Saturday, February 7, 2009

You can't even remember what I'm trying to forget...

As some of my Internet colleagues (and friends) talk about their on-going learning and professional development events as well as other educational experiences that are meaningful to the churches they serve and share ministry with, I am reminded of U2. After first breaking on the scene as a fusion of punk energy and beat sensibilities filtered through an Irish evangelical Christian lens – think of “I Will Follow” or “Gloria” from the early years – they discovered the need to reinvent themselves three times.

+ First, there was the soulful exploration of social justice themes broadly shaped by Dr. King and the shadow side of US political realities in the 1980s – think “Pride in the Name of Love” or even “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – that brought them wider notoriety and fame.

+ Second, there was the angry but playful experiences of Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop in which they turned their old earnest image inside out to expose what greed and ideology can do to the best people. Think of Bono as Macphisto calling world leaders from the stage – or the piercing critique of “Numb” – or the manipulation of the biblical wisdom tradition with some Charles Bukowski thrown in on “Dirty Day.”

+ And third, the post September 11th identity as standard bearers of both integrity and hope albeit in a more humble incarnation a la “Beautiful Day” or “Grace.”

I suggest this U2 lens for two reasons: as artists they were willing to engage and manipulate their culture in order to discover both the blessings and the curses of our era; and as teachers they understood the necessity of connecting their message to both head and heart, light and dark, hope and a post-modern sensibility simultaneously so that their music was always real and raw, never sentimental and always hopeful without ever denying the pain and agony of our lives.

It is small wonder that “Dirty Day” continues to speak to me on a host of levels – perhaps even paradigmatically for religious education – in its paradoxical fusion of rant and prayer to say nothing of somberness and ecstasy. Because that is what often seems missing from most professional development: passion, reality, God-centered hope joined to a humbling sense of humor.

Another way of saying the same thing might simply be to restate the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever and ever in the next. Amen.

Here is reality that doesn’t inflate our problems, hope grounded in our real flesh and a sense that God’s grace is always greater and more available than we often recall. Two books have been particularly helpful to me in discerning the “U2 methodology” for the local church (or my own professional development): Beth Maynard’s anthology, Get up off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog, and Christian Scharen’s, One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God.

Like another colleague noted in his earlier remarks: the established progressive resources are not missional but institutional – and that is not our call. I might add that other resources are gimmick driven and rarely apply to contexts like the UCC congregations I have served whether in Michigan, Ohio, Arizona or now Massachusetts. Perhaps Dorothy Bass and/or Diana Butler Bass have been most helpful for me but… I find U2 more instructive. Again, their song “Dirty Day” holds three clues:

+ Verse one begins: I don't know you and you don't know the half of it; I had a starring role I was the bad guy who walked out. They said be careful where you aim 'cause where you aim you just might hit; you can hold onto something so tight you've already lost it. So much of the work I have to do personally, professionally and spiritually has to do with “letting go.” And this is true for congregational life, too: letting go of our previous identities, letting go of our pride and shame, letting go of anything that gets in the way of Christ’s grace. Richard Rohr and a few others have done some GREAT work re: letting go.

Verse two continues: Dragging me down that's not the way it used to be – you can’t even remember what I'm trying to forget! Why? We don’t know tradition, we don’t teach discipleship, we have forgotten about liturgical literacy and as Marva Dawn has written we often try to do with some worship gimmicks what we’ve lost by abandoning evangelism for 3 generations. The song continues: You're looking for explanations I don't even understand; If you need someone to blame throw a rock in the air you'll hit someone guilty.

+ And then their wildass conclusion: these days, days, days run away like horses over the hill. Guess what? We’re not in control – like Rabbi Heschel writes in his work re: Sabbath: once we can rest and enjoy and trust God long enough to experience Sabbath, then we can let God be God so that we don’t have to keep doing all the work.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that U2 has it all together (musically, theologically or even pedagogically.) But they are a lot of fun, encourage real humility and offer a paradoxical way of learning that I am discovering helps.

Funny how the epistle lesson for tomorrow - I Corinthians 9 - speaks of this:

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

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