Sunday, June 28, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I try to write songs. I have lots of half written songs. For most of them I have a melody, a chorus, even a bridge. I even know what they’re about. They’re not finished because I can’t find the lyrics. It’s not that I can’t find words that make sense or match the rhythm, etc. They’re just not good enough.

Mostly, I’m afraid of the trite, or worse, the cliché. Why write a song if its been said before, oversaid, and will be said again? But then I listen to some of my favorite songs and they’re full of clichés. In Brandi Carlile’s, The Story, she sings, “even though I was flat broke you made me feel like a million bucks.” Ugh. What a horrible lyric. But I love that song. And so I think I’m too hard on myself. Just finish the stupid song. It’s not like anyone’s ever going to hear them anyway.

Then I listen to Dylan. And his lyrics are sometimes obscure and non-sensical, but they’re never anything you’ve heard before. And often, they’re jarring, creating brand new images, fulfilling the true power of metaphor.

I just heard Standing in the Doorway, not one of my favorites, but some great lyrics. For instance...

Don't know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you
It probably wouldn't matter to you anyhow
You left me standing in the doorway, crying
I got nothing to go back to now

The light in this place is so bad
Making me sick in the head
All the laughter is just making me sad
The stars have turned cherry red
I'm strumming on my gay guitar
Smoking a cheap cigar
The ghost of our old love has not gone away
Don't look like it will anytime soon
You left me standing in the doorway crying
Under the midnight moon

So, Dylan makes me a purist. It's worth straining for just the right combination of words, even if it means many of my songs lie around half finished. Some things just need to be perfect, and some things are.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gospel and Cultures, 3

So, here's the proposal. Gospel has hermeneutical significance for the relationship between church and world. In other words, how does the church define its relationship with the larger world? Primarily around notions of gospel. Gospel frames a certain kind of engagement around the category of news. How does the church remain in the mode of gospel?

To answer that question, it is good to have a sense of what passes for gospel in the NT. I've blogged about this before, so won't go into great detail here, but I want to briefly notice three things. Whether in Jesus' announcement of the good news of the kingdom of God in Mark 1:15, or in Paul's summary of the gospel in 1 Cor 15, three things seem to characterize the use of this word. First, it is the announcement of an event. It is not first a theory of atonement or a set of explanatory images or metaphors. It is first the announcement of an event--something newsworthy. Second, this event has to do with the coming of God in the person of Jesus, and particularly the event of his death and resurrection. Third, this coming is a coming of the future. That is, what is being enacted is God's future. The gospel is fundamentally eschatological. The coming of Jesus marks a dramatic turn of the ages. The way of life ordered by the principalities and powers of this current age have been judged and found wanting in light of the coming future of God made manifest in Jesus. It is possible for humans to belong to, receive, and welcome this coming day of salvation.

These things all go together and are necessary for the the church to remain in the mode of news. The event, or story, nature of the gospel makes it news, as long as the event continues to unfold. If the event is a one and done, then it is yesterday's news. This is where the eschatological nature of the event becomes important. The Kingdom of God is near in Jesus, but it is still coming. The church always prays, "your kingdom come," expecting that God's future will continue to appear in the events of human history. The church is a community not looking backward to a golden past, but forward to God's coming future. It is a discerning community, constantly in search of the discovery of the inbreaking Kingdom. It always has news to report.

It is not always easy, however, to discern the work of God among other events. A good journalist knows where to look for news, and this is true of the church as well. Here, the particularity of the story of Jesus becomes important. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are not simply variables in a formula that results in forgiveness of sins. The death and resurrection of Jesus becomes a way of attending to the world, a story to enact through faith, hope, and love, whereby those things that will endure in the age to come become manifest, or observable. Paul calls this the "logic (logos) of the cross" (1 Cor 1:18) which, for those who are being saved, is the power of God. It is a mind (Phil 2), or a renewing of the mind, that allows us to prove what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom 12).

But the story of Jesus not only tells us how to look, it tells us where. Part of the eventfulness of the coming of God in Jesus is related to social location. It is not enough to know that God became flesh, it is important also to know where he did. The Jesus story is full of mangers, backwater villages, sick and suffering people, and crosses "outside the camp." The continuing eventfulness of the gospel is likely to be seen more at the margins than at the centers of human power. It is more likely to be found in a hospital room than a board room.

We've made some pretty big shifts here for most Christians. Most define gospel as a message, not an event, the death of Jesus as a theoretical transaction with limited ongoing significance, salvation as a private possession, and the future only related to reward or punishment. Not much in the way of news.

These fairly static understandings also tend to deliver a fairly static view of the world, and therefore of mission. In the next post, a view of cultures.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I performed a wedding yesterday--a beautiful affair. You have to be respectful of the sweetness of a wedding, true love and all. But I always feel its my duty to muss the hair on all that just a little. Someone should say the truth, and especially the preacher.

During the reception that followed the groom sang acapella a love song to the bride. It was so sweet, several in the room went into a diabetic coma. A female friend of mine, married a while herself, mumbled, "never trust a guy that romantic."

I consider myself a chastened romantic. I'm a sucker for a love song, but not so much the "you complete me" kind, but the love sucks and its worth it anyway kind. Which is why one of my favorite lyrics of all time is Dylan's, "I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue, I'd go crawling down the avenue, to make you feel my love." And love requires those things. It's a wound. That little imp Cupid shoots real arrows with exploding tips. Love will get you a spear in the side and nails through your hands and feet. And its totally worth it. You can have your sweet and safe. I'll take the flaming arrows, something with a throbbing pulse. These wounds heal.

And so Dylan is my love poet. Today's song, Till I Fell in Love with You.

Well my nerves are exploding
And my body is tense
I feel like the whole world
got me pinned up against the fence

I been hit too hard
Seen too much
Nothing can heal me now but your touch

I just don't know what I'm gonna do
I was alright 'til I fell in love with you

Well my house is on fire
Burnin' to the sky
Well I thought it would rain
But the clouds passed by

I feel like I'm comin'
To the end of my way
But I know God is my shield
And he won't lead me astray

Still I don't know what I'm gonna do
I was alright 'til I fell in love with you

Boys in the street
Beginnin' to play
Girls like birds
Flyin' away

When I'm gone
You will remember my name
I'm gonna win my way
To wealth and fame

Yet I just don't know what I'm gonna do
I was alright 'til I fell in love with you

Well junk's pilin' up
Takin' up space
My eyes feel
Like they're fallin' off my face

Sweat fallin' down
I'm starin' at the floor
I'm thinkin' about that girl
Who won't be back no more

I just don't know what to do
I was allright 'til I fell in love with you

Well I'm tired of talkin'
I'm tired of tryin' to explain
My attempts to please you
They were all in vain

Tomorrow night
Before the sun goes down
If I'm still among the livin'
I'll be Dixie bound

Still I just don't know what I'm gonna do
I was allright 'til I fell in love with you

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fast and Furious

Many of you may know that I have taken a new job at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, MI. I will serve as Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership which will feature among other things an MRE in Missional Leadership that I will direct. I am very excited about this opportunity. I will be working with a great team on important learning.

Nancy and I will move into our new apartment on August 1, but my work for Rochester has already begun. We are trying to ramp up the new degree for a Fall start. I've been blogging about that at Come find out what the plan is and send me some prospective students. The design of the degree is very unique, bringing a combination of things together in ways that no one else has to this point.

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind, and so my blogging has suffered. I want to return to the posts on gospel and cultures. I want to suggest three ways that the church stays in the mode of news in a way that honors God's saving intention for all creation. So, be patient, I'll get back on task.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I've been reading Taylor Branch's book, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years. It's the second volume of three. I read the first one, Parting the Waters, two years ago and have been eagerly waiting a break in course reading that would allow me to get into volume two.

It's stunning reading, revolving around the civil rights movement. The information about the big figures, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, J Edgar Hoover, Malcolm X, is all fascinating. But more stunning are the stories of lesser known figures who put their lives on the line for a new future. Bob Moses is a new hero of mine. He went to Mississippi when no one else would and over time made an amazing difference. His is a story of leaven and mustard seed. Small beginnings, amazing results. And I was struck by his leadership style, never pushing, always allowing local leadership to emerge, never seeking the limelight. I am so thankful that Taylor Branch has dedicated so much space to him.

Dylan shows up in this volume. He went to Mississippi in 1963 and sang for civil rights. These were his Woodie Guthrie years: Blowin in the Wind, Masters of War, The Times They are a Changin. He was a movement man, something he seems to run away from in his autobiography. I had all my Dylan songs on shuffle this morning and was struck with jarring force by hearing The Times They are a Changin right up against Things Have Changed, a song off the more recent, Modern Times. I like both songs and Things Have Changed is one of my recent favorites. The lyrics are genius. The refrain is "People are crazy and times are strange, I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range, I used to care, but things have changed." I used to care, but things have changed.

I don't know if Dylan's measuring the distance between The Times They are a Changin and Things Have Changed. But I know if I want a song about Iraq or some other social issue, I'm much more likely to get that from Springsteen or Ben Harper than I am Dylan. Everyone has commented on this. It's a hardly a new observation. When Dylan plugged in, so did his themes over time. He's relevant, but in a different way. He moves me, but not to social awareness.

1968 was a memorable year for me. I remember the King and Kennedy assassinations. They devastated me. I went to hear Eugene McCarthy speak with my Dad on the University of Oregon campus and wanted him to be president, promising to end the war. At eight years of age, my world was dominated by the Dallas Cowboys, civil rights, and the Viet Nam war. And I cared passionately about that kind of stuff until Reagan got a second term. Reading about Bob Moses and others has made me wonder what happened to that kind of passion. "People are crazy and times are strange, I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range, I used to care, but things have changed."

This is loss for me, not just a different phase of life. Obama's election has kindled new stuff in me, and I know people who work on the front line of suffering who have brought tears to my eyes, and my son is challenging my aquisitive life. I hope its not too late for me. I can feel the passion stirring again. Bob, sing me a song.