Monday, April 30, 2007

Taking the Long Way Home

The road finally reopened yesterday afternoon. After days of steady rain, the rivers finally converged over the road, necessitating a detour around my standard route to work. My attitude about the prohibited drive has not been very good. For one thing, the usual route is direct, and I felt seriously put upon to drive the long way around. For another, the usual route is a beautiful drive. On one side is the lake, mysterious each morning beneath its rising mist; ringed by energetic walkers and bicyclists. On the other side of the road is a park and arboretum with its crab apple blossoms just popping into brilliance. I've resented missing even a single stage of that unfolding. Inconvenienced and aesthetically deprived, I railed against the water, railed against the city for building such a vulnerable thruway, railed against road crews for not imagining a way to simply clear the water with some giant, vacuum-equipped squeegee.

Yes, I know: "Stop your whining." But who said aggravation was rational?

And then suddenly it was gone. Driving home after church yesterday I arrived at the now-familiar barricades only to find them pulled to the side, the road reopened. Continuing forward, I moved at a snail's pace, feeling afresh the wonder of each tree, each blossom, each ripple on the water; surveying the pavement for signs of damage; relishing the passage as if for the very first time; feeling smug at the straight shot home.

But here is the perversity: at the very same time I found myself wondering what was happening along the detour route that had, over the past few days, become newly familiar. Now free to drive where I choose, I wonder if I will sink again into my unvarying rut, or if the few days' inconvenience will teach me that there is a whole world out there between points "A" and "B", and while the shortest route may be the best choice when time is of the essence, there is nothing to stop me from exploring -- willfully taking the long way...

...just to see what I might see.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Arm Wrestling with the Bible...and Losing

I know that experts don't always have the answers. Nonetheless, it has been frustrating this week to work on a sermon for Sunday and find no expert to steer me out of my interpretive dead end. I must have consulted a dozen or more commentaries or articles, certain that the next one would open a door. Or the next one. But nothing. Perhaps I have been asking the wrong questions. Perhaps I am just a person of little faith. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. All I know is that tomorrow morning I will stand in a pulpit before a crowd of people who -- foolish, even laughable as it may sound -- expect me to be the expert. Perhaps I can simply remind them that experts aren't always helpful. Experts aren't always expert.

My problem has been with one of the readings for the day in the Revised Common Lectionary -- that three-year cycle of readings that, if I allow it, quite regularly forces me out of my spiritual and homiletical comfort zone. And as I think about it, I'm due for some discomfort.

The story that has been nemesis this week comes from the book of Acts in the Christian scriptures, and reports the death of a good and saintly woman whom the Apostle Peter raises back to life. On first reading, it sounds like great news. But on second thought, I'm stumped. What the heck am I supposed to do with that? How am I supposed to climb into the pulpit and look a room full of people in the eye who have, every single one of them, prayed for the healing of a loved one, only to find themselves forthwith at a graveside saying farewell? Am I to merely say "be glad it happened once upon a time; at least someone managed to go home happy"? Am I to bait and tease them with the possibility that it just might happen again? Am I to dismiss the whole idea as a dramatic, spiritualized, hyper-ventilated fiction? The "experts" have all kinds of really helpful points to make about how the story is remembered in Acts as a way of connecting Peter's ministry with that of Jesus and Elijah before him, but somehow that observation isn't likely to be well received by a congregation that wants to know how such a tidbit is supposed to be useful to them today.

Perhaps the thing to do is to stand up in the pulpit and confess that I have failed -- failed to crack the interpretive nut; failed to trace the line between this ancient story and these contemporary folks; failed to find the Good News and proclaim it.

But wouldn't it be funny if confessing my failure amounts, as far as the congregants are concerned, to an odd sort of success -- that I have successfully come to terms with my humanity and my humility and managed, however painfully, to come clean with what they already knew: that I am just a struggling Christian, same as them; and that the struggle is finally more important than the answer. Wouldn't it be funny, indeed.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Blue Skies, the Holy Spirit, and Stormy Weather

The parade was canceled. Bad weather -- fierce winds and intermittent rain. It figures. Every other year, the Drake Relays parade has been held on Saturday morning, and Saturday dawned in beauty and held it throughout its daylight. As it turned out, it was a perfect day for the Mayor's Annual Bike Ride, which I and a thousand or so other cyclists winding our way through the neighborhoods of Des Moines happily relished. Unfortunately, the organizers of the parade chose this year, for reasons that I'm sure made good sense at the time, to move the event to Sunday afternoon -- the stormy day that followed Saturday's perfection. The bands, the fans, the bulldogs and floats all went home disappointed.

I'm not suggesting that God loves bicycles more than bands and floats. I'm happy to believe that God loves a good parade as much as the next kid -- and bicycles, as well, for that matter. I'm only observing that one can no more predict when and where lightening might strike than one can predict where the Spirit will strike. Scripture observes, after all, that the Spirit blows where it chooses (John 3:8).

One can, however, do one's best to be in places where the Spirit commonly blows. The Drake Relays are scheduled in late April for a reason. Good weather is hardly guaranteed, but the chances are good. Anticipating the end of the week and picturing my father-in-law and myself sitting in the stands, I'll pack my rain gear just in case, but I'll expect sunshine and a light breeze.

And sitting in church on Sunday...or with a Bible opened in my lap on the days leading up to it...I cannot presume the fingerprints of the holy...

...but the chances are good.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Evil" as the Diagnostic Refuge of Laziness

The editors at the Wall Street Journal are right to anticipate a “torrent of pop sociology and national psychoanalysis” in the wake of mass murder at Virginia Tech. We will, no doubt, collectively and individually search our souls and our cultural personality and seek to make sense of – or at least come to terms with – the horror of such an act. The editors go on to offer their own pre-emptive diagnosis/conclusion/dismissal: “There are evil and psychotic people in this world willing to do great harm to others if they aren’t stopped.” Their summative word? “This was a malevolent soul.”

Perhaps, but I’m not able to dismiss the matter so simply. It reminds me of the summary cataloguing of the events of 9/11 – the people, not simply the acts – as rabid evil. And in the spirit of the old farmer who notes that when a dog goes mad you take it out behind the barn and shoot it, we have been wearing a path dragging things back there ever since. Before long, I fear, we as a nation will have created a veritable mountain range out of the carcasses piled behind our barn.

Sometimes truth is the shortest distance between two points; sometimes the simplest explanation is the correct one, but the nauseous discomfort in the pit of my soul, however, tells me that defining something as “evil” is less an accurate answer than merely an easy one. Evil is not something to consider or understand; only something to overpower or contain. As such, simple “eruptions of evil” quickly fall into the same category as tornados and hurricanes: you can prepare for them, take certain precautions and ultimately try to get out of their path, but you can’t finally prevent them. After the storm we can dust ourselves off and get on with the “healing,” but we don’t have to trouble ourselves with the messy consideration of our own culpability. Perhaps this is why so many people resist the problem of global warming. As long as it is a naturally occurring phenomenon, we can rest at ease in the belief that “I don’t have to do anything about it.” If, on the other hand, we are culpable, we are therefore capable, and that requires too much effort.

And so, for the editors, the shooter in Virginia is summarily defined and then dismissed as “evil,” along with Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and any other “demon de jour” who happens malevolently along. Track him down, drag him out behind the barn and shoot him – except in this case the shooter saved us the trouble. Never mind considering thornier possibilities…
…like whether he might have been in pain…

…and why…

…and how such pain can be avoided or soothed…

…and not simply multiplied.

Oh, we know well how to multiply pain. The shooter, himself, has done a fine job of that, with trigger after murderous trigger. It’s the understanding part – the healing part; the comprehension of the complexities of human experience that sometimes elevate and ennoble us, sometimes bruise and distort us – that eludes us.

It is, finally, too much work.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Satanic Piano and the Melody of Grace

I was intended to be merely background -- unobtrusive fingers on the keys, plinking out simple accompaniment in musical support of the real star of the afternoon: my wife. She was the invited guest at the annual ladies luncheon of a small, inner-city church with which we have become acquainted. Ladies from the host congregation had heard Lori play her flute in a service at our own church and had been impressed. She is, after all, a woman of many talents. She has had a lot of experience playing her flute in churches, but never as the "featured artist". She has always been part of the accompaniment, never the one needing it, and so when she expanded the invitation to include me, it was easy to sign on. This was a delightfully special invitation. Together, then, we browsed through possible selections, settled on repertoire, and practiced. A lot. We thought we sounded pretty good. We were ready.

The day arrived on Saturday, and because I would be slipping in from another meeting, we wouldn't have opportunity to run through the two selections on the premises (insert danger signs here). When I arrived, the meeting was well underway -- boisterous, fervent singing, a lovely dance routine to a pre-recorded song by a young immigrant woman, scripture reading and prayer. And then it was time for the special music. I began the introduction, and almost immediately felt the terror of indecision. The piano -- exactly like pianos in countless church basements all over the world -- sounded terrible. To describe it as "catastrophically out of tune" would be an exaggerated understatement. An old friend would have said it was "supernaturally out of tune; nothing could be that tuneless without divine help." The more I played, the worse it sounded. If I hadn't been so mortified, I could have been satisfied -- what difference did it suddenly make whether I played correct notes or not? Every note was sour, no matter the intent.

