Death, in Music and in Church

Lutheran Forum via the wise Pastor Andy

“It is a strange world where heavy metal bands are brave and truthful and churches are escapist and irrelevant. It hasn’t always been so. The liturgical and hymnic inheritance the church has bequeathed to us is full of forthright, strong expressions of what it means to live in the midst of death…

Dying people are hungry to live. This is the beauty and the secret of the church’s worship. While death is its ultimate subject, the church’s worship teaches victory over death quietly, subliminally, week after week after week so that a culture of eternity is inculcated in the hearts and minds and, yes, the bodies of those who attend. We are prepared incessantly to die while we live. And though we are dying, everyday in the church, we live in the presence of the eternal God.”

I have often maintained this line of thinking as a way to excuse my very dark musical and liturgical tastes: that we should be in the business not of hiding away death from our congregations and our own thoughts, but rather wrestling and grappling with the hurts and realities of loss, of time, and of death… our own finitude. That’s the only way the Christian message makes a whole bunch of sense to me, as a way to slowly make sense of the losses that we experience in the passage of time and each other. Our message cannot mean anything if we try to make faith about cheery ignorance of our real world experiences… Faith comes from a hope that stands in full recognition of pain, and in expectation of a place or state of being that may lay beyond it.

The Trouble-making Part.

In terms of my ordination process, I have cleared another big hurdle. The New Haven Committee on Ministry voted to recommend me for Ecclesiastical Council (the last big step short of finding a church). It was a pretty serious discussion that we had, one that made me think about a lot of things. I realize that I’ve been wrestling with a lot of theological ideas in my head that may not be the most relevant issues to others. So, it was a very good thing for me to re-center myself and prepare to present myself and speak about my call to the New Haven Association in full.

One question that leapt out at me, and has been occupying my mind ever since. My central image of the church: “God’s Good Trouble-Makers Living in The World,” led to the question: “Do you really think that people are coming to church for that? To hear how they might cause trouble?” A fair and a good question.

My joke reflex kicked in at the time. I said, “Well, one can hope.” Then I continued on with a complex answer that softened things a great deal, and went to how we should be self analytical about our lives and how we are living in connection with the gospel. I talked about affluence and comfort and how those things fit into my conceptions of Jesus’ ministry. At the end, though, I feel like I wasn’t truly myself at that moment.

I went home, and I picked up my bible. I read the stories that move me… there is Jesus, talking about knocking down the temple, telling stories and parables that make people tear at their hair, upsetting all sorts of social boundaries… Why are we afraid to say it? Why are we afraid to say that this was a ministry which found its center in creating deeply unsettling re-imaginings of the world? How did our comfort–not in a deep, existential way, but in a shallow, rote way–become a necessity of our religious expression? The former I feel should always be an expression of church: REAL comfort is so absent from our existences that offering it is trouble-making all its own. The latter: well, that’s just so much furniture for our faith, isn’t it?

Someone asked me to talk about a time I experienced failure in my ministry. I said, just the days that end in “y.” Because of this. Because in the battle between our need for justice and our desire for comfort… well, too often we know who will win, long before we even reach that particular fork in the road. I want to lead amongst a church of people who want a fair fight, at least. I’m still working on how to say that, though.

Hauerwas and Aloneness

Aloneness from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Stanley Hauerwas gets it oh so right. It’s a classic ordination interview question: “Why did Jesus have to die?” For me, it’s because God, responding to our own suffering and death, endured the same so that it might be said: “You are not alone, even in death. Even in the worst of it, there am I with you.” Writers that I respect deeply have written about death from an atheistic viewpoint (Roger Ebert most recently). Some of them have said that they are quite content to die and know that there will be nothing after, no eternal time with loved ones or friends. I certainly don’t believe in a duplicate copy of being (just with wings! like RedBull!) as the shape of heaven… that seems sad to me, certainly, but also besides the point. The real salvation moment for me—the real hope—is not the moment after death, but rather the moment of death, the instant (or forever time) between living and dying. In that time, it will be profoundly important for me to be informed by a faith and assurance that I am not alone. In that time we find out a lot of who we are and who we have been, and still we find we are not alone.

