A few years back, Stephen Colbert made news by making a new word – ‘truthiness’ – and successfully entering the word into the cultural zeitgeist. Often we find ourselves at an impasse of reason and emotion where language shows its limits and the ‘perfect’ word to express our deepest thoughts, fears, and emotions escape us.
Good Friday has always been such a time.
I honestly never know how to feel on this day. Sure, I have been around the theological block a time or two as a pastor and theologian so I know the so-called ‘right’ answer: this day is ‘Good’ in what God has chosen to do through Christ for the sake of creation and ultimately as the supreme act of self-giving love. The line up of theologians through two thousand years is exhaustive on this point. Whether one trends toward soteriological models of atonement that claim retributive justice on the Cross, penal substitutionary debt to be exacted, a grace act beyond compare, a teleological summation of meaning, the event horizon of the God event, etc…. this is still a day where stillness and utter loss leaves me honestly without words.
But perhaps this year I found a word thanks to Dietrich Bonhoeffer…
In his Good Friday sermon of 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this stark observation on the weight and promise of the darkest of days:
Good Friday is not the darkness that must necessarily yield to light. It is not the winter sleep that contains and nourishes the seed of life within. It is the day on which human beings — human beings who wanted to be like gods — kill the God who became human, the love that became person; the day on which the Holy One of God, that is, God himself, dies, truly dies — voluntarily and yet because of human guilt — without any seed of life remaining in him in such a way that God’s death might resemble sleep.
Good Friday is not, like winter, a transitional stage — no, it is genuinely the end, the end of guilty humanity and the final judgment that humanity has pronounced upon itself. . . .
If God’s history among human beings had ended on Good Friday, then the final pronouncement over humankind would be guilt, rebellion, the unfettering of all titanic human forces, a storming of heaven by human beings, godlessness, godforsakenness, but then ultimately meaninglessness and despair. Then your faith is futile. Then you are still in your guilt. Then we are of all people most to be pitied. That is, the final word would be the human being. (emphasis added)
When my eyes fell on the word ‘godforsakenness’ I honesty did a double take. Is this a typo? What kind of editor let THAT slip by to publication? But then it hit me… yes… this is exactly what today is about. There is a movement of God that is dark and silent, a shadow falling across all of creation that is larger than my sin and certainly larger than mere humanities need for salvation. As John 3:16 makes clear, this ‘death’ is at the watchful eyes of a God who loves the whole of the cosmos and not merely my darkened soul and the ‘worried well’ of the suburbanites who drive their minivans alongside mine. Even larger than the suffering and torment of this present age of anger and cynicism writ large across race, cultures, economic status, and class on a global scale. This is something BIG today and no word will hold its meaning sufficiently.
But for today, perhaps ‘godforsakenness’ is a good place filler. To be ‘godforsaken’ is to be haunted by the memory of the One who loves us and yet is not ready-at-hand. To be ‘godforsaken’ is to cry from the depths of our being for help and find our own echoing lonely voice as the only response at this present moment. To be ‘godforsaken’ is to be not in solitude and quiet, which both can be meaningful and with hope, but to be alone and awakened to the state of our lives as it would be without God it in. To be ‘godforsaken’ then is to be as Christ was – torn apart both from within and without, separated from comfort and left seemingly abandoned in a world without the hint of hope, faith or love.
This is the word for today it seems…
And I pray that we have another day head that will offer another one. For to be ‘godforsaken’ is not to have God gone… but it is worse. To be ‘godforsaken’ is to have love stand with His back to us and the light of lights crushed out so utterly that we feel the distance as presence all the time.
We will need another word if we are to live again. For surely to be ‘godforsaken’ is worse than death itself. We need and hope this day for something beyond hope, beyond faith and even beyond all categories of love.
I can think of no better poet to capture the simplicity of love quite like Pablo Neruda. On this Valentine’s Day I offer you one of my favorite love poems which on the surface is not a love poem I suppose, but a call to simplicity, lightness of heart and a willingness to put away the “harsh machinery” of overt sentimentality and simply give from the heart:
Sweetness, Always – Pablo Neruda
Why such harsh machinery?
Why, to write down the stuff and people of everyday,
must poems be dressed up in gold,
or in old and fearful stone?
I want verses of felt or feather which scarcely weigh,
with the intimacy of beds
where people have loved and dreamed.
I want poems stained
by hands and everydayness.
Verses of pastry which melt
into milk and sugar in the mouth,
air and water to drink,
the bites and kisses of love.
I long for eatable sonnets,
poems of honey and flour.
Vanity keeps prodding us
to lift ourselves skyward
or to make deep and useless
So we forget the joyous
love-needs of our bodies.
We forget about pastries.
We are not feeding the world.
In Madras a long time since,
I saw a sugary pyramid,
a tower of confectionery -
one level after another,
and in the construction, rubies,
and other blushing delights,
medieval and yellow.
Someone dirtied his hands
to cook up so much sweetness.
Brother poets from here
and there, from earth and sky,
from Medellin, from Veracruz,
do you know the recipe for honeycombs?
Let’s forget about all that stone.
Let your poetry fill up
the equinoctial pastry shop
our mouths long to devour -
all the children’s mouths
and the poor adults’ also.
Don’t go on without seeing,
all these hearts of sugar.
Don’t be afraid of sweetness.
With or without us,
sweetness will go on living
and is infinitely alive,
forever being revived,
for it’s in a man’s mouth,
whether he’s eating or singing,
that sweetness has its place.
Every term begins with a flurry of activity: making lists, checking over student rosters, printing syllabi, making sure textbooks are available, updating library books on hold, loading up files onto blackboard, etc.
When I step into the class each new term, I am reminded that for some students, a theology course can be nerve jangling – wrestling with deep questions of self, God, tradition, family heritage, and other challenging topics that some would rather have ‘settled and done’ so as not to have to wrestle with them and then to ‘get on’ with other things. But a theologians task is to do more than merely remind people of certainties or foregone conclusions that are beyond debate.
No, theology is about the living, breathing reality that God is often asking bigger questions than we could ever quantify or simplify.
My friend Tom Beaudoin at Fordham University recently posted a quote on the Rock and Theology blog that bears repeating as it gets to something I am hoping to remind my students of this term:
“Modern [Christian] theology — at least in its mainstream protocols of production — has remained so immured in ‘the text’ as to be almost unable to conceive of a question of salvation in a medium of rhythm. And this despite its own beginnings in an inarticulate groan (Exodus 2:23-25), its own tradition of salvation by as slight a means as a ‘sigh’ (Ezekial 9:4-6), its prototypical promulgation in oral preaching (Luke 4:16-30), and ritual acting (Luke 22:7-23)!”
