Monday, January 31, 2011

Growing beyond our own lives

Sometimes while sitting in church, I can’t help but grab a pen and start writing. Thoughts flood my mind. I think: “I know I’m not preaching today, but I have a sermon anyway!”

It was like that yesterday. I was particularly struck by the modern paraphrase of Psalm 15 by Stephen Mitchell:

Lord, who can be trusted with power, and who may act in your place?
Those with a passion for justice, who speak the truth from their hearts;
Who have let go of selfish interests and grown beyond their own lives;
Who see the wretched as their family and the poor as their flesh and blood.
They alone are impartial and worthy of the people’s trust
Their compassion lights up the whole earth, and their kindness endures forever.

It occurred to me that my work as a youth minister—and as a Christian formation director for all ages—could be summed up in the task of urging people to “grow beyond their own lives.”

When have you grown beyond your own life?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

This one's all pop ... name that tune.

Here are this week's top 10 pop hits in disguise. Name that title and/or artist. Let's see who can get the most, either here or on Facebook!

10) I wanna 3X, Girl 2X, See you 3X, Tonight 3X, is the night, positive affirmation 13X

9) (mumble mumble mumble) … SUPER COOL ACCORDION LICK! … (mumble mumble mumble)

8) Look out! A bumblebee! (I can tell from the colors.)

7) I’m! Havin’! A good time! But I think! I heard this song! In 2009! And it was called! I got a feeling! But it didn’t have! Bill Medley! And Jennifer Warnes! In a sample! From an ’80s movie! As the only! Redeeming thing about it!

6) Remember me? Yeah, I’m the super sexy Latino lover who wooed you back in 1999 with “Bailamos.” Yeah, you know what? Forget the wooing. You're getting into my bed right now, whether you like it or not. But it’s not sexual assault, because I’m a super sexy Latino lover, and on the radio, all women WANT to fall right into bed with me.

5) Everybody hates me, and that’s why everybody loves me! I do everything wrong, and you love it! Let’s drink a toast!

4) I’ve got Jesus on my neck-u-luss, so watch out. ’Cause my God can beat up your God.

3) Oh na na ... I can’t remember what I’m called. But I know it rhymes with “oh na na.”

2) Won’t you please retrieve this ordnance for me? Why not? All the cool kids are doing it. And if you don't hold onto this deadly weapon, that means you don't really love me.

1) I don’t really need to sing this song, because Christina Aguilera already sang “Beautiful.” But I’m going to take the same idea, give it a dance beat and update it by a decade. Oh, and pretend it’s summertime. Because all my songs seem to be set in the summertime.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reading God’s Word with My Grandfather

I got a phone call this week from my Uncle Hal. He’s a Baptist pastor who is no longer working for the Church, and he called to offer me a complete collection of the Interpreter’s Bible, a multi-volume Bible with tons of helpful commentary. It’s the same set that both he and my grandfather used to write sermons many decades ago.

At first I resisted. I thought, “This gift will be heavy and bulky, and I’ll have to find shelf space for it. Besides, there’s a newer version of the Interpreter’s Bible out there that matches the translation we currently use in the Episcopal Church; that version would be much more useful to me.”

Then I thought more about my grandfather, Harold Fremont Smith, a Baptist pastor and a vital force in the American Baptist Church in the Pacific Northwest from the 1930s into the 1960s. He died in a car accident five years before I was born. To use the same books he used would be quite an honor. So I accepted the gift. See, it’s more than just words on a page. It’s the Word of God. I’ll take the books with me to seminary in Virginia this summer. I can imagine myself sitting there, writing papers or sermons with my grandfather right there at my shoulder, whispering inspiration into my ear. I hope I’ll be ready. I hope my ears will be open.

When I get ready to tell a Godly Play story with kids, I tell them, “You have to be ready! How do we get ready? Eyes open, ears open … mouths closed.” We adults could use the same advice in church on Sunday mornings. This is important stuff! We are gathered together to hear the Word of God: the family stories, the stories we tell again and again.

First we hear a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, a/k/a the Old Testament. Usually it’s something from one of the prophets, or a formative story of the people of Israel. Next we join with the choir for a psalm, one of the hymns of ancient Israel. These are so varied, and their themes so universal, that we still use the same 150 psalms today. Following the psalm is the Epistle: a reading from the Christian Scriptures, a/k/a New Testament. This is usually a letter written in the earliest years of the Christian Church to communicate something of vital importance to a budding Christian community.

