Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dreaming the Work

What did Debbie Allen say at the beginning of "Fame"? Oh yeah...



"Right here is where you start payin'..." and so forth. Good for her.

Has there ever been anything in your life that was exactly the way you thought it was before you experienced it? Was high school or college or a job or a marriage precisely what you had dreamed it would be?

"Of course not" you say. "Stop asking stupid questions" you say. "I could really go for some chips and salsa instead of reading this blog" you think.

But stick with me, here, and put your cravings on hold. I just wanted to tell you all that I've dreamed, daydreamed, fantasized and pondered (ad nauseum) about being a working musician forever. Ever since I was five. It's a little different now than it was then (I don't sing all Elvis songs; the cats aren't my backup band, etc.,) but the gist of the hallucination is the same: I'm spending time playing songs I love.

I already had one dream realized last year, when Mike Roe asked me to play a few shows with him. I doubt he knows how big of a deal this was to me. For the thirteen years previous when I would see him (or his amazing band) in concert, it crossed my mind that it would be so cool if Mike would ask me to play a few songs with him. It turned out that the last time I played with Mike, I played his entire set with him, including this song.

Other dreams have included being the bass player in Wilco (although John Stirrait does a great job), keyboard player for Bob Dylan (he plays his own keys, thank you very much) and opening for The Lost Dogs (I also did that!). Still, it's never quite what you think it's going to be. They say you should never meet your idols or heroes. If you do, you'll soon learn that they are human. It's true, but who's to say that you may not like them more because they are human? Personally, I don't think I'd ever want to meet someone who wouldn't be real, even if it means that they are flawed.

In reality, it's not about doing something cool (refer to previously listed fantasies) but doing something you love. What do I love to do? What do you love to do? If I played with Bob Dylan, would I really love it? It would be cool, and it would be a dream realized, but would I be satisfied?

We pursue education, employment and relationships to fulfill a need to accomplish something for ourselves. It's rarely about other people, to be honest. We might say we want to go into a profession to help people do this or that, but it really is for us to feel something that we wouldn't have felt otherwise. I think a lot of ministers are ministers because they like to feel special, they like the attention and they like the feeling that they get when they help people get closer to God (Trent Reznor not withstanding). Like Phoebe Buffet said, "There is no unselfish deed." I agree.

Still, I do want my music to do what the music I love does for me. I don't really know if it does. I don't think artists really ever get why their music clicks with people. Elvis Presley wondered throughout his life why he was "picked" to be Elvis. Why him? Why George Washington as the first president, why anyone doing something amazing at any particular time? You can't answer that question. Another question you can't answer is "why not me?", and that's a question that I need to give up asking. "Why not me?" to do some of the things I've dreamed of doing? I have no idea.

I'll bet you don't know, either. Why did Van Gogh only sell one painting during his lifetime? Why did Mississippi John Hurt languish in obscurity until he was in his 60's? I'm not comparing myself to these people as great artists, but I'm offering you all some company, just a little, for your misery. Maybe not misery, but your disappointment. The disappointment that the promise you had for yourself (and/or that others had in you) you've never realized. As the bartender says in "Piano Man", "I'm sure I could be a movie star, if I could get out of this place." Watching the video, you see the folly in his dream: he's older, overweight and bald. He could play a bartender (in fact, he could be the guy in the video playing him!), but that's about it. That song is about unrealized and unrequited dreaming and dreamers.

What's great about that song, though, is that the piano man (the singer, the song, the melody, the memories of music) is the balm for the dreamer. People say regarding those who have been ill and have passed away that heaven is the ultimate healing. It's also the ultimate healing for the dreamer, because it's going to be beyond our wildest dreams. Even better than playing in Wilco.

So, it's alright if you never achieve what you thought you would. Age teaches you that. But us dreamers never really give up, even though we should (or should we?). As for us personally, I'm glad we moved, even though it's tough. To me, it's the dreaming that I've always done, the predisposition to do so, that has made me a follower of Jesus, that faith which is what we hope for, that hope for that which is unseen. And whether or not my career in music will be seen (because this remains to be seen), my residence in heaven will be seen because I believe. As a dreamer, as one who hopes, I'm in good company: the group of all of us who have yearned for something more, even if it's not tangible at this moment.

