Sunday, December 21, 2008

Johnny Cash on a Sunday

I'm veering away from Dylan today to grab a Johnny Cash tune. I have endured 24 hours of frustrated holiday travel and won't reach my destination for another two days. There's nothing like an airport full of frustrated holiday travelers that says merry xmas in quite the same way. And to boot, I returned to my apt in sub zero weather to find my electricity out. On the positive side, I've hung meat in the living room and am making a little extra $$ as a butcher.

But when you can't cry anymore, all you can do is laugh, right? So, here's a Johnny Cash song about misfortune that always makes me laugh. Nobody.

When life seems full
Of clouds and rain
And I'm full
Of nothin' but pain
Who soothes my thumpin', bumpin' brain?

When Wintertime comes
With its snow and sleet
And me with hunger
And cold feet
Who says "Here's two bits, go and eat"?

Well, I ain't never done nothin' to nobody
I ain't never got nothin' from nobody, no time
And until I get something from somebody, sometime
I don't intend to do nothin' for nobody, no time

When Summertime comes
All warm and clear
And my friends see me
Drawin' near
Who says "come on in and have a beer"?

Well one time when things was
Lookin' bright
I started to whittlin' on a stick one night
Who said "Hey! That's dynamite!"?

Mmmm, I ain't never done nothin' to nobody
I ain't never got nothin' from nobody, no time
And until I get something from somebody, sometime
I don't intend to do nothin' for nobody, no time

I ain't never done nothin' to nobody
I ain't never got nothin' from nobody, no time
And until I get something from somebody, sometime
I don't intend to do nothin' for nobody, no time

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

I was watching George Harrison's concert for Bangladesh the other day. It's pretty interesting at several levels. It's Harrison's first big foray as a frontman beyond the fab four. It was the first allstar benefit concert. Eric Clapton plays lead guitar, but he's in the middle of his heroin days and looks near death. You expect him to fall over any minute. And then there's the Dylan set. On the bonus dvd for the concert they talk about the mystery about Dylan's appearance. No one knew for sure if he would show up for sure. Even if he did, no one knew exactly what he'd do or how he would play the songs. Dylan, it seems, likes to play songs in different keys and different time signatures, leaving his bandmates to follow on the fly. But he did show up, and played Just Like a Woman, Blowin in the Wind, and Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. But my favorite part of the dvd is watching Dylan and Harrison rehearse the song that Harrison made more famous, If Not For You. I like this video piece because of Harrison's commentary, but also because the song is so simple. It's stuff like this that made me think I could write songs, good ones. (I was wrong, but the overall point was correct). So, today I'm living with, If Not For You. (My faves are the first and last stanzas).

If not for you,
Babe, I couldn't find the door,
Couldn't even see the floor,
I'd be sad and blue,
If not for you.

If not for you,
Babe, I'd lay awake all night,
Wait for the mornin' light
To shine in through,
But it would not be new,
If not for you.

If not for you
My sky would fall,
Rain would gather too.
Without your love I'd be nowhere at all,
I'd be lost if not for you,
And you know it's true.

If not for you
My sky would fall,
Rain would gather too.
Without your love I'd be nowhere at all,
Oh! What would I do
If not for you.

If not for you,
Winter would have no spring,
Couldn't hear the robin sing,
I just wouldn't have a clue,
Anyway it wouldn't ring true,
If not for you.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Believe the Good News, Yet Another

I've been attempting to show that salvation is less a status that you possess and more the manifestation of a new age belonging to God in which you are invited to belong. The death and resurrection is the axial event of this new age, allowing us to see what it is that God is up to and providing a way for us to attend to the world in a way that saves us. "Save" here refers to more than just the forgiveness of our sins. It also involves the overcoming of death and powers that diminish us and distort the world that God has called us to love.

This is bigger than limiting salvation to a theory of atonement. This does not mean it is wrong to develop theories as a way of talking about the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It does mean, however, that we need to develop new ways of talking about salvation that don't rely fully on partial explanations.

My sense is that most of our language related to penal substitutionary atonement has primary roots in the letters of Paul, albeit a fairly narrow reading. So, I want to do some imagination therapy by focusing on Jesus' announcement of the gospel in Mark 1:15, "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news." Four movements here as I see it. 1. The time is fulfilled, 2. the Kingdom is near, 3. repent, and 4. believe the good news. I am convinced that by attending to these four movements a new way of seeing and speaking can emerge over time. Here's the quick overview.

The time is fulfilled. A new age has dawned, the age of God's future salvation. The status quo is no longer the only game in town. God is acting to pull back the curtain, to reveal, the way the world ordered by his concerns appears. Christian life, in this sense, is learning to tell time, learning how to discern the distorting patterns of this present age which is fading away, and to discern the things that will endure in the age to come. Telling time requires a deep engagment with the world for the sake of the world and God's coming range. This is not a call to huddle on a mountain top somewhere until God pulls us out of the world, but to engage the world more deeply according to the pattern of the emerging age.

The kingdom of God is near. So much to say here. But two things for today. Jesus not only announces the new age, he embodies it. We recognize the kingdom of God by following Jesus, by taking up our cross and following him. But we also know that the Kingdom is near. It is already, but not yet. It is near, not in our possession. We continue to pray, "your kingdom come, your will be done... ."

Repent. The announcement of the kingdom of God is one of life under new management. Regime change. The kingdom is not simply the necessary outcome of the way things are going. It is an alternative future. And we cannot remain the same and belong to God's alternative future. Repent here is not scolding, but opportunity. It is the gracious call of God to align our lives with his coming reign. Repentance is a way of attending to life in belief that God's future kingdom is what is most real. It is repentance that allows something newsworthy to emerge as we learn to see life in a new way.

Believe the good news. It is not always easy to see how God's power is being manifest in the world, how his reign is the one that will ultimately prevail. After all, Mark prefaces Jesus' announcement of the kingdom by reminding us that John the Baptist is shut up in Herod's prison (Mk 1:14). The victory of God is hidden in the cross of Jesus. It is not always easy to believe. We are always tempted to half-measures, to going back to Egypt, to giving the concubine to Abraham, to making our peace with the way things are. Believe the good news!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ministry Maxim, 2

My first month in a fulltime ministry position, a more seasoned minister gave me a maxim that I have tried to follow to this day.

Maxim #2. You can't outpuke a buzzard.

I worked at the time for the "liberal" church in town, and had volunteered our congregation to host an area wide summer youth gathering. The watchdog churches in the area decided that we weren't really a safe place for their teens and so began a public campaign to boycott our time to host. Seriously. We spent an entire morning on the phone with the attack dog at one of these congregations trying to convince him that we were ok. Toward the end of the conversation, a more experienced minister dropped by to see how we were holding up and insisted that we get off the phone with this guy. "My daddy taught me," he said, "that you can't outpuke a buzzard." My dad taught me other colorful phrases, like "that's as slick as eel snot," but this buzzard saying has far more cache in ministry.

There are some conversations in ministry that aren't worth having. In fact, you know you're having one when it doesn't qualify as a conversation. I had a member who for several weeks would meet me Monday mornings as I came into the office to express his concerns about the church, a passive way of saying he had concerns about me. I wasn't preaching enough about heaven, which was code for I wasn't preaching enough about hell. He was afraid we were getting morally soft.

After a few weeks of explaining both my preaching commitments and my theology, it became apparent that this was not really a conversation. I was puking with a buzzard. One morning I asked him if he found these conversations satisfying. I told him I didn't and wasn't really interested in having this conversation anymore and wondered if this was really the kind of relationship he wanted to cultivate with me. He looked stunned, as if I had broken some kind of ministerial obligation to sit and listen to all criticism ad infinitum. We stopped having that conversation, and over time he took me up on my offer to have a different kind of relationship.

One of the hardest things about ministry is the people pleasing side of it. Many of us get into ministry because we're pleasers to begin with, and in a consumer driven society church members pretty much think its our primary job to please them. It's exhausting. It's a prolonged effort at customer relations and it really does not serve the purposes of the gospel. And ultimately the church will break your spirit if you're in it to please, or what amounts to the same thing, to win their approval. And they probably should.

With chronic complainers (aka, puking buzzards), I learned to redirect the conversation. "You know, Fred (the name is changed to protect the guilty), I've noticed that this isn't the first thing you've complained about around here. I'm coming to the conclusion that keeping you happy isn't a reasonable goal. I can't think that this is much fun for you. I know its not pleasant for me. I'm interested in having a different kind of relationship with you."

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that this approach is not always received positively. I've been cursed at in church at the end of one of these. But it does keep them from coming back to complain about something else. And in some cases, it has been a turning point in my relationship with them, and them with the church. And trying to please a chronic complainer has never turned them into a happy camper in my experience.

Three caveats here. First, this is not an excuse not to listen, and especially not to listen to criticism. We are always obligated to try to understand the other, which requires genuine, empathetic listening. But there comes a time when these matters are no longer occasions for listening, when what is occuring is no longer a conversation. Buzzard puking.

Second, this has to be an expression of genuine concern for the other. The phrase, "I'm wondering if we can try a different kind of relationship" has to be a genuine offer. And its going to be up to you to initiate that.

Third, this works best if everyone in leadership is on the same page. There are elders and other leaders who know that one source of power (a pretty weak source, ultimately) is to be the guy the complainers go to. I'm convinced that a congregation cannot discern the will of God if the congregational ecosystem doesn't sustain dialogue. Criticism has to be allowed, even encouraged, and leaders need to know some of that will come their way. But a culture that honors complaining is another matter, and leaders need a common approach to this dialogue killer.

Finally, anger and defensiveness have to be avoided at all costs. I'm usually pretty good at controlling my anger. I'm horrible at avoiding defensiveness. I'm the buzzard. It's no longer a conversation. Apologize and reschedule.

It is striking to me how many of the ethical admonitions in Scripture have to do with how we speak to each other. Sometimes this includes knowing when not to speak to each other.