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Thursday
Jul192012

An Unfinished Record; An Uncharted Path

We have been in the studio for two weeks.  Taking a large piece of rock and chipping away to find the sculpture within.  Mostly, the songs are written.  There are lyrics to be finished, and obsessed over.  And the skin of each song has yet to be identified.  The tone of each song’s delivery will come in time.  And so I know that I am jumping the gun a bit here. But as I sit and listen to the developing songs, I am increasingly aware that there is a chance that not many people will hear this record.  Not because the songs are not good enough, or the recording less than excellent.  I think this will be a great record. The reason this record may be unheard is not musical in nature.

I fear these recordings may get dismissed because Jars of Clay has a fairly entrenched brand conception. People outside of the general church community may not seek this record out.  And since the themes of the record are very far from evangelical Christianity, the church community will most likely not embrace this record.  Which, on one hand, is a relief.  I am pretty weary from years of pretending to be more of something than I am.  I am tired of carrying evangelical expectations on my shoulders.  I have never been so sure of my faith that I was able to find a true home in the church communities where we played most of our shows.  Our particular style of writing and the perspective that we have written from has not been an easy fit into an artistic community that has such a massive agenda and only a single idea of how that agenda gets accomplished.  I don’t fit there.  I may have at one point.  I did grow up as a youth group kid wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Jesus on it.  I did drive a car with a “Christian” bumper sticker on it.  And at one point, I was sure of who God was, and how God operated.  But I am not that way now.  And so it is impossible to write from that old version of myself. I am in the middle space. 

These songs are honest expressions of what life around us looks like.  The descriptions of love and pain, loneliness and hope are real to us.  It is what frustrates me about the general church audience.  If artistic expressions do not have an evangelical agenda, or they don’t explicitly cheer for Jesus, they tend to fail commercially.  In my experience, the music with those kinds of agendas is shallow and somehow not ultimately believable to me.  Ironically, what people probably want, and have a hard time articulating, is a description that gives voice to their experiences of doubt and faith and life, but they have been tricked into a very narrow view of where those descriptions come from.  And so they often settle for the Jesus cheerleaders or worship songs that have been loaded with sentimentality but not reality.  People set expectations that they are going to connect with real life during their worship services through the medium of worship music.  At the same time, people may forget entirely or dismiss the movie that described a portion of hard life that their soul found resonance with, because it wasn’t in a church context.  This doesn’t mean there is no space for evangelicalism.  But it is such a tiny sliver of the entire pie.  It is, “crumbs under the table. “  

I can’t begin to draw a map that leads us all into a better place.  And I wouldn’t change the path that got Jars of Clay to this point in our career.  I have to believe that God is in our story.  I have to believe that if God wanted to, we would be blissfully entrenched in a subculture, happy as clams to just rehash the same words to describe or even impose a right wing, conservative “Jesus figure.”  I imagine if God wanted us to have that kind of perspective, he could have barred us from so many enlightening conversations.  He could have kept us away from Africa or China.  He could have bent our ears away from the music of Depeche Mode, or U2, or XTC or David Bowie.  He could have kept us away from the magnificent artistic expressions of others walking this world in search of meaning.  He could have kept us away from the hard questions.  He could have blinded our eyes to the suffering of the world.  He could have never let “Blood:Water Mission,” with all its orbiting theologians and faithless figures and their coinciding conversations happen.  He could have never let us fall in love.  God could have never let us feel the weight of hard relationships.  He could have kept us from having children of our own.  He could have left us unscathed by the deaths of friends and relatives.  He could have done all of this, and we might be different.  He could have removed our longing to describe these things.  He could have removed the longing for connection that permeates every tone and syllable of a “Jars of Clay” song.  God could have kept us from asking good questions.

God gave us a story, and a space to fill.  And it isn’t really in the same neighborhood as the evangelical church.  And so our music will be disappointing to many.  People will inevitably engage us with the question, “Are you going secular?” or, “Why don’t you sing about Jesus?” or, “How come you don’t share the gospel?”   And some of those people will be angry.  Some of them won’t have the tools necessary to understand that anger, or the fear that creates it.  Some people will see our form of artistic expression as a threat.  Some will categorize us as “back-sliders.“  I wish I had more patience and time for those people.  But actually being present in my day takes a lot of energy.  Actually remembering who I am, and what my unique voice in the world is takes focus.  And I suppose I have been influenced by lots of angry people over the years until I woke up and couldn’t remember what my own perspective was. 

So, I wonder what people will do with this record.  I wonder if they will be able to get past evangelical hang-ups.  If they don’t, I have to assume that this record wasn’t for them.  I can’t wait to meet the people that this record IS for.  I bet they have lived some hard times.  I bet they have some unanswered questions.  I bet they pray a lot, without the motive of getting something, but rather, to remind them that the foundation is under their feet somewhere.  I imagine the person who appreciates this record will care about the nuance of both music and life. 

In a way, this record represents, for me,  a self-imposed eviction notice from a religious community that is unfit to live in.  I am packing up my things.  I will gather my questions, my opinions, my mistakes and confessions and start walking in search of….  Well,  lets not get too ahead of ourselves.  

Monday
Apr232012

SATAN'S PUPPET? Really?...just sign your name.

Let’s begin here… www.IJM.org  

If you have followed the fight against modern day slavery or even found the topic of sex trafficking in your periphery at any point, you probably became aware of International Justice Mission. 

They have been using their knowledge and resources to bring justice to people who wrongfully enslave others or keep girls trapped in sexual rings where they are forced into prostitution.  This is a simplification of the work they do.  They have been responsible for bringing freedom and healing to countless girls and families.

They have recently been asking people to join with them in signing a petition that would influence President Obama’s awareness and approach to the kinds of injustices that IJM is working to end.

 It seems simple doesn’t it?  Just add your name to a list of people who care that young girls are not forced into prostitution?  It seems simple enough to add a name to a list of people who want to make sure entire families are not forced into manual labor hauling bricks as voiceless, helpless servants.  Just add a name to a list that helps bring momentum in the fight to get people who are wrongfully imprisoned with life sentences because they did not speak the language of their accusers and were unable to defend themselves in a trial situation? 

So what’s the problem?   On the Jars of Clay Facebook page, on IJM’s  behalf, we asked our audience to add their names to the list. 

Here are a few comments: 

 

“Ask Congress, President Obama has been their slave for 3 years now!”

“Why would Obama help end slavery? He's a socialist... that equates to modern day slavery.”

“Lol, Jesus a socialist? That’s rediculous. How many socialists would defend Christianity today? Certainly not Obama! He knows more about Koran than he does the bible. Its sad how many people do not really know what is going on with our country.”

“Then why not go to Europe and stop sex trafficking yourself? Why not got to Africa and stop slavery yourself?  Those are deprivations of human rights throughout several foreign countries. And you want me to sign a petition to the president of the US to "end it all"?  This isn't a political matter, let alone a national political matter, stop making it one and be a valuable asset to your cause.  Ignorance will make you feel better, but it won't take away hurt from real people with real problems.”

“It is an issue of knowing it (the petition) is being handed to a presence that has no morals that makes little sense to me. How do you ask satan's puppet to show mercy? Unless of course it would benefit it's ratings for the upcoming election.

Just how do you believe this will change the hearts of man? I appreciate your devotion but you know what hits a nerve with me; abortion and contraceptives and yet these horrific nightmare's still exists. Some people do things in other ways such as FASTING, SACRIFICING and PRAYING with all their heart and all their might.  Voices sent to the Maker and Ruler of all the earth are promised to be heard and I believe these acts of faith are also promised by God to be productive! Not much can be confidently heard by those in sending stacks of protests to satan's puppet.  I do not put my "hope" in satan's puppet.”

These comments are frustrating to me on many levels. 

My initial reaction was to block all of these people from our Facebook page.  But that would not represent the “Middle Space”  where we want to exist… as frustrating as it is to have these voices at the table, they are invited.  Perhaps the biggest issue is that not a single comment acknowledged that we are talking about REAL slavery.  IF you can believe it, this isn't about you and  your political leanings, or convictions surrounding who should be or shouldn’t be the President of the United States!

How can anyone decide not to sign a petition like this based on political dissatisfaction?  Are people so compartmentalized that their lives are that distanced from actual human experience that they can look at a situation like child slavery and prostitution and find “politics” as a good reason to NOT simply put their names on a list?

Do people not consider actual people?

“I’m sorry little girl, I know you are being raped repeatedly every night, but I’m frustrated with a political leader that doesn’t share my views, so I just can’t help you out by signing a petition. It’s just too much for me to handle right now.”

NOTE:  This is NOT to guilt you into doing anything.  This is to show the short sightedness of the arguments that have already been posted as to why someone isn’t going to sign it. 

I know that some people are afraid of giving out their information, or the internet and technology is a big scary monster breathing spam and porn links and shamwow advertisements, and so people are hesitant to add their info to a petition. 

Those reasons somehow are not as bad because, they represent a bit more of an innocent reasoning… BUT for those who are actually standing behind a “political conviction,” and are willing to back up the inaction,  it is unjustifiable in my eyes.

Another angle...  

The mentality that some Christians have regarding prayer as the only action they are required to take, and prayer as a kind of absolution from the problems at hand is tragic.

I believe prayer matters.  I believe God answers prayer.  I believe we have the privilege of knowing more of God’s heart through prayer and contemplative disciplines.  BUT….BUT…. I don’t think it is enough in a situation like this to say,  "I won’t sign our petition, but I will pray."  

I truly believe God answers prayers through HIS people.  I believe we are the hands and feet and eyes to look compassionately at the world.  I think we pray as a means to have our eyes widened and perspectives drawn to the places where we are to bring our own hands and heart to bear on the injustice of our time.

If we are aware of an action that would serve the poor or a person in need, (especially actions that don’t put us in harms way or funnel us into some reckless activity that may hurt others) WHY wouldn’t we act? 

And if we don’t act, How do we justify it with Bibilical ideas?  Or Hide behind scriptures.   I have learned that serving others is a privilege, not an interruption to MY life.  I don’t think the Bible EVER speaks in opposition to this. 

IF a person sees an opportunity where they can help and does nothing that is fine.  Accept that I will think of them (as I would myself in those situations) as lazy or callous, or misguided, or sadly naïve, or busy,…or… a host of other things both decent and sometimes evil… BUT There is no place for using prayer as a reason for inaction and it will never cause me to consider them spiritual, or devout, or faithful. 

If IJM was asking us to travel to Uganda or Cambodia for a month to serve in aftercare facilities, I could understand why someone would choose not to do so.  The difference is in a specific calling to this kind of story… not everyone will be called to it.  A good friend once reminded me that, “the need does not necessitate the calling.”  Basically, just because you see the need does not mean it is entirely yours to see to it. “  We must know where we are best utilized.  However… this is a simple act, 30 seconds.  It took most of us longer to brush our teeth this morning. 

Rest assured, Obama is  NOT “Satan’s Puppet”  as one comment mentioned,  any more than you or I. 

We can cut our strings and act like real people who love real people, or we can stay wooden and heartless and continue to let our excuses keep us from action.  I will know jump down from my soapbox.  

http://www.ijm.org/content/sign-your-name-stand-for-freedom

Sunday
Apr152012

Roller Girls + Coffee

I woke up this morning, got dressed and walked off the bus in search of coffee. I was guided down to the lake and a coffee shop called, Alterra by The Lake.

We are getting ready for our third show of this tour. Already, there has been something different about the shows. It is hard to put my finger on it, but I would describe it as a freedom, or a weightlessness.

As I made my way in line at the coffee shop, I noticed a group of girls wearing t-shirts that said, "Brew City Bruisers."

They were a Roller Derby team. I decided I wanted to say hello. The vocation of a Rollergirl is intriguing to me. It seems like a hard kind of life.

I grabbed my coffee and sat outside. Once I mustered enough courage, I walked in and politely asked if I could have the honor of a photograph with them. The intimidation I felt left immediately, as they smiled and graciously said yes.

