What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing you praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be in Zion. O Love God of hosts, hear my prayers; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look on the dace of your anointed. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you. 

What’s right with the church?

That’s what it said at the top of a word document on my laptop this week while I was working on this very sermon in a coffee shop.

The flashing cursor mocked me with every passing second as I sought to answer my own question: What’s right with the church?

Because, of course, all I could think about was what’s wrong with the church.

It’s archaic, it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s not relevant, it’s full of hypocrites. 

Or so I’ve been told.

There’s this statistic that haunts me, and I shared it with this congregation on my first Sunday – The average person in a Methodist Church invites someone else to worship once every 38 years. Now, there are plenty of reasons why that’s the case. It’s not easy inviting someone to church, it can feel uncomfortable, we don’t want others to think we’re making assumptions about them. But I think it’s also uncomfortable because we’ve become consumed by what’s wrong even though we, who are here right now, are the very people who go to church.

Anyway, I was sitting in the coffee shop, staring at my non-existent sermon, when I overheard behind me the beginnings of a conversation about, of all things, what’s wrong with the church!

Now, I tried to be a good person, a good Christian, and mind my own business, but they were talking about my business so I made it my business to hear more about their business.

Here’s the first thing I heard: “Can you believe he had the nerve to say something like that, from the pulpit? And he calls himself a preacher!”

Friends, I prayed it that moment, “Lord, please don’t let them be mine!”

And, thanks be to God, when I looked over my shoulder I didn’t recognize them.

So I tried to refocus, get back to the sermon, but I was hooked.

“And the people are so judgmental,” the other person responded, “They only care about themselves and their own problems.”

It went on like that for some time and eventually they went outside to sit at their own table.

I tried, I promise, I tried to work on this sermon but I couldn’t get their words out of my head and before I knew what I was doing, I packed up my things, walked out the door, and went straight over to their table.

I said, “I apologize, I shouldn’t have been listening to your conversation. But I’m a pastor myself and I just have to ask: If there are so many things wrong with the church, then why do you keep going?”

And without missing a beat one of them said, “Because it’s where I hear Jesus.”

What’s right with the church? It’s a far more interesting question than what’s wrong. All of us have examples of what’s wrong – a time we’ve been hurt, a sermon that went too far, on and on. 

The church is broken because it is filled with broken people. 

And yet, listen to the psalmist – How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord! My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God! Blessed are those who sing to the Lord. I would rather be a doorstop in the house of God than live in the land of wickedness!

There must be something right with the church, otherwise none of us would be here.

I never really had a choice about being a Christian. My earliest memories are synced up with the rhythms of church life from standing on pews during worship, to dressing up for Christmas pageants, to hunting for Easter eggs on the lawn.

As a kid, my answer to the question at hand would have been: The church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a regular basis hearing about the remarkable stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults willingly make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News? For me, the church has always been the nexus of faith and joy in which I learned about who and whose I am in ways that were fun and exciting.

I am a product of the church. That is, I am who I am because of the liturgies and the scriptures and the songs and the prayers and the people who make the church what it is. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and my choices is an ever present reminder that the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us.

In other words, we like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.

The church is the place where people discover the truth that God is on the move searching in the bushes of life for those who are lost. Which, to be clear, includes each and every one of us. Sure, we might experience the divine in all sorts of other spaces and places, but it is here where we learn the language to articulate those experiences. 

It might take one Sunday, it might take a lifetime of Sundays, but at some point we realize that God is the one who found us, and not the other way around.

As I got older, I might’ve answered the question about what’s right with the church by saying: the music! We’re Methodists! We sing our faith! The words and the melodies of our music are transcendent and they tune us into God’s frequencies in the world. It is a rare Sunday that I am not bowled over by some part of church music whether its because I’m connected to a memory of the past or I’m casting vision of a future in which whether or not I’m around these songs will endure.

Music gives us the space to experience what we believe and how we pray when we don’t know how to put those things into words – music gives us the opportunity to feel whatever it is that we are feeling without feeling like we’re not allowed to feel what we feel. 

Recently, my answer might’ve been something along the lines of how the church is an alternative community in and for the world. We’re different. We’re different because we believe God’s future, what we call the kingdom, is already intermingling with the present and we’re different because we believe we’ve been given a new past in which we are no longer defined by what we’ve done or by what has been done to us.

