Tuesday, March 27, 2012

That One Samaritan

In Luke 17, Jesus heals a group of lepers. After the healing, in Luke 17:16, one of the former lepers returned to Jesus to say, “Thank you.” Then, the text says that this man was a Samaritan, not a Jew. This is obviously another statement that the Jews were missing who Jesus was. How can it be anything else? We can easily say, "Yep, that's the point," and move on. However, I wonder about the further application of the verse. 

For instance, where are missing worship of Jesus today? Amy Grant sings a song, "Better Than a Hallelujah," written by Sarah Hart and Chapin Hartford. Here are the lyrics (and a YouTube video): 

     God loves a lullaby in a mother's tears in the dead of night
     Better than a Hallelujah sometimes

     God loves the drunkard's cry, the soldier's plea not to let him die
     Better than a Hallelujah sometimes

     We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody
     Beautiful, the mess we are, The honest cries of breaking hearts
     Are better than a Hallelujah

     The woman holding on for life, The dying man giving up the fight
     Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes

     The tears of shame for what's been done,The silence when the words won't come
     Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes

     We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody
     Beautiful, the mess we are, The honest cries of breaking hearts
     Are better than a Hallelujah

     Better than a church bell ringing, Better than a choir singing out, singing out

I have seen God in the honest cry of a broken heart, in silence, in pain. Yet, we live our comfortable lives as if we have it all--like the Levite and priest passing the injured man in the Good Samaritan parable (yes, I know that I have mixed parables--forgive me!). I remember the first time that I heard Buddy Guy's song, "Skin Deep." It was at a concert at the House of Blues--not the place where you expect a powerful worship experience. However, there in the midst of the drunks on the general admission floor, I worshiped God. This is a powerful song about how we should treat one another. This is particularly pertinent to the text with which I began this discussion. 

Also, where could we see things that would glorify God if we were attentive, but we miss them because they are from people who are not “Christians,” or not religious? When I was a young follower of Jesus, as a teenager, I found Jethro Tull's album "Aqualung" to be an inspiration. In fact, I once wrote a song because of the way the album spoke to me. Among other things, the album is an indictment of the church, and of the caricature that the church has often made of Jesus. The song that probably hit me the hardest was called, "Hymn 43." 

     Oh father high in heaven -- smile down upon your son
     whose busy with his money games -- his women and his gun.
          Oh Jesus save me!

     And the unsung Western hero killed an Indian or three
     and made his name in Hollywood to set the white man free.
          Oh Jesus save me!

     If Jesus saves -- well, He'd better save Himself
     from the gory glory seekers who use His name in death.
          Oh Jesus save me!

     I saw him in the city and on the mountains of the moon --
     His cross was rather bloody -- He could hardly roll His stone.
          Oh Jesus save me!

Those words still strike me as amazingly poignant. Ian Anderson is not the model for Christian inspiration--a theological outsider, if you will. But he can speak words that we need to hear. We need to hear from the "outsiders," which I guess would make them "insiders." Well, just thinking. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Rich Man, Lazarus, and Hell

Do you have a biblical text that haunts you? I don't mean a text that you struggle to understand. I don't mean a text that you wish people did not regularly abuse. I mean a text that really gets inside of you and makes you troubled. Actually, when I read Jesus' teachings in the gospels slowly and carefully, I keep saying, "Did he really say that?" But there is one text that really bothers me. It bothers me because it is abundantly clear. There is really no doubt what Jesus says because he does not hide the point. He announces it. The text is found in Luke 16. 

He tells the story of a rich man. This was a very rich man. He had the finest of everything. No worries or anxiety here. More than enough food to eat. However, outside the gate of his home was a poor man named Lazarus. This poor man was suffering greatly--with leprosy (or something similar) and hunger. He is so hungry that he longs for the scraps from the rich man's table. But the text tells us that the dogs licked his sores, presumably after eating the scraps. (The text does not say this, I am just embellishing a bit.) Perhaps we are to think that the dogs cared more about this poor, suffering wretch of a man than did the rich man. (Again, the text does not explicitly say that.)

Fast forward, and the poor man dies. He is taken away by angels to Abraham's "bosom," meaning in a place of comfort with Abraham.  The rich man dies and goes to the burning place of torment--which is Hades in Greek. From that place, the rich man cries out to Abraham for help. He does not get help, but he does get a succinct explanation of the seemingly explicable situation--inexplicable because this rich man was certainly a good man deserving something better, while the poor man..., well you get it. Here is Abraham's explanation to the rich man: 

"Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish" (Luke 16:25 ESV).

"Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony" (Luke 16:25 NIV84). 

“Son, you seem to be forgetting something: your life was full to overflowing with comforts and pleasures, and the life of Lazarus was just as full with suffering and pain. So now is his time of comfort, and now is your time of agony" (The Voice). 

I have included more than one translation so that you can see that I am not exaggerating in my struggles. What is my struggle, you may ask? Well, the poor man is with Abraham and the rich man is in Hades for one reason: they were poor and rich in this life and now in the future life the tables are turned. The only reason that the poor man is with Abraham is because he was poor in life. The only reason that the rich man is in Hades is because he was rich in life. We typically avoid the difficulty of this text by making it about the greed of the rich man. Most people that I talk to about this text have never struggled with it because they have jumped to that conclusion. And, this explanation may well be true, but it is not the explanation that the rich man receives. He is told that he is suffering because he was rich. Jesus offers no explanation that would soften this message (although he does talk about the impossibility of worshiping both God and wealth in the next chapter). The message simply stands there is stark contrast to our lives. 

So, what do I do with this text? Do I think that all rich people are going to hell? Fair question. If I believe this, then I suppose that I am going to hell, too. After all, I have never been hungry to the point of suffering. I have never longed for the scraps off the floor. I have never lain on the ground suffering while the dogs licked my oozing sores. I am sitting in the comfort of my nice, air-conditioned house, smugly saying that my house is well below the median price of houses in the Houston area. Therefore, I am certainly not guilty of greed, right? 

So, first, I try to balance the text with the other teachings of scripture about wealth.  I know that not all teaching on wealth is negative (although much, in fact probably most, of it is). Second, I work at being generous. I want to give to those in need. Third, I try to avoid living in guilt. Guilt can be a positive motivator, but it can also be a hindrance to growth. Fourth, I try to avoid ignoring guilt. If I am not being as generous as I can be, then I am guilty. If I am ignoring the poor around me, then I am guilty. Jesus is abundantly clear at this point. In fact, Jesus said that when we ignore the poor, we are ignoring him. Hmmm. I suppose then, that the rich man was guilty of ignoring Jesus as his gate. (Again the text does not say that.) 

So, my friends, struggle with me. Let's not be smug and defensive. Let's not be frozen and stuck in our guilt. But, let's hear the hard teaching of Jesus and serve the world, building the Kingdom of God. For, as Jesus also said in Luke 17:25, "You want to see the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is already here among you" (The Voice). Will we have ears to hear? 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Experience Hendrix?

Went to a concert tonight--the Experience Hendrix tribute tour. Artists included Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Johnson, Brad Whitford (of Aerosmith), Robby Krieger (of the Doors), Robert Randolph, Bootsy Collins, Bobby Cox (of the Jimi Hendrix Experience), and several others. They played over three hours of Jimi Hendrix songs. These artists range from their 30s to their 70s. I asked myself why these guys were on stage performing these songs. Well, perhaps because they were good songs. Perhaps because they enjoy playing together. Perhaps to make a living. Well, maybe all of these, except that probably none of these musicians need this gig to pay the bills, and it is a lot of work to tour with that many people and play only 3-5 songs. So, I think there is a bigger reason for the show. 

The tour is called a tribute tour, and that is exactly what it was. All of these guitar players know that they owe something of what they do to Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was an innovator. He tried new things with the guitar. He played a different style of riff. He used different combinations of effects. Any rock or blues guitar that followed Hendrix is musically indebted to him in some ways. (Now, just for the record--to hopefully avoid some mean comments--I do know that Jimi Hendrix was not a good role model and is not a person whose lifestyle should be emulated, esteemed, or followed.) This tour, then, is a way to show their gratitude to this innovating guitar player who had such an impact on their craft, their profession, and (probably) their lives. 

This, along with my blog last night, has challenged me to ask, "How have I shown gratitude to those who impacted me?" Thinking about the Christian music influences in my life the past few days in this blog has reminded me of some people who influenced me. I came to faith in Christ at 15 years old in 1976. In the years that followed, many people helped me to become a disciple of Jesus. Jeff Rankin and Jeff Taylor took a few of us leaders in the local high schools and discipled us in a small group. Jimmy Womack hired me at United Saints Bookstore and allowed me to be his friend and partner in the store for several years. Through Jimmy's influence, I met Kemper Crabb and Ray Johnson. These three men (who were about 10 years older than me) were an invaluable influence on my life as a teenager, and I am sure that I never thanked them--and they may not even know it. 

Jimmy trusted me to run his store when he was gone. He introduced me to countless Christian leaders around Houston. He taught me to be a ethical businessperson and better Christian. Kemper let me hang out with Arkangel at Rivendell Studios. He came and spoke to our early morning Youth for Christ group at my high school. Arkangel even came and played one early morning. Ray had an impact on many people's lives--many who probably do not even know it. Through his New Earth Concerts ministry, Ray allowed me to hear Phil Keaggy, Second Chapter of Acts, Sweet Comfort Band, DeGarmo and Key, Petra, Chuck Girard, Resurrection Band, and many others. He knew most of these people personally, and introduced many of us to his friends, believing (I think) that their ministries were worth being a part of our lives. Ray and Jimmy (and others) later started Aslan's Delight, a coffeehouse in Pasadena, TX. I was 18-19 years old but was treated like a partner and friend by these men. Through this ministry, I met Randy Matthews, Resurrection Band, and Servant. All of these ministries had a profound impact on me--encouraging my faith and my desire to know and serve God. 

So, Ray, Jimmy, and Kemper: Thanks for befriending, teaching, and encouraging this young man over thirty years ago. I love you guys and appreciate what you did for me and many others! 

If you've read all the way to here, maybe you have someone to thank! 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Phil Keaggy, "The Master and the Musician"

I cannot honestly say when I first heard a Phil Keaggy song, nor can I say what song it was. I can say this, however. He blew my mind! I considered myself to be a pretty good lead guitar player in those days (the late 1970's). And, I was better than average. But here was a guy who could play things that I could only dream of--no, I could not even dream of them! I remember seeing him play with just his acoustic guitar at a small auditorium on the University of Houston campus in about 1980. I also remember a tour in 1979 or so when the panel van with the band's equipment broke down between Dallas and Houston. Phil came on stage and apologized, then played an acoustic concert for about an hour. Then someone walked out on stage and whispered in his ear. He started a little impromptu chorus of a new song, "Oh, the band is here. The band is here." Then the band set up and played their entire show for us. Wow! That was a great night! (I should thank Ray Johnson for his service to the church in those days. I know he didn't do it for me, but I sure appreciated it--even to this day!)

On my recent ten-hour drive, I heard several Phil Keaggy songs. "Do Lord" with Glass Harp. "Who Will Save the Children" with Randy Stonehill. "Shouts of Joy," which is a great worship song. One of my first great memories of Phil Keaggy was the album, "How the West Was One," with Phil, 2nd Chapter of Acts, and a Band Called David. To this day, that album (particularly Phil's portion) is one of my favorites. He tells the story of his conversion, both verbally and then in the amazing acoustic song, "My Life." Then he burns the neck up on "Time." I remember standing in the United Saints Bookstore listening to "Time," and someone commented on how the crowd went crazy when the song ended. Kemper Crabb happened to be in the store and commented, "And why wouldn't they, after hearing that?" (Or something close to that quote) Ah, the memories. 

I also remember when "Master and the Musician" came out. From the first time that "Pilgrim's Flight" came through the speakers, I was hooked. The album was an amazing soaring musical journey. I listened to it over and over and over (well, you get the point!). It was such a joy a couple of years ago to hear Phil on the 30th anniversary tour of "Master and the Musician." This album title sums up Phil Keaggy for me. He is an amazing musician--a consummate guitar player almost without equal. But, he plays for the Master, for his Lord, for Jesus! He does it with poetry, grace, and power. But he plays for the glory of his God. I am so glad. Thanks, Phil. You have been an inspiration for me! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Larry Norman--a tortured soul?

Larry Norman was one of the pioneers of Christian rock music--in a time when the words "Christian" and "rock music" were seldom used together in a positive sense. He was certainly important in the Christian music industry. He was also a tortured soul--leaving behind him a wake of broken relationships, hard feelings, and legal entanglements. However, he also left in his wake many new followers of Jesus. Friends, family, ex-friends, critics, and fans discussed all of this ad nauseam after his death on Feb. 24, 2008. One thing that I do know: His music had a profound influence on the lives and the faith of many young Christians in the 1970's. How do I know this to be true? Because I am one of them.  

The first Larry Norman album I ever heard was "In Another Land." I loved the faith of "Rock that Doesn't Roll, the power of "Righteous Rocker," the passion of "Why Don't You Look Into Jesus?," the intimacy of "I Am A Servant," the ephemeralness of "One Way," the fun of "Shot Down," and the poignancy of "Song for a Small Circle of Friends." Who can forget the line, "Love to you, Sir Stonehill, armed with your ax full-gallop on your amp. You're so crazy and you know it, but I love you as we both crawl toward the lamp." Last weekend, I listened to several of these songs as I traveled during spring break. They brought back floods of passion of those days--days of enthusiasm, growth, and excitement. I was a fairly new believer who was learning that the boxes of my upbringing and tradition were human boxes, not divine ones. I was learning that God could move in new and exciting ways. Larry Norman (and Randy Stonehill, Resurrection Band, Petra, DeGarmo and Key, and others) helped me to see a new world of worship, discipleship, and faith. In many ways, these musicians helped to disciple me as a new believer. 

Only later would I come to enjoy Norman's other work, particularly "Only Visiting This Planet," although it had been released several years earlier, a truly powerful album that I almost wore out on my turntable. And later we would sing "I Wish We'd All Been Ready," a poignant song during those apocalyptic days of war--both cold and hot! As a rock guitar player, I also loved the live, bootleg album, "Roll Away the Stone." The version of "Song for a Small Circle of Friends" on that album is amazing. 

Still much later, I would learn of Norman's life struggles, of his failure to live up to contracts with bands, and of his unfaithfulness to friends. Because of my love for Randy Stonehill's music, their struggles particularly saddened me, although they did reconcile in the last decade or so of Norman's life. Why these musings and ramblings? Well, glad you asked. The Bible is full of people who God used. We glorify those people, often ignoring their mistakes (aka sins), forgetting just how human and flawed they were. Abraham passed his wife off as his sister to Pharaoh. Jacob lied and deceived his way to the top of the food chain. Peter denied that he knew Jesus. Yet, these people are heroes of our faith. God uses troubled souls like Jacob, fearful men like Abraham, and cowards like Peter. And, he used Larry Norman, in my life and many others. Aren't you glad God uses the imperfect, rebellious, hypocritical, and flawed people like this? It gives you and me hope! 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Undivided Heart

One of my favorite albums of all time was Twila Paris's "Cry for the Desert," released in 1990. It included "How Beautiful," which we sing in church from time to time--a beautiful Communion song about Jesus and the kingdom of God. It also included "I Will Wait" and "Fix Your Eyes." And "Cry for the Desert" is a longing for a place of close meeting with God. The song that always touched and challenged me was "Undivided Heart." This was true when I listened to on my road trip on Saturday. Here are the lyrics (the notations are mine!). 

          There have been days when I would die for You
          And days when I would not die to me (I can feel that one!)
          There have been nights when I would cry with You
          For the sins of the world and the pain in the city
          But some nights I cried only tears of self-pity (That one hurts!)
          I need a love that will always endure
          Give me a love that is simple and pure

          Give me an undivided heart, Place a new spirit in me (Ezekiel 11:19)
          Give me an undivided heart, That I may fear Your name (Psalm 86:11)
          Undivided, undivided heart, Undivided, undivided heart

          Lord, You have seen me giving all that I'm worth
          But only to find me taking more (Why am I so self-centered?)
          There are those times when I embrace the earth
          When I rise to the need and I welcome the labor
          And then I must fight to forgive my own neighbor (Struggling to forgive my neighbor, forget loving my enemy, right?)
          I need a love that will always endure
         Give me a love that is simple and pure

I find my own struggles in this song. This song speaks to my own wishy-washy nature--up and down. However, the song also gives me hope. It gives me hope because the struggle has been a human problem for millennia. The quotes from Ezekiel and the psalm show this to be the case. Interestingly, both of the verses were quoted in the sermon this morning. Is that a coincidence? Maybe, or maybe not. 

We are on a journey. We will not win every battle, and not every day will be marked by self-sacrifice, submission to God, and service to others. However, God will hear our prayers as he did the psalmist's prayer. We can pray fervently and work hard. We can ask God for guidance and follow as humbly as our human self will go. It is a journey--the missional journey of the Kingdom of God. It is great to be on it with so many others--past and present. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Old Songs

How do you make a 10-hour drive seem shorter? Listen to some old songs. On our drive from Rogers, AR, to Cypress, TX, today, I spent several hours listening to some old songs. These were songs from the early days of Christian music. These were songs from the Jesus People movement. The artists included Larry Norman, The Way, Randy Stonehill, Love Song, Phil Keaggy, Parable, and few later artists: Keith Green, Leslie Phillips, Steve Camp, DeGarmo and Key, Twila Paris, Steven Curtis Chapman, and Geoff Moore. I was struck by the passion. The passion for God, for the world, for the Kingdom of God, and for mission, is palpable in those songs. The songs are full of lyrics that I wish I had written. Many of the lyrics have impacted me for decades. 

One of my favorite lyrics is from Randy Stonehill's song, "Puppet Strings," from his album, "Welcome to Paradise." Here are the lyrics to the chorus: 

          We are all like foolish puppets who desiring to be kings 
          Now lie pitifully crippled after cutting our own strings.

Read that again. 

God has given us all that we need. God wants to supply our needs. God wants to lead us in all facets of our lives. God is, after all, God. God is the creator and sustainer. Yet, like Adam and Eve in the garden, who ate the fruit to gain divine knowledge that was not theirs to have, we cut our strings with God. We go out on our own, and find that we are often unable to accomplish even the simplest of tasks--like pray to God and love other people. As Adam and Eve found themselves banished from the garden to toil in struggle and pain, we cut ourselves off from God. God created us to be his divine image--his puppets. We are to be "Jesus with skin on," as some of my friends would put it. Our strings from God supply direction, sustenance, power, and wisdom, but we cut them. 

I don't know about you, but I want to be crippled no longer. I acknowledge my tendency to go it alone, cutting my ties with my creator. I want those strings attached. I need those strings attached. Thanks, Randy, again, for this reminder! 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jeremiah 29:11 in the Real World

In my last post, I promised to post my two Jeremiah papers. These are a bit long, so I will not post them here. However, here are links to the two papers. The first link is a fairly detailed interpretive study of Jeremiah 29:11. It includes a lot of Hebrew, but I have transliterated and translated into English for non-Hebrew readers. The second paper is a brief look at Jeremiah 29:11 in the real world--or as real as Facebook, blogs, magazines, Amazon, and ministries can get. If you have time to read them, let me know what you think. 

Shalom or Ra'ah: Jeremiah 29:11 in Its Canonical and Literary Context

Jeremiah 29:11 as a Paradigm for the Twenty-First Century Church

Monday, March 12, 2012

Academics in the real world?

I learned several things last weekend at the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies. For those who don't know (which is, of course, almost everyone--part of the point of this blog), this is the regional meeting of members of such austere groups as Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), American Academy of Religion (AAR), American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), and Association for the Scientific Study of Religion (ASSR). I have included these names and their alphabet soup abbreviations for a purpose, which you will soon learn. At this meeting, academics present papers representing their research to groups of other academics who share their research interests. Yes, it can be as scintillating (and boring) as it sounds.  

I learned that presenting papers at these meetings makes you feel more a part of the conference. I know this seems obvious, but since I have been doing double-duty at the school (teaching and administration) for several years, I have not written many papers. This year I presented two papers, which gave me a new sense of credibility (perhaps only imaginary, but it still felt good) to discuss a variety of matters with people in the meetings. 

The other things I learned--the real point of this blog--is that many people feel my frustration at the failure of academics to make connection with the world at large. I presented two papers on Jeremiah 29:11. One of these papers was an interpretation of the verse based on the Hebrew text. However, the paper was more than this. I wanted to suggest ways that academics could help the church read this verse. As many of you know, Jeremiah 29:11 is everywhere these days--from websites, plaques, posters, t-shirts, songs, blogs, and magazines (this ubiquity was the topic of the second paper). However, the verse is usually misread to be a promise to every individual follower of Jesus that God has a great plan for that individual life. Sometimes it becomes a mantra recited in faith to somehow bring about the hope which it presents. Now, I am not against the idea that God has a plan for individuals, but I do have a problem with reading Jeremiah 29:11 this way. The verse is a promise to the exiled people of ancient Israel that, even in the darkness of Babylon, God is with them. God is watching over them. God will deliver them--after they are faithful to make Babylon better and learn to seek God wholeheartedly again.

My purpose in blog is not to interpret the paper. I will post the paper to the blog at a later date for that. For now, it will suffice to say that I found virtually no academic work that sought to discuss the application of this verse in the church or individual lives. The academic writers did not acknowledge the popularity of the verse in current Christian culture. They did, in other words, leave the people in the church and culture on their own to make application the verse. I think this is a mistake. Academics need to serve the church by helping non-academics--whether they are teachers, pastors, college students, teenagers, seekers, disciples, well, everyone--understand the Bible better. Unfortunately, we academics have indeed built our ivory towers and placed ourselves above the rest of the world that we need to teach. Shame on us. 

However, I learned at this meetings that many others feel the same as me. I know because they told me. Now, we just need to find ways to connect with the public better. There is hope for our future!