Once back at Turner Hall, I told the story of meeting the girls to a local helper. He grumbled something about lesbians and kissing, and getting beat up.

I invited the girls to the show. One of the things that struck me was that "the middle space" leaves room to invite rollergirls to a Jars concert. It might not have been an accepting environment had we been in a church, for all the reasons on both sides of the conversation. I was grateful for Turner Hall, and the chance to play in a neutral venue like this. It reminds me a lot of the first years of touring.

Hopefully some of the girls will show up. It was mostly just good to feel the freedom to invite.

That is the middle space. It has room for everyone. Come join us tonight.

Milwaukee, WI at Turner Hall. Maybe you can have your picture taken with a Rollergirl!

Sunday
Apr082012

Touring: The Middle Space

I recently did an interview about our upcoming tour, and the question posed by the interviewer was:  “Why are you touring?”  I thought I would expound on the short answer I gave in the interview….

I don’t know if you have ever thought about it, the reasons an artist might decide to go out on the road and perform concerts night after night.  It might seem like a simple matter of economics.  After all, at a point in history where people are not buying music in any shape that would allow artists to make the labor of creating music, a sole vocation, it is obvious that concerts would factor in. 

The economics do matter.  People can support an artist by purchasing a concert ticket and maybe a t-shirt at a show.  This helps put confidence into the minds of the promoters that have to wonder if the gamble they make on the artist is a good one or not.  If fans don’t show up for concerts, artist, will take their nomadic circuses elsewhere, since promoters don’t usually gamble on the same act more than once.

There is the record cycle.  This is the space usually 3 months before a record releases, and six months to a year after the record is released.  Artists tour and perform a specific group of songs in order to promote the recordings, and bolster sales and awareness of the band.  This also helps solidify a brand with images and a performance aesthetic that helps define who the artist is and wants to be.

Some artists tour because they are in demand.  The tour is more of a response to a cultural awareness, or exposure that placed them in the public conscience for a given moment., in other words, striking while the iron is hot.  Others tour in order to build the necessary army of fans who support and push the artist into the public conscience. 

Some artists tour with a transactional mindset.  They are there to capitalize on their success, ride the wave and suck as much life out of their fifteen seconds of fame.  The artist operates similarly to a professional athlete who knows they only have a few solid years of wear and tear on their bodies, so they push for the greatest amounts of money and build their sponsorship and endorsement portfolios as quickly as possible. 

Who could blame them really?  Artists don’t get much of an opportunity for longevity… and many new artists don’t really want it anyway.   The idea of an artist “selling out” to a corporation is an antiquated idea.  Having songs in commercials and in movies, even bad movies, is a sought after opportunity by almost all artists.

The reasons artists love performing are vast.  Some need the attention and applause.  They have an inexhaustible hunger for the spotlight.  It is the central tributary that feeds their significance, and without the attention, they wither. 

Some artists love performing because they consider the music they make to be a gift rather than a means to get.  I have watched artists sing songs to people believing that the song they sing is meant for a specific purpose in that place and time to heal a wound or provide a gift to a single person.  Music is for giving away.  It is a form of “disinterested love,” which is a term I borrow from Thomas Merton.  It means a love that has no interest at stake.  It is love without an end.  Artists who carry this kind of belief find their music to be purposeful and their touring to be missional in some form or fashion. 

I believe that most artists navigate touring with a cocktail of all of the above motivations. 

On April 10th,  I will step on a bus and begin the journey up to Minneapolis to begin a tour.  I have asked the question of myself.  Why am I touring?

I don’t have a record to promote.  In fact, we are at least 9 months from releasing another collection of songs.  We don’t have a current surge of awareness in the cultural conscience.  We are not a new band in search of a growing army to push us into the spotlight. 

I am touring because I want to remember what it is like to love music, love the people who sing along, and love the communities where our music is born. 

Jars of Clay turned 18 years old in 2012.   We finally get to vote this year.  We are touring in clubs and small theaters because we voted and realized that it matters that we start playing music in places where people go to experience live music because they love music. 

We aren’t playing as part of a large music festival with 100 other bands plopped down in front of a large radio banner for a station we probably haven’t ever had the chance to listen to.  We are not playing in places where we are co-opted into someone else’s agenda.  We aren’t making music as a means to some other end like an alter call, or a statement of relevance for some organization or project we don’t believe in.  We aren’t using music as a tool or a means to manipulate people into some spiritual or emotional experience they didn’t sign up for.  And we aren’t playing in places where we have to apologize for the abundance of ferns and pipe organ spires or pastel colored banners that all fight against our ability to offer the best musical experience we can. 

It has been years since I have been able to write those statements.

There are so many voices adding to the noise of who a band is, and why they do what they do.  Those voices are loud, and in the various moments of imbalance, where we wonder how much of what we do is supply and demand, how much is inspiration, and how much is rebellion, those voices can be a siren leading us to our doom.  We have followed voices like those.  Those voices will lead only to mediocrity.  Those voices that push an artist to create so deeply within the confines of a “market” or focused group will dissolve the artist’s confidence, and ultimately turn artists into manufacturers, driven by someone else’s ideas or motivations.  It chips away at honest.creativity. 

One day, I woke up and realized that I was not satisfied with the reasons I was making music anymore.  I was not happy with my motivations for touring.  Even though I loved our audience, I resented the performances where the expectations on the band to be more charismatic, or worshipful, or religious, or safe, (especially when I knew we weren’t making music in order to deliver such things) left me wondering if I had disappointed nearly everyone at the show. 

Jars began as a band for, what we call, “The middle space.”  We did not want to be a Christian band.  We did not want to be a mainstream band.  We wanted to live in the tension of both worlds.  We were comfortable with the tension of that middle space.  We loved the conversations and debates it would stir.  We felt like we were right were we needed to be.  We fought and elbowed our way to keep ourselves in that tension.  We’ve written songs for R rated movies and for church music albums.  We played for Billy Graham festivals and for Modern Rock Radio station festivals. 

We like the middle space.  It is a place where real conversations about doubt, struggle, faith, love, joy and pain exist in their most genuine and uncensored forms.  We love that the middle space has room for the drug addict and the preacher.  It is a table big enough for those who love God, and those who don’t care about God.

Jars of Clay is touring this season in the middle space.  We will from now on.  We will make music for the middle space.  We are coming to your cities to play music, tell stories, and enjoy the gift of music and friendship with you as less of a reinvention, as a restoration of what we care about as a band.  We hope you will come out and see the show.  Have a beer and consider the depths of love and faith.

We have selected songs for this show that are our favorites.  We have brought along artists that we believe in and will most likely blow us off the stage.  Come and join us in the middle space.  

Here are the cities and dates: go to www.jarsofclay.com for tickets!

APRIL:

12- Minneapolis, MN 
13- Des Moines, IA
15- Milwaukee, WI
16- St. Louis, MO
18- Fort Wayne, IN
26- Monroe, LA
27- Dallas, TX
28- Waco, TX
29- San Marcos, TX

Thursday
Mar152012

Dignity part 2

I know that the Invisible Children Organization is probably shaking their heads because they are simply trying to do a good thing.  I think their hearts and passion for Uganda's fight against Kony is real.  More importantly, the kind of backlash and useless critical engagement they have had to carry could make other people with big ideas pause.  I would hate for others to come to a conclusion that doing a good thing is too risky OR that doing a good thing carries too many chances for failure.  

People should continue to dream, and at the same time, take the time to have the necessary conversations with people who have been there before.  The pool of wisdom regarding community development is deep and wide.  And the Invisible Children campaign should teach us that great marketing is nice, but ultimately not the biggest piece of the puzzle.  

Here is a link someone sent yesterday.  If this is a majority opinion in Uganda, than I wonder if the campaign needs to dissolve.  I have received comments that include people saying that Ugandan's wouldn't understand because the video is not produced with them in mind, it is produced to get American's to act... This betrays a lot of misconception surrounding how smart Ugandan's are, or how connected they are.  A classic case of limited resources = limited intelligence.  That is not how the world works.  

Check it out.  

http://boingboing.net/2012/03/14/uganda-screening-of-kony-201.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter