Sunday, February 28, 2010

Johnny Cash on a Sunday

I've been anticipating the release of American VI, the new Johnny Cash cd, for a long time. These songs are part of the Rick Rubin collection, and so many of the songs on the previous cd's have been revelations. When Cash recorded these songs, some of the strength had gone from his voice, but none of the pathos, the depth of emotion. If anything, the vulnerability in his deep voice gave the songs more gravitas.

It was widely known that there were songs recorded in those sessions that had not been released. So, we all waited and wondered. What would these songs be? Rubin produced songs--promise. Songs that didn't make the first albums--peril.

It's a mixture of both. There are no great Cash originals here, like "The Man Comes Around," or "Unchained." No brilliant covers like "Hurt" or "Rusty Cage." There are reasons these songs weren't on the previous cd's. (Though he does cover one of my favorite Sheryl Crow songs, "Redemption Day").

Still, these songs move me. Many of them have gospel themes, particularly the overcoming of death. I'm not big on heaven as a source of hope. I like the more concrete images found in social/eschatological pictures of God's future. But Cash knew that the close of his life was near when he sang these songs, and they resonate. I understand the importance of these pictures better when I hear Cash sing them.

I've reflected a lot these last few weeks on how my emotional terrain is changing as I get older. Some things that used to be everything to me simply do not matter that much anymore. In many ways, I'm harder to move. But other things, little things in many ways, that would have simply poured over the smooth surfaces of a youthful life, now get snagged on the wear and tear of the years. I am surprised when I cry. And I am surprised at the things over which I cry. And I am thankful for the tears.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Missional Worship, 3

Smack dab in the heart of the missional impulse is hospitality. By hospitality, I mean making room for the other. This is different than welcoming visitors to church. In fact, God's hospitality is often on someone's else's terms. In the gospel story, God is simultaneously host and stranger. Disciples are sent into the world proclaiming the peace or welcome of God--that is, they proclaim God's welcome on someone else's home court.

Christian worship is rehearsal for this kind of life. This is the drama lived out each week around the table of the Lord. The table is where we learn to welcome one another, to make room for one another. It is the Lord's table, his guest list. We do not choose with whom we eat. All of us alike receive our place by God's gracious welcome. This is our vocation in the world. Making room for the other.

I've told this story before, but my friend Carrie Bonneau heard me present this material at church a few years ago and now has stenciled above her kitchen table, "This do in remembrance of me." Her table is now an extension of the welcome of God she experiences in worship.

In contrast, I once had a visitor tell me that singing was the mutual edification portion of worship from his perspective. But the Lord's Supper was his alone time with God. A time to be alone with his inner thoughts and feelings.

Two very different views of the Lord's Supper. And in many congregations, the practice of the Lord's Supper would better represent the second story, not Carrie's. We have so individualized the Lord's Supper that it is hard to understand it as a practice where we learn how to welcome one another. And because of that, we fail to realize its missional implications, or the connections between Sunday and Monday.

I'd love for people to have the words "This do in remembrance of me," stenciled inside their desk drawers at work, to remind them every time they get a staple or paper clip that their office space might very well be the occasion for God's hospitality. To remember that the person who empties their trash is welcomed as much as the person who signs their checks.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

I was walking through London's Heathrow Airport this morning and heard Dylan's, Life is Hard, coming from a nearby eatery of some sort. Dylan is far from mood music and Life is Hard is not the most obvious selection. So, I was surprised and pleased.

In transit from Uganda, there is little question in my mind that life is hard, and that mine is easy. Do the math. Mine might not qualify as life. I was a little ashamed and embarrassed by how happy I was to see the Starbucks as I arrived in the departure gates here in Heathrow. If I had steeled myself against it, I could've mustered some indifference and perhaps some longing for the smells of the Jinja market, or a cup of chai in a mud hut with my new friend Elijah. I could've convinced myself that I don't mind rocks in my rice.

But I couldn't help it. There in all its glorious gleaming green was the Starbucks siren. Back to non-life.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Tomorrow I get on a plane to head for Uganda and Kenya. For some reason, a trip beyond our known world brings with it an inventory of sorts. Nancy and I made sure that all of our important information was in place--life insurance, wills, itunes passwords, etc. And with that comes a certain wistfulness and sentimentality, which of course makes you think of Dylan.

Seriously, Dylan is fairly sentimental. Exhibit A, When the Deal Goes Down. Love and death and immortality. It's almost sweet. It's the ultimate statement about love--not even death can obliterate it. (Sorry about the underlines. Came with the cut and paste and couldn't quickly get rid of them).

