Ever since we suspended corporate worship in March, a lot of us have been asking the same question; “When will we be coming back?” I can tell you that, as of today, we do now have an answer that comes with a date. We do have an answer that comes with a condition. It is: “When we are confident that we can regather as safely as possible.” While some are ready to enter the doors right now, the vast majority of our people are telling us to go slow. There is too much we don’t know and cannot control. I have long known that the care of souls can be a matter of life and death. This has never been more true than in the making of this decision.
I can’t be quiet anymore. I’ve held it in all day thinking of how just 17 days ago I preached as clearly and passionately as I knew how about the response – primarily some white Christian’s response – to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. It is beyond me to decry any louder such acts of racist anarchy. My voice is only so strong. So that day I went hard after the attitudes that make these actions possible, and to some, even permissible and palatable. I shared my great frustration – mild word – with fellow white folks whose first response to these atrocities start, and usually end, with “yeah but” and “what about.” NO! For God’s sake, NO! You cannot defend the indefensible by creating some diversionary moral shell game. No. Just no!
The Apostle Barnabas shows up early and often in the story of the first-century church. Throughout Acts and the Epistles, his name gets paired so often with the fiery apostle Paul that it sounds like a law firm, business, or a couple whose names just always get said together. Morgan and Morgan. Sears and Roebuck. Glen and Lisa. Paul and Barnabas. And those two rode through the pages of the New Testament together, spreading the gospel to all the known world. Hard to imagine a Christian faith without Paul. It might be harder to imagine a Paul without Barnabas.
It did not take long for the COVID-19 pandemic to start threatening and claiming lives with recognizable names. The first loss in the country music family was Joe Diffie, a lesser but not insignificant force in the genre’s 1990’s explosion. His hits were mostly upbeat and whimsical tunes with simple rural themes. He told us how there’s just something women like about a “Pickup Man” (as in truck) and how unfading love got declared on a local water tower in “John Deere Green.” His best, by far in my estimation, was his vocal blending with Mary Chapin Carpenter, whose soft, soulful voice remains my favorite of the era. You can feel the heartfelt love, doubt, and fear when asking for someone’s affection is “Too much to expect, but not too much to ask.” My Lord, what a line.
I have ridden the good lyrics to Good Lord train for years. I suppose it grows out of an intuitive sense (redundant coupling, I know) of how God uses many means and messengers to keep his redemptive themes in front of us. Music seems to be one of his favorites. For the past day or two, I’ve been traveling Tampa Bay to Leonard Cohen’s live concerts from London and Toronto. I was a latecomer to his music beyond The Broken Hallelujah, but have become a keen listener to his beyond human deep voice, and often even deeper thoughts and stories.
Cohen was raised an Orthodox Jew in Toronto and held steadfast to his faithful heritage. He employs lines and images from the Hebrew Bible like a country writer carefully drops cliches. Later in life, he studied Buddhism, claiming it posed no conflict with his Hebrew faith absent a deity to have before Yahweh or a call to corporate worship. (He once joked of spending many years delving into the great philosophies and religions of the world, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.) Interestingly, there is a lot of Jesus in there too. I mean a lot.
Cohen showed an interest in Jesus as a universal figure, saying:
I’m very fond of Jesus Christ.He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says ‘Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek’ has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosityand insight and madness … A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion. I’m not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. But to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me.
Listen to what Cohen says about the Stranger of Galilee. Who does he stand with? Who are the blessed? What about this “Unparalleled generosity and insight and madness.” Yes, the ways of Jesus indeed sound like madness to a world gone insane. They always have. But what if they were embraced, starting with his kind of people and spreading out from there? Could all hate, selfishness, pettiness and all other ungodliness weather such love? He thinks not. Neither do I. Neither does Jesus. But in the absence of that radical, generous grace, they will naturally flourish.
Jesus said, “This is my commandment that you love as I have loved you.” Paul said, “Love conquers all.” John said that love is from God because, after all, “God is love.” And the deep bass rabbi from above the border sang “There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love.” This inhuman generosity, born of divine love really is the cure for all things. better still, there is no cure for it. Whether it’s heard from Jesus, Paul, John or Leonard Cohen, we can believe it. Better still, we can live it. If we do, Lord only knows what could be cured.
Lead me not into temptation I already know the road all too well Lead me not into temptation I can find it all by myself
On a whim, I riffed this chorus into a recent sermon from Luke’s telling of the temptation of Jesus. In the moment, I remembered the words and could hear the gospel piano, the light and soulful tune, and the remarkable voice just like it emerged from my nineteen-ninety-something radio. Couldn’t recall the singer, and would have guessed wrong if I tried. Didn’t matter. On the fly, it seemed like a good light moment to slide into the telling of how, in moments of weakness and best intentions, temptation can lure us to the point of at least a momentary no return. Honestly, we do know that road all too well.
I did a little surfing and found that the singer was a young lady named Lari White. (I would have guessed Carlene Carter and lost my turn on Country Music Jeopardy.) Born and raised right here in Pinellas County singing with the White Family Gospel Singers; how about that? She won one of the first musical reality shows and parlayed it into brief, but solid career as a Nashville performer and producer. Sadly, she died at 52 with cancer, leaving a husband and three kids. Perhaps her most odd role was a brief one most of us will remember. She was the young lady who met Tom Hanks at the door in Castaway’s last scene; package delivered and leaving him literally at the crossroads.
You might notice that my sometimes weekly blog has a new heading. Money Talks and First Things have made room for “The Prompter.” It’s a name that needs, as Ricky Ricardo might say, “Some ‘splainin'”. So here goes.
Soren Kierkegaard was a mid-1800’s Danish author, poet, theologian, and existential philosopher. Old Soren’s ideas have influenced modern thought more than most of his ilk and era. But my favorite SK pondering has lately fallen out of favor. Frankly, it has been forgotten, devalued and overthrown at the individualist insistence of modern churches and their worshippers. Yet, I suppose if he felt the need to opine about this way back in 18-something, it might not be an entirely new development. Here it is in a nutshell.
As I went down to the river to pray Studying about that good old way And Who will wear the starry crown Good Lord, show me the way.
I first heard this song as the last track on Gillian Welch’s iconic folk album “Revival.” It’s simplicity of line and lyric resonated with me. I could tell it was reaching deeply into the felt language of conversion, renewal, and the personal clinging to divine hope placed in a holy other. For all the world, I thought I had stumbled onto a track that few had heard and experienced. We roots music folks are susceptible to that given our tastes appeal to a narrow swath of a certain musical vein. (As I have shared before, Lisa does not travel that path; so I saw Kristofferson alone last week and will experience my beloved Lucinda the same way next.) But then came “O Brother Where Art Thou.” In the classic siren scene where Delmar became affiliated, there it was for all to hear. Only this time it was Allison Krauss doing the honors. The visceral experience of the song was no longer reserved for me and my ilk. Turns out it never was.
Fifty-Two Weeks of Jesus has kicked off with a look into “His Early Years.” Truth is, it terms of sheer content, the gospels don’t give us much to look at. If you put any stock in apocryphal writings, you get some fanciful stories of Jesus that don’t paint him in a particularly good light. In our trustworthy accounts of the young Christ, we get him born, blessed, worshipped and hurried off to security in Egypt before Herod’s death made it safe to return to the homeland. His dad the carpenter sets up shop in Nazareth and raises Jesus and the family there.
There is only one story in which Jesus is an active participant; the annual journey to Jerusalem in his twelfth year. Then the Bible goes silent for nearly two decades. (John Prine has some theories about Jesus’ missing years, but like the other narratives I mentioned, I wouldn’t put much stock in them.)
In the last few days, I have had a number of good friends experience the death of a much-loved pet. Their stories brought to mind an article I wrote several years ago right after we had done the same. For these friends, and any anyone else fortunate enough to know this kind of love, I thought I would share it here today.
In my favorite article by the great Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard, he wrote about the passing of his beloved black lab, Catfish. Just days before his own death, Lewis closed the piece with these touching words; “My heart, or what’s left of it, is breaking.” Today, I think I know how just how he felt.