Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Comfort Ye!



I am doing my annual listen to Handel’s Messiah.  I was struck this year by the first words sung in the opening tenor recitative: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.”  Those are the opening words of Isaiah 40.  These words appear to have been spoken to people who were not in comfortable circumstances.  They viewed themselves as faithful followers of God, who were about to be handed over to a culture, society and political system that despised God.  Why should anyone in circumstances like this find comfort?

The end of Isaiah 40 says it:
Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Those words resonate within me at the end of this year.  A week before Thanksgiving I was informed that my current employment might end within a year.  On the very day this was announced to me, the daily devotional I receive via email was titled “A Better Future.”  The text was Isaiah 43.15-21, which includes these words: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (18-19).  I am hopeful.  I am trying to live in excited anticipation to see the way in the wilderness and rivers (notice it is plural) in the desert.

We got out to Minneapolis four times this year to visit with Kevin and Marissa.  It is beautiful to see their love and friendship grow.  We relax when we visit, go for long walks, ride our bikes around the city, go the the State Fair.


Our trip out there in May included a stay at Fish Creek in Door County, Wisconsin where we were able to ride our bikes all over the county.  In wooded areas we saw thousands of Lady Slipper orchids in bloom.

Jayne lives four miles from us, ½ mile from where I was hit from behind while riding my bicycle November 2013.  We enjoy weekly visits with her.  I went deer hunting with her mid-November.  She got a deer.  We processed it ourselves.  She did the best job I’ve ever seen trimming all the meat of fat, sinew and sheath.  It made for very tasty venison.

Beth helps out at church in various ways, behind the scenes work that makes the seen work go well.  She visits and assists her mom almost weekly.  She has ridden her bicycle nearly 2000 miles this year.  She likes her neighborhood, church and community.

By the end of December I will have ridden my bike 4500 miles this year; my first bike ride after my November 2013 accident was March 10, and it felt great to be able to ride.  Mid-summer we got a nice quality tandem bicycle.  Until it got too cool in October, we’d ride that together 25-45 miles on a Saturday or Sunday, exploring places we’d never ridden before.

I enjoyed deer hunting this year.  I did a fair amount of fishing for bluegills on Muskrat Lake, grew a small garden, picked wild black raspberries.  I try to keep connected to the natural world.

Isaiah says that the new thing has already sprung forth: the way in the wilderness and the rivers in the desert.  He asks us “do you not perceive it?”  I need those kind of eyes, like the shepherds at Jesus’ birth who saw the multitude of angels.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

From Churchese to Plainer Speaking



Jesus is reported to have said to a Jewish audience about the worries people have about food, shelter and clothing: “For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.   But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6.32-33).  A Jewish audience would understand the concept of seeking God’s kingdom.  They saw themselves as God’s chosen people, a nation of people with God as their king.  In the day when Jesus spoke, they were a nation governed by Rome.  They were eager for God’s kingdom.



Just a generation later, a writer who self-proclaims to be Paul transforms that message for a Roman, Greek-speaking audience.  He says: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12.1-2).  In place of not running after the basic necessities of life but instead seeking God’s kingdom, he speaks of not conforming to the way of life of our culture but instead being personally transformed by giving our whole selves to God.



What I want to suggest is that we too need to transform the themes, beliefs, and principles of our faith traditions.  If we don’t, it will sound as if we are speaking in code.  Those within our faith tradition might understand us.  Those outside might not.



I grew up in a church that taught that to express God-honoring thoughts and prayers, to speak of religious matters, you expressed them in Biblical language.  In that church, Biblical language meant King James Biblical language.  Those who were regarded as giving the best testimonies (use that word outside a church community and people will wonder what you are talking about) or gave the best public prayers used King James language.  No one would speak that way, using that kind of language, to co-workers, to the clerk at the hardware store, to the waitress at a restaurant, or even to one’s own family at home.



