Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday: Blood on the Tracks

Back to underwhelming demand, a little Dylan on a Sunday post. Truthfully, what started out as a one week idea, a modest one for even that, turned into something a lot more. Seems there's virtually no end to the kinds of posts you can write when you start with Dylan. You can even write posts on what its like to write about Dylan.

But this one's simple. A music one. I listened several times this week to Blood on the Tracks. I have said often that I like the later Dylan stuff the best. I'm not a big folkie. I would never listen to Peter, Paul, and Mary or Woody Guthrie. I'm fine that Dylan plugged in, happy even. And I think his smoke damaged pipes fit his music better these days, especially on Time Out of Mind. But I have to admit, I really like Blood on the Tracks. It's acoustic and has the big looping, sliding, whooping lyric style of the early Dylan. In fact, I think its kind of the height of his vocal "stylings" in this regard. When people are imitating Dylan, its Blood on the Tracks Dylan, especially in songs like Tangled Up in Blue and Simple Twist of Fate.

We've moved on here from the "movement" songs like "Blowin in the Wind," and "Masters of War." These are songs of love and loss and need. They resonate at a more personal level. And in this season of my life, that fit the bill this week.

My favorite track? Tough to beat Tangled Up in Blue, but this week I'll take Shelter from the Storm.

I was in another lifetime one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form
"Come in" she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm".


In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation and they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
"Come in" she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm".

Well I'm living in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor's edge someday I'll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
"Come in" she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm".

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Brueggemann Comes to Rochester College

When I was just beginning in ministry, I received the book, The Land, by Walter Brueggemann as a Christmas present. I had a big chair in the corner of my office that was my reading spot. I got comfortable, opened the book, and didn't move until I was finished.

Now, that's quite a statement coming from a guy like me given my tendencies toward attention deficit. But I read the book through in one sitting. I was deeply moved. At various points, tears came to my eyes. I was moved by several things. I was moved by this vision of God and his relationship with Israel. I was moved by the way Brueggemann allowed the biblical text to speak directly to our world. I was moved by the prose, by his writing, by the passion that moved through the ink on the page into my heart and mind.

After reading the land, I quickly bought David's Truth, the Prophetic Imagination, and Hopeful Imagination (my favorite). I probably have over twenty Brueggemann titles on my bookshelves. No biblical scholar has impacted me more. When I was preaching in Oregon, I had a member approach me after a sermon. He asked, "Is this Brueggemann guy available so that we could just cut out the middle man?" Yeah, I'm that guy when it come to Brueggemann.

So, I'm thrilled that I received an email from Walter Brueggemann yesterday accepting an invitation to be our featured speaker at Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier, June 18-20, 2012, at Rochester College. Our theme for the conference will be "I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice."

The following sentences were part of the invitation I extended. I hope they will entice you to attend as well.

This coming year’s theme will be “I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice.” We can think of no one better to address this theme than you. In your work you have emphasized the tensions between justice and purity traditions in Israel’s response to Yahweh. You not only demonstrate the priority of the justice or mercy strand, but you do so without jettisoning the purity dimension as an ordering response to “an unsettled residue of ache.”

This work has been picked up by many in fruitful ways beyond the areas of biblical interpretation. One recent work is Richard Beck’s fascinating study, Unclean. Beck is an experimental psychologist who is particularly interested in the psychological dimensions of disgust, contagion and their relation to mortality. He proposes a radical notion of hospitality as a response to our tendencies toward socio-moral disgust. Along the way, he dialogues with theologians including Volf, Heim, and yourself.

This large conversation related to justice and purity is very important to the emerging missional church conversation. This literature encourages a new engagement for congregations within Western cultures—an engagement not beholden to the powers that sponsor a life defined primarily by economic interests related to consumption. Churches that serve the broader society as “vendors of religious goods and services” do so at the cost of a reduced significance. The missional impulse, in contrast, invites the church to consider its life once again from the margins, as a people sent, or as an outpost for the reign of God. This move to the margins is impossible apart from a searching and probing conversation on the tensions between justice and purity—a conversation that has not yet appeared prominently in the missional church literature.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I'm Religious, Not Spiritual, and I Like it That Way

I know, it's usually said the other way. It's pretty fashionable these days to claim spirituality, not religion. Spiritual is deep. Religion is mechanical and superficial. Spiritual is authentic. Religion is foppery. Spiritual is of God. Religion is a human creation. I get it.

There certainly is a critique to be made concerning religion. There is such a thing as bad religion and plenty of examples to go around. I would even say that there are few things more dangerous than bad religion. The fact that most acts of terror are done under the shade of some religious tree is nearly enough for me to quit the whole thing.

But there's also such a thing as bad spirituality. And the examples are plentiful here as well. When someone tells me that they are spiritual, but not religious, I usually suspect some sort of idiosyncratic and wildly syncretistic view of what that means, and I'm often not disappointed. My experience in congregational ministry has been that the most difficult people are often the ones who present themselves just a little ahead of everyone else on the spirituality scale.

Let me be quick to say that there are good spiritualities. This is less a complaint about spirituality and more a way of commending religion. Religion can be good as well. And given its power, evident in the easy targets of our scorn, it seems to me that it is particularly important not to give up on religion.

Jesus didn't. True, he attacked bad religion. But he also encouraged the saying of a set prayer, taught his followers to fast and give alms appropriately, and to keep the law as an expression of God's good ordering of life. We could probably find this kind of understanding of religion throughout the New Testament. I will simply add that James had a definition of good religion--to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Too often, I find this definition of pure and undefiled religion missing from the lives of self-styled spiritualists.

I know this is not what most people have in mind when they critique religion. When they claim being spiritual over being religious, they are often being critical of the "formal" aspects of religion--liturgies, especially set liturgies, that suffer from lack of spontaneity or feeling. So, I want to say a good word for religion here as well.

Religion says my experience of God is mediated. It doesn't begin and end with me. Religion says that my relationship with God requires others. It requires words that aren't my own, and times and spaces that I don't designate. It involves a story that didn't originate with me, that is being passed down to me.

What passes for spirituality often says just the opposite. Spirituality says my relationship with God is direct and unmediated. Its just about me and God. This is why I don't need a religious community or times of worship or sacraments.  Or if I do, they are only necessary to the extent that they support my personal relationship with God. Spirituality, in this sense, deepens the very thing we need to overcome--the conviction that the world begins and ends with me.

Now, I think I could define religion and spirituality in ways so that they are seen as complimentary and not as things that could be divided into choices. But if you had to push me into a choice, am I religious or spiritual, I think I'd go for religious.