What to do when trust is low

So, can your church change? Is there enough trust between the congregation and its leaders to take up this work? Is there a tolerance for conflict? Can members identify things they’d be willing to trade for? Again, not every church can, which nonetheless does not disqualify them from being loved the way God would love them. But let’s say you are in a congregation that does have the capacity to change. Many congregations that have the capacity to take up the work of adaptive change fail to do so nevertheless. Here’s where a certain kind of leadership can make a big difference.

But before I get into that, let’s get back to the churches that can’t change. This is not necessarily a terminal condition. I think if they can’t find anything worth trading for (the third thing on my list), then you’re in a world of hurt. But the first two problems stated above may be amenable to repair.

In fact, these two things (trust and conflict) are connected. Handling conflict well engenders trust. Trust makes it easier to engage conflict. You get the idea.

I think the place to begin, however, is restoring trust. It’s probably not the best strategy to incite conflict in order to establish trust. Let’s do it the other way around. I am again indebted to Heifetz and Linski for language and concepts that help me think through these things. I like their suggestions, in particular, for “raising and lowering” the temperature and “creating a holding space.”

Before I unpack these ideas, however, let me begin with something I learned from the Appreciative Inquiry folks. People are willing to take risks when they feel most stable. The problem with lack of trust between congregations and their leaders is that people don’t feel secure. While ultimately you can’t get transformation apart from conflict and the energy that comes with it, in times when trust is low you have to “lower the temperature.”

There are several ways H&L suggest to lower the temperature, but the big one in terms of restoring trust is to slow the rate of innovation. I know the frustration of being a leader who senses that certain things have to change before progress can be made. But if the congregational temperature is already too high due to lack of trust, it is still the better part of wisdom is to slow the rate of innovation. Lower the temperature and live to fight another day!

All other trust building measures have to do with what I would call the “communicative environment.” When trust is low, people build alliances as a way of preserving for them what seems to be at stake. A holding environment, according to H&L, allows people to talk to each other again, hopefully without flying apart. So, what constitutes a holding environment?

Several things. Here are a few. 1. Clarifying shared language, values, and perspectives. What would everyone salute if you ran it up the congregational flagpole? Live in these for awhile. 2. Establishing ground rules for discourse. For example, “We won’t assign motives to other people, even if we’re sure we know what they are. We won’t gossip. We will seek to understand before we respond. We will avoid “you” language.” You get the idea. 4. Drawing on positive stories of working together. 5. Identifying lateral bonds of affection, trust, and camaraderie. Even in a divided congregation, there are still likely persons on either side of an issue who still trust each other or like each other.

Of course, you may attempt to do all these things and still not be able to have a civil conversation. If the issues are highly personalized (in other words, “so-in-so is the problem and clearly not to be trusted”) around leaders, then it is likely you will need mediation–someone from the outside that both sides feel will be impartial.

It is tempting to think of a holding environment as something you construct when you’re in the midst of conflict. In other words, you might think of it as episodic rather than as a regular part of your congregation’s life. But I think this is just good ministry all the time. I think of leadership in ministry not as “getting things done,” but as tending to an environment that allows the Spirit to move freely between people, and the living Word of God to continue to be spoken and heard person-to-person in community. Call me old fashioned, but I truly believe it is God who gets things done.

Well, here I’ve started to talk about leading through adaptive change. But we’ll have to wait for subsequent posts for those.

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How change Comes to the church

The title of this post comes from the title of Pat Keifert and Wes Granberg-Michaelson’s forthcoming book, with the capital C on “Comes” added by me for emphasis. The book isn’t out yet (we hope to have the first copies at Streaming), and so I haven’t read it. But I know the authors, especially Pat, and so think the word “Comes” in the title is signaling an important aspect of what the authors think about change and congregations.

I can imagine other titles on change and churches. For instance, “How you can lead change at your church” Or, “Habits of highly successful churches,” or “Your best church now,” or “A (specified) number of laws that will make your church grow.” Do you see the difference? The alternate titles I’m suggesting here assume that change is the predictable outcome of certain strategies. An expert leader(s) or coach(es) can direct the change your congregation needs. Change is something that originates with you. You make the change happen.

But Pat and Wes’ title suggests that change is a visitor who comes to your church. Change comes in unfamiliar or surprising forms that lie outside of your expertise or strategic plans and knocks on your door. Change is a refugee, an orphan, a widow, a Holy Spirit that crashes your party. I’m spinning a metaphor here to suggest that change often comes apart from your best plans. It shows up as a possibility for those who are paying attention. And I’m convinced of this, it’s hard to pay attention when you’re working a strategic plan.

This is my guess. And I’ll eat pages from their book at Streaming if I’m wrong.

This way of viewing change protects the space necessary to live into the conviction that the living God has a promised and preferred future for the congregation. The church can live responsive to the calling of God discerned in the emerging circumstances of a congregation’s (and its immediate environment) life. Leadership in this case is less about being a visionary genius or change agent, and more about maintaining a communal posture of attentiveness to the God who visits us. God’s change comes to us. Will we find ourselves hospitable?

So, if I’m right, you should come to Streaming and hear more about this, or to watch me eat pages from a book.

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Can your congregation change?

In my consulting work with congregations, I’ve learned a few things about the capacity of a congregation to make significant changes. I am of the mind that a hopeful future for most congregations will require deep, adaptive change. All congregations can make an adjustment here or there, typically of a “technical” nature. They can change or add programs, in other words. But when they’re done, they’re still fundamentally the same. The moment we occupy, however, as congregations in a world of discontinuous change, requires more. It requires “adaptive” change–not just that we do something different, but that we become something new.

I am convinced that not all congregations can negotiate adaptive change. Even those who might be able to will decide not to, leaving the number who will adapt even smaller. This may sound pessimistic, but I think it’s a part of the moment we’re in. Any good therapist will tell you that people will change when they’re ready. Eventually, the situation we’re in will be clear enough that more congregations will be able to take up this work.

Still, it would be nice to know going in if a congregation has the capacity for this kind of work. I look for three things: 1. Is there a high degree of trust between the congregation and it’s leaders? 2. Do they have a tolerance for conflict? 3. Are there things they can identify that they would be willing to trade for?

A few weeks ago I quoted Heifetz and Linski who suggest, “Generally people do not authorize people to make them face what they do not want to face…” (Leadership on the Line, p 20). They also point out that beliefs and practices come from somewhere and to give them up seems like disloyalty. So, adaptive work cannot be done apart from resistance and conflict, making all three of my criteria extremely important.

Leaders have no more important resource than trust. It is the currency of adaptive change. Most congregations I am invited to consult with lack enough trust to take up adaptive work. And there are some typical reasons why. Trust is diminished when leaders exceed their authority. Too often, becoming part of a congregation’s leadership is seen as “being in charge.” I don’t care what the org chart says, in a voluntary organization like a congregation, leaders are “never in charge,” and whatever authority they have is relational. You can’t fire your members. Never mind that Jesus says it’s wrong to lord it over others in the kingdom of God.

More common, however, is poor communication. Most congregations lack reliable feedback loops, which means what feedback leaders do receive is in the form of complaints, which in turn leads to defensiveness on the part of leaders, which is the quickest way to appear weak and diminish trust. This also means that communication is primarily one way–from the leaders to the congregation. I have to remind leaders all the time that just because they’ve said it doesn’t mean they’ve communicated.

The overall result of lack of communication is that members feel like someone other than themselves knows whats going on. Plans are being made behind the scene. The leaders know what they want, and are trying to manipulate the congregation into going along. This may or may not be true. But perception is everything, if not reality. And its hard to dig out of that hole if the congregation thinks the fix is in.

Other reasons for squandering trust exist, obviously. The point is that losses like these related to trust diminish the leadership’s ability to lead through conflict. You may get the changes you want, but you’ll likely be accompanied by a different congregation, probably smaller.

Since, conflict is a part of the deal in adaptive work, I’m very interested in congregational stories of recent conflict. If the congregation reports that they don’t have conflict (and the majority do), there are three ways to interpret that: 1. They’re lying. 2. Conflict is done in secret, fostering a passive aggressive culture. Or 3. They’re telling the truth, which means they don’t care enough to fight. All three are bad. The congregation needs to know that they’ve endured conflict and come out on the other side alright. They’ll need this collective muscle memory to take up adaptive work.

Finally, they need to be able to identify things they’d be willing to trade for. Some congregations are content to leave things just the way they are and hope they can find more people just like them. Many congregations want things, but can’t identify things they’d be willing to leave behind to get them. They want a more diverse congregation, but are unwilling to trade aspects of their denominational or congregational identity to get it. You get the idea. And the thing is, adaptive work requires you become something new. Your identity will have to be fluid and malleable.

This list is not exhaustive, but in my experience pretty predictive. Clearly, there are corresponding leadership abilities that match these congregational capacities. And they’re often the difference in whether or not a congregation that can do adaptive work will actually do it. More on that next post.

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Giving and Receiving in Ministry

There’s no greater challenge in ministry than managing expectations. I have in mind here more the ways we feel obligated to one another. For example, at the end of my first year with a congregation I served, the leaders distributed a survey to the entire congregation to find out what kind of job I was doing. (That’s a whole different post). One person faulted me for not being friendly enough. People who know me are probably thinking, “nailed it!” True enough, I’m probably not the warmest person in the world and have come to realize that I have a foreboding resting face, but all-in-all I think I’m friendly enough. I have friends.

But I failed to meet this person’s expectations of what it meant to be friends. This person volunteered for everything. Our exchanges had been pleasant. I was grateful for the help and had communicated that. But evidently, the return did not match the investment in this person’s eyes. More was expected in terms of social interaction. All of this volunteering should have made us friends. What else could it be? I simply wasn’t friendly enough.

These kinds of obligations related to reciprocity can create resentments. Paul knew this. He lived in a world built on gift giving and reciprocity. His refusal of the patronage offered by the church in Corinth was a way of circumventing the obligational norms of gift giving in a patron-client relationship. Paul’s sense of calling to the gospel created inherent conflicts with the cultural norms related to gift giving. God was his patron, not wealthy Corinthians. So, he worked with his hands to avoid these kinds of expectations.

I think this is going on in Philippians as well. I am convince that this letter written from prison was to let the church know that though he appreciated the gift he had received from them, this did not obligate him to return to Philippi. More, they had all they needed even if Paul never returned. This letter begins with the assurance that “the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ” (1:5) and ends by reminding them that just as Christ supplies all his needs, so all of theirs will be met in Christ as well (4:19).

Paul is working tricky turf here. He has exceedingly warm regard for this church, but he’s not sure if he will ever be able to meet their expectations of a return visit. The end of the letter is a master class in managing expectations.

10 I rejoice[g] in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.[h] 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone16 For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. 18 I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

I think Paul’s logic goes like this: Thanks for the gift. Not that I needed the gift. Christ satisfies all my needs. I am content in any circumstance. Still, nice gift and appreciated. No one shares in giving and receiving like you guys do. Not that I seek the gift, but I want you to see how the gift accumulates to your account. It’s not a gift given to me, not really. It’s a fragrant offering to God. And God is the one who will repay your gift by supplying all of your needs as well.

In the “economy” of the kingdom of God, there is no direct exchange between persons. What I offer, I offer through Christ who supplies my every need. I give freely out of the abundance of knowing Christ. This breaks the sometimes vicious cycle of reciprocity or obligation and allows giving and receiving to continue without resentments, but with thanksgiving. It’s not your gift that binds me to you, but the gift of Christ that obligates me to love you and others the way I have been loved.

The trick to all of this is learning the secret of contentment that comes from knowing Christ. The key is living daily in the mercies of God, receiving our life daily as a gift from God, and practicing thankfulness. That’s the trick.

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They make much of you, to exclude you

I’ve been thinking about biblical texts that have informed my practice of ministry. The potential list is long and most of the texts are familiar, but one of my “go-to’s” is a rarely noticed text in Galatians 4:17ff.

You’ll remember that in Galatians Paul is resisting the influence of “Judaizers” who are insisting on some sort of Torah observance, including circumcision, for Gentile believers. For Paul, this is not only not in keeping with his understandings of faith and grace, but is also pastoral malpractice.

He describes their practice this way: “They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them.” Here’s how I understand what’s going on in these verses. Paul’s opponents, using the law, are constantly fussing over the Galatians to see whether or not they measure up. This seems like care because of the constant attention required to make sure standards are being met. But for Paul, this “making much” is for no good purpose. The result of this fussiness is exclusion, which serves the power interests of the one doing the fussing.

If we do pastoral care according to fixed standards of measurement, then the one being cared for is constantly at risk of coming up short, and, therefore of being excluded or diminished, even if this is not the intent of the one providing care. The power in this exchange is now solidly in the hands of the one who can pull the excluded back into the circle of acceptance. “They make much of you…so that you might make much of them.”

I had a bad therapist once who kept me in constant crisis. I left every session feeling like I was coming up short, which in turn made the next session all the more urgent and the therapist all the more powerful. So, this phenomenon is not just limited to those who would require adherence to matters of the law, but any kind of “making much of” that makes the pastor, or the discipler, the standard keeper. It’s why I’m skittish about accountability groups that are constantly measuring performance. “How are you doing with (fill in the blank)?” The answer determines your level of meeting the standard, and, therefore, your wellbeing related to the group.

Paul goes on to say that it is “good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you.” And what is that good purpose? “Christ formed in you.” Notice that Paul sees this work of formation as ongoing even in his absence. The thing about fussiness as a pastoral strategy is that is only works in presence.