But most of all we are different in terms of story. The story called Gospel is not something we own, or control, or earn, but is simply a gift we’ve received. The Gospel tells us we’re more than our mistakes and that there’s more in store because we know how the story ends.

But if you asked me today, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: Jesus.

Jesus is what’s right with the church.

It is because of Jesus that we have hope and we have community. And hope and community are rather counter-cultural words and ideas these days. They might not seem very different, but the world provides us with the opposites: doom and isolation.

The pandemic has only furthered our division from one another, while terrifying us about whatever might come around the corner next, while we sequestered ourselves into bubbles.

But, in Jesus, we are given hope and community because the church embodies hope and community.

We call the Good News good because it is, in fact, Good News. Despite a rather sordid history, the church doesn’t exist to wag its finger at Christians for doing certain things or not doing certain things enough. 

The church exists to tell the truth! God, author of the cosmos, came to dwell among us through the least likely of families, in order to teach and live and heal and preach and provide a vision of a new reality that, when push came to shove, led to our rejection of the truth through the cross, but then Jesus was given back to us three days later and his resurrection is now our promised resurrection.

That truth gives us both the courage and the conviction to live not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. When we consider God’s humility (read: humiliation) for us, it starts to change the way we see and interact with each other. We start to do all sorts of strange things like give away food to people who are hungry, and provide friendships to the lonely, and hope to the hopeless. 

The church can be, and is, the place for life-altering blessings because the church is Jesus Christ’s body for the world.

We, today, have the blessed and remarkable opportunity to be what we’ve always been called to be: different. We, the church, model God’s future in the present. We don’t see one another through the lens of cultural controversies but instead through the mercy, grace, and love of God. 

We can do this because we have the scriptures and the songs and the psalms and even the sermons that do not exist as a brief reprieve from the harsh realities of life but instead they make our lives intelligible in the first place. 

In short, the church is called to be a community of ordinary virtues – that is, we live by grace. 

Thus, we are not just a group of people who get together for an hour once a week who happen to believe in love, and peace, and liberation, or any other abstraction. 

Instead, we are a complicated people complicated by a complicated story of a young Jesus from Nazareth who lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose for us and for the world.

Church, contrary to how we might imagine it, isn’t a noun – it’s a verb. Church is something we do and it is something done to us.

What’s right with the church? In spite of all its weaknesses and shortcomings, it is the church where we get to hear Jesus remind us about the love of God that refuses to let us ago, about the waves of mercy that never stop coming, about the grace to flourish into who God has called us to be.

This is the place where we hear Jesus tell us the things we need to hear most of all: You have value – you have worth – you are more than your mistakes – you are forgiven.

So, to those of you who love the church – make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world. In short, love because you are loved.

And to those of you are still unsure about the church – we are not yet what we can be without you. Help us make the church better. Encourage us to open our eyes to the ways in which God is living and moving and speaking in the so that we can really be the church God is calling us to be. 

How lovely is the dwelling place of the Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God because this is where we hear Jesus! Amen.

 

Making Melody

Ephesians 5.15-20

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

The priest sat in the deep of the ship as the storm raged above. He tried his best to remain steady as the ship rocked back and forth with every gust of wind and the waves were relentless. Supplies and cargo rolled in every direction and panic was grabbing hold of the passengers.

A nearby mother with a tiny infant nestled in her arms begged the priest to baptize her baby right then and there in fear that they would not survive the storm. Everywhere he looked all he saw was terror and fear.

And then, strangely enough, he heard singing coming from a group of Moravians, German Christians. Meanwhile the main mast split in two but the sound of the tiny little choir reverberated and resonated deeply in the wooden hull of the ship.

Days later, when the sun finally returned in the sky, the priest found the group of singers and asked why they were not more afraid during the storm.

They replied, “We are not afraid to die. We are prepared because we know God will never let us go.”

Afterward the priest was deeply moved and wrote in his journal: This was the most glorious day that I have yet seen.

It was 1736 and the priest’s name was John Wesley.

Music had always been a part of Wesley’s life but something in him changed that day. Today, the people called Methodists are those who know what it means to sing our faith in large part because of what took place on a ship long ago.

Music is a truly remarkable thing. It can make us laugh, it can make us cry, it can bring forth emotions we didn’t even know we had access to.

