The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES

I’ve thought a lot recently about starting a church. If I had more energy — or should I say, more zeal — I might already have tried to find some like-minded believers to do so.

Celtic Cross, St. Nicholas' Church, Lazonby
(“Celtic Cross, St. Nicholas’ Church, Lazonby,” by Peter Hughes, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I should point out to my science fiction and fantasy friends that I do not mean starting a religion, and to my Christian friends that I do not mean starting a denomination — I mean, simply, starting a church.

I’ve thought a lot about this because my wife and I have visited a lot of churches recently and haven’t found one that really effectively balances the contemporary with the traditional; that combines deep, thoughtful, Biblical teaching with enthusiastic, Christ-centered worship; that is large enough to offer a variety of ministries without being desperate for more workers, yet small enough not to be overwhelming or reliant on communications technology; and that has a healthy mix of people from all backgrounds and age groups.

Our church search often reminds me of these lines from the Steve Taylor song, “Steeplechase” (from the album I Want to Be a Clone),

… you started church-shopping, did ya?

It’s been a problem, finding one to fit ya
you didn’t feel good, did ya?

From time to time I’ve thought that my Mormon friends have it a little easier in that they don’t have a plethora of church options available to them. As I understand it, whatever ward they live in, they go to that church and fit in as best they can.

But aside from being unable personally to find the right place to worship and learn, I’ve thought a lot about starting a church because I’ve observed over the years that few churches seem to give back very much to the communities they purport to serve. Most of the tithes and offerings that those churches collect stay within the church. Maybe that’s necessary — the light bills have to be paid, after all — but I’m not so sure.

It seems to me that a church pursuing the ideals of the Gospel would call believers to a higher purpose than weekly meditations and occasional fellowship. Such a church would serve others more than it serves itself. It would be more concerned with the world outside its walls (physical or figurative) than with its sacred cloisters.

I think if I started a church, then, I’d like to start a church that makes giving its most fundamental reason for being. I would call it The Gift Church, or The Gift for short.

I think of it like this:

Purpose. The purpose of the Church is to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ through service to the community and the world. The Church has been given gifts that are meant to be shared.

Central Tenet. Believing that the Lord Jesus Christ’s declaration is true (as reported by Paul the Apostle to the Ephesian church leaders in Acts 20:35), that it is indeed more blessed to give than it is to receive, the Church shall devote more of its monetary resources to serving the needy than it does to its own internal obligations, needs or desires.

I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a congregation (and I’ve been part of a lot of congregations through our years of moving from place to place) that purposed to spend more on helping others than it did on helping itself. But since the idea came to me — on a walk one morning, about eight months ago — I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Maybe it’s an unreasonable, unworkable aim; I don’t know, but it intrigues me.

I don’t know yet if I will say any more on this subject, or whether it resonates with or interests anyone else at all. But the idea of a church with a strong purpose in this world, that practices radical generosity on a regular basis, resonates with me. I think if its worship was lively and its teaching sound, I might like to be a part of such a church.

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Blogging the New CD: L is for a Lake of Beer

Seventh in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

This post will work best if you can read it in an Irish accent … though an English, Scottish, or Aussie accent would work fine as well.

We should probably answer the obvious question: what happened to letters G through K? In this blog series I went straight down the line from A is for Anti-Candidate to F is for a Faded Coat, so why did we jump all the way to L?

I’ll tell you why. First, because the album only has 11 songs on it, so it was unreasonable to think that I might use all 26 letters of the alphabet. Second, while I could have used “G” this time and said it was for a “Great Lake of Beer,” since that’s more of the song’s title, I elected not to.

Sue me.

This song is actually based on a prayer attributed to St. Brigid of Ireland, who lived around A.D. 453-523. You can find several versions of her prayer online, some annotating it as a tenth century prayer, but of course if she really wrote it then it would be a fifth or sixth century prayer. This version starts as follows:

I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.


St. Brigid of Kildare, rendered in stained glass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Macon, GA (1903). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I took St. Brigid’s prayer, added some words here and there to render it in four rhyming stanzas, and also added this chorus:

I’ll raise my glass in highest honor
Of the man who turned the water into wine
For he taught us how to live a little better
And I’d like to drink with him for all of time

“A Great Lake of Beer (for the King of Kings)”

And because it’s an Irishwoman’s prayer (based, some sources say, on her vision of heaven as having a great lake of beer), I tried to write my best approximation of an Irish tune around it. The only way for you to decide if I was successful, of course, is to listen to it.

I hope you like it!