Now it's time for chips and salsa.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Working the Dream, part 3

Another chapter with musings regarding uprooting my life, my family and my career, and moving to pursue music. You are, no doubt, on the edge of your seat, with baited breath, etc., waiting for this next installment.

Cue anti-climax now.

Sure there's been some soul searching. Here's what I've got so far:

1) I don't regret it; I didn't think I would
2) It's a hard adjustment to make (lifestyle, money, etc. have all been significantly impacted)
3) Making connections and networking over a long period of time are how you accomplish things here. I'm not sure if I want to wait that long.

Understand that ministry, as a vocation, is far different from most. You're always "working", although it's really more about who you are than what you do. Your schedule is extremely flexible. I knew this would be drastically altered. I just wasn't sure how much I'd miss it. And, I do. I do miss it. So does my family.

I do not miss not knowing when the other shoe will drop: a criticism coming from seemingly nowhere, people angry at you and you have no idea why, tempest-in-a-teapot controversies that have nothing to do with God, Scripture or why the Church exists. I don't miss that. Neither does my family.

Does the familiarity and the comfort of something make it better for you just because you know it? Most people would say no, but I'm not so sure. Clinging to a spouse, a career or a habit for only the reason that it's the devil you know isn't healthy, but who is to say that being familiar, being comfortable can't be a part of why you stay instead of go.

It can also be a reason why you go. I've heard ministers say they left ministries because they are comfortable, and they feel as though they'll become stagnant if they stay. James tells us, basically, that when God tells us to go, we go. When he says stay, we stay. Our decision making should be wrapped up in His leading, it should emanate from it. My last sermon at FCC was exactly this idea: you move when God moves you.

Here's the thing: our move was easy. Our stay so far has been hard. I believe circumstance can reveal to you what God has in mind, so what would something like this tell you? Does it say that the change was good or bad? When Paul was prevented from going to Rome to visit the church there, he wrote Romans. What does that say to us about God's prevention in our life?

I've never subscribed to extra-Biblical, trite sayings. One that you'll hear about this kind of situation is that when God closes a door, he opens a window. Let me ask you a question: have you ever crawled through a window? As a person well-skilled in locking himself out of the various homes he's lived, and being on the, ahem, larger side of humanity, I will testify that it is not as easy as simply walking through the door. It's hard, uncomfortable, awkward, and probably looks really funny from a distance. In short, if God is giving you a window, it follows that it's not going to be as easy as turning a knob.

So, I think we're crawling through a window. We're getting somewhere, but we're feeling our way. "Through the glass darkly" and all of that. The journey through the open pane is the important part, anyway: It's the part that teaches you not to lock your keys in the house.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Drinking From a Firehose

No, not Mike Watt's force of musical nature. That would mean that I used "fIREHOSE" as a noun, which I did not. The title describes music on the internet, and music in Nashville.

I knew there would be a ton of musicians here. In fact, I'm surprised when I meet people who have moved here who are not musicians. That's one of the reasons why I moved. Where I've lived (small towns in the mid-west, mid-south and northeast-ish), there were always a few players. But I rarely met someone who was passionate about playing. Here, I see people reading books about writing better songs where I work (America's Largest Organic Retailer, or ALOR [I will not shame it by mentioning its actual name on my lowly blog]), see people carrying guitars on buses, hear all kinds of musicians at restaurants and even music playing outside. It's pretty much the first place I've lived that is my brand of normal.

Boy, is it intimidating.

Knowing that you're a drop in the firehose teaches you humility right away. Even though we've only been here two months, you already know whether you're going to stay or go, and if you can handle the staying or going. Because, staying means scraping together enough for rent, playing in front of small, apathetic audiences, working retail and cleaning toilets (at least for me it does). And going means you're giving up on your dream. And, as I've heard from many people who a few rungs ahead of me on the music-as-career ladder, the wheat separates from the chaff fast, usually in a few months. We've got two under our belts.

If you're not here for music, the pressure is off. And while we did come here for family, and the convenience and pace of a city, we're really here because we think we can compete: compete with the likes of Over the Rhine or The Avett Brothers. Apparently, we believe we are good enough. (This is where you sit back in your chair, stroke your beard and whisper, "pathetic fools"!)