If someone puts on the Vince Guaraldi Trio I am immediately transported to Christmas Time Is Here, Charlie Brown, and all the other things that make that season the most wonderful time of the year.

If someone starts spinning some Supertramp or Queen or Fleetwood Mac then my entire extended family will start flipping tables and chairs until we’ve made enough space for a dance floor.

Even Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the 20th century, when asked by a student what he learned after an entire career in theology he responded: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”

Music is powerful stuff, and Paul tells us that being filled with the Spirit necessarily results in the making of melody.

Years ago, while on a mission trip to New Orleans, I was tasked with spending the afternoon in a nursing home and proctoring a session of Bingo. The youth and I tried our best to liven up the place a little bit but the whole thing was tragic. Residents of the memory care unit were staring off into space, using the laminated cards to fan themselves, and totally unconnected from just about anything.

Until we found a forgotten and worn out hymnal on a shelf in the corner. I pulled the youth close and we started singing all the great hymns we knew without even really needing to look at the hymnal.

By the time we made it halfway through The Old Rugged Cross, every eye in the room was on us, and when we rounded the second to last verse of Amazing Grace some of the residents were singing with us, and when we landed the last note of Great Is Thy Faithfulness, more than a few people had tears in the eyes.

Including the orderlies and assistants who later told us that it was the first time they heard many of the residents actually say anything at all.

The science is all there about how our neural pathways change, literally rewrite themselves, whenever music is performed or consumed. Music changes things and gives us access to things we otherwise wouldn’t have.

But this is nothing new.

Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible we discover how music rests at the heart of what it means to be connected with the divine. Moses and the Hebrew people sing songs of praise after being delivered from slavery to the Promised Land, David plays the lyre in order to calm the anxieties of King Saul, and Paul and Silas are in the middle of singing when an earthquake sets them free from captivity.

Music is often the gateway to unanticipated blessings.

Paul writes near the conclusion of his letter to the church in Ephesus about being careful about how they live and to make most of the time they’ve been given. This is not merely a call to “seize the day” but more a recognition that life is a gift and that we have much to be grateful for. 

When the Moravians were singing on the boat – they weren’t being fools living in denial of the situation they found themselves in, they were not naive. Instead they held fast to the promise made to them in Christ that nothing in this life, not even a storm upon the sea, can ever separate us from the love of God.

It’s all too easy to take most of Paul’s letters and turn them into an exhortative exercise. As in, someone like me will stand in a place like in order to get people like you to start behaving yourselves. Which is all good and fine, but that’s not actually what the letter is doing.

Paul doesn’t tell the Ephesians to do this that and the other in order to be Christians, but rather he tells them to do all these things because they are Christians. And that’s an important distinction. Paul urges them to make the most of their time, and put away foolishness, and sing with one another not to become Christians but because they are Christians.

All of the stuff we do as Christians, from praying to singing to serving isn’t to get somewhere with God, or to earn God’s favor; we do these things because, in Christ, we already belong to God. Living like this is just what kind of happens when grace grabs hold and refuses to let go; we can’t help but make melody together.

So lets do it…

The first music was percussive. Drums were used to tell stories and eventually communicate over distances of space and time. But somewhere along the line, it was discovered that if you changed the tightness of a drum it would create different pitches – pitches that could eventually become a melody.

Strictly speaking, a melody is a sequence of single notes that are musically satisfying. What makes the connection between the notes satisfying is how they relate to one another, something we might call harmony – which is exactly what we’re going to try to produce right now…

[We broke the sanctuary into four quadrants and gave each section a note to sing C-E-G-C in order sing a harmonic chord)

As we come to the conclusion of our series on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, it’s notable that Paul didn’t start that particular church. In fact, they were strangers to one another when he shows up in the book of Acts.

In other words, they didn’t pick him.

Sound familiar?

And yet, what wildly wonderful good news! God delights in gathering together people who otherwise have nothing in common save for the fact that Jesus calls them friends. Paul reminds us again and again and again that we, with all our differences, can actually make melody and harmony together because God is in the business of making something of our nothing. 

In many ways, God is the great conductor of an orchestra we call the church in which we are all given instruments to play however we see fit, all while God keeps us in rhythm with each other. When we begin to see, and to hear, how we make music together, it starts to reshape everything else about our lives. 