What, then, to do? Play softly? Drop out altogether? My back was to Lori, so no eye-signaled communication was possible. We soldiered discordantly on through both selections (yes, 2 songs), trying fecklessly to hide each note somehow in the next one, as if anything could rescue the moment. Finally, mercifully, the music reached its double bars. We were finished. Lori had done beautifully, but how would anybody know?

And then something amazing happened. They applauded. Not politely, or primly or even, for that matter, exuberantly. They applauded, instead, affectionately, gratefully, honestly and lovingly. As if in a tender, corporate and profoundly genuine hug, their verbal interjections and hand-punctuated appreciations conveyed more heart-felt and spirit-filled appreciation than most artists ever have the privilege to receive. What we should have known all along was that they were more interested in Lori and the music of her heart than in the music of her flute. And no out-of-tune piano could possibly obscure what they were able to hear in her or receive from her -- nor what they were able to offer in return.

There, in a simple church basement, amidst folding chairs and wall posters, soup and some salads and few dozen women of faith, we came to realize we were standing -- and playing and, in an awe-filled sort of way, kneeling -- on holy ground.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Spiritual Songs and the Search for Something More

"There is a long history of putting sacred texts to popular non church melodies in order to speak to a wider audience. A good example of this is the tune for the Holy Week hymn 'O Sacred Head Now Wounded.' Its original words were a love song -- 'Confused are all my feelings. A tender maid's the cause' -- set to a medieval melody by Hans Leo Hassler in 1601. Not exactly a theological text! Millions of Christians sing this hymn about the passion of Christ, harmonized by Bach and known as the 'Passion Chorale,' unaware of the tune's origin." (Don and Emily Saliers, A Song to Sing, A Life to Live, p. 159.)

I am familiar with the concept. As a teenager, back in the days when church camps were littered with guitars -- back before the Mick Jagger had wrinkles -- we use to sing the church hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross to the tune of the Rolling Stones song, As Tears Go By. Later, with slightly less reverence, I found myself singing Amazing Grace to the tune of the Gilligan's Island theme. Really.

And there have been others. Borrowing. Merging. Blending. Integrating. I'm not sure which word captures the art of placing the secular into the blessing hands of the sacred, but I've been thinking about church music since talking with a recent visitor to our congregation's worship service and hearing his feedback on our music. It's alright, he implied -- just "stuck" in his opinion. Music can and needs to change, he stressed, without becoming the "dog and pony show" he says he has experienced in so many high-profile "contemporary" churches.

I hope to have more conversations with the visitor -- whether or not he returns to our church. Though I haven't yet comprehended exactly what he was telling me, I sense that he is putting his finger on the source of my own musical consternation of recent years. There are some wonderful contemporary hymn writers, but they are still writing hymns. Isn't there an attractive alternative? Surely there is some creative space -- some musical artistry and utility -- between hymnody the likes of which the church has sung for centuries, and trivial religio-babble so characteristic of contemporary praise that has a musical range of three or four notes and a vocabulary of about as many words. Where is the new musical form in which the whole people can participate and enjoy, and with which they can viscerally connect?

I doubt it involves more sacred texts married to television themes, but who knows? Has anyone tried to sing a Psalm to the Desperate Housewives theme?

Ponder that, while you are tapping your foot and trying your compositional hand -- if you dare.

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Fetch and the Holy Peace of Eden

Barrington is romping around this morning like the puppy I still think of him as being, despite his eight and one-half years. He brings me his ball, sprinting after every throw -- unless blocking it in mid-stream. His short, stocky Welsh Corgi legs make him a quite effective short-stop. Throwing, retrieving, time and time again, intervened each time with his really favorite part -- the tug-of-war that matches his usually superior jaw-strength against my typically wimpy hand-strength. Throw, sprint, romp, tug; repeat. Now he has flopped, exhausted, on the cushioned arm of the love seat, watching lazily for birds in the tree outside the window. Life is good, indeed.

"Dogs are our link to paradise," once wrote Czech poet and novelist Milan Kundera. "To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring, it was peace."

On a love seat, on a blue-sky Saturday morning, with a chewed up tennis ball between us isn't bad either.

