Monday, July 06, 2009

Don't Stop Believin'

I attended a very well-run and uplifting youth event for high school students run by the Virginia Synod two weeks ago. The theme of the week was "Stars," based on the Philippians passage that commends believers to "shine like stars" in the midst of a cruel and perverse world. Building on that, each small group of participants was given another verse to study in depth and then present in creative form to the whole assembly as a "proclamation" piece on Thursday afternoon.

Our group was given what I thought to be, at first, a very dense and unexciting passage from Hebrews. Several other groups were given parables and teachings of Jesus which, from my experience, tend to lend themselves more easily to visual and dramatic presentation. I was very impressed, however, with the diligence and creativity of our group as they took the essense of our passage and decided to re-write the words to the infamous Journey power ballad, "Don't Stop Believin'." Working with a lectio divina method, they read and re-read their passage until they came up with their own version of the text. Using their own key phrases and paraphrases, they fashioned the Journey song (whose original lyrics, they realized, already communicated a message somewhat similar to their Hebrews text) to say it a new way. Then they performed it for the whole audience to a rousing applause. Here is their finished product:

"Don't Stop Believin'"
Hebrews 6:9-12, as written by small group 9
Kairos, 2009

Just a faithful girl, living in a lazy world
She took a mission trip, going in His steps.
Just a patient boy, encouraged by a greater joy
He took a mission trip, going in His steps.

The Savior with a banquet spread,
The taste of wine and broken bread
With this meal we can see His love,
It goes on and on and on and on…

Dear friends, moving closer to the Promised Land
His Spirit working in the night.
Eager people, living just to find salvation
Praying somewhere in the night.

Working hard to do God’s will
Promises He will fulfill
All your deeds will not go unseen;
God’s not unfair.

All will win, none will lose,
We were born to preach Good News.
Oh, the journey never ends
It goes on and on and on and on…

Dear friends, moving closer to the Promised Land
His Spirit working in the night.
Eager people, living just to find salvation
Praying somewhere in the night.

Don’t stop believin’
Hold on to the feeling
Eager people…

Don’t stop believin’
Hold on to the feeling
Eager people…

Don’t stop believin’
Hold on to the feeling
Eager people…

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pentecost metaphors?

I've never blogged on here about a topic that leads up to a Sunday or liturgical festival, especially before I preach about it. Typically I wait until the given day of my subject to post anything. Currently, however, I have several images and metaphors for Pentecost swirling around in my head, and it is highly possible that I will deal with one of them in my sermon this coming Sunday. In my former congregation, I found that the tight schedule of preaching every Sunday did not always allow me to weed through a surfeit of sermon illustrations. Now I tend to go overboard.

In any case, I recently finished Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Road, which relates the story of a father and son making their way in a very bleak, post-apocalyptic world. There is not much to the plot, and almost nothing "happens," per se. The burned-over planet they inhabit is so unfriendly, so harsh and devoid of meaning, that the relationship between the father and son provides the only source of hope. One increasingly gets the sense that the world around them will provide no comfort, no rest, no nourishment; they are each others' reason for existence.

I do not know if the author intended to weave trinitarian language into this story, but I found it a compelling coincidence that the father and son are so bound together by love in the midst of a world that could tear them apart. Their love is what keeps them going, even when it becomes more and more apparent that they are truly alone. They are the only self-described "good guys" in a dying world where sin has not only taken root but allowed to grow to full fruition. Even more interesting is the father's description for what delineates them as the "good guys": they are, he reiterates to his frightened boy, the "keepers of the flame." Father, Son, bound by love described as a flame...biblical allusion for the Trinity? It is especially intriguing when one thinks of the ways in which the Trinity brings life--the only real life--to the world through its intense inner bonds of love and fidelity. Can one read The Road in this way, as a metaphor for the mission of the church, that the only true source of joy and hope for any of us is the love the father and son have for each other? Are we, as those caught in the throes of this love, keepers of the flame, on a mission to bring life to the world? Is Cormac McCarthy unwittingly "saying things another way"?

