As my week comes to a close - I embrace Friday's as a living Sabbath given my gig in a local church - a few thoughts are bubbling to the surface. First, it has been wonderful and challenging to be back in ministry after our vacation time in Canada. Not challenging as in "OMG I don't want to go," but as in "there's a lot to be done this summer and there's a lot of creativity and pain, too" to say nothing of a humbling sense of my own limits.
At Wednesday Eucharist, however, when we spoke about John the Baptist's fiery demands, one wise soul said, "John is just telling us to make sure to throw our broken and wounded places onto God's purifying fire - not toss in our whole selves - just the broken places." He later added, "Unless you can find the quiet presence of grace in the Baptist, he'll always just be a pain in the ass." And so I experience both wonder and challenge...
Second, Nils Loffgren - guitarist in his own world as well as in Springsteen's band for 28 years - gave some words to a truth I've been playing with a lot in both worship and music gigs. He talks about rhythm and balance - the importance of touching the head and heart while never forgetting the soul and body - so that joy, intensity and foolishness melt together. Of the current three and a half hour Springsteen shows, he said:
We're covering a lot of emotional territory. One of the things I kind of love about Bruce is that he wants you to feel the deep kind of songs that might bring a tear to your eye and really make you feel some uncomfortable things, but are important things not to dodge. At the same time, it's just as valuable and critical that you have the foolishness and silliness and the hilarity of rock & roll in the same evening. It's a very complex range of songs, and one type without the other would not be a good night. Certainly if you're an artist that only writes tragic songs or dark songs – or only happy songs and silly things – well then that's your show, I guess. But someone who does the whole scope, that's a very smart, correct, appropriate use of a great body of work.
(Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/nils-lofgren-i-dont-know-if-americans-can-handle-a-three-and-a-half-hour-show-20120719#ixzz21BAap6dT)
Last week at worship - or last night sitting in for a few tunes with Hal - that complex tapestry of combining the deep with the light - or the celebration with the sorrow - was at work. I find that anything less is intellectually and emotionally dishonest. Worship, for example, that is all about heaven or hell misses the paradox of living in the world but not of the world. As Calvin wrote, but many in the Reformed tradition have forgotten, we start worship with confession NOT to evoke guilt and sacrifice but to invite gratitude and joy. So, as another preacher put it, when the only thing you tell a congregation is that they have been "bad dogs..." they will act like bad dogs. (Craig Barnes of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary notes how so much of contemporary preaching is addicted to the "bad dog" theme.)
At the same time, the pastel world of other types of preaching - mostly in our contemporary liberal congregations - essentially says: being nice is the heart of the gospel. No power. No challenge. No lament or exultation. So that is bullshit, too. No, like brother Nils says, it is all about the depth and complexity of life - in worship, in music making, in the arts - how was it put in a recent IMAGE Journal book review?
Through beauty we are drawn to the surface of things, and through beauty we also learn that there is more than a surface, that there are depths. The power of beauty... is its power to testify to that which lies beyond our grasp, indeed beyond the beautiful object itself. Beauty awakens in us desires and longings that beauty itself cannot completely fulfil.... In light of the cross we might begin to articulate an aesthetic that - unlike so much of the thinking of the past century - would preserve an important place for beauty. And at the same time, this beauty, precisely because it truly is beauty, would include within its dimensions both victor and outcast, both glory and suffering, both splendor and humility. (Check it out @ http://imagejournal.org/page/journal/)
And third, Ramadan has started for 2012 and I feel called to stay connected to my Islamic sisters and brothers by joining their fast in some way. Some have suggested that we Christians spend some time with the Quran - and maybe the poetry of Rumi - for the next month so I'm going to make that part of my prayer of solidarity. I've also started reading Martha Nussbaum's insightful new book, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age, and that is part of my fast, too. She writes:
Once, not very long ago, Americans and Europeans prided themselves on their enlightened attitudes of religious tolerance and understanding... Today we have reasons to doubt this complacent self-assessment. Our situation calls urgently for search critical self-examination, as we try to uncover the roots of ugly fears and suspicions that currently disfigure all Western societies.
To that end, Rumi writes:
On Resurrection Day God will say, “What did you do with
the strength and energy your food gave you on earth? How did you use your eyes?
What did you make with your five senses while they were dimming and playing out?
I gave you hands and feetas tools for preparing the ground for planting. Did you,
in the health I gave, do the plowing?”
You will not be able to stand when you
hear those questions. You will bend double, and finally acknowledge the glory. God
will say, “Lift your head and answer the questions.” Your head will rise
a little, then slump again. “Look at me! Tell what you’ve done.” You try,
but you fall back flat
as a snake. “I want every detail. Say!” Eventually you
will be able to get to a sitting position. “Be plain and clear. I have given you
such gifts. What did you do with them?” You turn to the right looking to the
prophets for help, as though to say, I am stuck in the mud of my life. Help me
out of this!
They will answer, those kings, “The time for helping is past.
The plow stands there in the field. You should have used it.” Then you turn to
the left, where your family is, and they will say, “Don’t look at us? This conversation
is between you and your
creator.” Then you pray the prayer that is the essence
of every ritual: God, I have no hope. I am torn to shreds. You are my first and
last and only refuge.
Don’t do daily prayers like a bird pecking, moving its head
up and down. Prayer is an egg.
Hatch out the total helplessness inside.
Lord, may it be so...
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