Setting the Lonely in Families (Psalm 68)

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Our house is going to be busy tomorrow, nine people bustling around talking, cooking, unwrapping presents, acting as crowd control… Christmas can really fill a home.

It can also accentuate loss. Christmas can often be a reminder of absence, a space where someone would have once been. For all that the next few days are meant to be about joy and music and celebration, some won’t be able to enter in to those festivities. Sadly that’s sometimes avoidable.

There’s an interview with Nadia Bolz Webber in which she talks about how her church, which was pitched at more ‘alternative’ communities, started being visited by a more mainstream crowd. Suddenly there was a sense of mission creep – tattoos and piercings on one hand, shirts and ties on the other – until a young women spoke out:

“I’m glad there are people here who look like my parents. Because they love me when my real mom and dad can’t.”

It’s a statement that’s heart-breaking and prophetic at the same time, a statement that should make each one of us look at what our church is and what it could be. Psalm 68 sings of the Lord setting the lonely in families; often, I think, those families are the church, empowered and blessed and guided by the Immanuel God.

“God with us”. We hear that a lot this time of year, and it’s true, but when we’re called to be family to the lonely, things can get tough and messy, because we’re called to love people who’ve been hurt and ostracised and abused. No-one said being family was easy. Sometimes it even means putting aside our own prejudices and politics and past, because it’s an act of grace that transforms all those involved. It’s not a one-way street.

It’s getting close to the moment when we remember God himself becoming part of an ordinary human family and, in doing so, we remember the lonely, remember we’re brothers and sisters, and remember that our dysfunction can be overcome by grace.

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Bible Jukebox: Faith and Music

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Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen.

That’s been my favourite song for years. Bruce calls it a rock and roll lullaby, and that’s a nice way of describing the song’s dreamlike, iconic landscape. It’s true and quietly mythic at the same time.

Now, religious songs, that’s something else. My favourite is Be Thou My Vision, and while it’s a great hymn in and of itself, it really became a favourite when I heard the Van Morrison version. Because sometimes, no matter how good your church choir might be, sometimes you really need to hear hymns sung in the original Irish.

It’s World Music Day, and while I’m tone deaf and have an ambivalent reaction to the Beatles, I’m fascinated by the use of music in the Bible. We’ve probably done it a disservice by turning it into prose, but that robs it of a power that only music has.

For instance, it’s in the music of the Bible that we often hear the voices of the marginalised; the Magnificat falls into a tradition of women singing about liberation, while elsewhere a Shulammite woman is unapologetic in her celebration of her beauty and sexuality.

Songs seem to give voice to emotions and frustrations and ecstasies that we don’t always associate with the Bible. We’ve lost some of these traditions – we don’t know how to lament in the church (I’m struggling to think of an overtly Christian song as raw as, say, Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’), and some of the songs already mentioned are saturated with radicalism and outspokenness. The Psalms aren’t just the ancient version of a CCM download, they cover a breadth of human experience that can leave us feeling uplifted then battered within the space of a few verses. More importantly, they give us permission, give us the words we need to express some of our deepest hopes and sorrows; the Psalms tell us that we’re not alone.

That connection isn’t just between individuals separated across centuries. Most of the Psalms should be considered corporate worship, hundreds of voices harmonising and praising and crying out. We continue with that tradition today – in some ways it’s bigger than ever – and that’s both a privilege and a danger for worship leaders. At best, leading a corporate act of praise can guide people towards a new encounter with God, or a renewed freedom in worship; at worse it can become performance idolatry. It’s a fine line to walk, a faith saturated in song but with a tendency to worship the music rather than the God it points to. And yet that shouldn’t stop us rediscovering and reinventing some of the great biblical songs.

But worship music can transcend the confines of services. Why else would Amazing Grace be sung by displaced Cherokees walking the Trail of Tears? A Salvation Army brass band in a town centre somewhere can turn a cold, miserable winter’s day into Christmas. Music has power, and so the song of God could change everything:

In his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.

That’s a powerful image of grace. There’s a joy in it, an abandonment, an excitement that can only be expressed with music. The idea of God singing about us is glorious; maybe the use of music here is the only way to convey the enormity of divine grace and love.

Because there are times when only a song will do.

Lent 2014: Ash Wednesday (Psalm 51)

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It’s been a while since I’ve seen a street preacher, especially one that fits the stereotype. Maybe they’ve gone out of fashion, those wild-eyed would-be prophets, loud of voice and high in volume, each one carrying a hand-painted sign proclaiming a single word.