It isn't just any Saturday morning. "Holy Saturday," it is traditionally called -- the day between "Good Friday" and Easter morning. I suppose the day should be more properly and seriously drenched in deep and spiritual reflection, but with special Holy Week services all completed and Sunday's sermon ready to print out, this Holy Saturday feels quite "holy" indeed in its luxuriant capacity for the simplest leisure. Lingering in pajamas. A patient pace through two newspapers. Coffee cup repeatedly refilled. Pleasure errands planned. And, of course, ball thrown and thrown and thrown.

Whatever happens tomorrow, life is already resurrecting.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Remembering, Repeating, Reclaiming

“He who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it.”
(American philosopher, George Santyanna)

“Some day we will start to realize that people are as distinguishable from one another by their
memories as they are by their characters.”

(French political writer, Andre Malraux)

"Do this in remembrance of me."
(Luke 22:19)

It is, in the Christian tradition, Maundy Thursday -- the day near Holy Week's climax when events in the life of Jesus, as least as we observe them, begin to speed up. The Gospels vary in their details -- John, for example, focuses on the footwashing and Jesus' identification of it as the model for observing the "new commandment" of love for which the day has come to be known (Maundy, Latin for 'commandment'). But the backdrop of the Jewish Passover is a constant in the several versions, as is the poignant sense of intimacy in that room. Paul came to summarize those moments in words that have become formulaic:

"...the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'this is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way he tallk the cup also, after supper, saying, 'this cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

In remembrance. Because those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Because it is our memories that distinguish us.

So what is this "past" that our spiritual amnesia dooms us to repeat? What is this peculiar identity that forgetfulness causes to blur?

Walking through an old country cemetary recently I stood studying an ancient grave marker. Weathered and worn, the face of it has smoothed with the years and the elements to the point that the wording was no longer readable. Lost, over time, are the name and the dates and familiar little references that often color such stones -- ("beloved wife"; "faithful husband and father"; or my personal favorite, "Crowned Queen of the Parsonage"). Lost, in other words, is who that person was. Male or female, adult or child, hero or soldier or mother or spouse. Forgotten -- not only the person buried beneath the stone, but any connection we or anybody else may trace.

We will gather around a table tonight, as a community in worship, to eat, and drink, and remember. We will remember, of course, that night when Jesus did the same with his own community of worship; we will, to be sure, remember him. But we will also remember something about ourselves -- about being loved, sacrificially so; about being sought, relentlessly so; about being cleansed, tenderly and humbly so; about being useful, creatively and transformationally so. We will, in short, remember something about what makes us the people we are, and why we ought to care.

And remembering, we will hopefully steel ourselves against forgetting, requiring us -- and God -- to start all over again.

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Political Fundraising and the Myth of Scarcity

I'm clearly not very effective. Every church I have served has sooner or later -- and often both -- bumped up against the hard reality of financial limitations. Our missional aspirations outpace our fiduciary obligations. We tighten our belts, we eliminate staff, we do more of the cleaning ourselves; chastened, we rein in our field of vision.

We are in good company. Every non-profit I know -- food pantries, counseling services, after school programs, emergency assistance agencies -- struggles to navigate the monthly journey from hand to mouth -- often failing in the endeavor. Non-governmental Organizations working in war-torn or draught-stricken or AIDS-crippled or hurricane-bludgeoned regions experience the same: too much to do; not enough with which to do it. An abundance of" will"; a scarcity of "way."

I ponder that sad and perennial reality as I read the report in today's Wall Street Journal about political fundraising. The first quarter reports are beginning to trickle in from Presidential candidates, and so far the indications are that the candidates are doing well. There are many more to be released, but what we know so far is that Hillary Clinton has set a record for early fundraising, taking in $26 million in the first three months of the year (and hopes to raise $70 million by year's end). John Edwards, while financially far behind, has nonetheless recorded more than $14 million in the same 3-month period, and Bill Richardson has drawn a respectable $6 million. We haven't yet heard from Barak Obama, but his campaign hopes to raise between $15 and $20 million. On the Republican side, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani each hopes to raise about $20 million. Assuming they are all successful, that amounts to $126 million raised in three months. Pretty soon, to paraphrase the late Senator Dirksen, you are talking about real money.

I don't begrudge the candidates their "war chests." I suppose I have different feelings about those who have filled them. Think of all the other things that we, as a people, could do with that money -- even a tithe of it.

We have evolved an odd set of financial priorities. Which is to say that I'll have a hard time nodding my head the next time someone -- a politician, a Board member, a congregant -- tells me "we just don't have enough money." The truth is, we have plenty of money. We just have some screwy ideas about where to put it.

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