Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opening Day. Amen.

I'm one of those persons who feels a little religious on the opening day of baseball. It wasn't my best sport as a kid. I cared much more passionately about basketball. But baseball holds a reverence in my heart unrivaled by any other sport. It feels ancient and substantial, and I think this is in part because it is so ritually enacted. It has to be ancient to have developed such ritual drama. The way a batter prepares for each pitch. The way a pitcher looks in for a sign, while a base coach crosses himself. The dance between base runner and pitcher. The way the ump calls out strikes. The agreed upon ways a manager and ump argue calls. There are a thousand gestures in baseball and they all bear significance. For the initiated, they bespeak reverence. This is not to mention the high church aspects: first pitch, national anthem, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Sweet Caroline.

Some of my thickest memories of life are connected to baseball. I love David James Duncan's short story, "The Mickey Mantle Koan." It beautifully describes Duncan's experience of playing long toss with his brother who died young from cancer. It is a moving, moving story, and the connection made between ball, gloves, and brothers is a big part of all of that.

In a similar way, baseball is attached to big memories I have of life with my dad. When I was 11, dad was working on a doctorate at a seminary in the San Francisco area. His program required residencies only every other summer. So, our family of four lived in a 15 foot trailer in a nearby trailer park during these summers, our permanent home being in Portland, OR. We went to Giants and A's games as we could. The Giants had Willie Mays, McCovey, Bobby Bonds, Juan Marichal. The A's featured Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bert Campenaris, and a rookie flamethrower who won 27 games, Vida Blue.

But the best part of that summer was the afternoons when my dad would come home from classes or the library. He would grab the bat and ball and I would grab by Dick McAullife autographed fielder's glove (which means more now that I live in Detroit), and he would hit me fly balls. He'd hit some in front of me. He'd hit some over my head. I would catch everything he hit. The ball, bat, and glove tied us together. My dad and I connect on several levels in life, but none more viscerally real than the time he spent hitting me fly balls. I know guys whose relationship with their fathers is less ideal. But playing catch or chasing fungos could cover a multitude of sins. Or make priceless what was already rich.

I played my last year of Little League in the Skyline league in Wilshire Park in Portland, Oregon. I walked the diamond a few years ago when I was visiting Portland. Such thick, thick memories. I played for Frederick's Grain. I played mostly center field and shortstop when the coach's son wasn't there. I could go get the ball, but I couldn't hit much.

So, one of the greatest memories of my life is the day I hit one over the fence against a red headed lefty named David Nelson. I can still feel the connection in my hands when the ball connected with my 32 oz wooden Louisville Slugger. There is no feeling like that. No vibration. Sweet spot. Like the bat gave into the ball before it trampolined it into space. You don't even have to look. You know you tagged it. The ball sailed over the fence the moment my foot hit the first base bag. My legs turned to rubber. I had hit the ball over the fence! No one else was needed on that play. Just the pitcher and me. And now the singular moment of being the only one playing as I touched each base. I didn't need the fireworks or the playing of the music from The Natural to feel that way as I rounded for home. Pure euphoria. And my teammates, stunned by this unlikely event, were waiting to mob me at home plate. I can still feel the sun on my neck as I ran down the third base line, and the stings on my back as my teammates pounded me with congratulations. For the next few games I hit fifth in our order until reality dropped me back into the eight hole.

If I could choose a moment of my life to relive, that one would be high on the list of candidates.

So, opening day is a religious day, steeped in the ritual thickness of the game itself, and heightened by the mythological experience of dad and son, of wood and leather, of teammates and achievement. Play ball!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

Tonight I went to hear a youth chorus sing hosted by the congregation for which I preach. This is one of those concerts where if you know some of the kids its far more enjoyable. I didn't. I'm not saying that for a bunch of teenagers they weren't good, but they have to be your teenagers for them to completely hold your interest for a few hours.

But despite my lack of natural enthusiasm for the event, I found myself deeply moved, even to tears at a few points. It's not that the musical experience was moving. This was no Spoon concert. It was the earnestness of the faces on these teens. Not the boys. Teenage boys are still becoming recognizable as humans. But the girls faces were so open and full of...of...of earnestness. I'm not sure if they believed deeply everything they were singing--that's a bit much to expect of teenagers. But they believed in what they were doing, and they're faces showed it. And it moved me.

It moved me probably because I veer a little toward the cynical--ok, maybe a lot toward the cynical. What human activity is there that is really deserving of this kind of belief? At the same time, however, I think there is this kind of grandparental thing happening in me that wants a world full of hope and belief for those coming after me. I'm not sure what to make of this change in me, but I think its a good thing overall.

What does this have to with Dylan? Not much. But it did make me think about the Christmas album he released two years ago. My friend and fellow Dylan devotee, John Ogren, is convinced that Dylan is on the up and up. That he is singing in earnest, full of the spirit of the season. It's not a slam dunk case. It's hard not to laugh out loud when you hear Bob singing, "Must be Santa," or "Silver Bells," and not to imagine Bob laughing right along all the way to the bank. But maybe its the grandparental thing in him as well. Cynical, yet strangely sentimental.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

Most of the time, the ear buds provide the background music while I write in the coffee shop.  The lyrics to songs whistle somewhere over my head. But for some reason today the lyrics were present to me, more so than usual. And they were certainly more present than the words I was looking for--the words I was hoping to write. And so what can you do? You have to pay attention. And because its Sunday and two of you hope I can sustain this habit of mine, I was paying attention to Dylan. Here are some of the lyrics that grabbed me today.

From "Things Have Changed"

I've been walking forty miles of bad road

If the bible is right, the world will explode

I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can

Some things are too hot to touch

The human mind can only stand so much

You can't win with a losing hand

This song is just flat great. It would definitely make my top ten Dylan tunes (but don't make me list them). I like this bit for the first three lines. I like that its forty miles of bad road. That's just biblical. And he follows that up with my favorite part, namely that his response to the fact that the world might explode is to get away from himself as far as he can. I can't tell you why or how, but I think I know exactly what he means.

From "Million Miles"

Rock me, pretty baby, rock me ’til everything gets real

Rock me for a little while, rock me ’til there’s nothing left to feel

And I’ll rock you too

I’m tryin’ to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you

I like the refrain in this song. Closer, but never close enough. Still a million miles from you. And mostly the song is despairing. But in this stanza we're rocking it until it gets real. 

From "Positively Fourth Street"

I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

And just for that one moment

I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is

To see you

Some of Dylan's best songs are when he sees through the pretense. Like in "Ballad of a Thin Man" where the one guy who thinks he gets it is the most clueless. This song has some of that going for it. And I smile every time he sings "you'd know what a drag it is to see you."

From "Summer Days"

I got eight carburetors, boys I’m using ’em all
I got eight carburetors and boys, I’m using ’em all

I’m short on gas, my motor’s starting to stall

My dogs are barking, there must be someone around

My dogs are barking, there must be someone around

I got my hammer ringin’, pretty baby, but the nails ain’t goin’ down

This song plays well right now. We've been living beyond our means and on borrowed time. But summer's almost over (a nod to the prophet Jeremiah?) and burning eight carburetors has left us out of gas. But I love the last line, "I got my hammer ringin', pretty baby, but the nails ain't going down."

Finally, my favorite Dylan lyric of all time from "Make You Feel My Love."

I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue
I'd go crawling down the avenue
No, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
To make you feel my love

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Allah, Identity, and Open Structures

I'm nearly through Miroslav Volf's book, Allah: A Christian Response. I have one big observation among the several I could make from this rich text. BIG OBSERVATION: The stance one takes with regard to issues of identity determines to a large extent how one will evaluate or understand commonalities and differences--in this case, differences between Christians and Musliums.

I think the most important section in Volf's book might actually be a little three page vignette in which he states his overall stance regarding commonalities and differences. The big question for Volf in determining the Christian response to Muslims is whether or not we worship the same God. While the starting place in asking this question might not be wholly determinative, Volf starts with those things that we have in common. (This he believes leads to the inescapable conclusion that we worship the same God).

In defending this approach he writes, "the way persons of faith see themselves in relation to others shapes how they approach the question of commonalities and differences between religions." Volf insists that a Christian approach to other religions begins with "a discerning generosity toward others" which requires one to begin with commonalities. To begin with differences, Volf suggests, is to take an approach that "rejoices in wrongdoing." In contrast, those who begin with a "commonalities" approach "are a bit like those who rejoice in the truth." This does not mean that anything goes, but "concentrating on what is common and keeping an alert eye to critical differences are but two aspects of 'rejoicing in the truth.'"