Here's the thing: "good" will always have a voice. "Good" will always get heard, in some way. My favorite bands aren't household names (but you have heard of the Beatles, right?), but they have a following. I think we are good enough to have a following, and we also think we have something to add to the discourse that is recorded music. Bono, after making and touring the "Pop" record, said that U2 was reapplying for the best band in the world. We're applying for best duo that 1,000 people love. Here's my drug test and work history. (BTW, Wilco and Radiohead are the best bands in the world, Mr. Hewson)


Mike Watt, from the Minutemen and the aforementioned fiREHOSE (not the hairpop monstrosity Firehouse), is one of those guys, and is one of my favorite bass players: I love his style of post-punk playing, his work ethic, and what I assume is a strict no-BS policy. He still drives an Econoline van for tours, just like Neil Young name dropped in "Tonight's the Night". Those vans are so rock and roll that they need to be in the RRHOF, not Madonna. He "jams econo", and rightfully so: just plug in and play, and if you can't do that and kick some butt, why are you wasting my time? I'm egotistical enough to think I can do just that. After all, the world needs more bald, fat, approaching-middle age rock starts.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Working the Dream, part 2

Here's the thing: if you don't ever try, you'll never know.

That's the thinking that has moved us to Nashville. And it's true. It's bugged me for 20 years, even longer if you count: starting to write songs when I was five, pretending I was a singer at seven, recording on my crappy tape recorder when I was 10, learning guitar at 12, etc. I've really wanted to do music all my life.

We've had a pretty craptastic couple of weeks, hounded with cars breaking down, minor annoyances and money concerns. It makes you doubt. No surprise there. But there was something that gave me hope: my first writer's night in Nashville.

If you don't know, writer's nights are pretty self-explanatory. A bunch of songwriters get to play two of their original songs at a bar. There were at least 30 there the night we went, and so there were 60 songs. I heard at least 5 John Mayers, 10 Brad Paisleys, 3 Miranda Lamberts and what had to be an undercover nun. Seriously. And although I was surprised at the ability of those who played (decent players and singers), I was also surprised in a different way: the songs weren't very good.

I decided to listen not in comparison to my songs, but good songs I've heard in the last year. So, I'm not saying I was better or worse. I am saying that the songs were neither good nor bad. They just seemed to exist. Nothing stood out, nothing had a great hook (although I'd heard one great title), and nothing stuck with me. As a music fan (not a musician or writer) I finally gained some empathy for all those A&R guys who listen to song after song. It's no wonder some of the music people I've met here don't take CD's. Any CD's.

When you do things like this, you wonder, "is this me?" "Am I not critiquing myself the way I'm critiquing them?". And I really have no idea. I have no idea, objectively, whether or not I should have moved to take a chance on carving out some niche in the music industry. I do know, however, that if I find out that I'm just not good enough, at least I found that out. Because the not knowing over the next 20-30 years of my life would have been rough. I've waited a long time to find out.

That, and I do think my songs are good enough, or else I wouldn't be here in the first place.

We've had some crazy coincidences this week, too. Nothing I care to detail, but head scratching kind of stuff, which makes me wonder what God thinks of what His people do: is His concern for their passions and gifts secondary to simply loving Him and others? Yeah, I'd say so. But even if it's secondary, is it worthwhile figuring it out anyway? Or are you just wasting Kingdom time? How does your happiness or contentment factor into your serving Him? I've answered those questions in different ways over my years in ministry when other people asked them.

Well, I'm still giving it a shot. Not throwing in the proverbial towel yet. But how long do I give it? How long before I give up on what I think I was made to do? Stay tuned...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Working the Dream, part 1

So...it's Monday at 11:05 am, and I'm at home watching T.V. and writing this post. I'm definitely living the dream.

Most of you know my wife and I moved to Nashville, TN to pursue career interests: I came to pursue making a living at playing music, she came to start a gluten-free baking company/store. I left the ministry to do this, and also because I wanted a break from it. We were going to blog about this big life change, and call it "Living the Dream". I changed it to "Working the Dream", because that is exactly what we're doing; we're working hard at putting food on the table AND doing what we feel like we were made to do.

