Posts Tagged ‘God

23
Sep
20

Two Years On…

Today is the day when – two years ago – our world turned upside down.

After experiencing a long bout of various gastrointestinal distresses, Joan went made an appointment with her doctor. She went in on a Wednesday to get a few tests done. You know… just to eliminate some possibilities.

The next day, at around 6:00 p.m., Joan noticed that she had missed a phone call. There was a voice mail message from her primary care physician saying simply, “Please call the office as soon as you can.”

At that moment, our hearts both plunged straight toward our shoes. 

You see, this is not our first rodeo. We both knew that if the call was simply to tell Joan that the tests were all normal… nothing to worry about… the doctor would have just said that on the message. 

On the other hand, if the news was bad, she would not leave a message. She would want to discuss it with Joan and talk about next steps. We both knew that in this case, no news was bad news.

Even at that late hour, Joan tried to return the doctor’s call, with no luck. She got the answering service saying they would be happy to take a message for the doctor. 

We were then faced with somehow trying to pass the rest of that evening and the night with no news and the worst possible case scenarios running through our heads.

As you might imagine, there was not a lot of sleeping at the Brown house that night.

The next day, Joan called the doctor’s office as soon as they opened up. She got straight through to her doctor and received the news we had spent the last 14 hours imagining; the tests showed that there was cancer. In the months ahead there would be chemotherapy, followed by surgery, followed by more chemotherapy. 

As one of our worst nightmares unfolded before us, we were nevertheless able to sniff out a couple of blessings hiding there in the middle of the forest fire. 

The first was Joan’s doctor’s attitude. She refused to talk about what “stage” the cancer was, or to offer her opinion on the odds of survival. She just said, “Let’s not worry about any of that right now. What we’re going to do is get busy and attack this with everything we’ve got and hope for the best.”

The other blessing/super weird thing about that day were our plans for that evening. Months and months before that fateful day, we had heard that Billy Joel was coming to town to play a concert. We both love Billy Joel, and so we immediately called up a few friends and made plans to go out to dinner together and then carpool to the concert site. Together we would rock the night away, dancing to hits like Uptown Girl, New York State of Mind, Big Shot, We Didn’t Start the Fire, It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me, and of course – somewhere on the set list – Piano Man. Probably as the encore.

 And so, as irony would have it, that blueprint for a wonderful evening of friends, food, and fun was scheduled for THAT VERY DAY… the day of Joan’s diagnosis. 

We decided not to ruin everyone else’s evening by sharing our news over dinner, so we just force-smiled our way through the dinner, the drive, and the concert. 

In a way, the whole thing was kind of a welcome respite. But every now and then during the concert I would wrap my arm around Joan’s shoulder, squeeze her tight, look down into her eyes and mouth the words, “I love you,” over the din of the music.

The journey of the last two years has changed both of us forever. We got Joan connected with one of the best gynecological oncologists in the region. Her surgery was a success. Chemotherapy was not really the torture chamber we had feared (I know… easy for me to say, right?). 

Joan lost all of her hair and was significantly weakened by the entire process, but all of her critical blood counts and cancer markers have gone down and stayed down since they officially declared her “in remission.”

Of course, we don’t know what the future – long-term or short-term – holds for us. But then again, who does? 

Life is different these days than it was two years ago. But it is also somehow sweeter… more precious… more open to quotidian mystery and wonder than it ever was before. We miss fewer opportunities to kiss and stroke one another’s hair – now that hers has grown back. The importance of our faith and our family has jumped for both of us exponentially. Neither of us holds back when the need arises to say, “I need help,” or “I need to rest a little,” or, “I appreciate you so much.”

We cannot even begin to express our gratitude to the friends, family members, church friends, and total strangers who have picked us up and carried us through these days. Sometimes Psalm 103:13-16 informs us: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”

At other times, we lean heavily on Matthew 6:26-27, where we hear Jesus saying, Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

But the verse that has lent it’s comforting shadow to us more than any other over these past 24 months comes from the pen of King Solomon: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6, NRSV). 

Whatever you might be going through yourself right now, I pray you might find a way to make these words YOUR theme also.

Abundant blessings;

18
Sep
20

Pro and Con

“Well, it sure beats the alternative!”

I honestly can’t count the number of times I have uttered this phrase whenever someone complains to me about the tribulations of aging.