Our Language, Our Heritage, and Our Problems

So, today was convocation at YDS. One of my favorite professors, Bruce Gordon, gave the address. He squinched up his eyes and spoke passionately about history, which I’m glad someone knows how to do, and made me happy.

Yet the reading that he wanted to work off of was John 3, which is the story of Nicodemus coming to visit Jesus in the night. Prof. Gordon’s point was towards the earnest seeking of truth and new knowledge, and so it was well chosen in this regard. More complicated is the fact that the reading also includes tons of very traditional images for the Gospel of John:

“And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’” (NRSV, John 3:19-21)

I don’t think I had ever really realized how damaging some of our language of light and dark can be in a world in which people have different “shades,” until I heard it in the true multi-cultural notion that  YDS tried to have of itself, where a lot of people boldly jump into discussions about these things on a daily basis. I hope I will this semester some. (What’s up, “Metaphors of Evil” with Prof. Townes?)

I preached on Sunday, and challenged some to re-conceptualize “Pharisee” in a way that helps us move away from some of the anti-semitic horror stories of our Christian tradition. I deeply love John’s poetry, symbolic nature, and deeply intimate story of Jesus and God the Creator, yet the text opens up – and has continued to open up  – many hateful systems of thinking in the world. How do we reconcile these things? How do we preach this most painful and beautiful and sometimes very ugly Gospel? It seems unanswerable, and so, perhaps… very human.

On Bible Tricksters – Jacob and Assurance

If ever a plan was made to fail
it was this plan.
Dressed up in robes too big,
skinny frame sweating under pelts
to make him into his
rough-hewed brother, Jacob
must have felt like I did one Halloween:
the harsh reality dawning that
the costume didn’t make me Batman,
it made me a dork in tights. And yet,
you picked him up in a great stream
of blessing and promise, and still do today: promise
that no matter how hair-brained our disguise,
no matter how deceitful we might be to you
or ourselves, no matter the weight of our pelts
or our surety that we don’t deserve blessing,
you bless us.
You bless us with grace and peace
we know in that moment are worth cheating for.
And as the tent flap falls closed behind us,
laugh at what we go through
to get what had already been given.

Exercise 1: On preaching

When I talk, I hope you hear
that I am not talking,
that you might feel a buzz
in your rib cage, close to your heart,
as if you were playing a guitar.
It’s a promise we make:
that I will work and sweat
and shape a sounding board,
a place for resonance,
and leave for you
the work of the strings,
and what or how you play,
and hope to inspire you
to pick out songs that someone
sang in whisper to you, ears just formed,
crooked arm and breast-bone hum
that held you, and you felt before you heard.

Electioneering on Evil

Amongst all of the gradual posting about our trip, which I just thought would be nice for family, I suppose I need to get back to business some. School’s about to start again anyway, so let’s get serious. I was actually very excited to see the two presidential candidates answer questions at Saddleback, which probably relates to me being an optimist and a starry-eyed idealist… it wasn’t so great, in my book. Two things I noticed:

Republicans inherently understand that every appearance is a political appearance. Democrats like to believe that there’s actually a public forum that can be a teaching moment, or a personal moment, or what have you. This is infinitely preferable to me, yet not so useful in today’s media market.

Second, it stands as a good reminder that politicians are just that. They are pretty lousy theologians. (Which makes a pretty good argument about church and state, considering. Politicians would do a pretty bad job at interpreting spiritual issues anyway.) So guys, does evil exist?

