Thursday, June 28, 2007

Willow and the Miller Man

I'm going to break with tradition this week, and talk about something recently personal. Don't get excited. I'm not revealing some dark, salacious secret or anything. I still keep all those things locked up tight...

But, I did want to share a little about the Willow Creek arts conference that I attended last week. I wanted to do this because attending it gave me a wonderful perspective and encouragement to do what I should be doing.

One of the things I learned was that blogs are not supposed to be long. Yes, I am a big, fat loser who cannot follow rules. I still can't color right, so what do you expect?

Being gathered around a group of artists, you understand right away that God has made you a certain way, and you figure that out because He's made a lot of other people the same way, too. I think it also gave me the seal of approval to do work that I do well. I've spent some of the time of my ministry watering down my passions so that I could keep a job. I've also decided, on occasion, not to do something because it was easier not to do it. I've made decisions based on ease, and not on effectiveness. Shame on me. When did I ever think that was alright?
I realized that when I can't be creative, I shut down. And it's not some self-serving, I've-got-to-have-it-my-way thing, it was who God made me to be. We rarely would tell pastors to adapt a different preaching style so that they can conform to the style of a specific church. It is an absurd request because their style is who they are. That's where it comes from. I seriously doubt that most people who preach could change their stye even if they desired to do so. The same is true for artists in the church: you can't do the square peg in a round hole thing with them, either. It's not that they're not willing, it's just that they really can't do it. It would be like telling a podiatrist to become a neurologist. The shoe would really be on the wrong brain, then.
Don't misunderstand, I can be flexible. But, in the right environment, you're not called upon with regularity to be flexible on your giftedness. I might be willing to lead worship with a kazoo, but it certainly isn't what I do well, and, at this point at least, it's not what God made me to do. This is the key, I believe. And this leads me into Alex Chilton.

You've probably heard something by Alex Chilton. Possibly you've heard his mega-hits from the '60's with his band the Box Tops. Their two biggest, "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby", are shinning examples of white, R&B pop. They're also really good songs. If you're not familiar with those tunes, you probably know "In The Street" by his band Big Star. No, you say? Well, "In The Street" is the theme song to "That 70's Show". The Replacements also immortalized him in song, writing a tune called (of course) "Alex Chilton". The Bangles covered his song, "September Gurls." Some way, you probably have some connection with him, not Kevin Bacon.

When Alex began in the Box Tops, he sang with a low gruff almost like a seasoned blues artist, even though he wasn't even old enough to vote. Their songs, mostly from other songwriters, and their recordings, usually backed by studio musicians instead of the band, were not all their own. After being sucked dry by managers and record labels (and after the hit singles started to wain), Alex Chilton had enough. His vocal chords probably couldn't take it anymore, anyway.

A couple years pass, and Chilton forms a band with Chris Bell called Big Star. If you've ever heard them, you hear how unlike his former voice Chilton sounds. Even to this day, after many years of listening to all three Big Star albums, I can hardly believe it's the same guy. Sure, the Big Star discs didn't light up the charts, but many groovy (or at one time groovy) artists and bands list Big Star as big influence, including REM, Cheap Trick, Elliot Smith and, yes, the Replacements. They did power pop before almost anyone else.

Yes, it was the Box Tops who had big hits, and receive, to this day, much more airplay than Big Star ever did even in their prime. They tour the oldies circuit, probably more for the money than anything else. Chilton admited once that the reason why he put a Big Star reunion together was for the cash, pure and simple. But it's Big Star who is counted among the influences of equally good artists, and it's Big Star who created something original. There's got to be a lesson in there somwhere.

Pro-life types (like me) love to quote Jeremiah 1:5a: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you." Good enough. But for artists, and everyone else trying to figure out why they're here on the planet, the rest of the verse tells you. God is talking to Jeremiah here, and tells him that "before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." So, God makes people a certain way to do certain things before they ever even see daylight? And if you need more evidence, take me. I can't get enough of playing guitar, listening to music and getting lessons from art. I mean, I've been playing guitar for twenty years, and I never get sick of it. How in the world can this be? Well, it's engrained in me like breathing and eating. Just like a garbage truck is made to pick up garbage, I was made to play guitar for God.

Rick Warren sold more books than the Bible telling us the exact same thing, to which I reply "well, duh!" I think I'll capitalize on it (although it's a little late) and write a book called "God Made You To Do Something" by my pen name, Captain Obvious. More books in the series will have titles like, "Love is Lovely", "Sticking a Fork in Your Eye Hurts" and "Corn Dogs Taste Good." I tell you the truth, such revelation has not ever been had by human kind before.

At the conference, Donald Miller talked about writing your story, your life. He talked about writing a screenplay for "Blue Like Jazz", and then asked the question if your life would make a good story, a good movie. If you were saving up to buy a Volvo for five years, and then end of the story is that you bought the Volvo, no one would pay to go see it, right? (Of course, people have paid good money to watch two guys go to eat at White Castle, so, Mr. Miller may be off base here...) He then shared the story of a friend of his trying to build a thousand wells in Africa so that people have clean drinking water. Immediately, I know that I would go see the African Wells story over the Volvo story. It's not even a contest. And although he didn't say it explicitly, a life well-lived makes an interesting, inspiring story. A self-absorbed, easy life is as boring as watching a miniature golf tournament on ESPN 27
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As you would think, putting a thousand wells of water in Africa is extremely difficult. But that doesn't really matter to the woman who is trying to do it, because it's what she was made to do. A car doesn't ask why it has to take all these fat Americans to McDonald's once again, for example (except maybe the car from "Knight Rider".) The car just does it. That's what some people in Detroit on an assembly line manufactured it to do. I've just got to remember that I have to do what I'm made to do, or I'll totally implode. I've got to do that stuff that God wired me to do. And that is to be a Jesus-loving, guitar-playing, wife-loving, child-raising, artsy-fartsy, right-brained goofball, bi-polar nut. I would not have it any other way.

JESUS CHRIST by Big Star
Angels from the realms of glory
Stars shone bright above
Royal David's city
Was bathed in the light of love
Jesus Christ was born today
Jesus Christ was born
Jesus Christ was born today
Jesus Christ was born

Lo, they did rejoice
Fine and pure of voice
And the wrong shall fail
And the right prevail

Jesus Christ was born today
Jesus Christ was born
Jesus Christ was born today
Jesus Christ was born
And we're gonna get born now.

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