The Faith Tree

I often find myself trying to explain how I came to be where I am at now in my faith journey. As I wrote in this post, I try to remind myself to be charitable both towards those who hold positions I used to hold and now strongly disagree with, and with those who hold positions that are on the other end of what I grew up knowing. One of the best metaphors I’ve heard for explaining where I’m at now comes from Jo-Ann Badley, and her chapter Living as an Exile in the book Stories of Emergence.

I offer you the metaphor of a tree. The essential shape of a tree comes from its trunk. I think of the trunk of my faith tree as the person of God, most clearly revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My tree is Christ-shaped.

The tree also has branches that get increasingly thin as you look toward the perimeter of the tree. These are the less clearly understood musings of faith, about which the church has argued for centuries. Different parts of the Christian church choose to live on different branches, and some branches are much thicker than others.

These days, I prefer to live near the center where things are sturdier, but that’s because I have experienced what it is to be tossed in the wind by issues that can’t be easily resolved. I’m older now, and the central things matter more. I refuse to focus on doctrinal peculiarities of subgroups, which seems to me to be living on a leaf. Autumn will eventually come, and the leaf will fall.

The tree doesn’t look the same to everyone. The shape you see depends on who you are and where you stand. Are you a gardener? Are you in need of shade? Are you in the garden? Outside its walls?

What you see also depends on the season. Is it winter or spring?

What you see will depend on what direction the wind is blowing.

Clearly different people will see the tree in different ways.

I think of the Holy Spirit as the person of God who helps me to choose a wise place to sit in the tree and gives me the grace to be humble given the variety of branches and the expanse of green I see all around me.

How do I recognize my place? The criterion is the same as it has always been for all of God’s people. Where God is, there is grace and there is life. In the words of Deuteronomy, God sets before us life and death, blessings and curses, and calls us to choose life, so that we and our descendants may live. Or, in the words of John, Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

I Will Be Your Home

About six weeks before my little sister got married last month, I was talking with her and her fiancé about the music for the wedding. My sister liked a song that a friend of hers had written for a mutual friend, and was thinking about having that song in her wedding. The couple it was written for had met at a children’s ministry training institute, where my sister was at the time, and so the song came out of that, and had lines like “together we can better serve eternity.” Nothing wrong with the sentiments there, but I read it, and then said to my sister, “But this isn’t a love song, a song for a wedding. This is a business contract.” She and her (now) husband are planning on going to Africa in the near future to work with children in some capacity, so it is true that there are things they will be able to accomplish together that they wouldn’t be able to separately. But that is not why they were getting married.

When we returned to my house after lunch, I pulled out my laptop, opened iTunes, and said, “This is my idea of a love song.” I selected Andrew Peterson’s song Don’t Give Up on Me, from his new album Resurrection Letters, Volume II that he had sent me a couple weeks earlier and that I had been listening to nonstop, and hit play. Andrew sings, “I walked beside you in the canyon flames / Deep as an ocean and hot as a thousand suns / We barely survived… // Don’t give up on me / Don’t give up on me / Don’t give up on me / I won’t give up on you // Don’t give up on me / I’m begging you, please / Don’t give up on me / I won’t give up on you.”

That song wouldn’t work for the wedding, though, because it is more of a 14th anniversary kind of song, a song from the middle of the journey, not the beginning. My sister and her fiancé both liked it, so they asked me to write something that was built around the same idea. I tried several times over the next couple weeks to write something, but was only able to come up with a bridge; I couldn’t find anything I liked for the verses and chorus. The week before the wedding, I was down in Atlanta with Matthew Paul Turner, and after I had called my sister to tell her I didn’t know if I would be able to finish anything, I pulled out my notebook to try one more time. Matthew asked what I had so far, I read him the bridge, he tossed out the line “maybe when we’re older,” and we went from there, finishing two verses that night. The next day, I wrote the chorus and then started writing out the melody so I could send a leadsheet to my friend in Chattanooga who would be singing it. On Friday, five minutes before I was supposed to leave my mom’s house and head over to the wedding rehearsal, I finished writing a violin obbligato for it, and we were able to practice a couple times that night (I was playing piano). And the next day, the performance went off without a hitch. I’ll try to post the video from the ceremony so you can hear the song when I get a copy of it, but for now, here are the lyrics.

Be Your Home

Words and Music by Stephen Lamb and Matthew Paul Turner

Written for Sarah and Daniel Roberts

Verse 1:
Maybe when we’re older,
maybe when we’re wise,
We’ll look back on our story
and see what God designed.