This week I'm preaching on the end of Matthew 5, the part that features the formula, "you have heard that it was said...but I say to you..." Here, Jesus' approach to the law and righteousness stands in contrast to other approaches on display in Matthew's gospel. I think Jesus is critiquing an approach to the law that would secure distinctiveness and identity by limiting its scope. In other words, if those parts of the law that make us distinctive from others can be defined and then observed, identity is secure. Jesus' approach is the opposite. He doesn't want to build a fence around the law so that it is manageable. He wants to knock the fences down and throw us ever deeper into the realities of God and neighbor. "You have heard it said, but I say to you" is a way of forming identity in relation to more, a surpassing righteousness, and by extension forming identity in relation to the other. We have our identity, not by holding on to our life or securing it, but precisely through losing it for the sake of the Kingdom.

The righteousness of God in Matthew is open range. There is always more and greater. There is always love of God and love of neighbor drawing us deeper into the ways of mercy. The Kingdom of Heaven is always coming, never fully arrived on this side of the eschaton. And this way of naming identity--through an open structure--is important to the mission of God. After all, in Matthew Jesus is not interested only in a distinctive people, but a people who can make disciples of all nations.

Volf's commonalities approach is open range, to my thinking. He identifies it more as an inclusivist approach as opposed to an exclusivist approach (though he knows that all approaches to faith have both inclusive and exclusive aspects). By this he is not suggesting that everyone is the same or that differences do not matter. Rather, he's identifying a stance that is more open to the other and that honors a God who is love.

As I read back through this, there is much to clarify here. But this is a blog, not a research paper, so I will continue to clarify if you will continue to read. All that to say...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday-Birthday-Eve

I'll be 51 tomorrow. Holy smokes, if you got em. I'm at that stage in life where they buy you the actual numbers/as/candles to put on your cake, if you get  cake at all (something with less processed flour and sugar and more dietary fiber is what's called for at this stage in my life). But just because I'm beyond the candle phase of birthdays doesn't mean I should be done making wishes.

So, this year I'm wishing for a private Dylan concert for my birthday. Surely, that's not too much to ask. I'm sure my faithful blogging has blown some fresh wind into his career sails. He owes me. And I have some requests. He should, of course, pick a few songs that he thinks of when he thinks of my birthday. I'll leave those up to him. But I have some I want played as well. They're not necessarily my favorites, though some of them definitely are, but songs that would make for a great party.

We'd start with some older tunes that would get us in a party/dancing mood

               Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (how else? this is how he started the concert I attended)
               Highway 61 Revisited (complete with the whistle)

We keep the mood going with some more recent rollers

               Things Have Changed (I play the Robert Downey Jr bit in this one)
               Jolene  (not a fave, but we would definitely be dancing)
               Shake, Shake Mama (same as the previous song)

Then the lights come down a bit, and we let Bob serenade us

               Lay, Lady, Lay (the way his band plays it now)
               Just Like a Woman (One of Dylan's most poignant songs to my mind)
               What Good Am I? (I love this song)
               Most of the Time (One of Dylan's best songs, period)
And then to finish things, Bob brings me on stage and asks me to play guitar on the last two.

               Make You Feel My Love (we play my version, but he sings. None of this Garth Brooks stuff)
               Spirit on the Water (perfect ending)

He has such a good time that he stays for my friends and takes requests. Call em out friends. It's my birthday.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Allah, Rob Bell, Miroslav Volf and the Way We Treat Each Other

I am reading Miroslav Volf's new book, Allah: A Christian Response, in anticipation of his speaking at Streaming, Rochester College's ministry event, May 16-18. Volf will be presenting from his other new book, Captive to the Word of God, at Streaming, but we will also feature as part of the program a round table discussion on Allah. So, I want to make sure I have this important book read in advance of the event. Surely, there are few issues more pressing in our world than the relations between Christians and Muslims.

I'm reading this book also in the wake of the bluster abounding related to Rob Bell's forthcoming book, Love Wins. It has been the target of a lot inflammatory rhetoric from Bell detractors who have not read the book but are nevertheless convinced that Bell espouses universalism in the book's pages. Gasp. (See Greg Boyd's informed response. He's actually read the book).

I thought of the Rob Bell stuff when I read these lines from Volf's introduction:

"Sometimes when I observe contemporary U.S. culture, with its hard fronts and nasty culture wars, I have a strange sense that I've seen something like it before--in the Communist and semitotalitarian state in which I grew up. The issues and positions are very different, but the spirit is strangely familiar. In all public discussion, there was a party line that people had to toe; if you diverged, you were deemed disloyal and suspected of betraying the cause. I sense a similar spirit today among progressives and conservatives in the United States when it comes to many hot-button issues, including Islam."

Volf proposes a political theology in this book. That is, part of our understandings of God will determine our public actions especially in response to those who differ from us. Much is at stake in this for Volf as both Christianity and Islam project growth in the years to come. Moreover, as democracy emerges in more places in the world, Christians and Muslims will both have certain freedoms and rights in the public square. How will we live together? Volf says we won't if the spirit he identifies in the quote above leads the way.

I'm a fan of Volf's and sympathetic with his thesis as stated in the introduction to the book. When I state convictions like Volf's to others, they sometimes assume that I'm saying that ideas don't matter, or that somehow I've given up on the notion of Truth. I would just point out here that Volf believes it down the line. He's an orthodox Christian, and he's committed to truth. In fact, it is precisely his understanding of truth revealed in Jesus Christ that informs his openness toward others (openness is not the same as endorsement or agreement). As he puts it:

"Ever since I lived under the dead hand of a semitotalitarian regime, I have resisted toeing the party line. I know that the boundary separating truth and falsehood is not the same as the boundary between political parties or ideological combatants. I want the truth, not politically expedient or ideologically "correct" positions. And, as a follower of Christ, I want the truth seen with the eyes of inviting and reconciling love, not the truth born of cold indifference or simmering hatred."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Blessed by Lucinda Williams

I've been listening today to Lucinda Williams new one. I can't listen to her everyday, but on gray days like this her voice and attitude are perfect. If you buy the itunes deluxe version you get the rough recordings of the songs--the kitchen tapes. Mostly her strumming chords and singing. Her voice is particularly striking over the light guitar strumming. And the song that jumped out the most is called "Blessed." Beautiful lyrics.

Here are some of my favorite phrases:

We were blessed by the poor man who said heaven was in reach

We were blessed by the neglected child who knew how to forgive

We were blessed by the lawyer who didn't need to win

We were blessed by the blind man who could see for miles and miles

We were blessed by the mystic who turned water into wine

We were blessed by the wounded man who felt no pain

We were blessed by the wayfaring stranger who knew our name

We were blessed by the homeless man who showed us the way home

We were blessed by the forlorn, forsaken, and abused

We were blessed
Yeah we were blessed
Yeah we were blessed
We were blessed

To which, I say "Amen."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tony Jones, Miroslav Volf, Scot McKnight and Me

Tony Jones gave our May 16-18 conference, Streaming, a very nice plug on his blog yesterday.

Tony, and his partner Doug Pagit, are helping us with the conference. They fit in nicely with our first rate group of presenters. You know Miroslav Volf and Scot McKnight, but the "undercard" is just as solid. We will have some great preaching. David Fleer is my favorite preacher and Katy Hays could be. With Katy, think Barbara Brown Taylor and you'll be on the right track.

I don't have a brighter, more insightful friend than Jannie Swart. Jannie was the pastor for the largest Dutch Reformed congregation in Johannesburg, South Africa. I have a friend who has led prayer at Nelson Mandela's birthday party. His ministry there was courageous and impacting. He's brilliant and a great communicator. Josh Graves is one of Rochester College's own. He is the minister for the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Nashville, TN. Josh is a bright light, full of passion and insight. These are some of the leading voices that will draw us into conversation on what it means to read Scripture in light of the mission of God.

One change from the schedule listed on our website is the choice of book that we will feature in our last roundtable discussion. Volf has a new book hot off the press, Allah: A Christian Response. I can't think of a more timely topic. Make sure you register early.