Next we hear from one of the four Gospels, the stories of Jesus. We stand for this reading because the Gospels are at the center of our faith. “Gospel” means “Good News.” And could once a week possibly be too often to hear a piece of Good News? Finally, we hear a sermon, an original reflection that opens the Scriptures to us in our own place and time.

The Liturgy of the Word is a time to open our ears. You may think we tell the same stories over and over again in church, but that’s not exactly true. The difference is you: you are different now than you were the last time you heard the story. If you open your ears, you may well find that the words mean something very different now than they did earlier in your life.

Although I never met my grandfather, I am different now than I used to be. Had my uncle given me these volumes when I was 12 or 18 or 25 or 35, I might not have been able to appreciate such a caring gift. Now it will mean much more to me.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Walking around angry

I’ve been walking around angry since Saturday’s shootings in Tucson. I’ve functioned just fine in public, but underneath, I’ve been in a rage. I can’t believe it happened.

I’ve dealt with it by shooting my mouth off on Facebook in a way that some people thought was inappropriate. It’s very easy to assume motive before the facts come in, and now it seems that Jared Loughner may have been so sick and so out of touch with reality that any connection to Sarah Palin or even the radical fringe of the Tea Party movement would have seemed sane by comparison. While liberals eat crow, conservatives are blaming them for trying to score cheap political points.

But I don’t think politics has anything to do with it. If anything, accusing the other side of playing politics is yet another way of perpetuating the madness.

We’re all scrambling to understand what happened, and it’s very important for our sanity that we each explain it in a way that fits our worldview. Conservatives want to make sure we understand that an individual is responsible for his/her actions, while liberals want to demonstrate that no individual acts in a vacuum, free of influence, and that as a society we have a responsibility to each other. Both of these perspectives are true.

But no matter Loughner’s motives, Sarah Palin’s crosshairs—and any other violent imagery used in politics by anybody at all—are classless at best and dangerous at worst. Why dangerous? Not because your average citizen is likely to shoot an automatic weapon into a crowd, but because your average citizen is likely to feel supported in his tendency to demonize those with whom he disagrees. In the same way that soldiers at war create offensive names for their enemies and then use them to rally each other to kill, we in America feel more disconnected from those with whom we disagree the minute we start using violent metaphors against them. This disconnectedness helps us feel better, for the moment. Disrespect falls into a downward spiral, and the only way out is to recognize the full humanity of every other human being in the world. Christians call it “seeing Christ in the other.” It is not our natural tendency.

Personal responsibility does not necessarily lead to Ayn Rand-ian heartlessness, while social responsibility does not necessarily lead to socialism. As Americans, we will always walk a tightrope between extremes, and not just this set of extremes.

Another factor I see at work here is America’s addiction to the quick fix. That tendency causes so many social ills I’m afraid to start listing them here. All of us are affected all the time: “Whose fault was this? How can we fix it once and for all? Take away the guns! Revoke universal health care! Shoot child molesters in the head! Stop creeping socialism! Send the immigrants back! Eliminate the competition! Nuke Iran!” Rather than walk patiently through our lives dealing with our enemies as fellow human beings, we all want to get to a settled point and stay there. Problem is, there’s no such place.

It is the human condition always to be in flux and never to be safe. In our prosperous society, we have created the illusion that this isn’t so, that we can wall ourselves in with our money and privilege and electronic gadgets and never even have to talk to our neighbors. Then someone like Loughner comes along, and we wonder why someone didn’t deal with him in time. When there’s someone who may be too sick to truly be responsible for his own actions, who is responsible?

I was hit especially hard by the story of Christina Green, the girl who was born on September 11 and who was looking forward to a career in politics when she was shot in the back by Jared Loughner. Who will avenge her death? Nobody—because murder should not be avenged. Ever. Nothing will bring Christina back, and nothing will make it better except time and the slow, patient, redemptive work of God. I hate this situation. I want it to be different. But this is the way it is.

I could blame God for creating this world and placing us in it, but that doesn’t help. For one thing, I have a daughter, and my wife and I decided to create her. If we wanted to guarantee less pain in the world, we would not have brought another person into it. That’s the case for everybody out there who decides to have children. They, like we, only get to stay here for a short while. Many people die violent deaths. We take that chance every time a baby is born.

