanksgiving

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all paces, may give thanks to you in all things.