Beyond the horizon, behind the sun
At the end of the rainbow life has only begun
In the long hours of twilight 'neath the stardust above
Beyond the horizon it is easy to

I'm touched with desire
What don't I do?
Through flame and through fire
I'll build my world around you

Beyond the horizon, in the Springtime or Fall
Love waits forever, for one and for all

Beyond the horizon, across the divide
'Round about midnight, we'll be on the same side
Down in the valley the
water runs cold
Beyond the horizon someone prayed for your soul

My wretched heart is pounding
I felt an angel's kiss
My memories are drowning
In mortal bliss

Beyond the horizon, at the end of the game
Every step that you take, I'm walking the same

Beyond the horizon, the night winds blow
The theme of a
melody from many moons ago
The bells of St. Mary, how sweetly they chime
Beyond the horizon I found you just in time

It's dark and it's dreary
I've been pleading in vain
I'm wounded, I'm weary
My repentance is plain

Beyond the horizon o'r the treacherous sea
I still can't believe that you have set aside your love for me

Beyond the horizon, 'neath crimson skies
In the soft light of morning I'll follow you with my eyes
Through countries and kingdoms and temples of stone
Beyond the horizon right down to the

It's the right time of the season
Somebody there always cared
There's always a reason
Why someone's life has been spared

Beyond the horizon, the sky is so blue
I've got more than a lifetime to live lovin' you

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Battlestar Galactica, Monotheism, Terrorism and Trinity

I'm not the big sci-fi guy in my family. Josh and Nancy are far more devoted to that genre, but I go along for the ride from time to time. In the last few years that has meant time with Battlestar Galactica (not the old one with Lorne Greene, but the new one with James Edward Olmos). It's well done, and interesting for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is its theology.

The basic story line revolves around a long conflict between the human race and their rebellious creation, the Cylons. The Cylons have evolved from "robotic" soldiers (what humans call "toasters") to human-like characters who cannot be detected within the normal human population. OK, I know, but its amazing how easy it is to suspend belief here because the story is well-told.

But here's the thing. The humans are polytheists, the Cylons monotheists. The humans thank the gods for their world, the Cylons view the world in relation to one source. This is a pretty interesting flip on things, one worthy of its own post by someone with more knowledge of both the show and systematic theology.

But here's the other thing. There's a new spin-off from the BG phenomenon that tells the back story, Caprica. The creation of the Cylons, it appears, comes out of a terrorist attack (in a round about way) committed by a religious cult that is interested in serving "the one true God." Monotheism and terrorism are related. The link is explicit. The belief in one God as the source for everything is inherently violent. With one God, there are only two sides, good and evil, with us or against us. The implication is that this is inherently violent.

I've stewed over this for a number of years now. Christianity is not only monotheistic, but historical. That is, the primary issue for Christianity is the outcome of history, and that is certainly a contested reality. I'm not saying that Christianity is inherently or inescapably violent, but I am saying that a monotheistic, historical faith has certain temptations along these lines.

Moltmann makes similar observations to those made by the BG crowd (don't want to oversimplify BG here, the question of God is dynamic, not wooden or static). Moltmann is critical of any theology that is monistic, by which he means any notion of God as a single source. He suggests that such a view of God results in an over/against view of the relationship between God and world. Much of Christian theology is susceptible, for Moltmann, to the label "monist." This is particularly true of Christian traditions, including most of Western Christianity, that define God in relation to a single substance (ousia) that is prior to an understanding of God as three persons. Pannenberg piles on at this point as well, criticizing any notions that reduce God to a single-acting-subject.

The antidote for both to Christian monism is a more biblical understanding of God as Triune. For Moltmann, if you start with philosophy, you emphasize one God and then try to explain the three persons. If you start with the biblical testimony, you start with the relations of the three persons and move from there to God's unity. As Moltmann works the biblical witness, particularly as it relates to the "history of the Son" and the drama of the Kingdom of God, we find a dynamic God with different centers of action and reciprocal relations. This God is not closed, like the god of classical theism; immutable, simple, persisting, free. The God of Scripture is open, passionate, understood as making room for the other in love.

For me, this is precisely the importance of the Trinity, especially as seen in the work of theologians like Moltmann and Pannenberg. It keeps God in history without the amplifier of monism. It guards the Christian imagination from an easy us vs. them. It makes possible visions of God's future that are rooted in non-violence which corresponds best to the story of Jesus found in the gospels.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Preaching, the Thick and Thin of It, 2

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at a local congregation. They are in the middle of a series tracing the broad strokes of the biblical narrative. They've asked me to do a few of the sermons in the series, and Sunday I had Genesis 12 as my sermon text.

In previous posts, I've talked about the preaching imagination, and particularly the need to render both the world of the text and our world with thick description. Also, I think a lot about what is performing in the text, and how can I get it to perform in the sermon. So, what would I do with Genesis 12 along these lines.