“The quest for some semblance of human wholeness and significant meaning in a world of absurdly chaotic violence is prolific and prodigal and not by any means exhausted by explicit ‘God-talk.’ But surely such ‘secular’ activity is as bound up with the divine drive toward freedom that aches inchoately under the surface of all creation (as Paul so provocatively envisions in his letter to the Romans of his day) as any more typically ‘Christian’ practice seeking to imitate or secure wholeness now and in the hereafter.” – James W. Perkinson, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 34
This reminder from Perkinson – that our quest for God is often “so immured in ‘the text’ as to be almost unable to conceive of a question of salvation in a medium of rhythm” – is something I deeply want to help my students see, hear and experience fully in my classes.
To this end I offer this prayer for my students as we gather in classes together this term:
May the Lord
of the inarticulate groan
and release you
in ways that will surprise
and the world around you.
For you may come into our class sessions
expecting to get something
that is novel
But what I hope you will leave with is
and God’s love for the world
that includes you
but is so much larger than you.
I deeply pray that you will raise your gaze
from your own needs
and learn to look beyond things that are only
and to fix your eyes on Christ
who is so much more
and in that moment see the world
rather than yourself this term
and all that the Lord has in store
that is more than you could hope for
or even imagine.
Whether in the touch of the person next to you in love
or the creation of the newest star thousands upon thousands of
“God’s ways are not our ways” is more true that I can ever teach you
in just ten weeks.
If you leave
after our last class sesison
with merely with an inarticulate groan
or a deep sigh
born from an encounter
with the Living God…
then every day
and every hour
and every second
of my work as a teacher
was worth it.
For what I want is to look into your eyes
and hear your voice
and sing your songs
that will be born from that encounter
in the days, months, years, and decades
we have left on this earth
until the last trumpet sounds
and the last stars fall from the sky.
For in the end
I pray that this class is not about me
nor about you
and I trust that
all the questions, dreams, longings, and hopes
of all the generations
will at last find their home
and into the arms of the Lord of Love
offering a deep and true welcome
that is the culmination of all
True, this class is only one small grain of sand upon which
Supplement – CCM songs I am not embrassed to play in public:
Randy Stonehill – “Christmas at Denny’s” off the Return to Paradise CD(it is really a heartbreaking gem… I pray for the Denny’s customers every season now… you can download the track from iTunes via the “Stories” CD)
John Michael Talbot - the Birth of Jesus (a wonderful album with all the Thomistic pomp this monk can muster…)
Happy Christmas collections from Tooth and Nail – some great covers and punchy vibe
OK – that’s enough for now – let me know your thoughts…
Some of my favorite Christmas carols are those penned in the nineteenth century. Perhaps due to my work as a Victorianist during my PhD studies, my love of steam punk, the genius of novelist George Eliot, all things Charles Dickens and a form of Anglophilia that peers over Hadrian’s Wall from bonnie Scotland with an eye to England with wonder coupled with furrowed brow, the Victorian period continues to stir a rich level of interest at Christmas time.
Of the carols that wrestle with this period “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is certainly one of my favorites. Written first as a poem in 1849 by a Unitarian pastor by the name of Edmund Sears at the brink of the Civil War in the United States, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is a haunting reflection on hoping for peace in the midst of war.
As noted in the entry on Edmund Sears in the Dictionary of Unitarianism and Universalism some have criticized “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” for its unscriptural references to “prophet-bards” and an “age of gold,” and for never mentioning the Christ-child. A century after the carol was written, the dictionary entry notes that British carol scholar Erik Routley wrote that “in its original form, the hymn is little more than an ethical song, extolling the worth and splendor of peace among men.”
To Sears Jesus was neither a primarily historical figure, “disappeared into the distant past,” nor a subject for “theological pugilism,” but an experience in daily life. He found the “living Christ” best presented in the Gospel of John. A product of his lifelong biblical study, The Fourth Gospel the Heart of Christ, 1872, was his most widely-read work.
I am with Sears in seeing John’s Gospel as a beautiful and necessary actualization of all that Jesus’ ministry was about. Like Sears I too find it disheartening to leave the wonder of the Christ in either a historical dusty past or merely the subject of theological speculation and abstraction that is oh so very common in the rhetoric of academy these days. What the Gospel of John offers is apocalyptic poetry that blasts open the past and present into a future where the “I Am” of God in Christ is not reduced to a phrase, theory or simplistic hymn. No, the Gospel of John begins and ends with the Alpha and Omega who is the “Word become Flesh” truly “dwelling among us” as the “I AM” who brings together the stuff of earth – light, life, bread, vines, water,ways and paths – into deep repose with the glory of the transcendent God who announces himself as the “I AM” of all things to Moses in a burning bush and announces himself to us in this way everyday if we would have eyes to see and ears to hear.
“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” is a hymn that does the work of the true incarnation in ways few Christmas hymns do. Sears wrote this hymn looking at the dirt and blood of a war tearing apart this country. The darkness of the human heart is laid open and the distress of being full of “sin and strife” gives evidence to Sears’ state of mind who is not willing to either descend totally into despair nor paint over “sin and strife” with flowery prose. People do not (or will not) hear the promise of the Christ child with the cannon fire and roars of guns firing in trenches:
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
This is a hymn for our time as well. As we settle into a season of twinkling lights around Norman Rockwell scenes of joy and abundance, the city of Newtown, CT will be grieving with the memory of gun shots blurring out the sound of promise and hope. The battlefields that continue to claim the lives of soldiers and civilians will be raging on and on this month and into the next year. What Sears offers is an honest vantage point on all this reality and more.
The tune of the hymn was penned in 1850 by Richard Willis who was a student of Felix Mendelssohn and also penned “Fairest Lord Jesus”. The melody is called “Carol” or “Noel” in most hymnals and is most often set in the key of B-flat major in a six-eight time signature. While the hymn is most often played in B-flat major, I find the move from major to minor in the version recorded by Sam Phillips for the 1992 film “A Midnight Clear” my favorite. (BTW – “A Midnight Clear” is a powerful film based on a true story of German and American troops in 1994 who cease combat and spend Christmas facing one another with a tragically powerful scene at the end that evokes the Eucharist better than most films out there – it is available on Netflix and DVD).
The version Sam Phillips sings is so simple in the move to the minor key yet is the one that both haunts and fulfills the potential of Sears’ hymn and speaks most accurately to all that is challenging about the incarnation of God in our world of “sin and strife”. The closing stanzas seem to come alive in the turn to the minor key as the plaintive melancholy reaches out for redemption in hope yet still left in reaching without full grasping and embrace in the now:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Bruce Cockburn also did a version of Sam Phillip’s minor key arrangement on his “Christmas” CD where Sam sings backup and provides additional strain and mourning to Bruce’s trademark sad wonder. I commend both versions of this amazing hymn to you this season:
I was walking through a shopping mall today (my least favorite activity) and in the midst of all the noise, sparkle, clatter and shoving of the holiday madness I thought ”there needs to be some guide for all this to help me make some sense and sanity of all this consumerism.”
I am not offering a “stop being a consumer!” guilt trip and you can find many blogs to help you there. No, I want to offer five short suggestions to consider if you are shopping this week. So, if you are planning a trip to the mall or are reading this while standing in front of some store front or pausing on the high street, take out your smartphone and take two minutes to read the following:
1. Start with this mantra: Nothing you can buy will garner the lasting affections you crave.
So relax… the gifts are NOT what it is about. If you need to cut that sentence out and tape it to the back of your iPhone to glance at, go for it.
2. Try this moment of clarity: Look around at the people and their frantic rushing clutching their shopping bags and say a short prayer for those God might bring to mind. For the families they are hoping to show love to, for the stress they might be feeling with all the pressure of spending they feel is essential, for the sense of loneliness some might be feeling this time of year.
If you are looking for words – offer prayers of Mercy, Grace, Peace, and Hope.
3. Tell one of the cashiers or other folks working in the mall “thank you” for all that they are doing this time of year. It is simply amazing how people are treated in shopping malls – doormats get better treatment. Making eye contact with someone and saying “thank you for your work” is a humanizing gift that one human can (and should) give to another.
4. Remember to tip well if you eat out. Studies show that people will cut back on tips in the holiday season due to the financial crunch they are under. For many people working minimum wage getting some form of tip is the way they can make ends meet and put food on the table. Try hard to give a bit more in tipping if possible and even consider jotting a short note of “thanks” on your bill.
5. Create at least one thing for someone this holiday. Not everyone is an artist nor a chef. But try to at least be creative in *some* way this season. Bake cookies. Make a card for someone from scratch. Be creative and remind yourself through this that this is a season when “all things become new” in the new birth and new light of the holiday. We have been lulled into thinking that the brand and price tag are what make the gift. Just putting pen to paper (remember writing?) and writing out a short letter to someone is a precious thing in a time of immediacy.
Trust me… giving a piece of yourself to another person is an amazing gift.
Try it even if it is something small.
Because *you* are not a small gift of God in the least…
Leave a comment and let me know how it goes out there…
OK… two minutes of sanity is over… go back to your regularly scheduled shopping madness…
This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Advent which is called ‘Mary Sunday’ as it is a time in the church calendar when we light a pink candle and reflect on the person and place that this young, pregnant teenager played in the divine drama of God bending toward earth and taking on fragility in a time of horror and violence. Churches will reflect on Mary’s song – often called “the Magnificat” – which is taken from the Gospel of Luke 1:46-55 where verse 46, rendered in Latin, reads “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” hence the notion of the passage as “the Magnificat”. While many in popular culture know the Magnificat from classical pieces by Bach or Mozart, the Scripture is quite powerful:
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name;
And his mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of his mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.
Mary’s prophetic song seems to provide a syllabus of sorts for how churches can provide a powerful witness this season in the midst of tragedy and seeking a way forward. As Mary announces that this coming savior will “exalt the lowly” and those who have much “will be sent away empty.”
I am left wondering what is a way of “emptying” that the Christian community can offer the world as a profound prophetic act of solidarity with the grieving of Sandy Hook Elementary?
As a friend reminded me, in Australia they had the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996 where 35 people were killed and 23 wounded. The local authorities extended amnesty to people to turn in firearms with the promise that they could lay down their arms and step away from violence. Some 643,000 firearms were handed in. This act also funded a communal spirit in Australia of choosing the way of trust and reconciliation rather than fear and protection as the mark of a society. People handed in their guns, and that was that. There have been other shootings in Australia since like at Monash University in 2002 which killed two people, but not nearly what we have rising in the States and none of the scope that happened in Port Arthur or this week at Sandy Hook.
Here is my pitch: what would it mean to have this Sunday – in remembrance of Mary’s prophetic song of the coming Savior – be Gun Amnesty Sunday?
This Sunday churches will provide a place where people can come and leave behind any weapons they have with no fear of judgement, no concern about what others may think and the Christian community can model a good and proper use of sacred space for a world seeking some tangible way to respond. There are many who do not want to let go of their firearms, but there are many who after this tragedy may be asking themselves how to get rid of that gun in their home and want no part of this fear culture any longer. Perhaps the church has a place for those people this coming Sunday.
Put this up on Facebook and Twitter feeds for people to have Sunday services as a place for people to come, lay down their guns, and walk away from these testimonies of violence and risk living in a world of trust and reconciliation as opposed to fear. What would it mean for churches to be places where people can enter and find communities of comfort that will provide a better way than violence and fear? This child that Mary sings about was born in a time of violence as well and this young mother ‘feared not’ and was a prophetic voice and presence in her time by calling a generation to “empty” those things that seemed to give power and safety in order that this world could make room for the glory that was forming in her for the sake of us all.
I challenge church leaders and Christians everywhere to at least consider this.
Perhaps this will be a moment for the world to find your church community for the first time and experience some sense of what this coming Savior is all about.
Hard to believe that it is *that* time of year again, but here we are closing out 2012 and with it comes the attempt to tier the music that has overwhelmed (and at times underwhelmed) our hearts and souls these past 12 months. It has been a year with some surprises to be sure – from the horse dancing glee of Psy with “Gangnam Style” to the recent (so-called) reunion of Nirvana with Paul McCartney fronting the grunge remnant like some grandpa harbinger of the second coming (for what its worth… I thought the performance was a blast… especially Dave Grohl’s Animal from “the Muppets” drumming and Krist Novoselic dressing in Cosplay for the opening of “The Hobbit”).
Like many of you I have a drive-by accident fascination with top 10 lists. Most are a flaming car crash of personal choices that I just can’t help myself to spent too much time pouring over which usually only distracts me from more pressing things.
To that I say to you, dear reader, just keep driving if this isn’t your cup of green tea…
So here we go.