Here of late though, I’ve had cause to wonder: Is it though? Is getting older REALLY better than NOT getting older?

I have been absent from these blog pages for many more days than I like to be. Some of the reason has to do with some out-of-state travel. Mostly though it has to do with sudden bouts of mortality. 

Earlier this week I aggravated a lower abdominal strain (think lowest abdominal area possible) while trimming our nine-foot-tall hedge. That led to an unplanned trip to the ER. That injury led to a wrenching spasm of my lower back which led to a second ER engagement in less than 12 hours. 

Today I am hopped up on pain killers and muscle-relaxers, trying to bring the pain under some kind of control as I pen this blog post. (And just so you know… I am going to blame all errors in grammar and syntax on my current, pain and drug be-fogged state).

I found my recent string of unfortunate body meltdowns leading to this question: “So what is so great about getting older, anyway?”

And being the list-maker that I am, I started ticking off the PROS and CONS of aging. On the PRO side you have to begin with life experience. To brazenly steal the current State Farm Insurance tagline, “We old folks know a thing or two because we have SEEN a thing or two.” 

There is also the PERSPECTIVE that comes with age. We can look back on something like a broken heart… something that seems like the end of the world to a 22-year-old… and know with confidence that “this too, shall pass.” 

Something else I have noticed is that while we of a certain age are old enough to remember a world before cell phones and the internet, we are still young enough to embrace and use them. 

So there I was… humming blissfully along, making my lists of the costs and benefits of aging… when my brain brought me to a screeching halt. “What in the world…” Brain asked me, “… is the purpose of these lists you’re making? I mean, what are you going to DO with them once you finish?” 

When I pressed Brainy to explain himself a little, he replied, “I mean, if you come up with more CONS than PROS, what are you going to do? Will you try to reverse time and grow YOUNGER? And then what if it comes out the other way – with more PROS than CONS? Are you planning to look down with disdain on everyone younger than you?”

I had to admit it; Brain had a point. 

His question reminded me that any time we start down the road of comparing ourselves with others, our lives immediately begin going off-track. For starters, we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to be grateful for the life we are living RIGHT NOW. We start to look at other people as superior, and therefore start to resent them. Or else we see them as inferior and start to reject them. 

In any case, we fall right into the trap God warned Adam and Eve about in the third chapter of Genesis… right there in Paradise, where it all began.

You remember the story. God said, “I’ve set up this beautiful garden for you. Come, take care of it. Have dominion over all of the animals living there. Be my special friends. There is just ONE RULE… don’t eat the fruit of that tree over there. You know… the one there in the middle of the garden.” 

Do you remember the name of that tree? It was not called Apple Tree. It was called, The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Genesis 3:5, NRSV). 

In other words, you and I were never intended to have the power to label things “Good” or “Evil.” God always knew that kind of labeling power was too awesome for humans to wield. That ability has always been above our pay grade. Like Thor’s hammer, it is only intended to rest in the hand of the Divine One. 

God’s preferred choice for Adam and Eve was to submit and enjoy. Instead, they chose to rebel and, as a result, suffer. 

Today, I am tempted to look at my aging and decaying body and call it a mistake… to call it wrong… to consider myself cheated. But then I remember the advice Paul gave to the Thessalonians in his first letter to that fledgling church: “… give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NRSV). 

I think when he said ALL circumstances he meant ALL. The good, the bad, the pro, the con, the sickness, or the health. 

Even that “getting older” thing.

Abundant blessings;

02
Sep
20

Time for a jolt?

As a child of the 60s, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about protests. 

Granted, most of my participation in the anti-war or civil rights protests of that era consisted of watching them on TV from the safety of my parent’s living room. 

Then again, there was that one time when five or six of my friends and I “took over” the roof of the administration building on our college campus for a few hours in order to protest the Vietnam War. 

The quotation marks around the words “took over” in that last sentence stem from the fact that no one really seemed to much mind us being up on the roof of the admin building. They studiously ignored our chanting and passionate singing of “We Shall Overcome.” We maintained that righteous rooftop vigil right up until it was time to head home and finish the term papers that were due the next day. 

While it is true that I was personally a bit of a protest weenie, I see real value in taking a grievance to the streets. I believe that the Vietnam War might have dragged on for years longer had it not been for those anti-war peaceniks. The struggle for civil rights – though far from resolved even today – might not have gained even token footholds without the people who were willing to gather publicly and express their collective outrage at America’s Jim Crow status quo.

