Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Just Don't Mess Up The Song...

Question: Why do some people become Christ followers, and why do some people reject Christ? Why do some people "take to God" and faith, and religion, and why are some people repulsed by it?

The year before I went to college, and the summer after I graduated from High School, I got a job as a piano bar player in a drinking house in Kolding, Denmark. I know that sounds like the introduction of a long winded joke, but it's true. So, my job was to play piano songs in a bar in Denmark. They loved that I was an American, and they loved that I could play the piano (sort of), and croon through any number of their favorite American piano ballads. That summer I played "Piano Man" by Billy Joel, I don't know how many times. I played "American Pie" by Don Mcurdie (sp?) more times than I can count. I played Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" and Jerry Lee Luis's "Great Balls of Fire." Those songs payed for my foreign exchange year in Denmark and they marked the favorite moments of my youth - like a series of parentheses in the long sentences of my upbringing.

One night a woman slinked up to the piano where I was playing, and she murmured, in broken English/Danish, "Young man...can you please play the song...'I've Been Walkin in Memphis' by Marc Cohen?" "Sure I can," I said, as I scooted myself further into the bench and that piano piece, like a winter coat being slipped into by an old man. "No," she said "I don't want you to just play that song, I need it to be played perfectly. I need you to play it without mistakes. I just love that song. If you are going to play my favorite song, I need you to play it like it was meant to be played. Just don't mess up the song!!!" After she said this, I wasn't so sure that I could play the song, at least not the way it was meant to be played. Now I was becoming a little more nervous. "I suppose I can play it that well." "No," she said, plaintively, "It can't just be a song that you play well - it has to be perfect! It has to be just like the song that I can hear in my head." In the end, I decided not to play the woman's song, which was just as well, since she didn't tip me that well anyway.

I have been thinking about that moment at the piano bar in Denmark, and how it relates to the acceptance of faith or the rejection of it. I have been pondering how that moment reminds me of why some people want "something" to do with religion, and why others want nothing to do with it at all.

Here is my theory: All of us have a song in our heads about God. It is a song about how we want God to be presented to us. All of us have a tune in our hearts about how we want to be loved by Jesus, or how we want to understand the depth of understanding about the grace of God, or about how perfect God is. All of us have it. The apostle Paul would call that the, "law written on our hearts." And, like that woman who met me in the Danish bar, all of us, like that woman in Denmark, approach our churches, our pastors, our teachers, our instructors of the Bible, and we want them to play the song that perfectly. We already know the song in our hearts. We sing it to ourselves when we are thinking about higher things - and we want it to be played perfectly. And, like that woman, we would rather not have the song played at all than to have it played poorly. We would, literally, rather not hear music that to hear bad music.

Many people in life have heard the music of God played badly. They have been to church when their heart was aching, and they heard a pastor prattle on about the judgment of God. They have understood the depth of logic of God intuitively and have then heard a teacher offer a pithy platitude like, "Just believe," and they have winced. They have wanted to hear a clear song about the justice of God, and they have instead heard a poorly composed, cacophonically orchestrated tune about the legalism of God. And so, like that woman, they have slipped away from the piano, with their song unsung and un-played. They would rather not have the song played at all than to have it played badly. Just don't mess up the song.

So, that's my theory about why some people don't go to church, or they think they don't like God, or they reject faith, or they don't have time for "organized religion." When they needed to have the song played perfectly, at a particular moment in their lives - a moment of pain and of loss, someone, unwittingly, "messed up the song."

All for Now,

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Wit of God

As a person who has been a student of public speaking for many years now, I have always been interested in what makes people laugh. Back when I did "After Dinner Public Speaking" in college, (basically competitive stand up comedy), I remember several key factors being tricks of the trade. For example, for some reason "k's" are the funniest syllable in the alphabet. Somehow it's not that funny to say, "a goat walked into a bar." Much funnier is, "a duck walked into a bar." Timing is, of course, important. Too slow, and the audience feels the comedian is not smart. Too fast and the audience thinks the comedian is nervous or scattered. Three beat and four beat meter is essential. In other words, the three beat rimshot (ba bam bam), the four beat, this happened, this happened this happened, and then this...

Every once in a while I discover an example of the wit of God. Jesus was actually quite witty. Now, let me be clear - Jesus wasn't really funny, or comedic, or whimsical. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Jesus was ever a Jay Leno, or a David Letterman. But Jesus was definitely witty. Jesus' humor was usually on the very dry side. Think sandpaper. Jesus usually said things that nobody else picked up on as being funny, or witty, until much, much later. Jesus' wit was almost always lost on his audience.

Here's one I stumbled on last week. So, Jesus dies. Jesus comes back to life again. Jesus meets a couple of wayward disciples on a deserted road, on the way to a deserted city named Emmaus (strange - and strangeness is always the foreplay of humor). Jesus asks the men, "What are you talking about?" "What's the skinny?" "Give me the low down?" "What's the skuttle butt?" (witty - Jesus is God, he knows what they are talking about already). They tell him about the death of Jesus and what had happened over the weekend. "Is that so?" said Jesus (witty). The audience (us) all know what has really happened. But here's the kicker. The men ask Jesus if he will join them for dinner that evening in Emmaus. Jesus says, "Sorry, I have long way to go still." (witty, verging on funny). Jesus, of course, still needed to ascend into heaven, so he had both a literal and a metaphorical long way to go. This line is reminiscent of Robert Frost's (a decidedly unwitty person) line, "miles and miles before I sleep." As I said, Jesus' humor wasn't the sort of thing you would ever yuck up, or knee slap over, but it's witty...

But I do I love that God has and had a sense of humor. It would seem to be a Godly requirement to have a sense of humor, in order to deal with comedic imbalance of creating a world and a human being that you love with all of your heart, and that doesn't always love you in return.

All For Now,

Thursday, May 5, 2011

More of a God - Less of a Man

I just began to teach a new class at Highlands - a new Wednesday noon Bible Study. (FYI: the class I was teaching on Genesis has been going on for almost 50 weeks, since fall of 2010, so it was probably time for a change). The class is called, "The Final Forty: Jesus' Final Forty Days On Earth." The idea for the class is clearly not one that is unique to me, though what I am learning is quite exciting. What I am trying to explore are the differences and the similarities between the pre-Easter (resurrection) Jesus and the post Easter (resurrection) Jesus. Again, what I have found is striking!

The Jesus that presents himself prior to Easter (particularly in the book of Mark), is quite human. The pre-Easter Jesus displays more emotion ("Jesus wept"), He gets angry, He eats food, He has the ability to be tempted, he feels pain. The pre-Easter Jesus seems, strangely, more temporal, more tangible, more fleshy.

The Jesus that we see after Easter (after the resurrection) seems to be the opposite. He seems less concrete, more wispy, more Spirit-imbued. The Jesus of the post resurrection is;
* Often incognito or unrecognized (as a gardener or a fellow traveler on a dusty desert road)
* He seems to slip between time and space more easily - between heaven and earth, between Galilee and Jerusalem, through open spaces and walls, with more dexterity and ease. There is an etherial quality to Jesus ("do not touch me, I have not gone to my Father yet...").

In short, the post Easter Jesus seems more God-like.

Of course, both the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus are One. They are unified, they are consolidated and they are integral to our faith (fully human-fully God). They are, it goes without saying, the same person through and through. Truthfully, I find the post-Easter Jesus a little more comforting for my own personal, daily walk with God. If Jesus was capable of emerging on a desert road to two strangers, having a conversation with them, and then disappearing before their very eyes, he also has the ability to show up, un-announced in my life. If Jesus was capable of walking through walls in an upper room, with the 11 disciples, he is also able to walk through the walls that I continue to put up and erect between me and God, and me and others. If Jesus was capable of floating between heaven and earth, even as he ascended into heaven, He is also able to descend from heaven into my own fallen world, whenever I pray to Him.

All For Now,

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Will Someone Know Me?

There is a woman in her mid-eighties who has been coming to my Bible study each week. Her first visits to the Bible study were characterized by what can only be described as a high level of personal skepticism about God. Initially, she came only with her daughter, but now she will often come to the study all by herself. She has a wonderfully rich and diverse and painful life history and background. She has lived in several different states, she has been married three previous times - one of her previous husbands suffered, and still does, from serious mental health issues. She has experienced personal verbal and physical abuse in her 80 plus years of life.

I recently learned that one of the main reasons that she is coming to my Bible study is because she wants someone to do her own funeral when she passes away (sometime in the unknown future). The exact words that she used, however, when requesting a pastor to do her funeral have stuck with me. They have struck me at my hearts core. She asked, "When I die...will ANYBODY KNOW ME?" My octogenarian friend's question is, of course, much more profound than she realizes.

The question for all of us when we die is, "Will anybody know us?" The question for all people who are living is, "Am I known?" "Who Knows About Me?" "Yes, I am known, but does anybody really KNOW me?" The question also points to the deep human need to have two basic things in our lives:

1. To know God
2. To be fully known by God

All people eventually ask the same questions. Who will KNOW ME? Am I KNOWN?

As I have witnessed the church, the body of Christ, over the past ten years of my ministry, I have come to believe that the church can actually be the mechanism by which people become KNOWN. The church can actually take part in the kingdom of God by learning about, and KNOWING, people who would ordinarily have faded into an obscure, insignificant state of never being known: families, wives, husbands, aunts, construction workers, lawyers, government agents, police officers, homeless people, drug addicts, foster kids, retired couples...all want to be KNOWN. Maybe one of the core purposes for our faith is to KNOW - Through Jesus Christ - to KNOW people who were previously unknown.

Paul said, "Now, we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I KNOW in part, then I shall KNOW fully, even as I am FULLY KNOWN." (1 Cor. 13:12)

My favorite quote from the Bible about KNOWING God, comes from Job, after he experiences deep trouble and trauma in his personal life;

"I KNOW that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without KNOWLEDGE? Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to KNOW." (Job 42:2-3)

All For Now,