Maybe violent death isn’t the worst thing that could happen to someone. But that doesn’t make this situation OK. It’s not, and it never will be. And it’ll never be erased. When the history of the world is said and done, Saturday’s shootings will still be part of the story.

Today, my sadness and anger tell me that’s all wrong. But my faith tells me that somehow, in some way, there’s a joy that completely overwhelms all the sadness and anger and pain, and that we all have access to this joy. That’s hard to believe today, but I write it down in a rambling blog post and share it so we won’t forget it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Revealing: Suites for the Season of Epiphany

We think of Epiphany as the day when the Magi arrive—January 6. (Always late every year, aren’t they?) But Epiphany becomes a whole season, stretching until the beginning of Lent. As an added bonus, Epiphany is VERY long this year—because Easter is VERY late (April 24).

This season is sometimes called “Ordinary Time,” but I don’t think it’s ordinary at all. It’s a green growing season in which we hear all about the young Jesus—the baby, the child, the young man beginning his ministry. I often wish we had more stories of Jesus as a child. We don’t, but those we have belong here.

Here's some music for Epiphany. It starts out sounding like Christmas music, but then it moves through stages of Jesus’ life and work. After his baptism, Jesus calls the disciples (we’ll save the temptation in the desert for Lent). He goes fishing for people. He teaches and heals. People flock to him and praise him for the amazing things God is doing through him. And finally, Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop, marking a solid line between his earlier ministry and turning toward Jerusalem and his eventual crucifixion. We’ll also save that part for Lent, of course.

Mixed in at various points are the three movements of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Aside from being my favorite choral piece ever, these psalms connect us to Jesus’ Judaism, a piece we should never lose track of. They are sung in Hebrew, and I have tried to tie their content to the topic of each suite as best I can. The psalms Bernstein sets are …

Movement 1: Psalms 100 and 108
Movement 2: Psalms 2 and 23
Movement 3: Psalms 131 and 133

In addition, the music gets folksy sometimes, because Jesus hung out with regular folks. It has children’s songs, because Jesus loved children. It’s not just straight-up pop music—some of it is choral, some gospel, some country, some liturgical worship music, some electronic instrumental, some mellow pop, some alternative rock. Come to think of it, it’s a pretty bizarre mix. But I think that makes it an adventure. No doubt, every day with Jesus of Nazareth must have been a pretty wild ride. Enjoy the ride.

Yes, these recordings are under copyright, but the way I have mixed them into suites is original to me. If you hear something you like, please go buy it. I also welcome feedback on Epiphany music I might use to expand these suites next year!

(Right-click each header to download the suite.)

Epiphany Suite 1: Incarnation
Sufjan Stevens - The Incarnation/ Plainchant - Hodie Christus Natus Est [Procession]
Sufjan Stevens - Star of Wonder
Leonard Bernstein - Chichester Psalms 1
Barenaked Ladies & Sarah McLachlan - God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen/We Three Kings
Natalie Merchant - Wonder
Benjamin Britten - This Little Babe (from ‘A Ceremony of Carols’)
Sufjan Stevens - What Child Is This, Anyway?

Epiphany Suite 2: Baptism
Sufjan Stevens - Tahquamenon Falls
Alison Krauss - Down to the River to Pray
Church of the Apostles [COTA] - Come to the Water
Sufjan Stevens - Alanson, Crooked River
The Fifth Dimension - Let the Sunshine In

Epiphany Suite 3: Calling
Kermit the Frog - The Rainbow Connection
Susan Werner - Don’t Explain It Away
Sheryl Crow - Light in Your Eyes
Sufjan Stevens - Vito’s Ordination Song
Gonzo the Great - I’m Going to Go Back There Someday

Epiphany Suite 4: Fishing
Leonard Bernstein - Chichester Psalms 2
Mindy Smith - Come to Jesus
Chip Taylor - Dance with Jesus
Stevie Wonder - Have a Talk with God
Kanye West - Jesus Walks

Epiphany Suite 5: Teaching
XTC - The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead
The Beatles - All You Need Is Love
England Dan & John Ford Coley - Love Is the Answer
Lenny Kravitz - Let Love Rule