As I think about protestors, I also think about the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire… the young man in Beijing (and his friends) who faced down tanks in Tiananmen Square… and of Nelson Mandela sitting alone in a South African jail cell for 27 years.

At the time most of these people were labeled extremists… kooks… dangerous radicals. So-called reasonable people denounced their tactics as wholly unnecessary. They urged calm, cogent conversation as the preferred way to solve society’s problems. 

But as history has demonstrated again and again, calm, cogent conversation doesn’t always move the needle. Sometimes, it takes an abrupt JOLT!

As it turns out, no one understood the strategic use of the abrupt JOLT quite as well as Jesus of Nazareth. He employed it regularly in the rhetorical technique known as “prophetic hyperbole.” A great example shows up in Mark’s gospel where we read these jolting words: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.” (Mark 9:43-45, NRSV). 

Does he really mean people should cut off their own hands or feet? 

Or when he told the rich young man that salvation meant selling everything he owned, giving the money to the poor and following him, did he mean that literally?

My guess would be that Jesus didn’t really intend for his words in Mark to be taken as a literal command. In the other one, maybe he did. But maybe not. 

You see, Jesus was a revolutionary. He came to turn the status quo of the world upside down. He did not come for calm, reasoned discussions. He came to instigate radical, top-to-bottom life change. 

In fact, when this man – sometimes called the Prince of Peace – talked about his earthly mission in Luke’s gospel he said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51, NRSV). 

Jesus sought to WAKE PEOPLE UP! To shake them from their complacency! To stress the urgency of the moment. 

Please understand… I am not saying that the people taking violently to the streets today are shining examples of Christ-like behavior. I have no insight into their hearts or minds. Many, I feel certain, are interested only in mayhem and destruction. 

What I AM saying is that sometimes the world finds itself in a place where a good, old-fashioned JOLT of prophetic hyperbole is exactly what the doctor ordered. 

What do you think… is this that kind of time? 

24
Aug
20

Clearing the Underbrush

WildfireIt hit me as soon as I walked out the door.

Patrick the dog and I were headed out for our long Saturday morning walk. But after five steps and two breaths, it became abundantly clear that our walk on this particular Saturday would just be to the end of the cul-de-sac and back.

You see, we have wildfires burning about 60 miles to the west of our house here in Fort Collins, Colorado. They aren’t as big as those currently burning in California (these only cover a mere 17,000 acres), but they are big enough.

At times, when the wind is just right, the city of Fort Collins is blanketed with thick smoke. It stings your eyes and burns your lungs. The air quality is listed as, “Hazardous for all individuals” by the county health authorities.

Not ideal dog-walking conditions.

As we listen to news reports on the status of the fire-fighting efforts, Joan and I were surprised to hear that very little is currently being done to fight this fire. There are teams on the ground monitoring the situation, yes. But there are no air tankers dropping flame retardants, no big buckets scooping water out of the lake to dump on it, no fire hoses being aimed at the flames.

It is just being watched as it burns.

When I expressed my frustration about this perplexing nonchalance to a neighbor, he smiled a knowing smile and explained, “These things happen every couple of years and are a part of the natural cycle of things. Right now, they are just making sure it doesn’t get out of control and threaten any houses.”

I nodded and thanked him for his insight, but inside I was saying, WHAT? You can’t be serious! Do you really think it is OK to let fire destroy all those trees and choke us with the smoke and ash? What kind of looney tunes philosophy is THAT?”

As it turns out, it is a very sound philosophy indeed.

You see, in the forest, trees die. Leaves fall to the ground. Underbrush accumulates. Dead vegetation threatens to choke out the living. And so periodically, it all needs to be cleaned out. And as it turns out, the cleaning tool that works best for Mother Nature is FIRE.

Every now and then a fire is needed to sweep through and destroy all the dead stuff… to clear the way for something new and fresh and green to be born.

And when I heard that explanation, I began wondering: does God ever take the same approach with us?

What I mean is; do you think we (the human population of Planet Earth) ever get to the point where too much “dead underbrush” has built up in our hearts or in the world? [Metaphorically speaking, of course.]

  • Do you think it’s possible that this “dead underbrush” ever becomes so vast that it threatens to choke out the possibility of anything new popping up and growing?
  • Do you think it is possible that God has identified a periodic need to do a massive “clearing out” of this spiritual and emotional underbrush?
  • Is it conceivable that something that looks like devastation and destruction (something like a global pandemic, for example) might actually be something more like a cosmic press of the “RESET” button?

And finally;

  • Do you think it is possible that the way is being cleared for something new and fresh and vibrant to emerge on the other side of the current devastation?

Please understand, I have grave hesitations about asking these questions. They could sound like I’m saying that God brought about the death and destruction of COVID-19 in order to bring about something new. These questions might make it sound as if I’m saying that God is indifferent to human suffering as long as there is a “greater good” to be accomplished on the other side.

That is not what I am saying at all.

Rather I am trying to point to God’s unlimited capacity to REDEEM. That is, to take a dire and disastrous situation and use it as the fodder for something wondrous, new, and remarkable.

You know… sort of like he did with his son who died on a Roman cross?

In the short run, that thought doesn’t make it a whole lot easier to put up with the coughing, stinging, fear, and wheezing.

But it does offer us the hope that – in the long run – all of this misery just might not be wasted after all.

 

Abundant blessings;

21
Aug
20

The Heartbreak of RPD

Chocolate on faceIn a wholehearted endorsement of the axiom advising us that confession is good for the soul, I offer this mea culpa today:

Sometimes I suffer from RPD… Resistant Personality Disorder.

What this means is that I will sometimes resist something just for the sake of resisting it. You know, sort of like the child who sticks out his tongue and says, “You can’t make me!”

No one is better suited to bear witness to the truth of this confession than my sainted spouse. She might, for example, point out that I have a smear of chocolate icing on my chin. To which I sometimes reply, “Well, maybe I really want it there!”

Or else she will lovingly point out that the shirt I’ve chosen doesn’t really go with those shorts. Then, in return for her caring compassion she will hear, “That’s OK. I like it, so I’m wearing it.”

And yes, you are right; there is surely a very special place in heaven waiting for her.

Hearing about RPD, you would be right to ask, “Who does that kind of stuff anyway? And why do they do it? Surely everyone is interested in receiving tips on how to be a little bit better version of themselves, aren’t they?”

I will answer your good question this way: sometimes I do it just to be a playful pill. You know… to liven things up around the house a little bit.

At other times, I am probably genuinely miffed. Miffed that someone else saw something amiss with me (my clothes, my hair, my grooming, my attitude, my personality, my whatever) that I did not see myself. And so I become irritated.

In this morning’s meditation from Fr. Richard Rohr (Franciscan priest, author, and founder of the Center for Contemplation and Action in Santa Fe, NM), I was comforted to learn that I might not be alone in my propensity to resist helpful insight. Fr. Rohr wrote, “We all come to wisdom at the major price of both our innocence and our control. Few of us go there willingly; it [wisdom] must normally be thrust upon us.”

Does that sound like YOU at all?

In my own life there was probably no greater example of RPD than my resistance to God’s call to ministry. I can point to moments when I heard – with shocking clarity – a voice saying, “Come serve me” at least 25 years before I actually responded to that call.

My excuses were endless; I knew better. I had my own plan. I wasn’t ready to stop having fun yet. I needed to use my gifts and abilities to “do cool stuff.” I could do “God stuff” around the edges and on the weekends when nothing else was going on.

Thankfully, God didn’t give up. Thankfully, God finally seeped through (actually, more like BROKE through with the full force of a 2×4) my thick skull and got my attention.

Sadly, all these years later and with so much formational experience, I still catch myself occasionally resisting wisdom. Hopefully not as consistently as I once did.

The writer of Proverbs personifies wisdom as God’s co-existing, feminine partner at the very beginnings of the world and gives her these words, “And now my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise… For whoever finds me finds life.” (Proverbs 8:32, 35, NRSV).

How about you? Are you eager to hear wisdom? Do you embrace it, even when it threatens to upset your plans and send you in a new direction?

Or are you still suffering a bad case of RPD?

The cure might be closer than you think.

 

Abundant blessings;

19
Aug
20

Lockdown Freedom

Covid in jailYesterday kind of sucked.

It was day 4,845,154 of the Great Lockdown of 2020 (not that anyone is counting, of course).

It was another day of wearing our masks in public, another day of super-fastidious hand washing, another day of not traveling anywhere, another day of no concerts or in-person sporting events, and another day of watching our nation’s infection numbers continue to rise because this highly contagious virus has somehow become a political debate rather than a matter of scientifically-considered public health.