These are not meant to be ordered from top to bottom, best to worst but is merely a cataloging of the music that challenged my mind, stirred my soul, surprised me musically and lyrically, and at times put a smile on my face, a strut in my step, a fist pounding on my dashboard, or moved me to stillness and contemplation in an ever increasingly frenetic world:
Fun. Some Nights
Thought I better get this one right out there: I freaking LOVED this record.
OK… there… I said it.
Yes, this New York band seriously blew up this year and has become something of a radio/internet staple with “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” topping Spotify and Pandora for longer than anyone wants to remember. Fun. are a pop band pure and simple with great vibes and fantastic beats and production values that makes it near to impossible to sit in your chair and blithely listen with your brain alone (when your band website is ‘ournameisfun.com‘ you know they are not seeking emo cred). The fact that my young kids *and* my college students are jamming to this band tells you about the reach they have achieved in a short period of time. Whether they will go the way of one hit wonder acts like T’Pau (Remember them? Nah… didn’t think so…) of course remains to be seen and heard, but this year they certainly showed that the big drum sound coupled with looping chorus sing-a-longs speak to the masses. Also, the slightly ambiguous message of trying to break free from the lock step mechanization of life seemed to grab at people as good anthems often do. I for one certainly enjoyed these tracks as my guilty pleasure of the year.
Admiral Fallow, Trees Burst in Snow
This past Spring I was on sabbatical in Oxford and had a chance to see Mumford and Sons live in Scotland on the banks of Loch Lomond at Rockness 2012 and just missed seeing these guys at the festival. Thankfully my Scottish friends encouraged me to jump on the Admiral Fallow bandwagon and have loved their recent album Trees Burst in Snow. True, I am a sucker for the Scottish sensibilities and themes and lead singer/songwriter Louis Abbott doesn’t disappoint. In talking to Paste magazine about his writing for their first album Boots Meet My Face, Abbott says that
“All of the songs document the first chapter of my life, be it memories from school or kicking a ball about with my childhood chums. All are taken from real life events. There’s no fiction. I’m not into making up stories or characters for the sake of trying to stir emotions. They are songs about friends and family as well as a fair bit of self-evaluation.
The collection from the first record was all more personal stuff about my upbringing and teenage years, but when we went to put these songs together [Trees Burst in Snow], or rather, when I started working on ideas for them, I realized that I hadn’t really done an awful lot in my own life.
I realized that I’d have to look outside what was going on in my own life a little bit to try to find inspiration for a new set of lyrics. So it is more worldly-feeling, whether it’s financial problems or violent crime, mostly stuff from newspaper articles…and trying to put myself in the shoes of the characters that are created from those situations, which I hadn’t done at all on the first record.”
There is something ‘true’ in Admiral Fallow to be sure – not so much fiction as a transcendent realness in the simplicity and calling for ‘something more’ in our lives. This is particularly true in the recent single from Trees Burst in Snow “Isn’t This World Enough?” which calls for a life that doesn’t seek religion in order to escape the pains and joys of this world, but learning to dwell deeply and richly in the world we have been given. While I am not saying this is a song that aligns perfectly with the Christian story, it paves a road worthy of the Gospels and certainly Jesus’ now and not yet framing of the Kingdom of God in the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6). While this road doesn’t take us all the way to the Cross, it certainly drives a better route for most of the journey than most escapist CCM tunes.
Jack White, Blunderbuss
Jack White is a ‘freak of nature’ in all the ways that phrase connotes. Seriously, the guy just makes sound/music/noise in ways that is simply uncanny. I have always been a lukewarm White Stripes fan – pretty late to the party with ‘Seven Nation Army’ and have never actually purchased a full CD of their work. But then Jack White slowly began to grow on me as he ventured into production work (his work with Loretta Lynn on 2004′s Van Lear Rose rivals any of the minimalist comeback projects Rick Rubin took on including the American Recordings with Johnny Cash), his geek-like passion for vinyl and old school record stores (check out his Third Man Records and on-going commitment to pressing vinyl in an age of digital) and his part with Jimmy Page and The Edge in the documentary “It Might Get Loud” where he talks about the influence that Delta blues clashing with Motown had on him as he developed into an artist. Blunderbussas a solo album is a fantastic example of a rock star slowly moving away from being a one or two trick pony and truly reaching for the next rung on the creative ladder. He is no longer merely a retro act who seems to mimic Robert Plant. More than any album I heard this year Blunderbuss lives up to its title in that it is a tightly packed, muzzle loaded weapon that fires in short, explosive unpredictable blasts that might aim at one thing yet hit anything in its range regardless of creed or culture. Songs like “I’m Shakin’” show an unashamed love for roots blues and that he is not afraid of having a good time. Yet it is tracks like “Love Interruption” that you see risks being taken that unnerve you and force you to ask “what the heck is going on here?” Set against a simple guitar riff with Motown-era backup singers, White seems to be singing about anything BUT the notion of love that is so ubiquitous in pop music. He wants love to destroy, ravage, consume, renounce and ultimately remain distant and distinct from him. Over and over he essentially acknowledges something in the true nature of love that many will only acknowledge to their therapist and rarely sing about: that love is always something that we can never, ever control. Love in the human and divine sense share this truth – it will always master us and we will never master it. Yet pop music has sold generation after generation the half truth that love is merely a lovely, beautiful, redemptive and hopeful thing while Jack White, that ‘freak of nature’ has told us something approaching the full monty in regard to love: that it is not a thing at all… but found in relationships which means that we will never, ever survive as isolated individuals as if we add love on top of our unchanged lives.
Jack White is right… love will destroy you and this is more Gospel than most preachers on a Sunday will tell you from the pulpit. And this honest madness of word and sound bleeds through Blunderbuss. It is not a perfect album and this is also its strength. White is giving us a raw experience that punches and grasps like a starving animal or a drowning man seeking something, anything to give evidence of life.
I do not see the world that Jack White sees nor do I find everything appealing…
But I could say the same thing about the prophets and ministry of Jesus as well.
Macklemore+ Ryan Lewis, The Heist
What is there to say that hasn’t been said about the amazing rise of the “pull yourself up by your boot straps” story that is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. These local Seattle hip hop artists have been working the scene for a few years now, releasing a few EPs and finally pushed through with a fantastic debut album that doesn’t disappoint. Yes, there are Macklemore haters out there, but most of them want something from this duo that was never in their job description. While so much of hip hop recently has become angry and cynical to the point of requiring some anti-rage medication just to listen through the first track, Macklemore has chosen a different path paved with a long forgotten core trait of humanity: the search for joy. From their hysterical song and video “Thrift Shop” (check out this live performance on Jimmy Fallon to get the vibe) to the tent revival preaching against consumerism in “Wings” and the serious call for churches to acknowledge that taverns and bars are more committed to the lost and lonely than their locked up sanctuaries are in “Neon Cathedral”, Macklemore brings an optimism and joy to his rhymes that Ryan Lewis lifts up through his ample supply of spare beats and deep cuts that enliven a smile on your face and a commissioning to change and live that is simply absent from the gansta mess of what has become the depressing death march of many hip hop artists today. Whatever your views on discussions of sexuality debates that have polarized the church today, I will go on record as saying that Macklemore’s “Same Love” is perhaps the best love song written this year. As I wrote on my reflections on the song for the Rock and Theology project:
The video/song draws us to a celebration where confetti as a manifestation of Grace continually flutter down from the ceiling akin to pure white communion cards falling on everyone announcing that the sacraments are now open to all as Macklemore sings:
Whatever god you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up.
As the song fades out, Mary Lambert who sings with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on “Same Love” repeats the refrain from 1 Corinthians 13 “Love is patient, Love is Kind” over and over as an echoing mantra so that the last words we hear are not merely song, but scripture. In this Macklemore and Ryan Lewis truly take on the role of prophet. With a musical shift that recalls a vintage era of Salvation Army brassand an off-tempo tambourine, the song is no longer disposable as most pop songs are but now woven into our collective memory by binding it to one of the most popular scripture passages evoked at wedding services. St. Paul’s grand call to Christian virtue in his epistle to the church of Corinth is now bound up in this Hip Hop song that calls a generation to take seriously [what the prophets of the Old Testament hold as core values]: justice (mišpāṭ), righteousness (ṣedāqâ) and offers a challenge to turn (hāpak) away from anything that prevents another human being from experiencing the grace and mercy God desires to rain down on all creation like pure white falling confetti at a wedding celebration where the Bridegroom awaits for us all at the alter.
I don’t often tear up when listening to a song for the first time and rarely on repeated listens, but there is something so stirring in this simple, Gospel-tinged plea for another vision of humanity, of love, and of God that I continue to be challenged to pray, to rethink my witness in the world, and who I am inviting into my life as friend and who Jesus challenges me to consider as “neighbor”. I believe that this is the type of song that may even save lives in ways that the recent “It Gets Better” campaign has done for many teens struggling with their identity in a world that offers cruelty when difference is shown. If this isn’t what Rock and Theology is about, I don’t know what it.
I do hope Macklemore keeps an eye toward critical excellence and works harder at his lyrics. But I also hope that he doesn’t lose sight of this (dare I say it) romantic calling to a generation to seek after a joyous depth to life, to challenge our systems for the sake of love, and to dance till our ‘grandpa style’ bursts into flame.
Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal
Honestly… what is the *deal* with Iceland?! I mean, with bands like The Sugarcubes and Bjork, Sigur Ros, Mum, and now Of Monsters and Men… you have to wonder what is in the water over there! Of Monsters and Men hit the airwaves with all the gleeful force of a circus parade that everyone is given free tickets to and the popcorn never ends. As they say on their website, they consider themselves an “amiable group of day dreamers who craft folkie pop songs” which sums up their debut My Head is an Animal quite well. Continuing the traditions of the ensemble stylings similar to Arcade Fire and The Polyphonic Spree – both of whom invite a constant sing-a-long vibe – Of Monsters and Men is certainly a band to watch. In his review in the Guardian of My Head is an Animal, David Simpson points to the simple joy of “la la la” and “hey hey’s” in their music as a big part of their success:
The reasons for their success are simple: terrific songs that combine the folky with the epic, and instantly infectious choruses big on “la la la”s and “hey hey”s. Delivering these songs using everything from glockenspiels to Motown drums, chants and stomping feet, they turn campfire singalongs into skyscraping anthems, the contrast between male and female vocalists Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson making them sound something like a fusion of Cyndi Lauper, the Cardigans and Arcade Fire. Songs about beasts and forests abound with joy, but with a less tangible, mournful undercurrent that gives them an otherwordly, magical quality.
As with many bands that evoke a similar sense of crazy instrumentation of found items from the children’s toy chest to the joyous handclaps and “la la la’s” of a sing-a-long, Of Monsters and Men also reminds us that we are not alone and have a party that we are invited to. This is one of the things that music does for the sonic mystics among us: locating harmonic reminders that in a world of darkness there are people and songs who we have been seeking all our lives and when we find them – be it in a singer/songwriter or in a Icelandic circus parade – we will follow and sing along with all our heart.
Give “Mountain Song” a listen and just try not to be optimistic…
Sera Cahoone, Deer Creek Canyon
A few months back I had one of those musical encounter moments that you always long for but only happens every once and a while. It had been a rather long day, some discouraging conversations with folks and bad traffic beyond belief. I wasn’t really listening to the radio as much as hearing some buzz in the midst of scatter thoughts when a song I had never heard powered by a voice I swear I had heard before filled the car. At this point I turned – rather floated – off the highway and had one of those ‘driveway listening’ times where you sit and wait for the song to finish in order to find out who it is. While the DJ didn’t give me the artist and song in the set, I did go through the KEXP setlist and discovered Sera Cahoone.
Every season needs some midtempo time keeper and Sera Cahoone’s debut release with Sub Pop records – Deer Creek Canyon - is it for 2012. Paced at a perfect Goldilocks speed – not too hot, not too cold – Cahoone has a voice and musical sensibility that finds the space between rush and rest with ease. She is not the low fi queen that Gillian Welch is nor is she banging out manic tunes of worry and wonder like some alt-country Screamo band. No, Cahoone is not in a rush to tell her stories of love lost and found. Backed by an able band of traditionalists on fiddles, banjo, drumbox and what-have-you, her voice rises and falls with the beating of a heart at restful peace. And it is that voice of hers that make all the difference in these compositions. She has a distinctive deep luster that draws from the lower register of life yet sits vocally with toes in a clear reflecting pond drawing circle upon circle as the daylight turns slowly to night and then raises with the dawning of new hope. She brings energy to the stand out track “Naked” that pulses strong and true with a clear rhythm section which shows something of her legacy as the daughter of a dynamite salesman in Colorado who took to the drums at the age of 11. There is the subtle blasts of deep mining in her compositions that tease you out of the caves of solitude and leave you longing for some connection in this life or perhaps the next. More substantive than mere audio comfort food, Sera Cahoone sings in the ways you always hoped the thing called ‘home’ would sound.
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
OK… low hanging fruit to be sure… but as hard as I tried to justify why this album doesn’t stand up to the contemporary voices in order to not be accused of giving in to my heroes, I couldn’t deny the Boss his place on the list.
To be sure, with a back catalog that is a pillar and standard of rock and roll for the ages (yup… hyperbole warranted…) it is certainly not the best album of his long career. But Bruce has recently seen his musical output move from merely self discovery and past commentary of a bygone era and now moved, akin to Leonard Cohen (see my comments below) into the role of a prophet and sage with a musical repose facing hopefully and fearlessly into the future. As a timely commentary on economic downturn, political disappointment, and the crushing loss of male dignity in an age that calls for men to choose between either aspiring to (1) become mindless steroid induced killing machines or (2) emaciated emo priests in varying reposes of indifferent despair cowering and mumbling insipid poetry written in their own navels, Bruce in Wrecking Ball has faced into the howling winds of our time and offers a path through such extremes. As a prophetic, populist bard and paladin for our times, Bruce begins the album with a Walt Whitman-like ‘barbaric YAWP’ essentially screaming into the abyss of our age with certainty and courage through this song cycle and offers a unique and necessary form of communal action and humble masculinity that acknowledges the models of power that have been used in the past to solve the clear and present dangers of our time but holds back enough to allow wisdom and community to arise. While the title track to Wrecking Ball was written as an ode to Giants stadium built in the swamps of New Jersey only now to be torn down, Springsteen takes this metaphor to universal heights as a tale of modernity seeking places of gathering and meaning and the enduring drive of common folk to rebuilt and soar even under the worst of conditions. Songs like “Jack of All Trades” and “Death to My Hometown” are as solemn a lamentation for the loss of purpose during economic downturn as it comes. Yet akin to the best U2 albums (you *know* that we would come to them at some point…) that begin with lament and end with a benediction, Wrecking Ball leaves the listener with a gospel call for unity, humility and hopefulness with “Rocky Ground” followed by “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “We Are Alive” that ask us to work together for a common good that is a breath of fresh air. As Springsteen crests into his sixties he has become the rock sage calling for the better angels of our nature and for that I am thankful.
Springsteen sings of religious realities—sin, temptation, forgiveness, life, death, hope — in images that come (implicitly perhaps) from his Catholic childhood, images that appeal to the whole person, not just the head, and that will be absorbed by far more Americans than those who listened to the Pope … The piety of these songs—and I challenge you to find a better word—is sentient without being sentimental…
I have no desire to claim Springsteen as Catholic in the way we used to claim movie actors and sports heroes. I merely observe that this is (not utterly unique) Catholic imagery on the lips of a troubadour whose origins and present identification are Catholic. I also observe that the Catholic origin of the imagery serves to explain them. I finally observe that the critics seem to pay no attention to the images, perhaps because without a Catholic perspective one has a hard time understanding where they come from and what they mean.
So if the troubadour’s symbols are only implicitly Catholic (and perhaps not altogether consciously so) and if many folks will not understand them or perceive their origins, what good are they to the Catholic Church? Surely they will not increase Sunday collections or win converts or improve the church’s public image. Or win consent to the pastoral letter on economics.
But those are only issues if you assume that people exist to serve the church. If, on the other hand, you assume that the church exists to serve people by bringing a message of hope and renewal, of light and water and rebirth, to a world steeped in tragedy and sin, you rejoice that such a troubadour sings stories that maybe even he does not know are Catholic.
And to this point I lift up Wrecking Ball as truly one of the great albums of the year. Yes, it is a popular album with some patently simple hooks. Yes, it is an album where Bruce trades once again on his trademark sound and doesn’t invent nor deconstruct anything of note musically similar to Mumford and Sons’ Babel. Yes, Bruce is a multi-millionaire singing about the common person that seems bizarre to those who believe that only those in suffering and loss can sing such things (an argument that rings flat akin to saying that the best car mechanics are those who drive irresponsibly and have crashed their cars). But the truth is in the songs and the people who have responded over and over to them.
While Wrecking Ball is not his best, it will be an album that is worthy of the Springsteen canon… and that is saying something.
Mumford and Sons, Babel
Few things are worse for an artist than the challenge of returning to your fans with a sophomore effort after such a debut smash. For Marcus Mumford and his band the bar was set impossibly high with Sigh No More, and while critics were fairly ‘meh’ about their sophomore album Babel, I have to say that it really holds up in ways I didn’t expect it to.
For my money, if Mumford and Sons had formed a decade earlier, they would have probably been a great grunge band. Their ability to connect with their audience both lyrically and sonically, the turn in their music toward the life born in flesh and wrestling to escape this mortal coil, the frantic attack of their instruments packing as much sound [btw - not noise... but sound. Remember, sound has purpose while noise does not. This is a common error for those listening to grunge - thinking they hear noise when they are being walloped with sound] as possible into the smallest space. Yet Marcus Mumford missed the grunge boat as an adult but was certainly surrounded by it in the midst of his Vineyard childhood in the UK. Sandwiched between the spirit praise of the Charismatic movement born in California with the likes of John Wimber that fueled a generation of early Christian rock pioneers and the tidal flow of acts like the Clash washing onto American beaches that returned bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, and Nirvana to the UK shores, Mumford had a sonic baptism of the ‘now and not yet’ Kingdom which forged into the musical counterpointing of a clash of musical cultures found in the band’s two albums and certainly seen in their live shows. One of the critiques of Babel is that the band hasn’t strayed from Sigh No More in their sonic pallet choices. I always find this a peculiar critique if the band has used the tried and true format to good (if not great) effect. Akin to the Eucharist, the question isn’t if it is novel every time, but is it efficacious?(Which is to say in relation to the communion meal ‘Does this have meaning and connect deeply with our present, the past of the saints, and the future of the Savior’s banquet prepared from the foundations of the world for us’?) While Babel is not the Messianic banquet by any means, it is certainly efficacious in that while it is not ‘new’, it does call for ‘renewal’ in ways both deep and wide in the lives of the listeners and the world at large.
Leading off with a call to worship in the title track “Babel” with the frenetic crash of banjo, guitar, and kick drum , Marcus Mumford calls out to the unnamed God of Acts 17 to “come down from the mountain and stand where we’ve been/breath is weak and our body is thin”. This crying out is fueled by the twinned push of the ensemble showing no slack in pacing (a worthy critique to be sure… they could learn something about pacing from Sera Cahoone and Leonard Cohen as I mentioned) and the raw, anguished pleading of Marcus Mumford’s vocal delivery. In the lead single “I Will Wait” Mumford takes on to the penitent lover/devotee who will “kneel down” and “wait for now” and in this kneeling will “know my ground/Raise my hands/Paint my spirit gold/Bow my head/Keep my heart slow” Throughout the album the roles of the prophet who calls down God from the mountain tops and the penitent devotee morph into one another and in one of the last tracks entitled “Hopeless Wanderer” the narrative lines come together in the trope of the Prodigal Son who is called out of the woods as someone who has ”wrestled long with my youth” and “tried so hard to live in the truth/But do not tell me all is fine” Admitting his inability to reconcile the life of calling and the life of despair, Mumford admits that “when I lose my head, I lose my spine” and “won’t remember the words that you said/You brought me out from the cold/Now, how I long, how I long to grow old” To this Mumford cries out the chorus as a “hopeless wanderer” who wants nothing more than just to be held, embraced and strive to “learn to love the skies I’m under.” This sums up Babel and why I challenge the critics who too quickly dismissed the album as an also-ran to Sigh No More. Push and crash of the frantic acoustic fireworks coupled with the pleas to be still, to be held, to find peace makes for a fantastic exploration of the modern cry to find some solace in the midst of the maddening acceleration of 21st century so-called life. There is a reason that Mumford and Sons found such a rabidly loyal audience for they are writing and singing the modern life into a sacred/secular hymnody in ways that much of contemporary Christendom needs to listen to. This is noted by Will Hermes in his review of Babel in Rolling Stone:
“But proselytizing is not the mission on Babel. Where Rick Ross slings church flavor to add levity to street tales, Mumford uses it to supersize and complicate love songs. “Lovers’ Eyes” is merely the best of several songs that wrestle with betrayer’s guilt. On “Broken Crown” he seems both sinner and sinned against. “The pull on my flesh was just too strong,” he cries with moving hair-shirt candor. Disgraced politicians could learn something from this dude. Colored with brass, group vocals and Ben Lovett’s understated piano, “Lovers’ Eyes” and “Broken Crown” (which, like “Little Lion Man,” makes showstopping use of the word “fucked”) show the subtler and more British folk elements that marked the group’s debut. Those flavors get toned down on this record, which is too bad. But the power of the arrangements and Marcus Mumford’s tortured-vicar vocals is undeniable. And if his conflation of love, lust and Christian spirituality sounds more like pre-dawn confusion than neat Bible lessons, it feels all the truer for it. His parents should be proud.”
Father John Misty, Fear Fun
What’s not to love about an album that name checks Martin Heidegger, John-Paul Sarte and Neil Young all in one song? Contrary to the claims of transcendental realness espoused by Louis Abbott of Admiral Fallow who made claims that their music includes ‘no fiction’ (see comments above), Josh Tilliman aka ‘Father John Misty’ holds that what animates his album is pure alter ego. As he says on the Sub Pop website, paraphrasing author Philip Roth, the entire project for his is summed up as “‘It’s all of me and none of me, if you can’t see that, you won’t get it’. What I call it is totally arbitrary, but I like the name. You’ve got to have a name. I never got to choose mine. People who make records are afforded this assumption by the culture that their music is coming from an exclusively personal place, but more often than not what you hear are actually the affectations of an ’alter-ego’ or a cartoon of an emotionally heightened persona.”
As Tilliman lays bare for us in his debut as Father John Misty, the journey of the artist is truly the dance between the poles of pure autobiography and the abstraction of all realities in order to find and inhabit the clashing of realities both lived out and aspired to. For the artist known as ‘Father John Misty’ the journey away from the types of music Josh Tilliman made with his band Fleet Foxes has been something of a revelation befitting his priestly title he has named himself with. The album Fear Fun is full of chance as well as purposeful encounters with the philosophical and the mundane, the honky tonk and the minimalist, the erotic and the indifferent who all find a pathway both into and out from both our public dreams and our most private confessionals. As Tilliman recounts his journey of leaving his successful gig as the drummer for Fleet Foxes, wandering aimlessly up and down the West Coast in a van and eventually landing in Southern California, the need to escape the life he was in and find another one speaks volumes to a generation who embraced Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues” as a soundtrack for feeling stuck yet not knowing where to go. Fear Fun seems to chronicle what happens in the midst of the journey to “the world outside” which “is so inconceivable often I barely can speak” and leaves us “tongue-tied and dizzy” and so confused and alone that we wonder aloud “What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?” As Father John Misty muses throughout Fear Fun perhaps singing the Helplessness Blues we take us on a long strange trip that is far from over but sure a heck of a journey worth piling in the van for.
Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas
While I started with the young upstarts of Fun. it seemed only right to give the last words to the true noble sage in this year’s line up. In their list of Best Albums for 2012, Paste magazine sums up Leonard Cohen‘s latest album as a continuation of deeply Hebraic carnality into the twilight of life:
A self-described “manual for living with defeat,” Old Ideas is a Leviticus and Deuteronomy of suggestions of atonement for carnal error and misplaced faith that puts to rest any idea that Cohen has mellowed with age. Though his “days may be few” as he sings on “Darkness”—the closest thing to a radio-friendly hit that Old Ideas has to offer—Cohen proves that he’s not ready to go down yet as he delves into each of these new songs with a ferocity and focus that has been missing in his work in recent years.
At 78 years old, it is simply staggering to consider not only Cohen’s legacy thus far to both the written and sung word, but that he is still so amazingly productive and profound as well. While some might consider the life of a so-called ‘rock star’ beyond the pale of someone who many would think should be enjoying retirement, here he puts out a shimmering meditation on aging, mortality, and the past we drag kicking and screaming into the grave with us. From the opening lines of “Going Home” – “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/ He’s a lazy bastard/ Living in a suit” – we get the sense that Leonard Cohen fully recognizes the alter ego he inhabits on a regular basis in ways that Josh Tilliman is only slowly coming to grips with as Father John Misty. Yet this ‘sportsman and a shepherd’ in a suit (always Armani by the way) isn’t struggling with this alter ego at all in ways that Father John Misty is. No, Leonard Cohen is at peace with life as he is with his eventual death and so he sings at a pace and plums a depth of gravely baritone that is simply one long meditation on love, desire, joy and peace. Akin to Sera Cahoone, there is a profound midtempo in pacing in this album that speaks of the Buddhist ‘middle way’ of contentment that Cohen adopted so many years ago as a spiritual counterpoint to his Judaism. One of the beautiful modern psalms Cohen offers up on this release is a simple gem of a prayer called “Show Me The Place”. Like “Hallelujah” which has been covered by everyone yet only truly sung from profound depth by Cohen himself (yes… even Jeff Buckley didn’t get to the places of that song like Leonard has), “Show Me The Place” is a secular psalm of praise and shalom that deserves a place in the middle of a worship service any given Sunday.
I don’t know how many more albums Leonard Cohen has in him. He has even made statements that this is his last. If that is the case, then “Old Ideas” is the crescendo that any artist would dream to end on… except Leonard Cohen perhaps. As he has said over and over again, he never dreamed that this life of song was the real thing anyway… merely some appointment he had to keep for the time being. So as Leonard speaks with the other Leonard who is the ‘sportsman and a shepard’ I can only imagine that there is a wry smile passing between them in the spaces of silence and peace as they both show us the way home.
Some honorable mentions that are also fantastic and deserve a listen:
A friend just sent me this wonderful rabbinical reflection:
“A rabbi told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only G-D can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put in on your heart and then when your heart breaks, the holy words will fall inside.”
The story brought me back to one of my favorite wisdom sayings from the Desert fathers and mothers. Abba Poemen reflects on the potency of Scripture in relation to the hardness of human hearts in this way:
“The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the Word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the [one] who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.” - Abba Poemen in Benedicta Ward, trans. The Sayings of The Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (New York: Macmillan, 1975) p. 183
Nobody seeks heartbreak or at least not the truly heart-wrenching experiences of loss and despair that accompany deep crisis. But when it does come – and in this life we will experience loss and heartbreak – it is comforting to hear that when the heart breaks, the word of God is awaiting to pour into the crack and fissures.
I had a time during our university chapel service today (now called ‘gather‘) where I sat in prayer reflecting on heartbreak and on my own sense of loss over the years. I have sat in that sanctuary in so many stations of life – as an idealistic college student, as a broken and bruised campus pastor, as a pastor marrying young couples (some still married, some not), as a father chasing my daughters up and down aisles after university functions, and as a professor watching my students lead me into contemplative prayer. Throughout these many seasons God has poured out hope even in seasons of loss and heartbreak. Sometimes I ‘get it’ and sometimes… many times… I don’t. Yet the Word of God comes and surrounds my heart nonetheless and awaits those times of heartbreak to pour in.
As I left and walked across campus today reflecting on the words of Psalm 51 and while this is a Psalm of repentance and brokenness, I see it as such a statement of hope and renewal:
1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
As Rich Mullins has sung there is bound to come some trouble in this life… but there are also grace filled moments in this life and these words of the Psalms like so many words in Scripture are indeed good words for the brokenhearted – holy words to fall into the cracks that enliven and feed the flame of the deep Word that resides in all our hearts.
When it comes to the election season coming to a close in the next two weeks, I would like to challenge Christian leaders to do something similar – to take a leap from a distant view of the political fray and come down to earth by offering us some sense of who you are voting for.
There is a strange path that many Christian leaders seem to take in the midst of the election season that I am finding increasingly difficult to grasp.
The rhetoric goes something like this:
- denounce those who are deeply partisan or have strong ideological views for not listening more intentionally and graciously to all sides of an argument (fine),
- call the people to be humble and remember what Jesus says about loving enemies and neighbors (great)
- and then sign off from their blog, Facebook status, Twitter feed without offering a serious option or opinion one way or another (not good).
I believe members of congregations deserve more from their religious leadership than a scolding for being too overtly passionate about a candidate or not playing nice online.
Granted, calling the community of faith to a more generous spirit and more humble respect for all sides of the political fray is vital and I for one need that accountability. But I also want to know how and why you are voting and would benefit from knowing not just that voting is important in some ideological sense. As Stanley Hauerwas has said in a recent video on the Dinner with Sinners site, much of the modern election fray is mere spectacle akin to the Roman Circus that is entertainment rather than true democracy – “elections should be about people, now we elect commercials ” To this end people are turning to Christian leaders to give them a road map and also to hear how leaders have come to some decision. True, there are legal questions to engage with once a clergy member brings issues of politics into the pulpit that will possibly draw the ire of the IRS regarding tax-exempt status. Yet some have been willing to forgo this embargo and participated in movements like “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” where clergy speak out about their political views and risk legal action. So there is some sense that perhaps the legal issue isn’t the primary reason. Another reason for withholding personal views on politics that I have heard from clergy is that if they were to voice a personal opinion it would unjustly sway the congregation. To that argument I think clergy need to understand that while they do have influence, they also need to trust their congregation to disagree with them and that people have thought the matters out for themselves. In short, if this is the argument then some clergy need some words of humility spoken over them.
But I think much of this shyness and apprehensiveness on the part of Christian leaders boils down to a more fundamental issue: the fear of not being liked or valued for what we hold dear. There is an insecurity in many clergy that manifests itself in these aloof pronouncements on Twitter and Facebook that quickly point out the wrongheadedness of snarky commentary yet continue to attempt a disembodied distance from the very end game that is swirling around in this commentary – namely that in November this country will elect a President and if you are also a citizen of this country, it would be helpful to know how you prayerfully and thoughtfully came to whatever conclusion you came to. This is not just clergy – but public figures who fill the newsfeeds of social media and yet only dip into these discussions from afar.
My views? Well, I voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 elections and like many people had high hopes. While I am thankful to see movement in the Middle East and am still in favor of a health reform plan that is coming into play, not all my hopes have come to fruition and I am pretty frustrated with our current economic situation domestically and sending drones into South East Asia killing innocent civilians. The political ads and debate rhetoric has proven Stanley Hauerwas correct in many ways – it seems that we are indeed electing commercials rather than people. I am leaning toward casting a vote for Obama again but I don’t have the passion I did in 2008 and am truly thinking through whether I need to give Romney an honest look which is surprising even to think let alone type out into print. I would love your input here as to which candidate you are backing at present and what I need to read and consider.
And this is my petition and prayer: that like Felix Baumgartner our leaders will take a leap these next two weeks and risk landing on the ground where these important discussions are taking place to offer up some well-thought out opinions and gentle pathways by which they have come to a decision. As congregants we need to listen and not react so that Christian leaders can feel heard. As leaders there needs to a modelling of honest and humble transparency. If the world is watching the people of faith, may we be faithful and trustworthy in this important time. I would love some help these next two weeks in my final decisions and look forward to hearing who you are voting for and why.