I don't know how these thoughts will bounce around further, or if I'll ever be bold enough to mention this anywhere else. The book's depictions of the world gave me nightmares when I began reading it, and I'm not sure I would recommend this book to everyone. If I mention it in a sermon it might provoke that. Then again, maybe we should have nightmares, on occasion, about the harshness of our own sin...nightmares that then stir us to love and pursue the good that God has laid before us.

Thursday, April 09, 2009


Today begins another Triduum, another plunge for the faithful into the strange events of Jesus' last days. One of the strangest of those somber events is Jesus' decision to take the towel during the Passover supper and wash his disciples' feet. Even his closest disciples are caught totally off-guard by this act of slavish servitude. We can almost see Peter as he defiantly jerks his foot away from the basin: "Jesus, you will never wash my feet!" But this is, in fact, a sign. Even more, it Jesus suggest that wearing the towel and lathering the dusty bunions is a way of disciple life. If the master stoops to do it, so should even more the student. "A new commandment," He says--a new commandment of love that, come to think of it, shouldn't really sound all that new to us. BUt now we have a real clear example of what that love looks like and how we are to bear it out amongst us as disciples.

But the footwashing is just a sign of the love to come. Stooping even lower, Jesus will wash the ugly feet of an entire universe with his own blood. These are strange events, indeed. Carrying the commandment further...should we be willing to die for one another? For the master?

This Maundy Thursday also happens to be the commemoration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the twentieth-centuries most noted theologians. He was hanged by the Nazis on this date in 1945 for his suspected role in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. He spent the last two years of his life in a concentration camp. Whether or not Bonhoeffer may claim the title of martyr for the faith, his death brought the end of life to one of the most compassionate and courageous voices of Christianity in one of the most difficult times to be a follower of Christ. Concerning the footwashing hallmark that illustrations Jesus' new commandment on Maundy Thursday, it occurs to be that Bonhoeffer's life and writings contain numerous references and examples of simple servitude to the neighbor.

From his Life Together, a small volume that is actually addressed to Christians living in community:
“The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, simply assistance in trifling, external matters…Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly…Only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God’s mercy.”

If Jesus' footwashing is an example of humble love and service; if the cross is our ideal of God's love for us; if Christ, the master, intends that his disciples are known primarily for their love, what types of footwashing are we engaged in today? Is the Church known for "simple assistance in trifling external matters," or do we tend to think they're below us? What types of activities are our hands busied with? What defines our "life together," not only for us, but for the world?

Maundy Thursday is a teaching moment, a rallying point for Jesus' disciples before Jesus takes his final steps. How might our Triduum worship rally our modern-day followers of Jesus into service and love? It is a shame if we focus on our own, personal relationship with Christ in such a way that we ignore the feet and simple needs of our neighbors.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hearing it another way

As some of you may know, I am a longtime fan of the Irish rock group U2. I have appreciated their music ever since I was in the later years of elementary school, and became a devoted fan in college. One of the reasons why their music has always appealed to me is because of the many religious themes present in their lyrics. Three of the four band members are professing Christians, and many people may not know that the band almost broke up in its very early years when a couple of them felt they could not reconcile rock music with the fundamentalist Christian beliefs that they were espousing at the time. In any case, Ireland has been mired in religious/political conflict for quite some time and the members have felt surprisingly at ease working Christian overtones into their music.

What I like particularly about this aspect of their music is that the themes and overtones are not always very blatant. In fact, they are often so subtle that I'm not always sure that they're really there and that I'm reading too much into the songs. In that sense, they are a true "say it another way" subject: they find very covert and creative ways of expressing biblical and theological concepts. "Until the End of the World" on the "Achtung, Baby" (1991) album, for example, is clearly composed of the thoughts of Judas Iscariot as he reflects on the Last Supper, but many listeners are not always aware of this. "Yahweh" on "How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb" (2004) could very well appear in a hymnbook, containing selections of Paul's letter to the Romans.