This is an important text, a game changer in many ways. What is surprising in light of that is the scarcity of detail. There is no prelude or back story. No build up this moment. We have precious little detail about Abram and have no indication that Abram knows anything about this God who is calling him. We have an astounding promise stated directly and without conditions. And given the scarcity of information about Abram, his decision to "do as the Lord said" is pretty stunning. So, what is performing here? Lack of detail. The lack of detail we have makes the details we do have more impacting.

What's performing on the listener's side of the ledger? Familiarity. They know the story and they automatically hear other stories along with this one. This sermon has a lot of potential for echo and allusion. Also, the world of stories we live in revels in the motivations of characters. The drama is played out in the psyche of the characters before it is in real action. Inner landscapes are as important as outer ones. The biblical stories typically resist that kind of psychologizing, which serves to put the emphasis in the story on the initiative and action of God. I want to bring these worlds into conversation.

So, here are some snippets from the sermon:

"Now the Lord said to Abram..." Just like that. Abram's minding his own business, just hanging out in the middle of a genealogy with his fathers and his barren wife, and the Lord speaks to him.

This can happen, evidently. You can be minding your own business, mending your nets by the Sea of Galilee, or checking your email, or watching Wheel of Fortune, and the Lord can just interrupt you. "Abram!" Just like that, "the Lord said to Abram..."

"...Leave your country and your kindred and your father's house and go the land that I will show you."

Which is asking a lot, isn't it? Country, kindred, father's house. Leave what you know. Leave the things that give you identity, your sources of security, the life that has been handed down to you. Leave it for the land that I will show you.

It would be one thing to say, leave country, kindred and father's house and go to California, or Dallas, or Miami. At least then you would know how to pack. Nancy and I are going to Uganda in a few days. We're not prepared for Africa. We need shots and lighter clothes and different foot wear. It helps to know where you're going. But Abram gets none of this. None of it. No destination. Only a land that he will be shown, which puts all the stress on the one doing the leading. Which I don't think is really a very popular notion. If you were a travel agent and this was your business, I think you'd go broke.

I think that because a few years ago I wrote a book with Randy Harris and Doug Foster called, "Seeking a Lasting City." But that wasn't our first title. The title we wanted was "Leaving the Land We Know," but our editors nixed it. "It will scare people. They don't want to leave what they know. They'll think you're asking them to leave Churches of Christ." Not much of a market for this leaving country and kindred and father's house, evidently.

But Abram got more than an invitation. He got a promise as well. And what a promise. "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you, I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed."

That's an astounding promise. Really. One that you could only believe if you suspended belief, hoped against hope.

And its made to Abram. And we know precious little about him. We don't know if he's a person of faith. We have nothing of his exploits. Know nothing about his character. All we know...all we know...all we know about him is that his wife is barren.

If we were vetting likely candidates for this story, the one thing we know about Abram would disqualify him. Great nation. Blessing. Great name. It screams family, offspring, fertility. And Sarai, Abram's wife is barren.

Which makes you wonder about the promise maker. Who makes wild promises like this? This isn't business as usual--it's not like a "your money back, no questions asked" kind of promise. This is an all in promise. This is life out of barrenness, creation out of nothing. The Lord is all in. He's put his reputation on the line in the form of a wild promise.

But here's the kicker. "In you all the families of the earth will be blessed." I mean why not. Promise a family to someone incapable of having a family and then promise them all the families of the earth will be blessed through this impossible family. Why not?

"So Abram went as the Lord told him."


Seriously. Just like that. "Abram went as the Lord told him."


Now, I'm not one to criticize biblical writers, much. But I'm thinking that most story tellers worth their salt make a bit more of this moment. Give us some sense of the inner turmoil within Abram. He's tortured. Country, kin, and father's house verses this fantastic, unsecured promise. He's torn. And in his inner conflict lie the seeds of success or failure. This story depends on how he will work out his inner demons. Cue the music. Which way will he go. Close-up on his eyes, the worry lines on his forehead. Follow him back into Sarai's tent. We hear her say, "Might as well go. Stupid hope is better than no hope. There's a fine line between trust and desperation and we're walking it Abe."

Now that's a story.

But we have none of that here. The story refuses to look at anything other than the promise.

God--a preposterous promise--trust. That's all we have.

God--a promise--and trust.

Which it turns out, is really all you need to tell a story about God.

It's not that our story lacks drama. The human characters are always trying to hijack it, change the plot just a bit, make the outcomes a little less risky. Make it less a comedy or tragedy and more a fairly tale.

Abraham would rather trust his ability to pawn Sara off as his sister than trust the promise-maker.

Sarah tires of waiting for a son, so she sends the concubine into Abraham's tent. Let's kick start this thing a bit, take it into our own hands.

God's not even above injecting a little drama, asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

But all of these serve to highlight the basic elements of the story here in chapter 12. God-promise-trust.

Next post, the rest of the sermon.