REPENT.

Nowadays those signs have faded from view; you just don’t see them as much. Some of them have mutated into marquees and hang outside churches. It’s probably safer that way. Besides, ‘repent’ is a word only church folk use, sometimes for good reason, other times as a way of shaming those who are already scared and hurting and vulnerable.

Ash Wednesday‘s traditionally a time of repentance, a way of entering Lent with honesty – yeah, I’ve screwed up, I admit it, I’m sorry. And I’m not into shaming or yelling about the indiscretions of others on the street, but I know that there are times I need to admit my guilt and actions and apologise, to confess to both God and those around me.

Yeah, even for things no-one knows about. Like hurling abuse at tailgaters the other day.

Psalm 51 is a traditional reading for Ash Wednesday. It’s King David’s hymn of confession – here’s a man who slept with someone else’s wife then committed murder to cover it up. He’s pouring out his heart and guilt to God, almost as an offering. After all, he knows a ritual sacrifice isn’t going to cover it, God’s more interested in his heart.

But it doesn’t end there. We sometimes think of confession as a guilt trip, but often it’s a moment of release. Stop carrying around the baggage of your wrongdoing, stop running from your past.

Turn around.

That’s what ‘repent’ means, ‘to turn around’. And looked at in that way, there are so many metaphors we can use – it’s the moment we head back home, the moment we start a new journey, the moment we return to God.

Because that’s what Lent’s all about, a journey towards an empty tomb via a cross. Rebirth, resurrection, new life, all these things… But we have to turn towards them; something has to die before it can be reborn.

I was going to talk about how sometimes the church needs to corporately repent of how it props up and creates systems and attitudes that hurt and oppress others. I still think that’s true, but I’m a part of that church, and I can yell at the system all I want, but it won’t change anything, because I’m as broken and guilty and as loved and wanted as anyone else in God’s eyes.

The change starts with me turning around, facing a new direction, running back towards God. Look at the Psalm again; David prays that he would change and be forgiven before he prays for his city. Somehow he knows that our hearts and our structures are all connected, and transformation starts with individuals.

No; the transformation starts with Easter, with a specific individual; with a cross and a garden and death defeated in ashes. This is the message of Easter; that forgiveness and a new start are both possible. Maybe today’s a good day to do a u-turn and start a new journey.

(By the way, I’m having an eye operation tomorrow. If anyone fancies sparing me a prayer feel free…)

Music and Lyrics: Thoughts on Psalm 137

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The past is silent.

Someone said that on the radio this morning and it’s true. Sure, archeoacoustics is a developing field, and we know how ancient hymns and music were used in ritual, but we can’t hear them for real. We don’t know if Jesus was a baritone, or if Peter’s temper was him overcompensating for a squeaky voice. We don’t know what Paul sounded like when he preached, so I always hear him as Alan Rickman. I’m not sure why exactly, it’s just a weird symptom of the silence of history.

This is a big deal when it comes to the Psalms. There they sit in black and white, enshrined in the scriptures, immortalised as holy writ, preserved in biblical amber. And maybe it’s because I grew up in the church, or because I’ve always responded to lyrics before music, but I’ve got a tendency to read the Psalms as scriptures that became songs, not songs that became scriptures. It’s an important distinction.

Case in point: Psalm 137. It’s ‘By The Rivers Of Babylon’, it’s a party song, it’s Boney M. Everyone knows it.

And then we get to the last stanza: Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Wow, thanks for the spiritual whiplash there, you’ve gone from Boney M to Slayer in just a couple of verses.

Of course, I read that as scripture, as part of the Holy Bible, and I react against it because it’s abhorrent and grotesque. Smashing babies against rocks? No, sorry, it’s vile and horrific and I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the Bible.

But why shouldn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m never going to like the sentiments expressed in that small stanza. If I ever find myself cheerfully singing it in the shower, I promise to check myself into a special clinic somewhere. But maybe I need to teach myself not to see the Psalms as words written in black and white, but hear them as songs of celebration and lamentation and protest, and as messy expressions of emotion.

Listen to songs that express uncomfortable, raw experiences. Listen to ‘Strange Fruit‘ by Billie Holiday or ‘Hurt‘ by Johnny Cash. They achieve in a few minutes what whole history books and autobiographies might fail to do, but they’re not pretty, nor should they be. They’re confronting some ugly truths and therein lies their value.

How we read the Bible is important. Read “Happy are they who dash your infants against the rocks” in the same way that you read, say, John 3:16 and you’re in trouble. The latter is an expression of God’s love and sacrifice for humanity, a teaching of Jesus. The former…

The former is a metal song composed by a songwriter who’s seen his country invaded, its capital destroyed and its survivors dragged away into captivity. And now those same invaders want him to sing one of the old songs, a song of joy and triumph, in a colossal act of selling out. The psalmist would rather cut out his tongue than prostitute his heart like that, would rather die than become a puppet mindlessly parroting his songs. Cut off from the means of expression that’s driven him for years, he pours his heart into a song of rage and sorrow. It’s raw and furious and dark.

And he takes it to God. He turns all his heart’s madness and vengeance into a song and sings it towards his Lord. That’s why we need to hear the music, because the psalmist isn’t writing theology, he’s praying a protest song. The melody creates a ‘safe’ space in which the singer and God can confront the ugly brutality of life and of the singer’s own feelings.

I heard a preacher once say that every worship band needs a break-up song. There’s wisdom in that; the songs we sing should be honest and true, and if that means acknowledging that we’re angry and bitter and broken then so be it. No-one ever preaches on Lamentations, but maybe they should; alongside that maybe we need to sing more sad songs in church, because worship sung in a minor key through gritted teeth is still worship.

Owning the pain and the rage and the despair and giving it to God is a path to being liberated from them, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to give them away. Maybe singing them out is more effective than wrestling with theology and religion; maybe the psalmist achieved a level of unguarded honesty with God in his singing than he ever did in conversing with his priest. Whatever the case, the Psalms give us permission to sing things we could never say, to express things out loud that we’d rather let fester in silence.

And through that, God hears our heart.

No-one Ever Preaches on Lamentations (Psalm 137)

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You know one of the best songs ever recorded? ‘Hurt‘ by Johnny Cash. In it you can hear every regret, every mistake, every sin of an old man as they eat away at him. It’s devastating, and it rips your heart out every time, but the world’s better place him having recorded it. Sometimes we need the sad songs. ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing‘ is fine, but Billie Holiday needed to record ‘Strange Fruit‘; the darker shades of human experience need expression too.

So why does no-one ever preach on Lamentations?

I mean, if we need to give voice to our less pleasant circumstances, Lamentations has to be the archetype – Jerusalem destroyed, most of the population dragged into exile, the remainder wracked with survivor’s guilt and driven to cannibalism. As an expression of grief, shock, fear and despair it’s hard to beat. There are slivers of hope in there, but on the whole, things are pretty grim.

And yet there it is, in the Bible. I’ve been going to church all my life and I don’t ever recall hearing a sermon about despair, don’t ever recall singing a sad song that wasn’t about the crucifixion, but here in the Bible are five chapters of people dealing with the fallout of a community torn apart. It’s not spaceship religion, it’s the heart cry of a faithful man witnessing his fellow survivors starving in the streets.

It’s 9-11. It’s the Blitz. It’s the Holocaust.

If faith is to be real it has to be able to confront catastrophe. That’s why Lamentations is important – it gives voice to the things we’re too scared to say out loud. I mean, I haven’t had my hometown invaded, looted and pillaged, but look at the following verse:

“You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through.”

I’ve certainly felt like that at times. I bet I’m not the only one. It’s not something we get to say that often, because we think we need to be living the triumphant Christian life, and because sometimes the biggest lie we tell in church is “Yeah, I’m okay”. But the shadow is still there and it needs to be confronted, which can be difficult because sometimes I struggle to confront an overgrown lawn. But I know from experience that bottling things up can be dangerous – better to offer them to God.

Yes, even when God’s the one you’re angry with. He can take it.

That’s why there are frankly messed up passages in the Bible, like Psalm 137 and it’s desire to see the babies of the writer’s enemies smashed against rocks. No-one’s suggesting that this is a good thing – it’s really not – but that’s one of the purposes of art, poetry, to work through the labyrinths of life and find a ‘safe’ way to express them. Here’s a Psalm that starts off as ‘By the Rivers of Babylon‘ and ends up a hardcore metal track. And that’s fine, because sometimes life’s like that.

I heard a quote recently – “All worship bands should have a break-up song”. Because sometimes we need to corporately express sorrow and anger and despair, express them and work through them and find a way to God in the midst of them.

We need more sad songs to help us see the hope behind them.