There might be a thread of sorrow,
there might be a thread of pain.
But the beauty and the mercy
will be our sweet refrain.

We know that God has brought us together
and He has made us one.
Our love, for Him and each other,
will be our anchor in the storm.

Verse 2:
Maybe when we’re older,
maybe when we’re wise,
We’ll see how Jesus touched our story,
and how His truth gave us light.

And when we look around us
at the faces that we see,
We’ll see how we changed their stories,
how their stories changed you and me.

We know that God has brought us together
and He has made us one.
Our love, for Him and each other,
will be our anchor in the storm.

And when the storm clouds descend
and hope disappears,
I promise to stay by your side.
I will not turn away,
in the dark of the night.
I will be your home.

God has brought us together
and He has made us one.
Our love, for Him and each other,
will be our anchor in the storm,
our anchor in the storm.

Ooh, ooh.
I will be your home.

Copyright 2008 Stephen Lamb and Matthew Paul Turner

Update: Here’s a video of the performance from the ceremony.

Expelled: No Grays Allowed

When the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, featuring Ben Stein, hit theaters back in April, I didn’t go see it. In fact, I made it a point to deliberately avoid it, mainly because I’m not a fan of propaganda movies from any extreme, whether they feature Ben Stein or Michael Moore. And when you have the primary figure in the documentary, Stein, claiming in an interview with TBN that, “Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people,” it’s not hard to guess what the main point of the movie will be, what kind of statement they’re trying to make. Whenever I hear representatives of opposing ideologies blame the other for atrocities and claim their opponent’s philosophy is what led to those acts (in this case, Stein claiming Darwinism is to blame for Hitler, and Richard Dawkins – interviewed in the film – asserting the root of evil is religion), I always think of two kids standing in the middle of the schoolyard, pointing and yelling at each other, “nuh uh, it’s your fault!”

In the chapter The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice, in his book, The Reason for God, Tim Keller writes,

“Violence done in the name of Christianity is a terrible reality and must be both addressed and redressed. There is no excusing it. In the twentieth century, however, violence has been inspired as much be secularism as by moral absolutism. Societies that have rid themselves of all religion have been just as oppressive as those steeped in it. We can only conclude that there is some violent impulse so deeply rooted in the human heart that it expresses itself regardless of what the beliefs of a particular society might be – whether socialist or capitalist, whether religious or irreligious, whether individualistic or hierarchical. Ultimately, then, the fact of violence and warfare in a society is no necessary refutation of the prevailing beliefs of that society.”

I ended up watching Expelled last week with some friends, and later wished I hadn’t wasted the time. One big problem I have with films like Expelled is that they deliberately paint a black and white picture, ignoring the fact that issues are complicated in real life and hoping their viewers don’t have the mental capacity to see past their broad brush statements. Stein has stated in interviews that they deliberately chose people to interview on the extreme sides of each issue, avoiding people in the middle because they “didn’t want to confuse people.” I would have loved to have seen an interview with Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, a Christian and a highly respected scientist, who also happens to believe in evolution, explaining his beliefs included in this film. Instead we get the producer claiming in a New York Times interview that Dr. Collins holds his beliefs only because he is “toeing the party line,” an assertion Collins calls “ludicrous.” (On a side note, click here for a fascinating interview with Dr. Collins about his work on the human genome project and his belief in God, among other things.)

At the end of the day, though, I fall in line behind author Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time, Walking on Water), who said in an interview, “Somebody once asked me in a college setting what I thought about creationism versus evolution. I said, “I can’t get very excited about it. There’s only one question that’s worth asking, and that is, did God make it? If the answer is yes, then why get so excited about how?”

CT reviews AO’s Letters, Vol. II; Ben’s record makes year-end list

Christianity Today just got around to reviewing Andy Osenga’s Letters to the Editor, Vol, II, and gave it a great review. They write:

Another year, another half dozen songs from woefully underrated singer/songwriter Andrew Osenga (once the lead singer of The Normals, now lead guitarist for Caedmon’s Call). If you missed out on the first Letters to the Editor EP … well, what’s your excuse? It’s free to download, as is this one, though donations are most welcome.

The idea is simple, the execution masterful. Fans submitted ideas via Osenga’s website—a subject, a lyric, even a photo—then he crafted songs around them… Yes, the arrangements are minimalist, but Osenga makes the most out of his self-imposed limitations. He also maintains quality standards by recording at Jars of Clay’s studio. But oh what songwriting! He’s both clever and concise in his storytelling and imagery, often tapping into spiritual truths. The fact that he demonstrates all this in response to fan suggestions only makes it more impressive.

The songs are considerably shorter this time, half of them less than 3 minutes. But the truth is that Osenga says much more in these 17 minutes than most Christian artists do in an entire album.

I don’t think I blogged about this one when it came out, so I’ll try to get a detailed review up soon. For now, suffice it to say that I love it. I loaned Andy a couple of my favorite Frederick Buechner books while he was writing for this record (see here), and you can hear Buechner’s influence in several of the lyrics (“our secrets are shades of the same,” for one). Andy just put together both volumes on one CD, along with some extra tracks, and sent it off to be duplicated today. Hopefully it will be ready in time for the Andrew Peterson Behold the Lamb of God tour, so look for it there if you make it to any of those shows.

The other music news that I’m excited about is that Ben Shive’s debut record, The Ill-Tempered Klavier, was just named one of Christianity Today’s “Best Christian Albums of 2008.” For an independent release, available at first only on the Rabbit Room (now also on iTunes), this is high praise indeed, and says a lot about the quality of the record. The review says, “Exquisite, theatrical, pensive, penetrating, and cathartic—these words aren’t commonly used to describe Christian music, and that’s an indication of just how special this artful release really is.” I agree completely. Here’s hoping that not too much time passes before his next solo record comes out.

mudhouse sabbath, part 1

Within the past year or two, I’ve begun a habit of setting aside books to read on flights that I can get through in one sitting. On a trip to Seattle last November, I started reading Jeffrey Overstreet’s novel Auralia’s Colors as the plane took off from Nashville, and finished the last page, page 351, as the wheels touched down on the runway in Seattle. On the return flight, I read John Sweeney’s memoir, Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood. And more recently, flying home from the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids back in April, I read The Bridge to Terabithia, which I’d bought and had autographed by Kathleen Paterson after her inspiring closing address at the Festival. It’s nice to be able to give your undivided attention to a book that you can’t give at home, where there is always something that needs doing.

Mudhouse Sabbath

As I was walking out the door to head to Seattle for a vacation a couple months ago, I saw Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath in a stack of books I had recently acquired from a used bookstore, and decided to add it to the four or five other books that were already packed. I read Lauren’s memoir, Girl Meets God, last year, and it ended up being one of my favorite reads of the year, as well as making a great gift – I think I bought three other copies to send to friends – so Mudhouse Sabbath was quickly added to my to-read list, since I’ve read everything else she’s written at this point.

I found it to be a little more broad reaching than I had been expecting, dealing not only with the Sabbath itself but also with other Jewish traditions that have important implications/applications for our lives today. If you’ve read Girl Meets God, you’ll remember that Lauren converted to Christianity from Judaism in her early 20’s, and so in this book reexamines traditions she is intimately familiar with, in a new light.

In the introduction, Lauren gives us a rabbinic apology for traditions, for doing things we may not understand the reasons for. “This is perhaps best explained by a midrash (a rabbinic commentary on a biblical text). This midrash explains a curious turn of phrase in the Book of Exodus: “Na’aseh v’nishma,” which means “we will do and we will hear” or “we will do and w will understand,” a phrase drawn from Exodus 24, in which the people of Israel proclaim “All the words that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear,” The word order, the rabbis have observed, doesn’t seem to make any sense: How can a person obey God’s commandment before they hear it? But the counterintuitive lesson, the midrash continues, is precisely that one acts out God’s commands, one does things unto God, and eventually, through the doing, one will come to hear and understand and believe.'”

On the next page, Lauren writes, “In churches and homes everywhere people are increasingly interested in doing Christianity, not just speaking or believing it.” But she is quick to point out, “Practicing the spiritual disciplines does not make us Christians. Instead, the practicing teaches us what it means to live as Christians.”

I’ll blog through the rest of this book in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Randall Goodgame CD release party / New music from Jill Phillips

If you’re in the Nashville area this weekend, Sunday is the release show for Randall’s new EP, Bluebird. He’ll be playing the new EP start to finish, some of his older songs, and also an Elton John cover that I’m excited to hear. Admission is only $5, and includes a copy of the EP. The first part of the show will feature fellow Square Peg Alliance members Jill Phillips, Andrew Peterson, Andy Osenga, and Eric Peters, playing in the round.

Speaking of Jill, her new CD, The Good Things, releases December 2nd. Pre-orders started today, and they will be shipping out orders early, as soon as they have the CDs, maybe even this week. The lyrics for all the songs are already up on her website, and there’s a free EP up on Noise Trade with two songs from the album, Cool and Your Usual Response (featuring a great string arrangement by Ben Shive), and an interview with her husband and the co-producer of the album, Andy Gullahorn. Cason Cooley (The Normals, Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken) was the co-producer. I can’t wait to hear it.

Inclement Travel

A friend of mine, Taylor, a high school history teacher, has just started up a new blog about traveling. He’s planning on blogging about travel tips, stories from his own adventures, and whatever else comes out on the page.

Growing up, my family did a lot of traveling. We had three big trips that we took, mom and dad and the five kids packed in a van. When I was eight years old, we drove from Chattanooga, Tennessee, up to Juneau, Alaska (wrecking the van in Saskatchewan, Canada, along the way, where it took us a week to get it fixed up enough to continue our trip), and we also took a trip up the east coast, all the way to Niagara Falls, and another trip out west, to the Grand Canyon and Painted Desert and other notable sites. And during the 16 months I lived in Argentina, I was able to do a good bit of traveling. So it’s something I really enjoy. My younger sister and her new husband are in Israel right now, and I’m looking forward to hearing their stories and seeing their pictures.

On the “about” page of Taylor’s blog, he tells us,

“I believe that travel is one half education and one half luxury (no matter how much you spend). I don’t believe that travel should be only for the wealthy, nor should it be only the adventurous. Travel should be something that you are comfortable with, because it is your money, and often a lot of it goes into your travels. Whether going to the Middle East to see great holy sites, or rather just taking a weekend road trip, there should be some selfishness in your travel.

Now before I go on, please note that one key to being a good traveler is being unselfish, but as you prepare, plan, and pay, you need to take note of the things that you want to do and see. Though it is rather commonsensical, it is your trip, and you need to at least make your voice heard.

On the other side of that thought, though you want to be heard, you don’t want to shout. Make a list before you travel with a group, and even yourself, of things that you want to see. Rank them in order, and have the attitude that if I get to see one of these things, than my trip has been interesting and successful. Remember, no one place or attraction makes or breaks any trip.

As you read, be sure to take notes of some of the main points. However, don’t forget, these are mere suggestions, because after all… it’s your trip.”

Good tips. I’ve added his blog to my link list, and look forward to reading his stories. Here’s the link for you to check it out:

Bluebird – Randall Goodgame

Randall Goodgame’s new album, Bluebird, releases today. You can buy it at his website or on iTunes. I’ve had it on almost constant repeat for the last couple weeks, and every time I hear it, I like it more.

Reverie, the love song on the EP, reminds me of his song My Best Friend, from Arkadelphia. It has a chorus that is impossible to get out of your head, and a bridge that sums up perfectly what I think we all hope for in a lover. “When I am lost, she finds me / when I’m all tied up, she unwinds me / when I forget my name, she reminds me.”

Heaven Waits was written after Katrina. I’ve been waiting for a studio recording of this ever since he sang it at Andrew Peterson’s Christmas show at the Ryman Auditorium last year. All the Years poignantly articulates the universal longing for home, and California tells the story of a girl away from her family, in California. Bluebird can easily be summed up from the chorus, “Bluebird, bluebird / don’t you fly away / Bluebird, bluebird, don’t stay gone / Sometimes I’m up all night / Sometimes it just takes a bluebird to write a song.”

And Jubilee. What can I say about it? I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face the first time I heard it, walking around a parking lot at a hotel down in Atlanta, listening to it on my iPhone, and his performance of it at Andrew Peterson’s CD release show here in Nashville a couple weeks ago just made me like it even more. I love how it breaks into the chorus of the old gospel song Unclouded Day before the last chorus. Winn Elliott’s B3 organ parts are killer, as are the black gospel background vocals. And I love it when he lets loose and sings, “There’s ten thousand saints / from ten thousand tongues / and you know they’re marching to the rhythm of ten thousand drums.” And in the chorus, echoing the passages about Jubilee from Exodus, and the writings of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, he sings, “Come Jubilee / I’m gonna want no more / Come Jubilee / I’m gonna cry tears of joy / For every hungry belly there will be a feast / For every troubled mind there will be peace.”

Randall asked me to write strings arrangements for two of the songs, California and All the Years, and I wrote a little about the behind the scenes of it of over at the Rabbit Room – here’s the post. You can download All the Years for free here, and buy the full EP, as I mentioned, at his website today.

What are you waiting for?