Bellarive – “The Heartbeat”

In this day and age, it would be fairly easy (and is) for a band to make simple worship music to appeal to the masses and conform to the typical formula and feel of Christian worship music. Indeed, more often than not, people — even within the church –tend to be turned off by Christian music because it seems to be at a lower musical and lyrical caliber than most secular music. Enter Bellarive, an atmospheric worship band that hails from Orlando, Florida. They are relatively young, but are already garnering much attention through their unique blend of styles, deep, heartfelt lyrics, and energetic live show that is more worshipful than showy. They manage to blend elements of worship bands such as Leeland or Ascend the Hill with other artists such as Owl City and Mae (much of their music is very piano-driven) and, naturally, the result is an atmospheric, emotional work of astounding maturity and beauty, especially from a band that has only been around since about 2009.

Their most recent (released in 2012) full-length album, The Heartbeat, captures what it means to be a worship band in the modern age. The opening track, “Heartbeat”, starts things off with a high-energy beat, reminiscent of the rock band Ivoryline. However, Bellarive are masters of dynamics and thus the song itself moves dramatically throughout the verses and choruses. This is just one of many tracks that would be perfect for a corporate worship setting, along with “Love Has Found Us,” “Taste of Eternity” and “The Father’s Heart.”

Early on, perhaps one of the only flaws in the album becomes apparent to any who have much experience playing worship music in the modern church — namely, that because their music is so dynamic and complicated, it may be difficult for the average worship band to learn their songs in any amount of haste. This is particularly noticeable with the previously-mentioned songs, and is especially true for “Love Has Found Us”; however, as it remains unclear how much of their music Bellarive intended to be played by others (unlike other worship bands such as Hillsong United or Ascend the Hill), this may only be a marginal problem.

Lyrically, Bellarive does much to create songs that are relatable and sing-able, yet also manage to avoid the conventional method and lyrical format of most worship bands. They also have many songs that are significantly more personal in nature, such as the confessional-esque “Shine On” or the wonderful “I Know You,” which is told from the perspective of God calling His children to Himself. The final song on the album, “Stories”, is yet another song that could be played in the corporate worship setting, and indeed dynamically is structured perfectly for such a medium.

Perhaps the most stand-out track on the album is entitled “Tendons (The Release)”. The song starts out low and slow, with an emphasis on the simple chords and words, focusing on needing to see God at a new level and being held back by our flesh. This leads up to a spoken word section that is performed over music, driving upward in dynamic until it reaches a blistering and intense rise. This is perhaps the most epic and inspiring piece of the entire album. It comes to a conclusion with a simple refrain: “Light up the sky! Set our hearts on fire! Light up the sky! Let us see our Creator!” It could be said that this singular idea embodies all that Bellarive and “The Heartbeat” attempt to be. They are creations crying out to see their Creator. I rate this album a five out of five, a must-have for any modern Christian who wishes to have new worship music to show them more of their Lord, Jesus Christ.

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The Benefit of the Doubt

I am by nature a skeptic. I question. I doubt. And I have the constant urge to dismiss simple answers to complex questions.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those nihilistic, solipsistic, or Cartesian doubters who needs cold, hard evidence before he believes he exists. Slap me in the face and I’m a believer. But I’d like to think that I have a healthy sense of skepticism. I question traditions that seem superfluous, I critique arguments that appear extreme or too exclusive, and I doubt presumptions that seem, well, too presumptuous.

Most of us would agree that skepticism is somewhat necessary for human survival. A healthy dose of doubt is a form of good judgment or circumspection. As the familiar proverb says, “Doubt is the beginning, not the end, of wisdom.” If I trusted everything, then my wife and I would have eaten those curious-looking mushrooms growing in our basement apartment.

But my moments of doubt often exist somewhere between commonsense skepticism and atheistic denial.  They exist somewhere in the murky middle.

When most Christians doubt God, they don’t doubt his existence. They doubt his nature. They question his decisions, his purposes, and his actions (or lack thereof). Why is God allowing this to happen? Why isn’t God intervening? Why is God silent?  We seriously doubt God’s motives and his ways of dealing with human beings.

Many Christians view this kind of doubt as a vice, a weakness, perhaps even a sin. They claim that doubt leads to indecision or that skepticism is a sign of snobbish intellectualism. Some might even argue that doubt is the antithesis of faith, and thus a direct threat to what the Christian is called to—belief. Basically, those who view doubt as negative often claim that it hinders one from action, commitment, truth, and ultimately, God.

To some extent, I’d say that this understanding of doubt is correct. Jesus certainly treated doubt as something contrary to faith. In Matthew 14, while he pulls a sinking Peter out of the water he says, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Also, the apostle James teaches that a person who doubts is double-minded and groundless, a wave tossed by the wind.

But is doubt always a vice? A weakness? A sin? Does doubt always lead to indecision? Is skepticism just a mask for snobbish intellectualism? If not, how do we answer those who claim that doubt is the antithesis of faith, that it is a direct threat to belief—the very thing Jesus himself calls us to?

While numerous scriptures clearly command us to trust God, and while I certainly believe that agnosticism—the kind that denies that real knowledge of God is possible—is dangerous, I would also argue that doubt and skepticism can propel us into action, can strengthen a desire for commitment, can lead us into a better understanding of truth—and, most importantly, can draw us closer to Jesus. And I think the Bible teaches this “positive” side of doubt, too.

These thoughts on the nature of doubt arose this summer while my wife and I were studying Paul’s letter to the Romans. Each week we would read a chapter and discuss what encouraged us, convicted us, and confused us. Most theologians consider the letter to the Romans to be Paul’s masterpiece, a theological magnum opus that presents an in-depth description of the salvation process. Here Paul explains condemnation, justification, sanctification, glorification, selection, and transformation. In other words, Romans pretty much covers it all. Because I knew Romans included some very complex theological material, I wasn’t too surprised when I found some of the passages in chapter nine about God’s sovereignty quite difficult to swallow. I’d read these verses before, but this time they seemed to be more in conflict with some of my own ideas about God.

Here is one of the more “troubling” passages in that chapter:

“Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not!  For God said to Moses, ‘I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.’ So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it. For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, ‘I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.’  So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.” (NLT)

As I read these verses, I thought to myself, “Really, Paul? Is this really how God works?” I questioned the text. I was skeptical toward this description of God and his dealings with man.

Now, I don’t claim to fully understand the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, and my purpose here is not to provide an in-depth exegesis of these verses. Instead, I want us to see how these difficult passages can remind us of what may seem to be a completely unrelated point: our doubts about God and the mysteries of how he works can be liberating.

In the verses following the above passage, Paul writes:

Well then, you might say, ‘Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?’ No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God?”

Notice that Paul doesn’t respond to the rebuttal. He doesn’t explain why God works the way he does. Instead, Paul does something more interesting. He keeps God’s nature mysterious. He doesn’t resolve the tensions between the existence of free human agents and a sovereign God. He basically says, “God is above you, beyond you, and your finite human mind cannot understand him, so don’t argue with him.”

The thing that struck me the most as I read these verses was that I wasn’t frustrated that Paul didn’t satisfy my doubts. It didn’t bother me that I still had questions. Instead, I felt strangely content in my continuing uncertainty. I felt liberated. In that moment, my doubt led me to humility. I had been put in my rightful, submissive place. We see this in scripture—how skepticism can lead to a moment of surrender.

One of the most familiar stories about doubt is the story of “doubting Thomas.” Thomas refused to believe the news of Jesus’ resurrection. He required experiential evidence—to see Jesus—before he would believe. Interestingly, Thomas’ doubt led him to an intimate interaction with Jesus, one that radically changed Thomas’ life forever. Placing his own hands in Jesus’ wounds, Thomas passed through a moment of doubt to be propelled into a higher state of submissive faith. He literally touched the truth. He went on to become one of the most passionate missionaries of the Gospel. Various apocryphal records indicate that Thomas was possibly the only apostle who spread the Gospel outside the Roman Empire, becoming the first missionary to India.

But there is another moment of doubt before Thomas’. The other apostles considered the news of the empty tomb as “idle tales” and they “did not believe.” Words were not enough for them. They had to see the truth in order to believe it. But doubt proved to be a motivator, a triggering device. In his moment of unbelief, the skeptical Peter runs to where Jesus was buried in order to discover nothing but linen cloths and a rolled away stone. Peter’s doubt drove him to the empty tomb. His skepticism moved him to search out the truth.

Just as Peter and Thomas’ doubt stirred them into action and a deeper faith, I think that our moments of unbelief, skepticism, or just plain uncertainty can lead us into a closer interaction with Jesus and a better understanding of God. God can use our doubts and uncertainties to do two things. First, to distinguish himself from us; to separate finite man from his infinite maker. Secondly, and simultaneously, to draw us to himself. His mysteriousness moves us to seek him. His “hiddenness” may create doubts in us, but it also creates a sense of fear and awe.

In these moments, doubt is both ironic and paradoxical. Ironically, we skeptics are often the hungriest for truth, and yet our own doubts hold us back from ingesting it. But paradoxically, skepticism keeps us from belief while also leading us to it.

My skeptical attitude toward God’s sovereignty led me to a place of surrender and a deeper belief in and appreciation for God’s mysteriousness. A burden was lifted. I had to let go of that relentless desire to know fully the mysteries of God’s nature. I faced the reality that God is not entirely unknowable, but that he is beyond me, higher than me, and radically different from me.

And I also began to wonder whether God really is offended by our skepticism. I’m convinced that God invites our questioning—just as Jesus invited Thomas to touch his hands and feet—because he of all beings knows he’s beyond our complete comprehension. He also knows that honest skepticism grounded in submissive faith, rather than rebellion or pride, ultimately leads to a deeper knowledge of who he really is.

And though God is beyond our complete comprehension, he’s not completely beyond our reach. Before Jesus pulled a sinking Peter out of the water, Peter was the only disciple walking on the water—the fact that he was there in the first place was the result of his willingness to test, risk, and question what he saw. The others accepted, and stayed in the boat, but Peter tested, and though he sank (as we all do on our journeys of skepticism and doubt), he was the only one who got to walk on the water with Jesus.

I’m convinced that Jesus invites us, too, to take risks, to ask questions, and to not suppress our honest skepticism. It just might be our very doubts that get us out of the boat to walk on water.

Clayton’s Story

Every once in a while, we get the chance to be challenged by someone who can see beyond the constant drudgery, despair, and endless triviality of our everyday lives. One person who has issued such a challenge is a young man named Clayton McDonald. If you have six and a half minutes to spare and heart willing to pursue the things that matter most, then I’d highly encourage you to take the time to watch Clayton’s story. Thanks to my friends Jacob and Joshua Lewis for not only telling Clayton’s story, but for telling it with the artistry, humanity, and thoughtfulness it deserves.

View Clayton’s story here: http://vimeo.com/3696997

 

On Breathing Deeply

My husband Jeremy and I recently took a drive up to Wisconsin from our home in Chicago on a spontaneous camping trip with old friends. If you’ve never been there before, the Midwest has some awesome road trip sightseeing to offer. While the major highways run north-south east-west in a cross marking the central location of the capital, Wisconsin also contains innumerable state highways that meander through tiny old towns with no stoplights and names like Reedsburg and Elroy. In between the empty main streets lined with brightly painted Victorian houses, miles and miles of open, rolling farmland dotted with picturesque red barns and whitewashed farmhouses stretch out in endless emerald.

As we took one of these “highways” in a diagonal across the state to our destination, I pointed to each farmhouse and yelled, “Let’s buy that one! I want a llama! And a pony!” Luckily, I married someone much more level-headed and realistic than myself (for all you singles out there, find a mate who won’t let you spontaneously buy a farm). Still, he would smile wistfully as each idyllic homestead passed us by.

Maybe someday. I’m bound and determined to have a llama named Frank.

We’re both country folk at heart. Our residence in the Big City came about mostly because of job and education opportunities. When we first moved into our ancient one bedroom apartment, we felt suffocated by the closeness of the concrete and brick, the lack of visible sky, the constant press and noise of people. Over two and a half years, though, the scrawny trees in the medians began to look like a forest and the sickly trampled strips of grass began to take on the properties of gardens. We stopped noticing the people and their smells and noises. We learned to honk our horns loud and long whenever anyone committed a minor traffic infraction, to elbow old ladies and children indiscriminately as we pushed our way onto crowded trains during rush hour.

Driving through Wisconsin felt like finding a world that my mind had convinced me was only a dream (Narnia, anyone?). Sky! And where were all the people? There were huge stretches of land with no people, no bus stops, no concrete. Where did they all go? Were they hiding? I actually caught myself looking behind trees at one point, at another reassuring myself that some apocalyptic event had not occurred (anyone who grew up on the Left Behind series knows how easy it is for the Rapture to come to mind).

But the further we drove, something even more astonishing came to my attention: the smells.

If you have never lived in the city, let me offer a little-known fact of existence in the land of concrete: we learn not to breathe too deeply. During the winter, the cold air sinks down in the channels created by rows of buildings, concentrating exhaust on street level. On particularly cold days, the pollution has even been known to turn the surface of the snow a dingy gray. In Chicago you rarely have the chance to breathe in this exhaust anyway, as the air is usually too bitingly cold to go outside without several scarves wrapped over nose and mouth. Otherwise your boogers freeze, which feels really, really weird.

During the summer, when the heat and humidity bake the contents of dumpsters behind innumerable restaurants serving foodstuffs from Argentina to Zimbabwe, walking down the street becomes a sort of obstacle course for your nose. You have to time your breathing so that you can make it across an alley entrance without inhaling. You must consider wind direction, current temperature, and the day of the week (garbage pickups are sporadic, so this is the most challenging aspect). After a while, it becomes second nature to take shallow, cautious breaths whenever you’re outside or have the air on in your car.

So driving through the country, I was still breathing like a city girl, following the pattern of sniff, inhale, exhale, sniff, inhale, exhale as if navigating a mine field of toxic gas. But after realizing I hadn’t picked up a whiff of week-old Ethiopian food in over an hour, I started focusing on my exploratory sniffs. What was I smelling? Was that…fresh air? Freshly cut hay? Rain on fern leaves? Even the occasional breezes from the animal pens reminded me of delightful childhood afternoons with my grandfather’s horses.

And for the first time in a long time, I was really breathing in. Deeply, with my whole diaphragm. I let my ribcage expand and I just pulled it in. In, out, in, out. No sniffs, no shallow half breaths. Real breathing.

When I started breathing so loudly that he could hear it, Jeremy looked over with concern. “Okay, I’ll get you a llama,” he said, “Just don’t have a heart attack.”

Something as simple as breathing. I hadn’t even realized that it had changed over the last year or so, that I had adapted my inhalation the same way I had adapted my previously careful driving to road rage or my fear of strangers to sitting next to a hulking transvestite on the downtown bus. I had completely changed something fundamental to my living, and I hadn’t noticed at all.

Gradually, my astonishment turned into the thought that maybe this happens to all of us more often than we even think. Maybe it’s something that not only happens to us physically, but spiritually as well.

From the time I was in middle school up until about a year ago, I lived in the shallow-breathing world of depression and an anxiety disorder. The labels sound so clinical and fancy, but really they just mean that I had lost trust in the air around me: lost trust in goodness, in beauty, in hope, in other people, in God. And so I barely lived, sick with despair, just taking in enough cautious air to keep me going.

After a while, I trained myself to live in this dark world and I stopped noticing the stench, the loneliness, the pessimism, the lack of joy, my lack of God. The world was a horrible place and God was a horrible God if I really admitted what I thought of Him, so I got by with only the smallest doses of looking outside myself, of talking to Him, of reading my Bible. Of living.

A Christian counselor convinced me that in order to regain a real life, I needed to start breathing again. Slowly at first, sniff, inhale, exhale, sniff, inhale, exhale. I made a collage of those things that used to make me happy: an old journal, a flowering garden, a galloping horse in an open field, a huge library full of ancient books. The counselor told me to look at that collage whenever I felt choked by anxiety and despair. I did, and found a whiff of hope. So I made more collages, finding beautiful things in magazines, catalogs, brochures, online, everywhere. Then I bought a camera and took my own pictures: a wrinkled old man sitting in the park on a sunny bench, a little white dog rolling in the grass, crying seagulls, crashing waves on Lake Michigan after a storm, the delicate veins in a single leaf. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.

But as I began to seek out beauty and breathe it in, I still left God out of it. I thought He had abandoned me in the darkness. How could I trust Him again?

He didn’t force me. He sat beside me as we watched my life begin to bloom again, become the growing, living thing it was meant to be. And when the flowers had come up and the charred remnants of my despair had been covered over with mounds of green grass, I knew I couldn’t avoid it any longer.

So I told Him why I couldn’t trust Him, why I was so angry, so hurt. Really, it wasn’t in words so much as a long, wailing cry full of all the pain that I had held inside for so long. I poured it into His lap and He looked at it and wept with me. And when I had dumped it all out and the tears stopped I realized I was breathing deeply again in His presence for the first time in forever. In, out. In, out. Because I knew He felt my pain, mourned with me, I could trust Him again.

Fresh bread in the oven, my husband’s shaving cream, the dog napping in the sun. He was the source of all these other things all along, this God I had thought of as a stench. He was the source of all good things, and I had been breathing Him in more deeply every time I took a chance and trusted that good things might be in the air. Eventually, I was seeking Him out directly, searching His Word, praying, worshipping, trusting that I could breathe Him in as deeply as I could be filled and never be disappointed. Instead, I could actually find what I needed to live fully, something I thought impossible.

How many of us say we trust Him and yet refuse to breathe Him in deeply, breathe Him in to the depths of our souls and feel ourselves living and growing and breathing out His love and peace to others? I think that many of us live day to day breathing shallowly, not trusting that if we take a deep breath of Him, we will be filled with good things.

This is because, if we’re really honest, I think many of us secretly believe He stinks. He’s let us down, He’s left us alone. We say He is loving and good, but we really believe He is harsh, critical, unjust, unloving, incapable, impotent, ugly, uncaring, unhearing, unseeing. Deep down, we think that He’s really just as petty as all the people (parents, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives) who have hurt us: He really hates us, He lied to us in His promises, He never gives us what we need to survive. He thinks we’re too ugly to love.

We’ve learned to breathe shallowly in a world full of hurt and pain and sin, and so when it comes to God, we keep our distance. We play a spiritual obstacle course, reading our Bibles sporadically because we have to, singing the songs without feeling the words, listening to sermons we feel don’t apply to us, offering up superficial things when anyone asks if we need prayer. We say we want the Spirit, for God to fill us, to use us, but really we’re afraid of that sort of intimacy. What if He’s just like…fill in the blank with the name of someone who let you down, violated you. What if He lets me down?

There are even those of us who have surrounded ourselves with so much stink that we think that it’s normal. Despair, abuse, lying, perversion, materialism, hatred, violence, manipulation, depravity, twistedness, ugliness, darkness. Others have told us this is the way it is, that there is nothing else, and we’ve accepted that. We’ve refused to believe that God has something different, something better to offer, that there is such thing as clean, fresh air. That not only does it exist, but that we were made to live in it.

When it comes to God, are you breathing deeply? Or are you suffocating?

Trust me when I say I know what it is to choke, but that I have also come to believe that we were not created to live this way, swallowing smog. God is all things good, fresh air to a dying soul. He is what we are dying to breathe. He died so we could breathe Him in even in a world that is decaying, rotting away. He died so we could live.

Take a deep breath. In, out. In, out. Run to Him and breathe Him in as deeply as you can and you will find life, real life, again. This is what you crave. This is what you need. And take it from me, you won’t be disappointed.

Why Jesus Likes to Ignore Your Questions

The other day I listened to Erwin McManus’s Easter message on the Mosaic podcast. As he discussed the encounter between Mary, Mary, and Joanna and the angel that met them at Jesus’ tomb in Luke 24, McManus noted how odd the angel’s words were, given the situation.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angel asked them.

But they weren’t looking for the living among the dead. They were looking for the dead among the dead.

The angel’s question prompted something deeper than their immediate concerns.

In the same way, have you ever noticed how often Jesus answers a question by talking about something that seems at first like it’s completely unrelated?

In Matthew 11, John the Baptist is in prison, and he sends a message to Jesus, asking Jesus if He is the Promised One, or if they should expect someone else. Jesus responds by telling John that blind people are being healed, cripples are walking, lepers are being cleansed, the ears of the deaf are being opened, the dead are coming back to life, and the poor are hearing the good news. The list clearly references Isaiah 61:1-2 (which also shows up in Luke 4), except that Jesus leaves out one of the details from the list – release of prisoners. Both John and Jesus knew that Isaiah 61 was one of the famous Old Testament passages that told people how they were supposed to recognize the Messiah, which means that the short version of Jesus’ answer was, “Yes, I’m the One.” But both Jesus and John would also have been aware of the omission – the promise of the release of prisoners.

For John, who was in prison about to get his head chopped off by a maniac dictator, the release of prisoners seems quite the pertinent detail, and for Jesus to leave it out of the list appears more than a little thoughtless. In the end, Isaiah’s promise didn’t do John much good.

But the point here is that Jesus could have just said, “Yes.”

Instead, Jesus gave John a cryptic riddle and pronounced a blessing on those who choose not to be offended by Him. In the original Greek text, the word Jesus uses here is skandalidzo – “blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.”

Jesus’ answer to John was, in effect, “I am the one you’re looking for, but I’m not going to come through for you. I am the one that releases the captives, but I’m not releasing you. At least not now. Not in the way you expect.”

By distinguishing what John wanted from what he needed, Jesus turns a yes-or-no inquiry into an examination of John’s deeper beliefs about his expectations of the Messiah, allowing John to see, perhaps for the first time, what those expectations revealed about his ideas about the character of God. He forced John to wrestle with the disturbing fact that, even though Jesus could and was healing and saving people left and right, some of His closest associates, and even members of His family, may not reap the benefit of His power. Jesus could easily have gotten John out of prison, but He didn’t.

And because He didn’t, John had to either surrender his ideas about God or be offended.

We can’t know which John chose, but John is not the point of the story. Jesus is.

Like the angel who appeared to Mary, Mary, and Joanna, Jesus tries to get us (with John) to see that when we look for nothing more than the answers to our questions, we are in danger of missing something far more profound than what we’re looking for.

Sometimes, what God wants to give us is much deeper than what we think we need, but instead of trusting Him to teach us, we allow ourselves to be scandalized by the fact that He is pointing us to something beyond what we can see.

The women at the tomb knew what they were looking for. But they were looking for something a whole lot smaller than what God wanted them to find.

So what does any of this have to do with what this blog is all about?

Simply stated, our goal is to join God in challenging the things you think you know and sharing with you the times that we ourselves have encountered Jesus’ frustrating habit of ignoring our questions and talking about something completely random.

Because we’ve discovered by following Jesus that nothing He talks about is random.

The women at the tomb surrendered their expectations about what they were going to find when they got there, and even though their friends thought they were lunatics, they were the first people on earth to know that Jesus had been raised from the dead. John had to face the fact that the salvation that Jesus offers is something far greater than the postponement of death. But all of them were confronted with the fact that they were looking for the wrong things.

I once heard Gayle Erwin say that if you’re going to find buried treasure, you’re going to have to dig where it’s buried.

So as we examine Jesus, as we make it our goal to find out the questions He’s asking us rather than holding tightly to the ones that we want to ask Him, remember that your choice is the same as John’s. When you see Him, He will not look the way you thought He would look. In fact, you may at first be scandalized by what you see in Him. But He is good. His goodness runs deeper than the foundations of creation itself. And His love for you is so thorough, and so profound, that He simply cannot leave you on the shore where you’ll never know the terrifying freedom of being swept up in the infinite truth, goodness, and wisdom of God. How foolish we are when we fail to trust that He knows better than we do where the real treasure is buried.