Two years ago, I gave Isaac a bone from one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten.
He danced and chewed and wagged and panted and chomped and smiled. I watched him trot around the back yard, searching for the perfect burial spot for the prize dangling from his teeth—which still had some meat on it.
He clawed at the dirt under a bush, paused, observed, and walked on. He dug a second hole, but it too did not meet his satisfaction. He finally found the perfect spot and returned to me with no bone and a pepper-black nose. Both of us slept soundly that night, and one of us completely forgot about the bone.
This past Monday evening, at the end of my weekly Sabbath, Isaac set out on his nightly investigation of the backyard. I kept one eye on the television and the other on the white dog against the dark sky. I saw the familiar stance of him digging in the dirt. When he turned back towards me, something was in his mouth. I assumed that it was one of the rawhides he’d buried at Christmas time.
Erring on safety’s side, I grabbed the flashlight and put on my slippers. I stepped carefully over leaves and twigs towards him. I said, “What you got there, bud?”
Ask a dog a question, and his eyes will always answer.
Isaac looked at the flashlight with a mixed response of, “None of your business,” and “I’m going to need some forgiveness later.”
Dearly beloved readers, because I want for you to continue reading this blog, I will not describe what Isaac found. You’ve probably figured out by now that he was the one who remembered the steak bone’s burial plot from two years ago.
I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him towards the house, flashlight flailing into a strobe light as he struggled against me. After securing him inside, I disposed of his old, rotting, and not-so-buried treasure.
9 Then the Lord stretched out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me, “I’m putting my words in your mouth. 10 This very day I appoint you over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.” (Jeremiah 1:9-10, Common English Bible)
Prior to this passage is a verse that we paint in babies’ nurseries and hear in ordination sermons—God calling the prophet, Jeremiah, with the words, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”
That’s the pretty part of the story. Then the hand of God shows up—and calls Jeremiah to dig.
Answering God’s call to serve is a mix of the beautiful and the messy. Alongside Jeremiah’s words that plant are his words that tear. Alongside the hunt for treasure is the discovery of the rotten bone. A yard that is green and blossoming on the surface may have dangerous decay underneath that we need to uproot and throw away.
Like Isaac, sometimes we don’t want to throw away what can hurt us. We bury our pasts only to return to them—instead of moving forward. God desires to accomplish so much through us as his servants, his mouthpieces, his Church.
Why do we waste time moping when we could go digging for even greater treasure?
I did not enjoy ending my Sabbath with disposing of a rotten bone. Yet I am relieved that my yard is cleaner and my dog is safer now.
Kingdom work is not always pretty or pleasant, but it is always good—because the King works for our good.
When I walked into my first yoga class fourteen years ago, the teacher, whom I’ll call “Lotus,” showed us how to breathe properly. She told us where to place our feet for each pose and when to squeeze our shoulder blades together. She explained what “savasana” meant (literally, the Sanskrit term means “corpse pose,” but I like to think of it as a well-deserved power nap).
A few months later, I went to a different studio in a different town with a different teacher we’ll call, “Butterfly.” She instructed us to stand with feet hip-width apart in mountain pose. The other instructor had said to place our feet close together. Butterfly told us we couldn’t drink water during class. Lotus had handed out water during class. Butterfly said that it was fine to fall asleep during “savasana.” Lotus preached that we must “maintain our awareness even in the relaxation of savasana.”
As different as Lotus and Butterfly were, they had one thing in common: each believed that her way of teaching was the only way. I’m not saying that they were closed-minded. They offered some excellent instructions. They taught me about connecting breath and movement. I kept going back to their classes because I wanted to learn more. Both of them had completed extensive teacher training, and I believe that their students’ well being was chief concern.
I also learned from them the easy danger of bondage.
Sometimes yoga classes lack an important component: flexibility. How ironic that one of yoga’s greatest benefits is absent from the practice. I say this not with fingers pointing at Butterfly and Lotus but with fingers pointing back at myself as an instructor, too. It’s easy to teach a class with tightly wound rules. It’s easy to be a know-it-all. It’s easy to become bound in a certain structure or system.
When we slip into the bondage of only moving or breathing a certain way, we lose the freedom that yoga has to offer. Some bodies are not able to move a particular way, and adjustments are necessary. Some illnesses prevent us from breathing through the nose, and we have to make concessions to breathe through the mouth.
The same entrapment happens in our churches if we’re not careful.
We become convinced that our traditions are the best. The translation of the Bible that we use is the only one to study. The Spirit only breathes upon us during a certain hour on Sunday morning. We build an Egypt in the Promised Land, and pride is not always the culprit. Perhaps familiarity is just as much the contractor of those walls.
The Lord is our God. He is the one who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. He has done these mighty signs in our sight. *
People often practice yoga because they want to loosen muscles that feel bound. People often come to church because they want to experience freedom from life’s burdens.
How can we avoid our past bondages?
How can we celebrate the freedom of deliverance?
Whether in yoga class or in church or in the everyday-ness of life, we could all benefit from pausing to remember how far we’ve come. The Israelites longed for the house of bondage when they ceased to give thanks. They felt drawn to the confines of the past when they pulled away from the mighty One who had done great things in their sight.
Let us choose this day whom we will serve: the house of bondage or the house of the Lord? When we choose the house of the Lord, we may not always agree on where to place our feet or how deeply to breathe. But we can rest in the reassurance that God is the instructor who has made us free.
No greater compliment could Barry, my guitar teacher, have paid me.I had danced to “Summer of ‘69” at high school prom. I ran beside the Mississippi River with it playing through my earbuds. When I had my own little rock concert at home, complete with air guitar and hairbrush as microphone, “Summer of ‘69” was on the playlist.
I don’t know much about the song’s story or the singer, Bryan Adams. All I know is that I love the song. Apparently, I also knew the song better than I realized. Playing around with a D chord at this week’s lesson turned into learning the whole song.
Last summer I started guitar lessons as part of my Sabbath—the day that I set apart each week for quiet. Anyone who knows me knows that there is no biblical topic I love to discuss more than Sabbath. I preached a sermon series on it last summer. I do a happy-dance when a Sabbath passage appears in the lectionary –which is not often enough. There’s a stack of books in my office on the topic.
For my own Sabbath, I try to unplug from the routine of work in order to plug in to the Spirit hovering over the still waters of rest. The more I observe Sabbath, the more I experience its complexity.
Taking time off is not just about “doing nothing.”
Sabbath also invites us to play. To learn to play. To learn how to play again.
As children, play came naturally to us. As adults, demands on our time prevent us from setting apart free time. Sabbath occurs when we intentionally devote time to freedom.
Christ has set us free for freedom. *
Through Christ Jesus, we are able to become like little children again—to play and rejoice in the playing, to rest and rejoice in the resting.
As children of God, how might we intentionally set aside time simply to remember that we are free?
Learning to play the guitar requires learning to play again. Playing with a chord leads to learning a song. Time devoted to play is not time wasted. Play reconnects us to the songs that make us smile and dance. Play reconnects us to the Source of our joy--the Lord of the dance.
Will you join me today in taking a moment to play? Sing with the radio. Dance. Do a few jumping jacks. Swing from monkey bars. Make a silly face.
Reconnect with the freedom of being a child of God.
If you’re a writer, it’s where you mark through your favorite paragraph of witty language with a red pen—even when you don’t want to do so.
For the visual artist, it’s the pause between strokes as you discern which color and space to choose next for the canvas.
Anyone in the film industry knows that yelling, “Cut!” on a movie set is not the real editing room. That designation is for what happens long after the cameras stop rolling.
Filmmaker Christopher Columbus faced a house of editing rooms when he took on a new project in 2004. He signed on to direct a movie version of the hit & hip musical, Rent. Any time we translate a story from one medium to another, changes are inevitable. Editorial pens fly when a nearly three-hour musical written for a small, rustic stage becomes a two-hour movie filmed in three cities and a sprawling studio. I imagine that the journey from Broadway to Hollywood, or vice versa, is more like a cross-country ride on a train than a direct flight on an airplane. There are lots of starts, stops, and bumps that go swiftly, then slowly.
In the stage production of Rent, “Goodbye Love” is a favorite song of fans. The scene finds roommates Mark and Roger editing their own lives. Roger has decided to move to Santa Fe, escaping his life in New York and Mimi, the woman he loves. Mark confronts him about why he’s leaving, Roger gets angry, and they sing/speak/sling harsh words at each other. All the while, Mimi overhears every word because she came to tell Roger, “Goodbye, love.”
Columbus and his team included the song in the movie's filming. You need not see the whole film to recognize the emotional power in the music, performances, and lyrics. “Goodbye Love” says (and sings) a lot in a short time span. We learn (and hear) so much about the characters as the plot moves forward.
Why, then, was the scene left in the editing room and out of the film?
On the DVD commentary, Columbus shares the story behind saying goodbye to “Goodbye Love.” Included in deleted scenes, Columbus says that he loves “Goodbye Love.” He calls it one of the most beautiful moments in the whole course of filming. He said it was one of his favorite moments when he saw Rent live.
He also reminds us that he had to make tough decisions as a filmmaker—especially for the pace of the film. “Goodbye Love” comes towards the movie’s end when emotions are high, and there are still more emotions to survive before the conclusion. Columbus shares the following:
“Rick [the editor] and I kept trying to figure out what to do with the scene -- how to keep it. Then Rick said, ‘I have an appalling idea.’ I knew what he meant….So we watched the movie without the scene, and the film came to life. It was a sad loss. But I believe it was the best decision for the sake of the whole film.” *
When we edit our art, we refine the piece. We make it better. Sometimes improvement means cutting. Sometimes cutting involves saying goodbye to things, people, ideas, and attachments we love. When we’re working for a better whole, sometimes a part, even a good part, has to go.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit.
John 15:1-2 (Common English Bible)
How might we edit our lives in 2015?
What can we ask God, our editor, director, and vineyard keeper, to cut or trim from our lives?
Where would we benefit from saying “goodbye?”
We need not force such change when we are in communion with Jesus Christ. He sustains us through the pruning process and helps us see the bigger picture of our life’s scenes.
Let us not think of cutting or pruning as a negative subtraction from our lives.
Instead, why don’t we think of God directing the movie of our lives into something better than we ever imagined?
all good things to each of you, Pastor Darian
* RENT is a production of Sony Pictures Entertainment, 1492 Pictures, and Revolution Studios. Copyright 2005. More information available here
When my sister and I were growing up, we listened to a lot of contemporary Christian music.
One Christmas, we received monogrammed cassette tape holders for our collections. Yes, those really did exist. They were foot-long, rectangular bins with tape-sized dividers. Covered in cloth with a handle on the end, a zipper around the top kept everything in place. Hers said VALERIE, and mine said DARIAN. There is no better security system for a Christian cassette collection than to emblazon the children’s names on them. We carried them very proudly, along with our walk-mans, on road trips.
One tape that I put in my holder every December was Amy Grant’s Home for Christmas, which included the songs, “Breath of Heaven” and “Grown Up Christmas List.” Nearby it was Michael English’s self-titled album. On "side one" of that tape was the original recording of “Mary, Did You Know?”
Twenty-plus years later, DARIAN’s cassette tape holder no longer exists. I carried it until the fabric unraveled, and the first “A” came off, leaving me with the name of “D-RIAN.” Thankfully, the songs still exist and thrive on radio stations and in choir cantatas. Some people would even describe "Breath of Heaven" and "Mary, Did You Know?" as “new” Christmas songs. I have trouble thinking of anything from the cassette holder as “new.”
This is the time of year where familiar music fills our sanctuaries and dominates our airwaves. In church, we sing about baby Jesus and angels. Rudolph, Santa, and jingling bells echo at parties. We know the first verses of many Christmas hymns by heart. It would be easy to stick with what’s familiar and not to learn anything new.
Yet the prophet Isaiah calls to us….
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”*
Advent is the forging of a new creation that reveals God’s glory. New roads. New valleys. New mountains. New ground. Alongside our old traditions should be new expressions of glorifying God.
Is there a new song that you might sing this Advent?
While this blog series mainly focuses on songs that are not necessarily in the “Christian” genre, this week is an exception. Michael W. Smith (who had two cassette tapes in my holder!) and Amy Grant recently recorded a song entitled, “Almost There.”
The words remind us that no matter how far we’ve come as children of God, we’re still “almost there.” There is always more to learn. There is always further to go. There is always space for a new song.
Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith have recorded a number of well-loved songs, including some we sing mainly at Christmas time. Successful songs of the past have not prevented them from writing and recording new ones for today. Part of our growth as artists and as children of God is to create something fresh. We don't neglect the songs written twenty years ago. We build upon them. "Almost There" is a song of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. It's the story of Christ--not just Christmas.
As we sing the songs of cassette tapes and prior times, let us download a new tune, too. Isaiah may have written his prophetic song centuries ago, but the message is one of new creation—yesterday, today, tomorrow, and always.
all good things to each of you, Pastor Darian
* Isaiah 40:3-5 (New International Version)
If you have trouble viewing the following video, here is a link to watch it on YouTube's website: http://youtu.be/-ClYL3pKCwI