Epiphany Suite 6: Healing
Isaac Everett - Ministration
Sufjan Stevens - Oh God, Where Are You Now (In Pickerel Lake, Pigeon, Marquette, Mackinaw)
Judy Collins - Amazing Grace
Leonard Bernstein - Chichester Psalms 3

Epiphany Suite 7: Praise
George Harrison - My Sweet Lord
The Doobie Brothers - Jesus Is Just Alright
Stevie Wonder - As
Sixpence None the Richer - Melody of You

Epiphany Suite 8: Transfiguration
George Harrison - All Those Years Ago
Plainchant - Hodie Christus Natus Est [Recession]/ Isaac Everett - Misconception
Church of the Apostles [COTA] - Awaken Us to Your Glory
Sufjan Stevens - The Transfiguration

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The geese in the storm

It's still Christmas! Happy eleventh day of this joyous season.

I wanted to post this link earlier, but I had left it at work ... and I haven't been at work for quite a while. Now that I'm back, here it is.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

On bad guys and evil

Sarah and I had a great conversation today on our way back from the playground. Somehow we started talking about bad guys. Sarah said, “I don’t like bad guys!”

I said, “What would a story be without bad guys? I think stories need them.”

Sarah said, “I don’t think so.”

I answered, “Think about it. In The Little Mermaid, it’s Ursula the Sea Witch. In Cinderella, it’s the stepmother and stepsisters. In Star Wars, it’s Darth Vader. On the other hand, I hope there are some great stories without bad guys. If you think of one, please let me know!”

Without pausing for a moment, Sarah said, “Mary Poppins.”

“Ooh! I think you’re right. When I was little, I used to think Mr. Banks was a bad guy, but then I realized he was more of a bad-guy-turned-good.”

Sarah: “He was never really a bad guy.”

“OK. Are there more?”


“Oh yeah! And how about Kiki’s Delivery Service? And My Neighbor Totoro? Hardly any Hayao Miyazaki films have bad guys in them.”

Sarah suggested, “In Kiki’s Delivery Service, I think the bad guy is the blimp.”

“You think so? But the blimp didn’t decide to crash and put everybody in danger. That was an accident … do you think accidents and disease are evil?”

Sarah said, “Maybe. But sometimes good things can come from accidents. Here’s an example: If I plan to plant grass seeds, but I accidentally plant flower seeds!”

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Eighth Day of Christmas/ The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ: January 1

What’s in a name? In Judaism and Christianity, everything. It was a specifically named God, YHWH, who called Abram, and who renamed him Abraham. Angels told Zechariah to name his son John, and told Mary and Joseph to name their son Jesus, Emmanuel, the Messiah, the Christ. It was the Risen Jesus who met Saul and renamed him Paul. Isaiah said, “His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The name YHWH is derived from the word “to be.” Jesus means, “He who saves.” Emmanuel means, “God with us.” Messiah means “Sent by God”—in Greek, Christ.

Maybe it started out with one group of people thinking their God was bigger than everyone else’s god. In a manner of speaking, they were right. They found that YHWH was everywhere they went—not in a single location, as was supposed of other ancient gods.

As time went by, this people had the gall to proclaim that their God was actually everyone else’s God, too—that there never were many gods, but only one, the one who announced to Moses, “I AM that I AM.” God is the one who simply Is—undeniably, irrefutably, and so present at all times and in all places that we can be fooled into thinking God is absent. Does a fish ever say, “Hey, I’m in water”? So, too, are we in God’s presence.

And yet, God has a name—has many names. The ancient Israelites were not allowed to pronounce God’s name—YHWH—out loud. In their sacred writings, they substituted the Word “Elohim”—in English, the LORD—which, curiously, is plural. The people had known God for so long that the earliest continuous references refer to God as Gods. It took time for it to sink in that there was only One. But the plural name, Elohim, stuck.

In Muslim tradition, there are 99 Names of God. In Zoroastrianism, there are 101 Names, or even 1001.

In Christianity's Trinitarian theology, the One God is both singular and plural—three and one simultaneously. God cannot even be limited by number. God is solitary and in community with Godself.

For many of us, it may be second nature simply to talk to God, to talk to Jesus, to shout, “Holy Spirit, come!” This is a great gift—to be able and invited to speak God’s name and enter a conversation.

“You are in my heart/ I can feel your beat/ And you move my mind/ From behind the wheel / When I lose control/ I can only breathe your name/ I can only breathe your name.” Here’s Sixpence None the Richer.