What made yesterday different from the other 4,845,153 days before it was smoke, haze, and 96-degree weather. The smoke and haze come from a 12,000-acre forest fire burning some 20 miles to the west of our house. The 96-degree weather comes, of course, from the calendar.

On most days, Joan and I can break up the monotony of retirement quarantine life by getting out and walking the dogs, working on projects in the yard, reading our novels, and doing some laundry. Occasionally I amuse myself by reading and/or writing a blog post or two.

But then, when the Great Outdoors decides to conspire against your skin and bronchial passages all at once, the world suddenly closes in on you. You’re trapped inside! And worse yet… you are trapped inside with all of your inside chores done!

There is suddenly nothing to do, but read, nap, chit-chat, snack and repeat.

Endlessly.

All I can say is, thank God Joan was there for the “chit-chat” part of the equation, or I’m not sure what I would have done!

For those of you who don’t know me, I happen to be a guy with a lot of excess energy zipping around through my cells. Consequently, the skills of sitting quietly and meditating are not skills that come readily to hand. I am not saying that I suddenly knew how prisoners must feel, but I kind of felt like I knew how prisoners must feel.

It was then, in the middle of my anxious thumb-twiddling, that I suddenly remembered the devotion I’d read only hours before. It was a devotion focused on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the folks who comprised the church he had started earlier in the region of Galatia.

The thematic thread that runs throughout the entire six chapters of the book of Galatians is FREEDOM. As Paul says in the first verse of the fifth chapter, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, NRSV).

The more I thought about those words, the more convinced I became that Paul was probably not talking about the freedom to go outside and walk your dogs. Or the freedom to go to a movie theater or baseball game. Or even – strange as it may seem – the freedom to go grocery shopping without a facemask.

No. He is more likely talking about an entirely different kind of freedom… something rooted much more deeply inside each one of us. Something not dependent on the circumstances we find ourselves in.

It sounds to me as if Jesus’ kind of freedom is the radical kind of freedom. It is probably more like freedom from our pasts. Freedom from our fears. Freedom from anxiety. Freedom from worry about what other people think about us. Freedom from our insecurities. Freedom from our self-doubts.

A kind of freedom – in other words – that nothing and no one can take away from us.

Not a pandemic.

Not air pollution.

Not 96-degree weather.

Not even a completed “TO DO” list.

 

Abundant blessings;

17
Aug
20

Questioning Church

Church and coronavirusFor most of my life, there has been very little question about church.

To be sure, different chapters have witnessed different relationships to church.

There was the “blind obedience” stage, the “I’m just here to meet cute girls” stage, the “open rebellion/rejection” stage, the “social obligation” stage, the “HEY! There really is something powerful and important going on here!” stage, and the, “paid professional cheerleader” stage.

Today, following the one-year anniversary of my retirement from the ministry, I find I am still trying to figure out what to call this current stage.

As Joan and I settled into our new lives here in Fort Collins, CO, I was all set to call it the “Active, volunteer participant” stage.

But then along came The ‘Rona. And with it the top-to-bottom questioning of everything about Life Itself, including the church part.

Our little Lutheran church here has made the best of a difficult situation. Every week we have a time-flexible worship service and a time-bound Zoom service of Holy Communion. It is a little strange (but actually, a little fun, too) to sit on our couch with cups of coffee and our dogs, singing hymns, listening to the sermon, praying the prayers, and reciting the Apostle’s Creed.

We willingly accept that these strange times call for some strange practices… at least for a while.

This time of pandemic, however, has stolen one of my favorite parts of engaging with a faith community; it has rudely moved in and snatched away the experience of physically gathering with fellow journeyers. I believe there is something sacred – and essential – about different lives and experiences coming together once a week to see each other’s faces and engage in acts of worship.

But the longer this strange new church world goes on, the more I find myself asking questions. Questions like:

  • “What IS church supposed to be about anyway?
  • “What am I – as an unpaid, unprofessional Christ-follower – supposed to be about at this stage of my life?”
  • “What is the actual connection between encountering the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and the need to gravitate to the same place at the same time every seven days?”
  • “Why does the action of ‘making disciples’ actually require the presence of a lovely, comfortable, technically-equipped building?”

