Sunday, September 30, 2018

With God's Help


Psalm 108 says in part,

Have you rejected us, O God?
    Will you no longer march with our armies?
Oh, please help us against our enemies,
    for all human help is useless.
With God’s help we will do mighty things,
    for he will trample down our foes.

The mournful cry of people asking if God has rejected them sometimes resonates for us in places like Canada, America, and Britain. We long to see the miracles of ages past and see the church grow at a rate where thousands are added to the faith daily. Having recently spent time with rapidly growing house-churches in Cuba and hearing the stories of miraculous breakthroughs in people’s lives, I am hungry to see church multiplication and stories of new spiritual birth here in my own country. 

The churches I worked with in Cuba are barely tolerated by the Communist Party. Occasionally, the authorities have stepped in and shut down a house-church and, in at least one case, tore down the structure in which the church met. Since the Revolution in Cuba, church that happens in pre-existing church buildings is allowed to persist but is highly regulated. If a program begins to have success in the community around the church and appears to be gaining evangelistic traction, a party member may report the program to a higher authority and the rules surrounding such events may be enforced making it more difficult to continue. House-churches have a particularly difficult time in this culture. They are even more subject to the enforcement of regulations about public assembly and are viewed with suspicion. See the following website for a greater explanation of the predicament of churches in Cuba.

In this context, we learned of God’s love for and strengthening of the people of God. I was able to preach in a church that had been closed down just a few months before (and their temporary shed torn down). The people had bravely reopened a service in a nearby apartment and sang praises out into the streets. These people were hungry for God’s word and discussed the sermon with joy in the midst of the service.

In another church, one woman spoke of her spiritual journey from “wild child” to follower of Jesus. She told us she previously drank excessively, went with several men, and was in a self-destructive mode. She had learned English and was hired by a pastor to do some translation work. One night, while she was drunk, she had a vision of herself dying and having to pass through the cross of Jesus to get to “the other side.” The vision scared her, she investigated the claims of Christ, and became a Christian. The week I was there, she was translating for one of the pastors from our team as he preached in a house-church.

Most of the people are extremely poor, yet happy as they serve the Lord Jesus. In one house-church they bring a box each week into which they place things like toilet-paper or food that they have in excess. At an appropriate time, they have a “lottery” to see who gets to keep the contents of the box believing that Jesus is guiding the process. Sometimes the recipient redistributes again to others in the community.

Psalm 108 also says,
My heart is confident in you, O God;
    no wonder I can sing your praises with all my heart!
Wake up, lyre and harp!
    I will wake the dawn with my song.
I will thank you, Lord, among all the people.
    I will sing your praises among the nations.
For your unfailing love is higher than the heavens.
    Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the highest heavens.
    May your glory shine over all the earth.

Where is my confidence? My confidence is in “you, O God” and in your only Son, Jesus, who has shown us how to live. By God’s grace and “with God’s help, we will do mighty things.” My joy and confidence are growing as I think of how Jesus will work here in Canada. I will continue to trust in God’s help even as I pray for these dear followers of Jesus in Cuba.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Comedian


Some songs are so good it is almost irreverent to interpret the lyrics. Steve Taylor says that he worked twenty years on one of the songs on his Goliath album. There was not a week went by when he was not rolling this one around in his mind and coming up with better ways to say things. The result is astonishing. Not only are the lyrics an impeccable piece of poetry but the melody and the building of arrangement and presentation are highly emotive. I find that “Comedian” hits me at a number of levels and speaks to the challenges of being human and the mistakes we make as we take seriously the call to give honour and power and gratitude to the ultimate King and Lord of our lives.

Many have asked questions about what the song is about and Taylor has allowed the song to speak for itself without giving much interpretation. As with all art, the artist gives one side of the communication, and the one who appreciates the art allows it to speak to her or him and completes the other half of the conversation. With any form of art, what it impresses upon the recipient is a valid part of the exchange. Even when an artist did not explicitly intend for a piece to speak in a certain way, it may do just that in the life of the receiver.

I encourage you to listen to the song as you read these lyrics. Ask yourself, what does it do to your soul? After you have listened to the song and read the lyrics, I offer some of my emotions, understandings, and interpretations. They are certainly not the final word on this impressive work of art.