Their latest album release, "No Line on the Horizon," is no exception. Although I have not had the chance to give every track a thorough listen, the second song struck me at the outset as a possible redaction of Mary's song in Luke 1, or at least Bono's version of the back-story to the Magnificat. I can imagine the words playing in the background during a video-montage of Mary's life, almost like she's singing to Jesus, her Son.

The refrain seems particularly theological to me, drawing to my mind the redemptive love of the scars on Jesus' hands:
"Only love, only love can leave such a mark/
But only love, only love can heal such a scar"

The nails of the cross "leave the mark" of Jesus' love for God's creation, but the Father's love for his Son can heal the scar that shows the sign of that Passion.

The song continues, as if Mary reflects on her role, remembering her response in faith when she sang her response to Gabriel's announcement:

"I was born to sing for you/
I didn't have a choice but to lift you up/
and sing whatever song you wanted me to."

The song ends with an acclamation grounded in faith--dare I say even in Lutheran language, echoing themes from an earlier U2 release, "Pride (in the name of love)":

"Justified till we die/you and I will magnify the Magnificent."

There is nothing other than the title that made me relate this song to the Magnificat. Upon closer listening, there is nothing that suggests it cannot also be our song, our response to a love that can heal and sustain, a love that we have known in Christ who is magnificent. The concept of our lowly souls magnifying God certainly reaches its height in Mary's song, yet it is a quality of faith that may be brought to bear in any sinner's heart. We are justified, and in that justification our lives may magnify that about God which makes God truly great: that he loves us and chooses us and loves to hear the praise we give.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Candlemas thoughts

On February 2 I find myself thinking about the elderly in our communities, and particularly those in our congregations. Simeon and Anna are the root of these contemplations: on our Lord's presentation in the temple, forty days after his birth, they are overcome with joy at the sight of their long-awaited Savior. Frail voice is loosed and prophecy is sung! The aged Simeon bounces the newborn baby in his arms. How blessed the meeting between those near the end of their earthly journey and Him who will now open life beyond the grave.

The grave may be near to anyone at anytime, but I imagine the topic is more immediate to the elderly. Any visit to the doctor's office could bring worrisome news. Any family gathering may be their last. Any simple fall could break a hip and rob them of mobility. The rigors of old age surely cause the aged to think on death, almost as if they wait for it. Do younger people wait for death the same way? I know I certainly don't. For what do I wait? For what are any of us waiting?

Yet Simeon and Anna do not appear to be waiting for death as much as they await hope. To be sure, Simeon sings, "Now, Lord, let your servant depart in peace," but it is clear that his life has been more focused on the arrival of the Messiah, the light to the Gentiles, the salvation of Israel. He spends day and night in the temple with the promise he can wait on Christ and have that awaiting consummated. Many others would have probably labelled Simeon dimented or delusional (as we often do with our elderly). But, as it turns out, he is waiting on the one thing that will not disappoint. That for which he waits causes his whole life to point toward hope, and that hope eventually finds itself cradled in his arms.

February 2nd is not a day we usually think of the elderly anymore, though Candlemas, thanks to Anna and Simeon, was traditionally the time for awareness of our aged. Now we think of groundhogs. We fantasize about the groundhog and his shadow, waiting all winter in darkness to see that sign which would indicate the presence of constant sun. Maybe, however, there is a connection: how might we live in a way that shows, in the midst of all the things we typically await, our salvation has been accomplished, that an eternal Son does indeed shine? How can we live in a way that shows we have crawled out of our self-dug holes of despair and beheld the promise of the ages? Maybe our modern-day Simeons and Annas can help us out. So often the New Testament uses children as an example of faith, and for good reason. We need to remember the importance of childlike trust in the life of discipleship. Yet maybe we can also see wonderful examples of faith in those who are nearing the end of their earthly journey, in those who have learned that waiting for God's salvation is a worthwhile endeavor---yea! the one, true endeavor that allows a servant not just to depart, but to depart in peace.