Strangers become sisters and others become brothers.

We, who were once far off are brought near by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We, who have no business being close to God at all, are incorporated into Christ’s body to be Christ’s body for the world.

And it’s because of all this work done by God for us that we can give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Gratitude, like music, changes things.

We can certainly go about day to day complaining about particular individuals who drive us crazy, we can lament the need to mow our lawns, we can even grumble about having to help our kids with their homework.

Or, with gratitude, we can reframe it such that we get to be connected with the strange and wondrous and confounding human beings around us, we get to spend time outside communing with creation, and we get to sit down with our kids and watch their minds grow and change before our very eyes.

Music and gratitude are not distractions from the harsh truths of life. Instead, they give us the means by which we can experience all that life offers knowing all the while that God is, in fact with us. 

In the end, Paul is right – it is not only possible, but even necessary, that we should “always and for everything” give thanks. God transforms the darkest night and the most frightening storms into glorious day and beautiful seas. 

God can even take a ragtag group of people called church and make a melody. Amen. 

Risky Love

Ephesians 4.25-27

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. 

There was a man who liked to mow his lawn early in the morning. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garden when, out of nowhere, he was tackled off the mower and onto the ground.

The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway exchanging blows until concerned neighbors rushed forward to stop the scuffle.

Hours later, the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs.

The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the attack took place. In our heightened and frenetic political atmosphere, tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Paul’s political proclivities and that he felt the only recourse for their disagreements was violence.

It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if the same thing could happen to them.

Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tired of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.

Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible. And it sure is a strange new world. Jesus (and Paul the apostle) is forever going on about loving our neighbors as ourselves and about speaking the truth in love.

Which are decisively difficult when we don’t even know our neighbors, let alone what the truth might be that we can express toward them.

So, instead, we practice silence and we call it love. 

Sometimes that silence turns into bitterness, and then the bitterness turns into anger, and then before we know it we’re tackling our neighbor for not taking better care of his lawn. 

And yet, in the church, we are called to speak the truth in love and we know what real love looks like – it looks like the cross. 

The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God and neighbor is demanding and risky. Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on down the drain.

And that kind of love got Jesus killed.

We, of course, are not the Lord (thanks be to God). In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point.

We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do. 

Contrary to all of its complications, neighborly love is at the heart of the life of the church and every single person who claims to follow Jesus. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.

Or, to put it another way, when we begin to see how much God loves us in spite of all the reasons why God shouldn’t, it actually starts to change the way we interact with others, even our neighbors.

Love, the kind that God has for us and the kind we are called to have for God and neighbor, is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost.

And, because I believe music often does a better job at expressing the faith than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us wrestle with what it means to speak the truth:

Jonathan Richman’s “That Summer Feeling” from 1992 is deceptively simple with the singer-songwriter and his acoustic guitar. And yet, the lyrics invite the listener into a wave of nostalgia that should come with a warning – the refrain is all about being haunted by a feeling, of being caught up in things we can’t quite explain. To me, it rings true of the ways we can be haunted by previous interactions.

Molly Tuttle is an award-winning guitarist with a penchant for insightful songwriting. And yet, it’s her cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” that really lets her shine. With the backing help of Old Crow Medicine Show she brings a welcome nuance to the well known song while making it sound hopeful and hopeless at the same time. 

Madeline Kenney’s new EP Summer Quarter recently compelled me to return to her 2018 single “Cut Me Off.” She sings with such raw honesty, an honesty all but absent in the world today, that I find myself getting lost in her lyrical sonic wonder. The song’s disjointed melody, ripe with surfer guitar strumming and syncopated drumming, really conveys a sense of what it means to be cut off literally and figuratively. 

The Strange Familiar

John 6.5-6

When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 

Robert Farrar Capon was a master of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. He made his career as a priest, and then as a theologian, and then as a chef, and then as a little bit of all of them combined. His writing on the Gospels is refreshingly funny and yet profoundly serious and I find myself drawn back to his books again and again.