Comedian
(Music and lyrics by Steve Taylor)

The saints came marching in this morning
And they marched back out the door
Wholly offended
No pun intended

They gave up God for Lent and liked it
Declared Civilian War
No one's relented
No pun intended

I'll be doing stand-up
Here all week
I've learned to sign
So the deaf can watch me speak

The saints came marching back this evening
And they fell right through the floor
That number's ended
No pun intended

The Amen Corner's marching orders
Got nailed to my front door
They're all amended
No pun intended

The King of the One Liners
Had us thrilled
Then came the punchline
Now we want him killed

And when he's gone
Gone
Who gets the mic
If it's on?

The buzzards are attacking
Our prayer kites
We lost the air war
Now we're losing squatter's rights

And when they're gone
Gone
We'll need a new
Comedian

Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs

The King and I began a feud
That time will not erase
Until he wipes that
Omniscient smile
Off his face

The King and I are in a feud
That time will not erase
Until you wipe that
Omniscient smile
Off your face

And when it's gone
Gone
It's open mic
Is this on?

And didn't I thank you from the dais?
And didn't I do you good?
And didn't I take up all your crosses
That were made of balsa wood?

I've kept my demons pent up so long
The devil himself lost track
I've since repented
No pun intended

We stormed the stage
And occupied your place
To wipe that all-forgiving smile
Off your face

It's been there so
Long
Please welcome back
The first, the last
Comedian

Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans, God laughs
Man makes plans

(white-noise of a mic left on – the sound of a blade pulled from a scabbard – silence)

How this song affects me:

The puns throughout the song are subtle and sometimes hard to catch. They also cause me to pause and seek understanding. They have the effect of a “Selah” at the end of the line in a Psalm. “The saints came marching in this morning and they marched back out the door, wholly offended,” or were they “holy offended?” Thus, begin the questions in my mind. Steve Taylor has always been a controversial figure in church circles and in the recording industry. He is very much aware that he has wholly offended many of the holy, and not so holy, people in his life.

“They gave up lent … no one’s re-lented.”
“… kept my demons pent up … I’ve since re-pented.”

Court Jesters, a common person in the courts of Kings and Queens of the past, often over-reached and insulted the court in which they received their employment. Kings were known for allowing a jester to go so far and then throw them out (or worse). Taylor has a certain court-jester style about him in this song, and in his life. Sometimes he is going after the people of the court, sometimes himself, and sometimes his barbs are aimed at the very one who gives him life. There is mockery, confession, confusion, repentance, and shame in these lyrics.

I had to look up the concept of the “amen corner” to be sure I knew what it meant. One writer said that the “Amen Corner” is “the place where the most difficult and devout congregate.” Their “marching orders” get an official and collective “amen” even as they reserve the right to amend - so clever!

"I've learned to sign so the deaf can watch me speak." Is that a reference to film-making? Man shrugs and walks away.

Who is “the King of the One Liners?” Well, one might expect it is the song-writer and to some degree he does identify with this person, but more importantly, the “King of the One Liners” represents Jesus - in my opinion. The people of his time saw him as a great teacher and they loved his pithy stories and statements. But his punchline was that he would not be controlled by the preconceived ideas of the Scribes, Pharisees, or people. Jesus chose to lay down his life for the people rather than overthrow their Roman oppressors and no one knew what to do with this. Near the end, they cried out for his death. Taylor seems to be able to relate to the adulation, the “not being controlled,” and the cries for his death (or at least the death of his music).

Throughout the song, Taylor asks questions about who will ask the questions. Who will be the next comedian? He will not always be around to challenge the status quo and act the fool. Who will pick up the mic? “If it’s on!” “Is this on?” Can you hear me now?

“Man makes plans, God laughs,” is one of those statements that almost sounds biblical but is more accurately rabbinical. Its essential meaning is similar to what James 4:13-15 says. 

“Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.””

If we fail to take God’s will into our plans, our's are foolish plans. All the plans I have for my future must be considered within the will of God and must be encompassed in his plans for my life. Otherwise we become foolish comedians and God laughs at our naivety.

As God laughs and our self-centred plans are frustrated, we might even become angry with God; but the feud with God cannot have a pleasant outcome for us, as he smiles at us with omniscience and forgiveness. Still we take up the feud and storm the stage where he and/or his followers have been given the mic.

After the anger comes the self-righteousness. Didn't I do this and that for you? Didn't I carry your cross? Or at least the light piece? Why haven't you given me all I want?

The white noise at the end of the song begs us to answer the question: “is it on?” The mic is clearly on. Who will pick it up and be the next court jester asking the important questions and poking fun at the “amen corner.” The mic will not be on forever. One day the King will draw a sword from his scabbard and cut the cord, or perhaps - cut the chord.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Ambition


It may be a surprise to hear a Baby-Boomer analysing his own ambition and the ambition of the rest of his demographic cohort. Put a group of us together and you will always have more “horsepower” than people in the room. Yet, we have not always been very good at introspection. We have traditionally left that to other cohorts.[1] Perhaps as we age toward senior citizens, we may find that we are prone to a little more self-analysis and questioning of our ambition. This allows us to see better how we might play nicely with the rest of the people in the work-force of the world, even as we begin our slow exit from that work-force.[2]

I return to one of my favourite artists, a Baby-Boomer himself, for an example of healthy introspection regarding our ambitions. Steve Taylor expresses himself in song-writing and film-making and has the reputation of a court-jester in the Kingdom of God. He speaks the questions we are all thinking and challenges our complacency about the things we have been taught but have not thought through for ourselves. Taylor, along with his band the Perfect Foil, released an album entitled Goliath in November of 2014. I wrote about the album at the time. Today, we return to the album for a song entitled, “Moon Shot.” Here are the lyrics (watch as you listen here):

I'm building a rocket
Been working so hard
Getting ready to rocket
Straight outta my backyard

I'm building a rocket
It's bigger than me
It's my gift to your future
My mega legacy

Ready, aim
The stars are aligning
Ready, aim
I've been sweating a lot
But I persevere
The hopes of a nation ride
Everybody gets one moonshot

I'm building a rocket
The neighbors are tense
When they point and they laugh
I don't even take offense

Ready, aim
A quiet confidence
Has been my mark
Since I was a tot
I've been sent here
To show you people how
Everybody gets one moonshot

I'm building a rocket
It's totally mine
It'll spell out my name
Where the sun don't ever shine

My motives are pure
I've untangled the knots
I'm ready for sure, Lord
Now give me all you've got

May the planets align for you
Hold steady and taut
If you're face down
In desperation, know
Everybody gets one moonshot

I'm building a rocket
It's not about me
You'll be thanking me after
I've saved humanity

I took steel and a feather
And welded them together
I took hellfire and ice
And made them play nice

The musical style of the song is right out of 90’s alternative and punk music and grabs my attention from the first drum beat and grind of the bass line. Steve Taylor’s two vocal styles within the one song (sweet and high; and scream growl) keep me listening and following the themes as I realize that the song is about more than a moon shot.

The song is about ambition and the crazy pursuit of fame. The singer is looking for a way out of his own back yard and he will do nearly anything to see his name spelled out in lights in some far distant place. He dreams of Andy-Warhol-type notoriety where he will get his fifteen minutes of fame. He senses the tension of organic fame rising up from those who admire him and the hard work he is doing to achieve his fame.

The singer wants to leave a mega-sized legacy and he believes it can be done, but there is still a questioning doubt as he wonders why it hasn’t happened yet. He tells us that his motives are pure, even as we the audience wonder if he is being transparent with us. He’s untangled the knots, a reference to the Gordian knots of ethical puzzles, and we sense there is still some ethical confusion and mixed motives, even as he says, “it’s not about me, I am saving humanity.”

The words that end the song are a tribute to the hard work of economics, performance, and art:

I took steel and a feather
And welded them together
I took hellfire and ice
And made them play nice

The person who could truly take the cold, hard steel of making a living and weld it together with the feathery beauty of art would be a "fortunate son." The only other question would be the staying power of that individual and so the video for this song nicely addresses the question of longevity. The entire song focusses on the band and the singer while the world revolves around them. Then, at the end, a small, young upstart shows up and crashes into the singer’s world. The upstart brings the singer toppling to the floor with a big crash. Cue the “New Kid in Town” and stand back. It’s their turn for the next “moon shot.”


[1]The concept of generational cohorts is a helpful, though incomplete, tool for discussing the driving forces of large populations. Although it is a poor representation of individual personalities, it provides a framework for discussions such as this blog. For a list of some of the major demographic cohorts of western thinking see these and other resources: “From Baby-Boomers to Generation Z,” Psychology Today, Ralph Ryback M.D., “The Truisms of Wellness,” 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-truisms-wellness/201602/baby-boomers-generation-z; “8 Important Characteristics Of Baby Boomers eLearning Professionals Should Know,” Christopher Pappas, https://elearningindustry.com/8-important-characteristics-baby-boomers-elearning-professionals-know; “Baby boomers,” Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_boomers.
[2]My goal is to use the generational-cohort tool without relying too heavily upon it as we look at individual expressions of personality and ambition. If we press too heavily upon the tool, we will find that it readily breaks down with our analysis of individual motivations and natural tendencies.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Grace and Truth



Grace and truth, effort or earning, works or faith, justice or mercy, these are the conundrums of my life. I know that Jesus came into this world full of grace and truth and ever since, we who follow his example have desired to be people of grace and truth. I can never seem to find the right balance nor live in the right place of tension between the two. The newspapers tell us that the elders of Willow Creek Church in Illinois know all too well that one can easily extend too much grace, demand too much truth, trust people too much, love people too little, and fail miserably at justice for all. There is no doubt in my mind that I would rather extend grace than mete out justice. I would rather love and forgive than hate and punish, but there is a part of me that realizes that when I forgive Sir John A. MacDonald for his part in “The Indian Act,” I am hurting those who were hurt by the ethnic cleansing brought about by the Indian Act. Some of my current friends are people whose culture and their very lives have been damaged by the Indian Act. How do I seek justice for all? How does God extend grace and justice to all? Could God ever forgive those who have hurt or killed huge populations of people? If God forgave Hitler, could the Jews ever forgive God?

Perhaps “the answers to these questions are more questions such as these.”[1] Perhaps we need to give up our obsession with getting what we deserve and take what we are given. Perhaps the answers are found in songs, poetry, stories, and parables. J.R.R. Tolkien once interpreted the actions of one of his characters in the following way.

“One tiny Hobbit against all the evil the world could muster. A sane being would have given up, but Samwise burned with a magnificent madness, a glowing obsession to surmount every obstacle, to find Frodo, destroy the Ring, and cleanse Middle Earth of its festering malignancy. He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand, thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

“Come, Mr. Frodo!' he cried. 'I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he'll go” ― J.R.R. TolkienThe Return of the King

Might all of us choose to be one tiny Hobbit, one cog in the massive mechanisms of the universe? What difference might we make by pursuing the one thing to which we are called? Do we desire to be a Hobbit or a powerful Lord of the Eldar? Each has their place and their work to be done. Can we be satisfied if God has made us the Hobbit type?

"Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay by small acts of kindness and love." - J.R.R. Tolkien

I wish I had more answers and less questions. It seems that as I age, the questions multiply but the answers only subtract. I am learning more, but as I learn more, I find that I know less, because I have found more questions to ask. The stories begin to answer the questions. The parables hold the key, if only I could understand them better. The poetry of life contains the entire universe. May Jesus lead us ever closer to knowing him and his mission in the world.






[1] “Socrates” song written by Mac McAnaly on the album Live and Learn, 1992.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Once Upon A Time, Long, Long Ago


Once upon a time, in a land far away, a King awoke and surveyed his kingdom from the highest tower of his palace. He saw fields with green crops beginning to bear fruit. He saw a land of peace where neighbours cared for neighbours and disputes were settled with little struggle. He saw sheep and cattle grazing and young calves kicking up their heels in the dance of new life. He saw people carrying loads of goods that they had grown or made in their homes as they headed to the markets to sell their surplus. He saw children laughing and playing in safe streets. In short, he saw that all was well. It made his heart glad to see such a joyful kingdom for he knew that it had not always been so. Just a few years ago, this was a land of strife and people had grumbled in their homes and complained in the streets about the state of their country. People had starved for lack of food, the waters of the land were not fit to drink, and people had been quick to blame the king and one another for the sad state of this place.


The King had then gathered together all of his household and his staff and they had begun to work a plan. They taught the people how to care for the land and the wells, and they helped them manage their crops and plan for the future. They had held meetings to teach and to listen to the people of the land. They had poured many hours of labour and much of the king’s own treasury into making the kingdom a good place to live. And now that things were going well, people thronged from all of the adjacent communities to see this land and to learn from the collective wisdom of the people.

A celebratory thought crossed the king’s mind and he told his staff to prepare a banquet. He thought, “We should celebrate what we have accomplished.” They would celebrate the best successes of the land. They would feast and drink and dance and enjoy the crops of the land. The invitations were sent and the preparations were made. 

When all was ready, the king sent his criers out into the kingdom to call the people to the table. The message was sent, “All is ready come to the banquet.” But the criers came back with tears in their eyes. The people are not coming, they have busied themselves with other things. Some are doing business with their new-found wealth, some are working in the fields for even greater profit, and some are celebrating new marriages and new alliances.

The King was very sad for a moment. How could his people not see the importance of this banquet? Did they not see all that he and his staff had done for them? How did they become so fixated on the abundances of the land? Did they not see that there is a time for feasting and joyful banqueting?

The king’s sorrow lasted for just a moment and then he told his criers, “Go out into the new territories where the people have not yet been affected by the changes in the kingdom. Go to the places where the poor, the sick, the broken can be found. Invite them to join us. We will have a celebration greater than any seen before.” The criers said that they would do as he had said but there would still be room. The king said, “Make sure you look everywhere and ask everyone to attend. We do not want any to miss their invitation.”

So, the Great Banquet was held and all who came rejoiced and feasted. But, the king always knew it would have been a much better celebration if everyone had attended.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

God Rested


Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!
And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day.
So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.
Genesis 1:31-2:3 (NIV)

Take some time to read again the account of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 of the Bible. Most of us think that we already know what it says, but I find that each reading reveals new insights. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 each give the account of creation in different ways. Each offers rich insights into what God wants us to know about his creation, his place in the universe, our place in the universe, and the responsibility of each person, animal, and object in the story.

At one time, I thought that God was communicating to us that we are presently living in the seventh day. Genesis 2:2 says, “On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work.” At one level, it sounds like God is finished once and for all and that he is now resting from the work of creation. That is not the case at all. 

Creation is most certainly continuing to happen. As I write these words, KÄ«lauea volcanoe on the island of Hawaii is spewing lava into the sea and adding to the size of the island. In 2013, a new island was formed in the Pacific Ocean just off of the coast of Japan. Currently, new stars and planets are being formed in the far reaches of space. Furthermore, new species of plants and animals are being discovered at a rapid pace. Some of these discoveries are in fact new species that have recently come into being.

So, what are we to make of the “rest of God?” What are these words communicating to us? Perhaps it is as simple as telling us that there is a time for work and that there is a time for rest. The Creator does not always spell out all of the implications of how we are to live, but he gives us grand principles and asks us to work out how we might live this out in our time. Humans have been working out the concept of sabbath rest ever since creation. In times when Jewish law was supreme, Sabbath was highly codified and legalized. Specific rules of what could and could not be done on the seventh day of the week were built into the society. Under the rule of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans, and other cultures, it was necessary to adjust how Sabbath was lived out. In recent history, as Christianity has sought to codify Sabbath regulations, we saw Sunday shopping rules enshrined in law, encroached upon, struck down, and now meaningless. Christians today find themselves in a place in time and culture where we each must reinterpret how we will appropriately live out a life of work and rest. Yet, the grand principle still applies: God’s best plan for us is a day of rest and six days of work.

Creation goes on and God’s principles of what is best for his people also go on. May we rejoice in an ever-changing universe, ever-changing culture, and the constant principles which guide our lives.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Existential Cowboy Music


This week is Stampede week in Calgary. It is a time when everyone and every band gets cowboyed-up. Doc Walker is a band that gets played almost exclusively on Country Radio but they do have songs that deal with real philosophical concepts. "Raining on the Moon" is a case in point. The perspective of this song is quite existential: "where we are, is everything we know, all we've got is the love that we show." In a blog a few days ago, I quoted some of the lyrics. Here are the rest. They speak of fake news, unbelievable occurrences, technological advances, and how our minds cope with it all. Take a look at these lyrics composed by Jude Cole. (Listen to the song here.)

Have you heard the news?
It's raining on the moon
The man in the tv said
It's raining on the moon
Even the scientists
Can't believe it's true
They're showing diagrams
And little moon cartoons
Where we are is everything we know
All we've got is the love that we show
There was a man who knew
That none of this was true
He swore by God above
The end was coming soon
Now there's a rocket bus
Leaves every afternoon
And funny little cars
Racing on the dunes
Where we are is everything we know
All we've got is the love that we show
Everyone aboard
It's raining on the moon
What would you stay here for?
It's raining on the moon!
Everyone aboard
It's raining on the moon
No worries anymore
It's raining on the moon!
Songwriters: Jude Cole / Jude Anthony Cole
Raining On The Moon lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc