Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Holy Week Disrupted?

As a general rule, Unfinished does not reflect my personal life with much transparency. My theology, yes. My political and ethical convictions, no doubt. Yet, when it comes to the more personal elements of my life, this blog is pretty much impersonal. And for good reason. Nonetheless, there is no better time than Holy Week to share news that my wife and I are expecting twins any day now- our own rendition of the resurrection. My wife and I are on edge as we wait and wonder when they will finally arrive- maybe even before I publish this post? Even more, the uncertainty of the delivery date has forced me to be somewhat withdrawn from the usual Holy Week preparation that comes with serving as a youth pastor in a large Presbyterian Church. While Holy Week is my absolute favorite season on the Christian calendar, this year my experience and engagement will be from another place, maybe even in a different place. I do not have any responsibilities on Maundy Thursday; I have been exempt from Good Friday; Holy Saturday who knows; Easter, well, we shall see. The staff has been very gracious and my colleagues extremely supportive. Nonetheless, this year the regular rhythm of Holy Week is somewhat disrupted. I can even imagine myself pondering the passion narrative or resurrection story at bedside with babies in both arms…

This raises the question, do I need Holy Week to be disrupted more often? In other words, have I become so accustomed to the ritual and pattern of the events that lead up to Easter that I have become numb to the power and prophetic push of the gospel? Has the cross and resurrection assimilated to the familiar liturgical standards and traditions that we forget the call to die and rise with Christ outside the walls of the church and in real places of oppression, real experiences of suffering, real circumstances of injustice, and sure manifestations of evil?

This past week I read through a recent issue of Christian Century and stumbled upon an article by Lauren Winner, “Dislocated Exegesis”:
Dislocated exegesis makes intuitive sense to me: where you read changes how you read. [1] Safely within the blush-colored walls of my house I might be able to keep some readings out. So I have begun an experiment: once a week, in some place where I find myself, I carve out half an hour to read one small biblical passage. I do this most often alone but sometimes with friends from school or church (14).
Winner proceeds to illustrate the various places she has practiced the discipline of dislocated exegesis: prisons, oncology units, outside corporate banks, riverbanks, awkward weddings, etc. This caused me to wonder, where could I read the narratives that are associated with Holy Week? What would it be like to read the Palm Sunday discourse outside the local courthouse in the borough of West Chester or at the base of City Hall in Philadelphia? How could one be formed and moved to faithful witness by reading the upper room narrative on a street corner in fuel view of many homeless passer-bys? And Jesus says, “This is my body broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you.” What about reading the crucifixion story, like many friends from The Simple Way have done in years past, outside the gates of Lockheed Martin or Boeing? [1] How about embracing the final chapters of any of the gospels and meditating on the resurrection in fuel view of a new born baby, in my case two, reminded that for every death in this world there is a new life? A reminder over and again that death will not have the last word, but through Jesus as Messiah, life is God’s constant and eternal word to and for the whole world.

Or better yet, what do these stories have to say for:

Survivors in Japan…
Activists in Libya…
Christians and Muslims in Egypt…
Newly Liberated in Southern Sudan..
Victims of War in Iraq…
Christians and Jews in Israel-Palestine…
Victims of Human Trafficking…
Friends in Honduras…
Young children fetching waters in Kenya…
The list could go on…

So where will you read the Scriptures this Holy Week? Maybe try a little dislocated exegesis and have your journey towards Easter encounter a sacred and sending disruption.

[1] This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by J├╝rgen Moltmann, “Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes- promise, exodus, resurrection, and spirit- come alive” (The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 17).

[2] Read the story, “Why I Go Arrested on Good Friday,” by Shane Claiborne: http://blog.sojo.net/2009/04/21/why-i-got-arrested-on-good-friday/ 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reflection on Last Night's Jars of Clay Concert: Are They Still Relevant?

I spent my Palm Sunday with nine others from my congregation, to include a handful of high school students, at The Shelter Tour, a montage of performances by Audrey Assad [1], Matt Maher, Derek Webb, and Jars of Clay as the headliner band. And the evening was filled with nostalgia. First, I was able to revisit my alma mater of Eastern University. I have been on campus several times over the past year, to include my first opportunity to teach as a substitute for an Urban Youth Ministry Course. Every time I leave with the same thoughts: college students are sooo young and the Eastern world is sooo small. In other words, it does not take long for one to return to the pristine campus and be recognized, remembered, and/or encounter a former peer who is now employed by the student development office (how do you think I got my tickets?). Eastern University is indeed a small world…but it is one that I am grateful to live close enough to revisit with regularity.

As I sat in the EU gym, I could not help but hear echoes of the makeshift student section hopelessly cheering on the Eagles basketball team, not to be outdone by the aged Tony Campolo, who was unashamed to give referees a piece of his mind (I hear he still does). I remember my attempts at fade away jump shots in intramural basketball games, a proud member of the Dirty Doaners. I could even hear the ping of the aluminum bat and the pop of my catcher’s mitt as I participated in another 6 a.m. indoor practice for our, also hopeless, D3 baseball team. And as I sat in the front row of the bleachers last night, I also was in full view of the many springtime relationships that were in full bloom amidst the crowd on the gym floor. And I wanted so desperately to warn them that summer break is about to come and, well, their freshman relationship may not make it and that’s o.k. because, my friend, sophomore year is on the horizons…

Second, the opportunity to listen to Jars of Clay perform a diverse collection of newer and older tracks was the most nostalgic experience of all. And, yes, they performed “Flood.” Ironically, last night marked 15 years since that album, and related hit single, was released. When Haseltine announced this, one of my students turned around and said to me, “I am 15.” Has it really been that long? I remember like it was yesterday, belting out, “rain, rain on my face” and “I want to fall in love with you,” as if I was in the studio alongside Dan Haseltine (shameful, I know). And yet, even after 15 years, Jars of Clay continues to release new albums, compose new and poetic lyrics, and raise social and political questions in regards to the gospel. This begs the question, is Jars of Clay still relevant? Maybe? While my students may not be able to recognize “Worlds Apart” or the lyric, “she sits in fields of wildflowers,” they are interested in the message and mission of The Shelter project…and so am I.

However, as a good friend of mine and I discussed the show as it unfolded, we were blown away at how much Jars has evolved over the years, not only in age and content, but also in style and focus. They have changed as the culture has changed. And while they may still be a sort of “Christian” band, they are not as settled as they once were. In fact, they seem to embrace ambiguity, celebrate paradox, underscore dialogue, and long for a life that bears fruit into the world versus appease a particular wing of the CCM industry. Lead singer, Dan Haseltine, said last night, “the greatest command is not about being right. When we stick our flags in the ground and claim a territory we move away from conversation and love and towards defense. The Christian faith is much more about a journey through mystery versus an arrival at a particular destination [i.e. intellectual, theological, political, etc.].” Then, with all the participants from The Shelter Tour, to include Audrey Assad, Matt Maher, and Derek Webb, they proceeded to perform one of their more poignant and newer songs, “Eyes Wide Open”:

So God bruise the heels we've dug in the ground
That we might move closer to love
Pull out the roots we've dug in so deep
Finish what You've started
Help us to believe…
We can't go on, seems this conversation's done
It's so hard to win these fights and love You at the same time
So take my hand till grace makes a way to bend
Till the things I said to ruin only lead to my own end…
Draw us in, send us out…
Help us to believe
Again, is Jars of Clay still relevant? Maybe? Yet, this raises a much larger question, is the “Christian” music industry still relevant? Is contemporary Christian music (CCM) tired and endangered? Even more, is this endangerment really a problem or a gift of the Spirit? Relevant Magazine recently wrote:
“In 2003, the number of artists who were Christians and making music outside of CCM was pretty small. You had people like MxPx and Sixpence None the Richer who would talk about not wanting to be labeled a ‘Christian band,’ but not many others. Then in 2005, Sufjan Stevens released Illinois and suddenly Christians were seriously considered as artists. Christian artists seem to be popping up everywhere- bands like Cold War Kids, Mute Math, Shad, the Avett Brothers, the Civil Wars and Switchfoot have all had critical and commercial success. Christians have successfully moved out of the faith ghetto and into artistic merit” (March/April 2011). [2]
If you follow any of my blog you may know of some of my recent musical interests, particularly Mumford & Sons, who will not be seen at Creation or Purple Door Festivals, rather Lollapalooza and Bonaroo. And I prefer their music…

Nonetheless, there is something to be said for Jars of Clay, and my preferred, Derek Webb. [3] They have credibility with the church (depending on who you talk to), whose people may benefit from their message, craft, and approach in a way that would not be feasible if the CCM market completely died. And in a way, Jars is still relevant for that very reason.

So while my students may not always know of Jars of Clay, or worse, Derek Webb, I will still take them to their concerts, because I think their voice and witness is still relevant.

[1] Assad said something profound last night, "Love is self-donation.  This is particulalry difficult when love is young."  This remark was in reference to here recent marriage; however, I think the implications are much broader...

[2] See also their column, “2011 Could Be the Year When CCM As We Know It Disappears (except for Worship Music],” in the same issue, “The number of people who exclusively listen to Christian music gets smaller every day, which takes some of the security out of solely being a musician in the industry. You might not be able to make money just off Christians anymore, which sort of spells doom for the business model as it currently exists. There is, however, an exception: worship music” (p. 77). See digital issue: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/digital-issue-50

[3] I say this in full recognition, and in light of personal conversations with Derek Webb, that neither he nor Jars of Clay consider themselves a "Christian band."  Instead, they are confessing Christians who make music for a living.  This is an important departure from the previously-held notion that an inanimate object, i.e. music, could be "Christian."  Furthermore, Webb made a great comment in reference to his recent Feedback album, that music is just another means for confessional language, whereby he sometimes prefers such language to be void of lyric and much more mysterious and messy.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Scripture, Questions, and Formative Ellipsis

In my eight years of church ministry, many-o-church folk have approached me with honest confessions that concern a perceived “inability” to read the Bible. When individuals are pushed on this [false] assumption they often refer to their lack of answers possessed as a result of the vast complexities, ancient contexts, old symbols, and endless passages that confront their consciences from a variety of angles. And they expect me, as the supposed expert, to have the answers and smooth out the difficulties. But does the Bible exist to give us answers or to provoke new questions about what it means to be human and God’s people in the world? Is the Bible to be excavated so to remove mystery and paradox? [1]

I love how the book of Acts, the story about the church in its earliest beginnings, incorporates a vast collection questions:

What does this Jesus event mean? Is the kingdom we had hoped for finally to be restored?
How should we then live in light of this Jesus event?
Who is to join us as we continue to follow Jesus in the world, after he is gone… as we wait for his return?
What is required of us? What about the Law?
To whom do we pledge ultimate allegiance?
How long will it be until Jesus does return?
What does it mean to be saved…and who is? All humanity? All of creation?

And Lent is the season to ask hard, really hard questions.

And we are invited to ask questions in light of the Bible and how God reveals God’s self through it.

And ambiguity is o.k.

I suggest that the Bible is an open invitation to ask questions about God, Jesus, darkness, pain, suffering, hope, life, things to come, war, justice, peace, relationships, salvation, heaven, hell, the list goes on…

And ambiguity is o.k.

But the Bible is meant not to collect dust after third grade, weeks after confirmation, or in between Sunday mornings or evenings, but to be read, engaged, questioned, affirmed, wrestled with, and prayed through.

And the Bible forms us, through our questions, to be God’s people in the world.

And Lent is a beautiful season to read, engage, and ask honest questions about the Bible and story of Jesus.

This past week the Imago Dei Youth Ministry questioned the Bible. Instead of suggesting some sort of reduced system or formula for reading the Bible we invited the high school and middle school students on a pilgrimage of inquiry through both beautiful and hard texts. A variety of passages were scattered on the floor throughout the Westminster Chapel and newsprint hung on the walls. The only requirement for this formative quest: ask and write questions.

And no question was off limits…

Questions about God. Questions about Jesus. Questions about the world, past, present, and future. Questions about life. Questions about the imago Dei. Questions about the story of God and our role in it. Questions about death.

And these are some of the questions that the Spirit of God stirred within the hearts of the Imago Dei Youth…

Psalm 22
• Is God far away or are we far away from God?
• Why does it seem that I have to fall before I can get closer to God?
• Why do people have to mock you before believing in God/
• Why does it seem so long when we suffer?
• How can I clean my link to God?
• How can I have a closer, better, more reliable connection to God?

Isaiah 65:17-25
• Does God’s love extend to all? Including those who don’t participate in the faith?
• Why have I refused to be ‘glad” in what God is creating and settled for sorrow in what is?
• Why must the serpent eat dust while all other creation is blessed, if even he was one of God’s creation?
• What does it take to find this peace? Why can’t we have this today?
• Why just Jerusalem?
• Why forget things? Why not remember all good things?

Job 24:1-12
• Do the wicked do such evil just for themselves?
• Why suffering?
• When will all be made right?
• God, do you care?
• When will people stop being mean to others?
• Why does it feel sometimes that God doesn’t hear our cries for help or see the suffering?
• How could God not hear their prayers?
• God says the meek shall inherit the earth. Yet he allows them to be wronged. Why?

Colossians 1:15-20
• Why Jesus Christ? Why not?
• Were things in heaven not peaceful before Jesus’ blood was spilled?
• Were evil and oppressive rulers made through Christ?
• Why is God always invisible?
• Why did Jesus choose his blood to be reconciliation?
• If all things hold together in Jesus, why so much present fragmentation?
• We can’t we see all things of God?
• Why do humans believe they are the head of the church?
• If God weren’t here to hold all things together, would everything fall apart?

Philippians 2:1-13
• How do I work out salvation with fear and trembling?
• Is it asking to become a slave to God?
• How have I exploited others with the gospel instead of loving them?
• Why fear and trembling?
• How are people so selfish when Jesus was so selfless?
• If of one mind then what makes us unique?
• Why bend your knee to Jesus and not to another important individual?

Revelation 21:9-22:7
• Why isn’t Jerusalem in this condition now?
• When will God’s kingdom be made complete? Will there be people who are not there?
• Why was it only shown to John? Why was he chosen?
• Why so specific?
• Why sets of three or four always adding to twelve?
• Why is Jerusalem the wife of the lamb?
• Why built of jasper?
• Length, width, and height equal?

My prayer for the students who were present, and for all of us, is that this experience would launch us into a formative ellipsis. That is, as we read Scripture let us look, not for definitive end points or absolute answers, but for new and fresh questions that provoke our prophetic imaginations as we strive to be the people of God in the world.

The Scriptures can, even should be, engaged by all…and no questions are off limits

[1] This is not to say that the teacher does not play a pivotal and mediating role, for if this were the case I would not feel called to do what I do.  Instead, God's people, as individuals and communities, should not pull back because of our questions rather press on as a result of them.  And there are indeed many great resources available to aid us in our quest through questions of context, symbols, language, and paradox.  I suggest four significant resources: N.T. Wright, How Can the Bible Be Authoratative; Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed; Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now; Rob Bell, Velvit Elvis.