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Blogging the New CD: C is for Christ’s Hard Sayings

Third in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

Some people reading this may be averse to anything that even hints at Christianity, its tenets or its practices. That’s okay. But even people who do not follow Christ can often recognize and sometimes appreciate things he said.

Consider “Turn the other cheek,” for instance. Many people might recognize that sentiment without knowing that Jesus said it, or without knowing how subversive it was at the time.* Like many of the things that Jesus taught, however, it’s easier to say than it is to put into practice. To apply it to a recent situation in science fiction and fantasy fandom, had more people been able to turn the other cheek the great Hugo Award Fracas of 2015 might have resulted in fewer hurt feelings and fewer damaged friendships.

The truth is that Jesus said some things that are difficult to understand and difficult to embody. As a result, the practice of Christianity is sometimes hard to accomplish.

Follow me, and learn to fish for human souls
Follow me, leave your family and your home
Follow me, I don’t bring peace, I bring a sword
Follow me, and let the dead bury their own

“We Want the Easy Road”

Some of those things are hard to figure out, and some are hard to do, on top of the basic problem of dealing with doubt and uncertainty day by day, and of trying to make the most of whatever measure of faith we may have. This song, then, is primarily about dealing with the difficult things that Jesus said, the things he said that fly in the face of the way we think the world works or should work, and above all else the one thing he said that can confound us whether we ignore it or we try to obey it. And that was simply, “Follow me.”

What are we to make of the things he said? At times during the song you get some of my reactions:

  • “It sounds so good, you knew it would, all the pleasant things you said”
  • “It sounds so odd, these words from God, so we ignore the hard things you said”
  • “It sounds absurd, these things we heard — all those crazy things you said”
  • “We close our ears, don’t want to hear, are we sure that’s what you said?”

And as the good things he said transition to odd things, to things that sound absurd, and to things that we may not want to hear, I conclude that quite often we want the easy road rather than the straight and narrow, the wine and the bread of communion rather than the sweat and sacrifice of service.

A loaf of bread...
“We want the easy road, the wine, the bread.” (Image: “A loaf of bread…” by James Lee, from Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Whether you are a believer or not, whether you have ever even thought much about who Jesus was or what he did, I hope you can find something to ponder in “We Want the Easy Road”. And if you like it, go ahead and share it with others who might like it, too.

___
*If you want to know more about how turning the other cheek or going the extra mile would have been subversive acts, drop me a line.

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Release Day! DISTORTED VISION is Now Available!

Almost 2 years to the day since I released Truths and Lies and Make-Believe, here comes my second musical collection, Distorted Vision.


(Album cover photography and design by Christopher Rinehart. Click to go to the Bandcamp page, to listen to or purchase the album.)

Like its predecessor, Distorted Vision is another collection of songs mostly inspired by or referencing science fiction and fantasy, as well as songs about the marvels and misfortunes of life itself. I consider it to be a second helping of “truths and lies and make-believe.”

Where T&L&MB had ten all-original tunes, this new album has eleven songs, including two which use existing tunes. I intend to write a series of posts examining each song on its own, but here’s the running order with a few basic notes:

All the above links go to Bandcamp, which is the only place the album is available at this time. At Bandcamp you can listen to the songs, purchase a download of individual songs or the whole album, and order a physical CD for me to send to you (and, yes, I ship them myself).* I will make the album available on CD Baby soon, and from there it will be available on Amazon and other outlets — and the songs themselves will be available for streaming.

If you never listened to Truths and Lies and Make-Believe,** but you’ve heard me play guitar and are a little leery of how these songs might sound, let me assure you that just like the first album I did not actually play any of the instruments on this one. My friend Mark Minervino was once again the studio musician par excellence, and also engineered and mixed the songs, and my friend Brian Ceccarelli of Talus Music mastered the CD so the sound quality would be uniform. I couldn’t have done this album, or the last one, without them!

So if this sort of thing interests you, or if you’re just curious, or even if you just want to humor me, I hope you’ll give it a listen — and that maybe you’ll find something you like enough to buy! And if you know someone else who might appreciate it, by all means send them a link to the album or to this blog post.

Thanks, I hope you like what you hear, and let me know what you think!

___
*Note that physical CDs won’t ship until close to the end of the month. Sorry!
**Really? It’s been out for 2 years, and you haven’t listened to it yet?

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Reflections on the Second Day

Today is the second day. A day of doubt, despair, and fear.

Jesus Cross
(“Jesus Cross,” by Claudio Ungari, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I think of Jesus’s disciples on the second day. Those who knew him, loved him, followed him; who listened to him, questioned him, wondered about him. Those who believed in what they thought he would do, believed in what he said, believed in him. And saw him taken from them.

They were marked men (“Weren’t you with him?” “I don’t know him!”). Not so much revolutionaries without a leader as sheep without a shepherd.

The second day was a Sabbath day. A day of rest, when no work would be done. A day when the mind should be turned to God. A day of no distractions.

I imagine they prayed for distractions. For brighter memories of better days, instead of bitter images of the first day.

I imagine they did not think of the day as the second day, or the day before as the first. And I imagine they did not much anticipate what the third day would bring.

For them, it was just a dark and terrifying “today.”

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The Gray Man Unplugged — ‘Help My Unbelief’

I know this video is nothing special — it’s just me and my guitar, shot with my phone, no frills, no special effects — but I think the song itself might speak to just about everybody at some point in their life. I think most of us struggle with doubt from time to time, and “Help My Unbelief” is a song about doubt and the desire to overcome it.

The studio version of the song is much better, of course. But in whatever format, this is one of the more personal songs I’ve written. I wrote it in 2012, and I actually sang it in church long before we recorded it for the CD. When I introduced it in church, I said something about “Doubting Thomas” being one of my heroes for being willing to admit his doubt, and how much I identify with the city official who said, “Lord, I believe — help my unbelief.”

If you’ve struggled with doubt, I hope this song gives you some comfort that you’re not alone. And if you know someone who is struggling, or who might want to use the song in a service, by all means feel free to share it with them.

___

And now, a word from our sponsor: “Help My Unbelief” appears on Truths and Lies and Make-Believe, a “compendium of musical selections inspired or influenced by science fiction, fantasy, life, and faith … a multitude of things.” It’s not all serious songs — I tried to balance silly and serious songs on the album — though even some of my science fiction and fantasy songs often end up being serious.

___

If the embedded video doesn’t work, here’s a direct link to the “Help My Unbelief” ‘unplugged’ Video.

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Does the Human Eye Prove that God Exists?

To answer the question right out of the gate, I’d say no, because no single phenomenon or example can “prove” that God exists.


(Someone is watching you ….)

The question comes from the headline of an article in The Telegraph — in the “film” section, no less — that discusses what a wondrous mechanism the human eye is, with its “astonishing inbuilt systems.”

Take, for example, a little trick called the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR). In short, it’s our own personal Steadicam — an inbuilt muscular response that stabilises everything we see, by making tiny imperceptible eye movements in the opposite direction to where our head is moving. Without VOR, any attempts at walking, running — even the minuscule head tremors you make while you read these words — would make our vision blurred, scattered and impossible to comprehend.

As one who finds very jittery camera work in movies (like District 9) and some video game action (like the rolling ball in Katamari Damacy) very disorienting — to the point of physical illness — I am very grateful for the VOR!

But that’s not all:

… researchers have discovered the retina is doing a huge amount of pre-processing itself – and that as light passes through the retina’s several dense layers of neurons, a lot of detail like colour, motion, orientation and brightness are determined.

When I took a laser safety course (many years ago), we were told that the retina was put together opposite the way an optical engineer would have designed it, because the rods and cones actually point backward, into the retina itself, instead of forward toward the lens. This newly-found pre-processing function may have something to do with that, though personally I wonder if turning the sensors around would make our eyes more susceptible to damage from very intense lights.

Things like that make the question of deliberate design vs. development by natural selection interesting. As the article puts it,

Even today, Christians and creationists believe that Charles Darwin himself was troubled by its existence — seizing upon an (oft-misquoted) aside in Origin of Species, where Darwin remarked that the whole idea of something so flawless “could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”

The full Darwin quote, with the important next sentence, is:

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

Thus something that seems absurd may still be possible, and even reasonable. The question is whether it matters. For instance, whether it matters to a believer that sufficiently different eyes can be understood by natural selection to lead to the human eye. Or whether it matters to an unbeliever that the believer attributes the eye’s complexity to the influence of a creative God.

The eye still exists, and some of us can praise God for it even though its existence is insufficient to prove that God exists.

And that’s okay. After all, faith is “the evidence of things not seen.”*

___
*Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)

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On Reaching the Fifteen Percent Mark

As a bit of insight into the economics of independent music publishing, this weekend I broke the 15% mark in terms of CD sales.


(Image by Paul Cory Photography.)

To be precise, I reached the 17.15% point, which means that so far I’ve made back a little over 17% of the cost of recording, engineering, manufacturing, distributing, etc., the CD.

In other words, I’m still over 80% in the hole, almost a year after releasing the album.*

Maybe you didn’t even realize I had a CD out. In that case, at this link you can listen to all 10 songs of Truths and Lies and Make-Believe, which I call “a compendium of musical selections, inspired or influenced by science fiction, fantasy, life, and faith … a multitude of things.” If you decide to buy it, it’s $7 for a download or $10 — only $1 a song! — for a physical CD. (Though you can pay more, if you want to.)

So as I told folks at my concert this past weekend at ConGregate, if you’ve ever bought a copy of my CD, THANK YOU!

And if you like any of my songs, even a little bit, I’d be much obliged if you told a friend or wrote a review or otherwise helped spread the word.

And maybe next month I’ll crack the 20% mark!

___
*And yet I’m crazy enough to be thinking of starting to record a second one!

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Christians: Roses, Daisies, Dandelions, …?

Some thoughts about metaphors that can describe the church — not the building, but the body of believers — and our relation to the world.

Best Overall Division Wildflower Program - 1st Place - Div 4
(Image by NCDOTcommunications, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Is the church like a rose garden? Have each of us as individual believers been cultivated for special color or shape or fragrance, for what our beauty — despite our thorns — can offer to brighten an otherwise drab world? Do those we encounter find us winsome, and come to appreciate what we offer?

Or are we daisies or other wildflowers, growing freely and with less restraint? Less fragrant than roses, but more plentiful, and pretty rather than beautiful? Do we bring fleeting smiles to those we encounter, but leave them unsatisfied?

Or are we dandelions? Weeds, sprouting and taking root wherever? With less to offer in terms of beauty, but still with some aesthetic value? Do we annoy those who encounter us, and make them struggle to be rid of us?

It seems we may present ourselves as one or the other at different times of our lives. And the difference may be less in our appearance than in how we respond to those who encounter us.

As roses, we can be difficult to handle, delicate and easily bruised, and our thorns can injure the unwary and keep them at a distance. As daisies, we would certainly be easier to grasp, and tougher, but we may not be suited to the innocent who would pull our petals off one by one — “He loves me, He loves me not” — heedless of its effect on us. As dandelions, we can be deep-rooted but surprising fragile at the head, especially when we’ve gone to seed … at which point a breath or a breeze can blow us apart and send those seeds flying.

And the seed is important.

You can choose your own metaphor, of course, but as I think about how important the seed is maybe in the end it would be better to be like sunflowers: reaching ever upward, sturdy and strong and bright, producing seeds of truth and love that nourish those with a taste for them.

___

P.S. Thank-you to my newsletter readers who sent comments on the early draft of this post! If you’d like to receive my every-so-often newsletter, sign up with the “subscribe” button on my web site. GR

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A Book of Truths

Following up on a conversation I had with a friend at the last science fiction & fantasy convention I went to, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between truth and fact.

Bible Study
(“Bible Study,” by .:[ Melissa ]:., on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Specifically, that truth and fact are not the same thing.

A fact is a provable assertion, something verifiable by applying an operational definition. A factual assertion will be true, or it cannot be considered factual. Truth, however, especially what we might call “capital-T truth,” is bigger, broader — higher and wider and deeper — than fact. It may be based on fact, but it may also be based on logic or intuition or revelation because truth goes beyond fact.

The conversation we had specifically dealt with Scripture, and the difficulty some people have with it. Within the Christian church, for instance, many believers seem unwilling or unable to face up to metaphors, translation issues, and other problems with the Biblical text. Their faith at times seems to be in the Bible itself — in what they believe is an infallible text — rather than in God.

On the other side of the divide are my atheist friends, some of whom are lightning-quick to mention errors or points of disagreement with the Biblical text. Indeed, some appear to use such things to justify their decision to deny even the possibility of God’s existence, action, and love for humanity.

In each case, the formula seems to be “If any part of the Bible is inaccurate or problematic, then the whole of the Bible cannot be trusted.” Some Christians go so far as to treat Jesus’s parables, his teaching stories, as if they described historical events because they cannot abide the thought of Jesus telling a story that might not be “factual” even though it illustrates a “truth.” On the other side, I understand that some atheists go so far as to claim that Jesus was not a real historical person, though I have not personally encountered anyone who voiced that opinion.

I wonder at the deeper motivations involved. Do my Christian brethren ignore problems because at heart they want to believe and any textual difficulties will shake their beliefs? In a similar way, do my atheist friends point out problems because at heart they do not want to believe and the textual difficulties provide them a ready excuse?

Regardless of the underlying reasons, many believers and atheists alike seem to want or expect or demand that the Bible be a book of facts that has some truth in it. That seems to me a shallow outlook; in my estimation, it’s more accurate to say the Bible is a book of truth that has some facts in it.

And to me that makes a world (if not a universe) of difference.

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