I actually think Obama gets himself in more trouble by trying to answer this from a more theological bent, where McCain is just ignoring the fact he’s in a church altogether. The political answer is simple: yes, there is evil (people that do bad things), and we will “get” them. The theological answer is hard to sell, but I think really useful. If there really is a theological “evil,” a force beyond humans that is opposed to good, we run into some problems. (All of which requires a lot more theological work than this, but just to be cute…)

God created everything. Did God create evil?
No. (Phew. After all, God said it was all good!)
Well, so, did evil exist before creation with God, as some sort of bizarro God?
No. God is God, creator of all. Evil as some sort of co-God or anti-God doesn’t fit within dogma.
So, did we humans create evil later as a force that must be overcome by God?
Well, sorta’, but any “evil” we might create is (just as we are) subject to God and already overcome by that very fact.
“Evil” ends up being a symptom (in this theological system) of our inability to understand our true nature as creation, as good.

Harsh news for the pols? Not so much with any spiritual force called evil. Lots of people can go further into why we see so much brokenness and pain in the world around us despite this fact. I recommend this guy and this guy, followed with a long explanation from this guy, who taught me somehow. For me, I’ll say this: It’s easier for me to see a world in which all of us share love of our neighbors when we stop trying to attribute people’s actions to some sort of ultimate evil that we must eradicate, and instead think of them as fellow humans trying to come to grips with their own place in creation.

Indie-Pop God-Talk

I’ve been interviewing at various churches in preparation for my field-study work next year of late. In particular, one of the topics of conversation that I’ve been finding myself engaging has been youth and young adult ministry, and even more specifically, theology in contemporary music. Now, I play in a worship band pretty regularly myself, and often when I mention “theology in contemporary music” people assume that’s what I mean. Praise music has lots of value: it’s uplifting, it is easy to teach to congregations who have a strong tradition of singing and/or liturgical dance, and it’s relatively easy to assemble musicians of varying skill sets who can find a way to make these songs sound good. Yet praise music fails one significant test for me… it fails to value the full range both of human life and the powerful representations available in art. To put it more bluntly: praise music does just what it says… it explicitly praises God. What it fails to do is embrace all the ways in which God may operate in my daily life. It fails to represent my fears and doubts about myself and about God. It does put forth the expectation that the highest goal of art in the worship and praise of God, yet fails to see that the most convincing arguments both for and against faith come from the simple reflection upon moments that feel entirely HUMAN yet are still permeated by a sense of faith.

The best music I have in my life really engages my whole identity and asks theological questions of that identity. (If several of you are already thinking about Pedro the Lion / David Bazan, kudos.) These may not be intentional points of entry for the songwriter! Even though an artist may not have specifically set out with theological goals, they may lead to some intense discussions about theology. It’s going to be a goal of mine in the future to talk about some of those artists and why I think they matter to faith discussions and church.

Paper Idea: Youth Identity Development in Reflection of the Silent Text

This is something I’m messing with for my Liberation Theology course. With Canonical Gospels that omit developmental stages in the human life of Jesus Christ, is the Church prepared for questions of identity development among young people? So much of the rhetoric that is used in most theologies puts Christ as the paradigmatic human experience, yet we only experience Christ’s humanity as fully formed and adult. (Some people roughly posit this as about ages 30 – 33.) I’m going to take the stance that the deafening silence in our texts has allowed for Church leaders to argue that Christ’s fully formed identity is the only acceptable one, instead of the more complex and multi-vocal view of ideal humanity that might result if we saw Jesus go through the normal identity establishing changes and experiments. I’m particularly looking at sexual identity here, as I read a very strong need for a theological answer to the really tragic tales of so many GLBT teens that are exiles in their own land, thrown out of their houses, and disowned by their communities. This has real world implications of depression, poverty, drug use, suicide, and pretty much all the horrible things that result when one human is devalued by another.

Given all this, can Church come up with an anthropology that allows for developmental process and diverse adult identity that seems to echo the truth of Christ? Do we think that understanding human development in the man Jesus Christ would diminish or take away from the identity of the second person of the Trinity, or would this thought simply serve to deepen our understanding of God’s loving gift in the incarnation? (Guess what I think.) How do we reinforce that God’s love is present and active in all as they strive to determine who they are and how they fit into creation? etc. etc.