Perhaps my favorite work of Capon’s is his 1990 book The Man Who Met God In A Bar. It’s basically a modern retelling of the biblical Gospel story of Jesus, but instead of it taking place in and around Galilee circa 30-33 AD, it’s told as if Jesus was actually a short-order cook named Jerry in Cleveland circa the 1990s who finds Marvin (Peter) not in the middle of a fishing venture, but instead in an airport bar during a layover. The story is told from Marvin’s perspective as he gets caught up in something much larger than himself ripe with miracles, teachings, and even death and resurrection.

Capon delights in taking these familiar stories and flipping them slightly on their head so that we, the reader, can reproach the Gospel stories with a fresh and delightful appreciation. For instance, partway through the novel, Marvin gathers with Jerry and a whole crowd of people within the confines of a city park and Jerry goes on and on telling stories until he realizes the crowds look a little famished. Jerry remarks that it would be nice if they had some pizza and wine for everyone to enjoy. But, of course, that would cost a fortune. So Jerry calls over a little girl walking by the park with a pizza in her arms and decides to whistle up some miraculous food multiplication and begins to feed everyone in the park from that one pizza, with anchovies (Get it? Loaves and fishes!).

And then Capon brings the story home:

“Up to then Jerry just thought that people might take his miracles as a substitute for the message; after that though, the “might” disappeared in favor of “would.” He was finally convinced that any miracle he did would be practically guaranteed to give people the wrong impression… After the one with the pizza, especially since he did it on a day when he’d talked for three hours about the mess the old order was in – they got really serious about trying to put him in some position where he could do his miracles on a grand scale. The talk about him becoming mayor and president wasn’t just hot air; if he hadn’t gotten away from that crowd, sure as hell somebody would have organized something… All he kept saying, though, was how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously, he told them, they would still die eventually. The food they really need to be filled with was something that would make a real break with the old order – something that would actually bring in the New Order if they ate it. In fact, he said, unless they were filled with him, they would just stay dead forever. If they fed on him, though, he would raise them from death for good.” 

Sometimes, retelling an old story in a new way allows us to see and receive something we would otherwise miss. In fact, that’s basically what we do every Sunday in church. We pray and we sing and we listen to the words that proclaim the Gospel, we feast on the bread and the cup that are offered to us without cost, and we are reminded that Jesus came not to bring us more of the same, but to make all things new. Thanks be to God.

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are sometimes to help us think about making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar:

Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter from Australia who excels at making music out of the mundane. Her new single “Rae Street” is an almost stream of conscious reflection of the lives of the people who pass by her window in the early morning. The charm really hits when she’s able to jump between making a profound declaration about the need for society to change, and yet, the most she can muster is changing her sheets. The song is anthemic for anyone who struggles to make sense of it all and for anyone who hopes for something more, whatever that might be.

Orla Gartland is a quickly rising indie darling from Dublin. Her new single “You’re Not Special, Babe” is a reflection on growing up in a time of chaos and is a reminder that we all go through the same kinds of things: good times, bad times, strange times. The title, and the chorus of the song, can come off as a little mean-spirited but in interviews she claims it’s meant to be a comforting message! To me, that sounds rather Pauline – “None is righteous, no, not one.” Thanks be to God then that we worship the Lord who comes to make something of our nothing.

“Reach Out” is one of the first releases from Sufjan Steven’s collaboration with Angelo De Augustine. The song is based on the 1987 German film Wings of Desire in which angels listen to the thoughts of people in Berlin. One of the angels is so moved by the experience that it chooses to become mortal in order to feel and live as a human. The song conveys the themes of mortality and wonder from the angelic/human perspective with catchy harmonies, finger picking guitar, and eventually a subtle glockenspiel which make a brain melting thought experiment rather approachable. 

Drastic Measures

Psalm 130.1-2 

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

A woman was walking down the street one afternoon when, all of the sudden, the ground fell out from beneath her and she tumbled into a giant sinkhole. After brushing herself off, she realized that the walls were far too steep for her to climb out and she began to cry out for help.

A doctor happened to be passing by and he looked into the pit when the woman yelled, “Hey! I’m stuck down here. Can you help me out?”

The doc thought about it for a moment, pulled out a notepad, wrote a prescription, tossed it into the hole, and kept walking.

Later, a preacher came walking along and the woman shouted, “Hey Rev! Please help. I’m stuck down in this hole and I can’t get out!”

The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the woman, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church walked to the edge of the pit and the woman yelled, “Please help! I’m starting to get desperate down here.”