Let me say this: no one, family or friends or colleagues, has called us crazy. Maybe they do it behind our backs! I admit, I had a pretty good job, ministry or otherwise. Being a worship minister is certainly not a bad gig in a lot of ways. Ministry in general, however, can be difficult in many ways, too. I'll cover some of these in later posts. We didn't just change our lives to do something, we changed them to do something different: to shake off complacency and ease. There's a lot about working at a church that is wonderful; there are some things that I'd had my fill of. I already miss the former; I'm elated that I'm not dealing with the latter.

So, we moved, got jobs, and I've lost almost 20 lbs. I'm an employee of a Large Organic Food Retailer, and I'm looking for any opportunity to play, write songs and listen to other artists. I'm also looking for ministry opportunities, but not the kind I can get paid for. I've always wanted to play music for a living, and I've been blessed to do that for almost 14 years. But I'm interested in doing that in a different way, in starting a new adventure.

So, when you see a post entitled, "Working the Dream", you'll know that it's an update on our pursuit of our passions. Many people say that the worst part of not taking a chance is never knowing what could have been. That sounds like an excerpt from a trite couplet, at best. I suppose it's also true.

Monday, July 26, 2010

More to Come

It's been a chaotic few months since I last posted. I've not forgotten this blog, but I have neglected it. Soon, there will be a flurry of activity here. Some house cleaning, hopefully a link to my wife's new blog, and the creation of some real conversation. I promise it won't take forever.

You might remember on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson that when commercial breaks were taken, they would display a graphic with the words "More to Come". That was good to know especially if you had to go to bed when the show was over. That graphic meant you were going to stave off bed time just a little longer, even if it meant just that Johnny's "goodnight" and the Tonight Show credits were all you had left. Well, there is more to come, and it's not just a "goodnight" and credits.

My mind has been working and churning. I've been formulating blog posts, but haven't had the time to write them out. There is much to talk about, advice to be given and received, prayers to be prayed and change to endure and celebrate at the same time. Remember, above all, that God is still good and people are still sinners. See you soon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

You Can't Do That (Or Can You?)

Yep. You've heard it. Probably, more likely, you've thought it: "You can't do THAT". And "that" could be any number of things:

1) Quit your 20 year, high-paying office job to become a barista (or doing something like that).
2) Say what you really think about your wife's outfit.
3) Train for and then run a marathon at a starting weight of 330 lbs.
4) Buy 25 bottles of Ny-Quil.
5) Slime people when they say "I don't know". (This applies specifically to things that you can't do on television).

You name it. There are always people trying to tell you that you can't do stuff. Either because of unwritten societal rules or inability and lack of training or knowledge, there are many well meaning folk who would appreciate it if you would stop trying to do things that they don't think you should do. Things that they think you shouldn't be allowed to do. Because it's weird. Or not fair to them. Or confusing. Or uncomfortable.

I've had some naysayers in my life. And I've estimated that anywhere from one-third to one-half of unsolicited advice regarding what I should do or want was wrong. And, it was different kinds of wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong Biblically, wrong for me personally. And maybe, there have been some well-meaning people who have given you a list of all kinds of things that you can't do, too.

Don't get me wrong. This is NOT a "follow your dreams" post. I think there are times when people really can't do something. Wise counsel will let you know this. My real concern is why we seems to be so concerned with keeping everything safe. When life, indeed God, is anything but. God is the ultimate cheese mover.

I was teaching out of the book "Your God is Too Safe" and after a lesson, someone took great issue with the concept of the title. "God is safe eternally", I said. There's no more of a sure bet than Him, in my mind. "But in this life, He will prompt us to do things that are not comfortable. He talks about laying down our lives, in fact. That's not too safe-sounding." This person was adamant. "I like the idea of Jesus watching over us. My family, my children. I feel that God is safety."

This was yet another well-intentioned person telling me "you can't do that." You can't tell me what you're telling me.

I offered Bible stories of Abraham almost sacrificing his son, Stephen's stoning and Abel being killed by his brother after offering an appropriate sacrifice to God. God is not in the safety business, at least in this world. He is indifferent to the Safety Dance (although, from what I understand, you can dance if you want to). However, it didn't matter what I said or how many 1980's songs I quoted. Nothing was going to change this person's mind.

Much of the time, "you can't do that" really means "you can't change how I see things" or "you can't confront me with ideology that I don't want to think about" or "don't make me uncomfortable." Let me ask you a question: when issues like this come up with people you care about, what if you erred on the side of freedom? What would that be like? Would you be like Jim Carrey in "Yes Man"? If so, you'd need to choose better roles.

What would the world, or the kingdom of God, be like if we gave and even encouraged more freedom, instead of trying to stifle it? Would everything collapse? Would it simply develop a different set of rules designed to quell creativity in a new way? If it was for freedom that Christ set us free, then what does that freedom look like, and why are we not more free with it?

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Long, Dark Winter (Break)

It's been a long winter break from blogging. Like someone in the Polar Bear club, I'll be jumping right back into the icy waters of the interwebs. Here's a post tossed to the winds of the new year:

There is definitely more perspective as you age, but it depends what you do with that perspective. I've meet older folks (retirement age and up) who either derive happiness or bitterness from that introspection. My Christmas times for the last decade have been great times to delve into that perspective. Since we leave where we live, and visit family in the places we grew up, we get to be in that world, but not of it. And, it allows us to learn.

Don't get me wrong. We miss our family. When we're down, feeling alone, or longing for some commonality, it would be nice to have some family close by. Ministry can cause all of those feelings and yearnings. It can be insular, and it can be hard for people in your congregation to understand, specifically those who have family close by. But it also removes you in a good way. It allows you to be emotionally attached to your home town, the churches you've served, and the one you're currently at. It almost lets you see several different worlds at the same time, especially if you maintain contact with people from all of those places you've been.

I'd almost call it a fringe benefit.

Because, when I get wrapped up in my little corner of the world, I can experience other little corners and gain perspective on what's important where I am now.

Rick Wright, keyboardist for Pink Floyd, died last year from cancer. Rick was a quiet, unassuming presence, singing harmony and the occasional lead vocal from behind a wall of equipment when Floyd played live. The last time they did that was a few years ago at Live 8, playing a four song set. Before that, it was the 1994 Division Bell tour. I saw that tour in Detroit.

The other two main members of Floyd at the time, David Gilmour and Nick Mason had specific stage presence. Gilmour, the cool elder statesman/fluid guitar player, and Mason, the concentrated backbone/solid drummer. I noticed Rick didn't have any kind of rock and roll personna that you could derive or easily label. He just played. That could be because all the ego was stuffed out of him.

Imagine being in a band for fifteen years, spending a ton of time with three other guys. The leader, at least in your mind, becomes increasingly oppressive and controlling. At the end of the fifteen years, you make a record with your band, only you're not really in the band any more. You played on the record, but on the subsequent tour, you're side man, a session player, removed from the creative and business aspects of this entity that you have spent your adult life serving. Your erratic behavior, and a lack of grace for that behavior, has caused the chasm.

Although, being removed had it privledges: Rick was the only band member to profit from that tour, the 1980-1981 tour for "The Wall". Since he was in the partnership of Pink Floyd, he was a paid player, and didn't have to bear the brunt of debt that was created by the massive tour. But, I digress...

If you have never been in a band, you might miss the tragedy here. It's like someone taking away your rightful place, your artistic voice, and your claim to letting it speak. From what I've read about Pink Floyd, it was part of what had crushed Rick's spirit, along with the usual rock star drugs and lifestyle.

And then the band reforms without the leader, without the guy who had really pushed you out. According to Gilmour, it took a while for Rick to regain confidence when they reformed. But he did. And, in the wake of it all, seemed to gain a perspective that allowed him the confidence to continue.

I think people in bands do side projects because they get perspective. They see what it's like to inhibit someone else's world, and then take what they've learned back to their world. I wonder how our lives would be different if we all could take the side project route, instead of the Rick Wright route (which is a hard to say five times fast!). If we could inhabit a different space, where the expectations are different, where the rules aren't so familiar, I think we might be spared from going through problems. If we made a point to get out of our own head space from time to time, maybe conflict would be reduced. Maybe our empathy would increase. Maybe all that stuff that seems like a big deal would be defanged. That would be nice, wouldn't it?

So, yeah, perspective. Gotta get me some that!