In addition there were some phrasings that one would use only in church or among a group of church people: “fellowshipping,” “Lord willing,” “unspoken request,” “the Word,” “carnal,” “end times,” “back-sliding,” “regeneration,” “sanctification,” “speak in tongues” to name a few.



Given this, and given how Paul transformed the language of Jesus to fit his audience, I begin to wonder how I can speak of the important things of my faith tradition in a language that would get traction if I were speaking to co-workers, to the clerk at the hardware store, to the waitress at a restaurant, and to my own family.  To venture what some might take as a heresy, there is nothing holy about the language of the Bible.  What is holy is some of its meaning, its message.



On a related note, try to imagine someone who was not raised in a church (it is pretty easy to imagine that these days) coming to your church for the first time and experiencing your church service.  If I try to put myself in their position, I think I’d be creeped-out by what I would see and hear.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ash Wednesday





It was my first time.  Unexpected and not long in the planning.  I had thought about it for a few days, but it wasn’t until that day after work at the dinner table.  “Wanna go tonight?” I asked.  “I suppose,” she replied, “what time should we leave?”  For fifty-five years I had never been to an Ash Wednesday service.

I grew up in a rural area surrounded by families that all, except us, went to the only Catholic Church in the township, and most of the kids in those families went to the parish school through eighth grade.  They were all second or third generation German immigrant families, Klein, Brown, Rasch, Robach, Umlor, Dietrich.   We were the only Protestant family, a Dutch, German and Irish hybrid, on our mile section, perhaps as well on any of the surrounding mile sections.  Much of the time we managed to get along well.  We lived ten miles from any village.  If we kids wanted to play a game that required more than four players (every family had at least four kids), we had to join up.  For baseball we could often get five players on a side, the batting team supplied the catcher, and right field was an automatic out.  But there were many times we did not get along, we fought, called each other awful names, were threatened with gross harm if we trespassed on their property.  We didn’t own enough property to trespass upon.

When I got to ninth grade in high school, a group of the ninth and tenth grade boys who had gone through eighth grade at the parish school pestered me: would try to trip me as I walked down a hall, knock my books and notebooks out of my hand, call me names, and angle to draw me into a schoolyard fight.  Early in the fall of my ninth grade year, my mom sensed that I was distressed about school and asked me to explain.  Upon explanation, she said “you need to take one on.  Next time they pester you in a place where others can watch and where teachers are near enough to break it up, go after one of the ring leaders and win the fight.”  This was shocking for me to hear, having been brought up to believe that one should always turn the other cheek, having seen this precisely in various Jesus films where, some years later, I wondered if Jesus was on codeine or smack.  Jesus in those films had an airy voice, flowed as he walked, said blissfully things like “consider the lilies of the field” and “peace, be still.”  My mom said to take one on and win the fight.

So I did.  A teacher intervened, we got hauled to the principal’s office and parents were called in.  When my mom arrived and was told what happened, she told the principal what she had heard from me, and what she told me to do.  The principal stuttered a bit, said “okay, but I’ll have to give him one day after-school detention.”  A pretty good deal, I thought, and three and a half years later thought it a great deal for it worked.  It was my only high school fight.  Win, win fast and hard, and others will know that if they want to take you on they might win but it will be a win that will leave a few painful marks on them.

I am sure that is not why I had never been to an Ash Wednesday service before.  I can’t just look down my nose at my Catholic neighbors for anti-Protestant sentiment.  I was raised in a Protestant church that had at least as strong anti-Catholic sentiment, equating the antichrist of the Apocalypse with the Pope.  When we read of Jesus saying judgmental things about priests, rabbis, and Pharisees, we pictured them in robes like priests and acolytes wore in the Catholic church.  Perhaps even our Sunday school materials dressed them to look like Roman Catholic priests.

I grew out of that anti-Catholic sentiment immediately after high school, becoming much more generous in my orthodoxy over the intervening years.  Maybe most religions exhibit a kind of theoretical or doctrinal cannibalism or genocide.  We just can’t much tolerate those who are close to us but a little bit different.  That difference is like the small grease stain on your carpet that you notice, but none of your guests ever notice, and to you it is as noticeable as a big wart on a chin.  My orthodoxy has gotten too generous for some, but mostly they tolerate me.

I think it has more to do with my inclinations toward liturgy.  I am low church.  Very low.  Low church can be a bit goofy.  If you allow for a little spontaneity, if everything doesn’t have to follow a schedule, you open yourself up for the person who wants to share more detail about their life and God’s goodness to them than you are comfortable hearing.  Sometimes hearing their stories is like coming upon lovers kissing in public.  Some may find that sappy and cute, but some just want to say “don’t you have a private place for that?”  However, in low church with eyes wide open you can see people genuinely in love with a God who walks with them through the valley of the shadow of death, who has ate with them in green pastures, has slaked their thirst with calm waters, and surely whose goodness and mercy is chasing after them all the days of their lives.  When you see that, you have to be awfully Stoic to not be deeply affected.

I am not much for ritual, order, pomp, liturgy.  Simply saying the Lord’s Prayer in unison feels awkward.  At least it used to.  Even with that I have gotten beyond that feeling to where now, reciting it in unison, it is hard for me to get through without being overwhelmed with how far I am from hallowedness.  This past Sunday I was asked to be one of the servers for Holy Communion.  As I stood there with watery eyes dispensing the symbols of Christ’s body and blood, I could barely choke out “Christ’s body and blood, given for you.”  I don’t understand how I had any right to be the dispenser.

But I did it.  I went to an Ash Wednesday service.  Wait! There is more!  I even went forward for the imposition of ashes.  What a phrase!  An imposition.  In the sign of a cross.  My wife and I hadn’t discussed it, hadn’t mentioned a word of it.  But when the invitation was made to come forward I looked at her, got up, and she followed me.  As he marked me, he instructed me “you are dust, repent and believe the Gospel.”  I heard it as “you were dirt that was made alive, now live the Gospel.”  I felt the gravity of it all.

And then the homily was titled “Wearing your halo too tight.”  It was about making a show of your pious acts: praying ostentatiously in public, making a public display of your charitable giving, fasting and letting others know you are fasting.  And I wondered if, when I left the service and on the way home stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few items, I should leave the ashen cross on my forehead, or erase it.  Should I make a public declaration that I participated in a Christian community?  Or would I be making a public display of my piety?

With the communion service that was part of the Ash Wednesday service, individuals could be anointed with oil for healing.  Most accepted it.  I again was one of the servers of communion (the lone station with the “gluten-free” option, seeing how I go to a contemporary and hip church).  The congregation faces east, with a stained-glass rose window that on Sunday mornings shines bright with the morning sun.  I was serving the gluten free option at the south end in front of the congregation.  Next to me was a woman anointing with the oil.  As she’d apply the oil, she’d have just a short few words for the person, a phrase I didn’t fully hear.  At the far north end was an eighty-two year old man doing the oil anointing for that aisle of people.  The north wing of the church seats about one-third as many people as either of the center sections seat.  When all the rest of us were done serving communion and anointing with oil, he was still down there with four people still in line from the piano-side section:  a white-haired woman, a pre-teen boy, an almost forty year-old couple .  As each person stepped forward, he conversed briefly with them, anointed them with oil and proceeded to pray for each of them for seventy-five seconds.  We, the rest of the congregation, sat in silence for over five minutes while he completed his duties.  It was difficult to watch, like it was too private to be made so public.  I focused my gaze on my hands.  Then, he finished and walked back to his seat.

I had witnessed mystery.  Next year, I thought, that is the line I want to be in.

As we got in the car to head to the grocer, we both wiped the ashen cross off our foreheads.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Southern and Gospel, or Suthun ayn Gawspul



I read a good book on the life of Flannery O’Connor.  She died of complications due to Lupus in 1964 at the age of 39.  She was a Southern and Roman Catholic fiction writer, mostly short stories.  I think I’ve read all her 32 short stories, but I haven’t read her two novels.  I’ve also read what she wrote in essays about the craft of writing, about being a Christian fiction writer, about why so many of her stories are so shocking.  Her stories are filled with grotesque, deformed, offensive, and violent characters in part because she deeply believes that is what we humans are.  She also believes most of us make ourselves look better than we are, think more highly of ourselves than we ought, which makes it very hard for us to see the need for grace, mercy, and redemption.  When she writes dialogue, she writes it phonetically such that you can hear the “suthun drowal” or southern drawl.  Having lived in Nashville for four years and having waitered at an expensive Italian restaurant there, I can hear in her writing the liquid and luscious elegant southern woman accent.  Or I cayan heeya in haw ridin the le-a-quid ay-n luzjous elgant suthun woomin ayakcint.




I also went recently to a small town to meet some relatives at a diner that has all you can eat spaghetti for $5.  There were eleven of us there.  We might put them out of business or force them to change prices.  I had two servings, my dad had four.  Then we went to the small babdist church for their twice a month Tuesday night Gospel Jamboree, otherwise known as the joyful noise meeting.  It began with a guitar band led by a 70 year old couple, Bob on electric Jean on acoustic, another 60 year old guy playing electric lead, and another 60 year old guy on a big acoustic.  They sang some old timey honky tonk gospel songs.  Then a 75 year old guy sang some Carter family songs, pretty well.  One guy did a couple of Hank Williams songs (one was “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart”).  A woman played violin, then they got her to fiddle “Boil Them Cabbage Down.”  Then the lead guitar player did Orange Blossom Special, usually a fiddle number, very impressive.  My brother-in-law sang (he has a great voice) accompanied by instruments on a CD.  I remember a musician friend once wondering how it would be received if for special music at church he’d play piano accompanied by a recorded voice.  Another brother-in-law sang a couple of early 20th century hymns that are no longer in most hymn books.  A couple of the singers were terrible singers who were deeply in love with Jesus.  It was like the vision of the heavenly realm given in the Revelation of St. John, people from every tongue and tribe and nation who are there definitely not to sing or perform for my enjoyment.




While I am writing this I am listening to a bunch of old, mostly “gospel” Hank Williams recordings.  While they are called “gospel,” most of them are not even close to being biblically accurate.  I am not saying that as a criticism or a complaint.  For one thing, it is so hard to know what if anything is biblically accurate because there are so many issues, even very important issues, over which the bible does not speak in a single voice or have a single and consistent view on:  free will or predestination, communion as the body and blood of Christ or a memorial meal, the kingdom of God as a domain distinct from present reality or as a growing part of present reality, and on and on.




Those country and western gospel songs are more accurately described as American rural folk religion songs (“I’ll Fly Away,” actually a Carter Family song, is a classic example of that).  Gospel or not, they are good foot tapping honky tonk songs, often with lyrics that lament some life wasted in honky tonks that has been rescued from dissipation by Jesus.  A classic of that is Johnny Cash’s “I’m Alright Now” (written by Jerry Hensley).


                I’m alright now, I’m alright now

                I was ridin’ on the devil’s train but I got off somehow

                I’m alright now, I’m alright now

                Gabriel, let your trumpet blow, I’m alright now.



I wonder how many gospel songs Hank Williams wrote—I’ve seen a list of over 100 songs he wrote.  He had 35 songs that placed in the top 10 on the Country & Western chart.  He was born Hiram King Williams, but changed his name to Hank after he was in his first band at the age of 14.  He did several gospel recordings in 1950 under the name of Luke the Drifter which didn’t sell well because people didn’t realize it was Hank Williams.  He died January 1, 1953 when he was only 29 years old.  He was southern and gospel and he’s alright now.