To which the older woman replied, “Honey, don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And she kept walking.

Finally, a friend of the woman in the hole arrived. “Hey! It’s me down here!” she shouted from the depths, “Can you please get me out?” And the friend immediately jumped straight down into the pit. The woman couldn’t believe it and she said, “You idiot! Now we’re both stuck down here!” 

But that’s when the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out…”

I love that little anecdote and, full disclosure, I stole it from The West Wing. Ever since I heard Leo McGarry share the narrative with Josh Lyman it has rattled in my brain because it’s basically the Gospel. 

God, in Jesus Christ, is the friend who rather recklessly jumps into the depths of our depravity and our despair. God never abandons us even when we go off assuming that we can (or should) do it all on our own. God humbles himself to the humiliating status of humanity just to come down in the muck and mire of our lives.

God comes to us.

That’s the whole point.

We might like to think that the journey of our discipleship is about climbing out of our badness into a life of goodness, but it’s actually about recognizing our rather desperate situation down in a deep hole and how God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us.

The grace of God made manifest in Jesus Christ is not something we can earn, buy, or even work for. To put a finer point on it – we cannot help ourselves into grace. 

Grace is something done to us and for us.

It jumps down into the hole next to us, and it shows us the way out. 

And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing theological principles than mere words alone, here are some tunes to get us thinking about how God comes to us, rather than the other way around…

Bayonne’s “Drastic Measures” is a propulsive and percussive adventure of sonic goodness – I challenge you to listen to the song without tapping your foot or bobbing your head. And I love how the chorus is an anthem of what it means to take drastic measures, not unlike what God was (and is) willing to do for us.

Erin Rae’s “Love Like Before” demonstrates how the guitar-and-voice singer/songwriter can evoke such intimate ideas and melodies in a song. The charm of this particular song comes from its reflections on a life of looking for love only to realize, in the end, that it was there the whole time.

“We Are Gonna Be Okay” from Dan Whitener made regular appearances on the pandemic playlist in my house over the last year. The song tells the tale of a courtship and marriage, but the real power comes from the harmonic chorus that demands to be shouted with full lungs (and full hearts). 

Standing In The Midst

“The story of Pentecost is more than a pretty tale. Here is real knowledge, deep ultimate insights into that existence which Jesus is. What is told on Pentecost is that Jesus not only was, but that He is, and will be. He does not exist here or there in a certain place; for Him there is not only a ‘once’ and a ‘then’ but he is yesterday, today and the same in all eternity; in a word, Jesus is ‘standing in the midst.’ – Karl Barth, Pentecost Sermon

Full disclosure – I get a strange and sweet satisfaction from listening to lay liturgists when they read scripture aloud in worship. Perhaps it’s the years of training and devotion to a collected volume of texts being boldly proclaimed, but I think most of my enjoyment stems from the struggle that can occur with particular passages. It could be one of the many genealogies, or a more graphic detail from the Song of Songs, or a moment of profound violence and, in real time, you can witness the person reading the text coming to grips with the text.

The same holds true for the story of Pentecost from Acts.

“And how is it we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2.9-11)

I love it when laypeople read that bit because they, like everyone else (clergy included) don’t really ever say those words and they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

It’s a rather diverse ethnic gathering for the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, but it’s also a historically impossible gathering as well. The Medes of Acts 2 would’ve had one hell of a time getting to Jerusalem all the way from Mesopotamia not only because the distance between the places is a few hundred miles, but also because the Medes had been extinct for at least two centuries before the day of Pentecost took place. 

And the Elamites? They are only mentioned in passing in the book of Ezra and are never mentioned again. 

Pentecost, then, is peculiarly and particularly powerful because it details the gift of the Spirit across space and time.

Which is all just another way of saying that the Spirit poured out on Pentecost really was for everyone.

We might not know it, or even believe, but you and I were there too along with the Medes and the Elamites.

Or, to use Barth’s words, Pentecost is a reminder that Jesus, through the Spirit, is still standing in the midst. 

And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing the faith than mere words alone, here are some tunes to put us in a Pentecost(al) mood: (The playlist includes some of my favorite cover tunes of The Beatles – I share them because whenever I listen to these covers I feel like I am out of space and time hearing other bands interpret some of the most well known tunes of all time.)

What Is Love, If Not Jesus Persevering?

“I can’t stand people who say, ‘Well, when it’s all said and done, what’s really important is that we love one another.’ No! You’ve gotta love one another rightly. And how do we do that? Well, in the Gospel of John Jesus declares, ‘I call you my friends and now you can love one another.’ Remember: to be a friend of Jesus didn’t turn out very well for most of the disciples. The love that moves the sun and the stars (Dante) is that love that sustains the disciples through the challenge of dying – that is the love that is rightly seen at the center of the Christian life. Love is rightly understood to be the very substance of relation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” – Stanley Hauerwas

If you check out any church website, or examine any sign on a church property, you are pretty much guaranteed to see something about love. “We love everyone at this church!” “All are welcome here!” “We have open hearts, open minds, open doors!”

Which is all good and fine, but it’s not true. At least, not really. 

The church is in the business of welcoming all people but then we usually tell them, explicitly or implicitly, that they need to start acting like us. That is: we are fine with loving people until they fit the version of themselves that we want them to be.

Love, then, is radically coercive and predicated on how we view one another rather than how God views us.

Or, in some churches, our understanding of what it means to love remains forever in the realm of sentimentality and we do the bare minimum to maintain relationships that never extend to anything behind polite hellos. 

Stanley Hauerwas, on the other hand, rightly observes that we know what love looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love, then, isn’t whatever we view on the Hallmark channel or celebrate around on Valentine’s day. Love isn’t a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates. 

Love is cruciform.

Love is death and resurrection.

Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life to make something of our nothing. 

And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing theological principles than mere words alone, here are some tunes to get us thinking of what it means to love rightly.

Natalie Bergman will be releasing her first solo record “Mercy” on May 7th. The album is a beautiful amalgamation of psychedelia and gospel and it follows her search for hope and salvation amidst the loss of both of her parents in a car accident. The song “Home At Last” is a profound reflection on love and loss with some wicked harmonies.

J.E. Sunde is a singer/songwriter who hails from Minneapolis. “Sunset Strip” has a super-catchy melody with harmonies that are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Oddly, it feels upbeat but it delivers a gut punch of repentance: “Yes I did wrong but you know I confessed it / I wrote this song just to prove that I meant it / But now you’re gone and I feel empty / I feel empty I feel empty.”

Leon Bridges has one of those voices that feels out of time, in a good way. “Like A Ship” is a cover of T.L. Bennet gospel tune from 1971 and it sees Bridges lifting up his silky smooth voice with a groovy baseline on top of some tight drums. A gospel choir belts out the harmonic anthem and the song, appropriately, ends with an organ solo that would delight any Sunday morning church crowd. 

The Way Things Can Be

Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that “we are who we are,” and that “things are doomed to stay the same,” and that “it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes” – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!

We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection. 

We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.

And so much of this is because we have failed to open our eyes to all of the wild possibilities that life after Easter makes possible. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin and death – they no longer have control over us. And yet, we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we spend more money on the military than we do on social uplift. It’s why we ask to tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps even when they don’t own any boots. It’s why we keep viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace. 

But here’s the good news, the really truly good news of life after easter: If God can raise a crucified and dead Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

Jesus is alive! 

Because of Easter, we don’t believe in rejection – we believe in resurrection. We aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done. We can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are – God has sent us free for the way things can be. 

Here are some tunes that can help us wrestle with the already but not yet of what it means to be a Christian in the world today:

Mandolin Orange’s “Wildfire” tells the epic narrative of slavery, sin, and The South coupled with guitar, mandolin, and haunting harmonies. The duo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina use the metaphor of a wildfire to convey how hatred has always rested at the heart of “the Land of the Free” and spreads, frighteningly, even now. 

Kevin Morby released “Beautiful Strangers” in 2016 as a protest song that feels/sounds more like a hymn than it does an anthem of hoped-for societal change. All of the proceeds from the song have gone to Everytown For Gun Safety (a nonprofit aimed at gun violence prevention) and Morby still plays the song at every live performance in order to help “spread the word.” The percussion propels the song forward, the acoustic guitar is wonderfully melodic, but its Morby’s voice and lyrics that remain long after the song ends. 

Do yourself a favor: Carve our 15 minutes to sit down and listen through the entirety of Ross Gay’s incredible poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” set to the flowing synths of Bon Iver. The poem proclaims a degree of wonder for that which has been given in addition to that which has been taken away (Job 1.21). And, because I don’t know how else to convey it, the whole thing feels alive. Enjoy. 

The Enormity Of Easter

Our God is loquacious – that is, God creates through speech. And we call the Good News Good News because its’ something that is received from someone else. 

Preaching, then, is a uniquely wonderful task because it is always evangelical, it is always sharing the Good News with those living in a world drowning in bad news.

Easter is a challenge to preachers because it is not natural, it is not expected, and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. Easter is not like the butterfly emerging from the cocoon, it is not the return of the deeply buried daffodils in the ground. Easter is about a man who was tortured to death by the powers and principalities, church and state working together, who died, and then 3 days later he came back!

How can preaching ever adequately reflect the enormity of Easter?

And yet, Easter Sunday is the day that makes all of our other Sundays intelligible. For, without Jesus’ resurrection, the whole of Christianity becomes a fool’s errand – unless Jesus is raised from the dead, then we shouldn’t teach our children to turn the other cheek, or go the extra mile for our neighbors, or pray for our enemies.

Therefore, as difficult as it may be to say something about Easter, we must say something on Easter. 

And perhaps that’s the actual beauty of it all. 

Some of us have no doubt seen/experienced miracles – we know someone who dropped a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a diagnosis. But none of us have ever seen someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.

But someone did.

All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence. 

And all it took were three words: “He is Risen!” 

Easter is world shattering, it is deeply disruptive, and it changes everything now and forever. Easter is the totality of the Good News. And without it, we have nothing to say at all.

Here are some instrumental tunes that can help get us ready for the unexpected Good News of Easter. I encourage you to sit back and let the music wash over you and, hopefully, you’ll discover something about who you are, and whose you are, along the way:

Explosions In The Sky is an instrumental post-rock band from Austin, Texas. All of their music explores textures and sounds rather than following typical song structures like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus. To me, “The Birth And The Death Of A Day” sounds like Easter.

Sufjan Steven’ incredibly long titled instrumental track from his album “Come On Feel The Illinoise” is a short and evocative track ripe with recorders, flutes, harmonizing chorus, and various percussive rat-a-ma-tats; it’s one of those songs where you are not the same having listened to it.

White Denim’s “Back At The Farm” is a blistering and raucous instrumental psychedelic rock song. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to listen to it without bashing my hands around in feeble attempts to “air-drum” along. If Easter really is a day of celebration, then White Denim is the kind of music I’ll be blaring after church!

The Strange Sunday

Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with “Hosanna” and ends with “Crucify.” It begins with life and ends with death. 

Contrary to how we’ve (often) watered down the Gospel message in church, Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.

But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love.

And yet, Holy Week isn’t about us. If it is, it is only about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of the cross, we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can do to save ourselves. 

Jesus enters the holy city under occupation and, in the end, occupies our place on the cross.

The crowds demand their salvation and, in the end, Jesus gives it to them by giving himself.

“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118.24)

Here are a few tunes that can put us in a decisively strange mood for Holy Week:

I am convinced that Robert Farrar Capon would’ve been a fan of Tyson Motsenbocker’s “Sunday Morning.” The song opens with a sweet guitar riff and then launches into lyrics that reflect on leading worship: “I chose all the right songs, I played all the right chords / ‘Till the kids who still weren’t singing, praised the Lord / And the pastor yelled about faith and hell / And I soundtracked his words for affect / And everyone cried and cried and cried / everyone cried and cried and cried / And then we played kickball.” The juxtaposition of what the church often sells on Sunday morning (Do this and that to get saved) with the Gospel message that Jesus, in fact, is the one who saves us, is delightfully reflected in this song. 

Caamp’s “Fall, Fall, Fall” is a soft and tender anthem about change and I can’t help but hear the refrain “I want my kids to swim in the creek” as a reflection on the desire to swim in the waters of baptism.

Kevin Morby’s “Parade” is a somber reflection on death, identity, and ambiguity. The sporadic piano keys overtop his strumming guitar rhythms actually feels like walking through a city in a parade. But, above all, I love how Morby portrays the strange realities of what it’s like having compassion for a city hell-bent on chewing him up. Sound familiar?