And finally…

  • “Is it possible that this unsettling, disorienting time might be calling all Jesus-followers to work together to give birth to a new way of being the church?”
    • I mean let’s face it… it has been 500 years since the last Reformation (which, oddly enough, happened roughly 500 years after the PREVIOUS reformation). Do we think it is possible that God is sending a not-so-subtle message that it is time for the next Reformation?

I would love to hear YOUR thoughts on the subject.

First; how has this time of pandemic re-shaped your relationship to church?

Second, what messages might Christians be called to take from this odd time?

 

Abundant blessings;

13
Aug
20

A New World? Or a New Heart?

Bob DylanThe answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…

If I had a hammer…

To everything, turn, turn, turn…

Abraham, Martin, and John…

We’ve got to get out of this place…

WAR! [UH! GRUNT!] What is it good for? (Absolutely NOTHIN’!)

In terms of musical themes, the decade of the 60s will be best remembered as the decade of the social protest song.

Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, The Byrds, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and other well-known (and lesser known) musicians of that era attempted to bend spears into plowshares in the white-hot smelter of music.

Personally, I remember feeling just a little bit subversive as I sat by the campfire in the summer of 1967 singing, “How many years must some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?” Those lyrics made me think about the poverty and unrest in our country’s inner cities.

Even though we imagined we were creating something utterly new and revolutionary back then, the idea of expressing a political point of view through music goes back centuries. In 1801, for example, Richard Allen, a former slave and a Methodist minister, published a hymnal titled, A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns. Those familiar with Methodist history will recognize Allen’s name as the founder of the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church.

According to the book, Routledge History of Social Protest in Popular Music, most of the songs in Allen’s Collection dealt with his frustration about the level of racial discrimination he experienced from white Methodists.

The two essential elements of a song – melody and meaning – are a potent combination. A series of musical notes, skillfully combined, has the power to reach deep into our subterranean human chambers. When paired with words that convey a timely, haunting, moving, or unsettling message, a great song can’t help but create an almost transcendent spiritual moment for the listener.

But even if we concede that songs have the ability to produce a soul-stirring, spiritual experience, is that the same thing as hearing The Gospel?

We remember that the word gospel comes from the Old English godspel, roughly translated as “good news.” We also recall that when Christians today talk about the Good News (capital “G”, capital “N”), we are most likely talking about the good news that Jesus – in his resurrection from the dead following a painful and humiliating death – forever broke the power of sin and death over humanity and freed all of us from those ancient curses.

Good News indeed! Hallelujah!

But that message is probably a qualitatively different message than the one you hear when you hear Pete Seeger sing, Michael Row the Boat Ashore.

Based on interviews I have heard, I know that the goal of the gifted individuals who write social protest songs is CHANGE. They seek to stir the hearts and move the arms and legs of their audience. They want to convey a message so irresistible that you and I won’t be able to help ourselves… we will drop what we are doing and get to work, actively building a New Social Order based on justice for all, equality, and compassion.

Their aim is a New World.

The aim of the Gospel, by contrast, is a New Heart, and then through it, a New World.

Today, we look around and see AT LEAST as much need for a new world as those protestors saw in the 1960s. Racism, poverty, runaway greed, random violence, environmental crises, political distrust, addiction, and sexual depravity seem to be at all-time highs.

But the question we need to wrestle with today is: Which comes first…

… the new heart?

… or the new world?

 

Abundant blessings;

11
Aug
20

U2Charist?

U2 picAre they? Or aren’t they?

Inquiring minds want to know: is U2 a Christian band? Or are they just a rock band that – if you look at some of their lyrics and squint really hard – you can occasionally see a Christianish theme… like one of those “Magic Eye” posters from the 90s?

This is a question with legions of fans willing to go to the mat to defend both the “YES” and the “NO” responses.

In 2014, New Yorker reporter Joshua Rothman wrote an essay in which he explored the theological roots of the legendary Irish rockers. He investigated a variety of sources and interviewed U2 band members to try and resolve the issue once and for all.

On the “YES” side of the debate, we have a book titled, Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog, one of several books exploring the theological ideas in lead singer Bono’s lyrics. Rothman also points out that many churches around the world (most, oddly enough, Episcopalian) have held “U2charists”—full services at which traditional church music is replaced with songs by U2.

But what about the band members themselves? What is their story?

The nucleus of U2 met when they were still in high school, in a town just outside of Dublin. While still in high school, Bono, lead guitarist the Edge, and drummer Larry Mullen grew close to a faith community called Shalom, whose members Bono has described as living on the Dublin streets “like first-century Christians.”

Shalom was a big presence in their lives during the recording of U2’s first two albums, “Boy” and “October” (“Gloria,” the best song on “October,” has a liturgical chorus, sung in Latin). The turning point came just as the “October” tour was set to begin: the Edge announced that he wanted to leave U2, because the twin demands of piety and rock stardom could not be reconciled.

As the group grew musically (and, we can assume, spiritually), the period known as The Troubles descended on their native Northern Ireland. Protestants and Catholics took to the streets in violent, bloody clashes that ultimately left more than 3,600 people dead. Based on their first-hand experience of the horror of inter-religious warfare, it should not come as a surprise that Bono was once quoted as saying, “I love Jesus. But I can’t stand the church.”

Their song, Sunday, Bloody Sunday speaks directly to the heart of that historic conflict.

Some of their songs – Yahweh, With or Without You, Carry Each Other, Where the Streets Have No Name – seem to point their lyrical force directly to the heart of the Christian gospel message. Others – while melodically rich – seem to be nothing more than sappy boy/girl love songs or social protests.

Perhaps a better question – meaning a better question than: Are U2 Christians, or aren’t they?” – might be this one: If you are indeed a person of faith, why force the world to GUESS about it? I mean, why not just come right out and SAY?

I can’t answer that question for Bono, the Edge, et. Al., but I certainly can answer it for myself. During those times when I am trying to present a brave front to my fellow believers, my answer would be something like, “I am often not overt about my faith because I want to let my life speak for itself. For me, it is more important that faith be CAUGHT instead of TAUGHT.”

During the other times – the times when I am opening up and being honest with myself and with you – my answer is, “I don’t come right out and announce my faith because I fear being ostracized by non-believers, or nominal Christians. I just want to be thought of as, ‘one of the guys.’”

Kind of pitiful, isn’t it? I mean, considering everything that Jesus sacrificed for ME.

Joshua was right when he said, “… choose this day whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15, NRSV).

We all have to make that choice.

But we also have to decide to fearlessly and unabashedly DECLARE that choice to those around us. As Jesus himself said, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33. NRSV).

Something to think about…

 

Abundant blessings;

10
Aug
20

Like a bridge…

Simon and GarfunkelWhen you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all,
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a song that never fails to stir my soul…

… Every single time I hear it.

The lyrics are an eloquent testimony to sacrificial human compassion. The melody journeys from tender salve to triumphant orchestral climax, all in the span of four minutes.

It is the closest thing to a secular gospel song that we have in the American catalog.

Paul Simon wrote this anthem in the spring of 1969. For those old enough to remember, this was a time when the waters of this country were terribly troubled. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated the previous year. Racial unrest was boiling over in several large American cities. The endless quagmire of the Vietnam War raged on.

It was a time when we were in desperate need of a bridge over those troubled waters…

… sort of like we are today.

In looking back 51 years to the creation of this song, I find it fascinating that despite the fact that neither Paul Simon nor Art Garfunkel were professing Christians at the time, their remedy for our national maelstrom was – essentially – the cross of Christ.

I mean, how else would you translate the lyric, “I will lay me down” other than as an offer to give up one’s own life for the sake of others? Didn’t Jesus lay himself down so that you and I and everyone who calls on his name might live?

As a testament to its universal appeal, this song has been translated into many languages and has been covered by hundreds of artists, including Johnny Cash, Annie Lennox and Bonnie Tyler. It received its most recent revival by Jennifer Hudson as a tribute to the life and work of civil-rights pioneer, John Lewis… a man who laid his own body down for the sake of others on Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1963.

Self-sacrificial love seems like a quaint, historical anachronism here in 2020 America. We are elbow-deep in the culture of selfies, “look out for #1,” “my way or the highway,” and “me first.” In this context, the idea of sublimating my needs to yours seems at best, old-fashioned, and at worst, just plain goofy.

And yet, that very self-sacrificial love is the force that created the universe. It is the force that divided history into “B.C.” and “A.D.” It is the force that rolled an impossible stone away from a tomb and raised a dead man to life.

It is the force that redeemed my life.

It is also the force – the ONLY force, I might add – capable of calming the troubled waters that surround us today.

I’ll take your part, oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

 

Abundant blessings;




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