I love Henri Nouwen’s little book, The Living Reminder, that talks about the interplay between presence and absence. Spiritual care requires presence, what Paul calls “making much of.” But it also requires absence. Even Jesus told his disciples that it is best for them for him to leave them so that the Spirit might come. In the same way, our absence leaves room for the Spirit to do the work of forming Christ in others. Our presence, then, serves the purpose of pointing not to ourselves as the effective agent, but to Christ. We are a “living reminder.”

Here’s the thing. For Paul, grace is not simply a way to “get saved.” Rather, it is a certain kind of power in the world that works in certain ways to form people and communities. His opponents’ pastoral style keeps people as children, clients, dependents. But grace works differently to form people. It works in freedom and love, in faith and through the Spirit. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. The only thing that counts is faith working itself out in love” (Gal 5:6).

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A place to stand

You should hug your minister today, because ministry’s hard. It’s baked into the very nature of the endeavor. Think about the various angles of pressure. A minister represents the living God. Talk about pressure. I know there are people who talk about their relationship with God like it’s a cardigan sweater, warm and comfy. I find this a view too lightly considered. A cardigan God is not a holy God, not a God that would invite us into the awful business of tending to all the tragically broken places of the world. Like Jeremiah, God is as likely to be my troubler as my comforter.

A minister represents the living God, to people. I don’t want to talk out of school, but some people are not kind. More, there are people who think I’m unkind! I tell my students that one of the hardest things about ministry is that each Sunday someone is miserable at church because you’re the preacher. I had a member who for eleven years I could count on to give me the head-toss-eye-roll every Sunday. Every Sunday. I can say this here because I know there’s no way this person would darken the door of my blog.

As a rule, ministers are people pleasers. We get into it in part because we want to feel loved and needed. At the very least we carry the pressure to be appreciated, if not loved. Our sermons are often juggling acts on unicycles designed to secure our audience’s admiration. And this can only kill you in the end. It’s a high-wire act with no net.

And then there’s the work itself, the business of inviting people into change they don’t want. I find Heifetz and Linski to be on the mark when they write, “Generally people do not authorize people to make them face what they don’t want to face…” (Leading in Dangerous Times, p 20). I think seminarians should be required to write that on the board a thousand times before they receive ordination.

I think, however, that Paul describes a place to stand in ministry that is realistic about the dangers while still making ministry sustainable, and in the end, rewarding. In 2 Cor 4:1-2, Paul provides my creedo for ministry: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God”

Three things worth noting. First, it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry. While there’s no way around ministry as a wrestling with God, it proceeds only in God’s mercy. I am reminded of Jesus’ statement, “Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” If we can stay in the sweet spot of God’s tender mercies, the burden is light. Which leads to two other observations.

Paul is not interested in securing an audience by being entertaining. He’s commending himself here to those who admire sophistry, who like speakers who flatter and demonstrate rhetorical flourish. Paul will not resort to what amounts to in his estimation to cunning or to falsifying God’s word. Rather, by the open statement of the truth, he appeals to the conscience of everyone. This is the place to aim with people–the conscience–without lapsing into the temptations associated with pleasing. The conscience, for Paul, is like a muscle of judgement or discernment, a place to be formed for the sake of becoming fully adult in Christ. It’s potentially the best place in people. Aim for that.

While standing in the presence of God. Here’s the audience. Not the congregation. And because we do this ministry only by the mercy of God, there’s no audience to secure. I decided long ago that ministry was only survivable within a vivid sense of calling. It’s too damn hard otherwise. To be called is to know what you’re called to and to whom you’re responsible. If people have expectations beyond that, they can do the head-toss-eye-roll until they need a neck brace. It can’t be my problem. This might not keep you from getting fired, but it will keep you from getting crushed.

By God’s mercy. In the conscience of everyone. In the sight of God.

Go hug your minister.

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Reflections on re-entry from an Alaskan cruise

Donna and I are blessed to have generous parents, and the recent form of their generosity took the form of a two-week Alaskan cruise. And I’ll just say that it was a remarkably rich experience. I consider myself an Oregon boy and so consider myself well aquainted with beauty, but seriously I’ve experienced nothing like the beauty we experienced nearly everyday. The mountains, the glaciers, the wildlife, the ocean, the clean air. It’s all a little overwhelming in the best way possible.

Coming back has proved to be difficult in some unexpected ways. It would be hard for anyone to re-engage at work after such a soothing, relaxing experience. I’ll stipulate that everyone would feel that way. But the truly difficult thing has been experiencing how incredibly loud our world is.

Donna and I frequently walk together the half mile to downtown Rochester. It’s one of the best things about our life. To get there, we have to walk down Rochester Rd, a busy four lane street and main north-south thoroughfare for our community. The first time we walked together after the cruise, we could not believe how loud it is. We walked to our favorite eating establishment (where I proposed to Donna about six years ago) and were blown away by how loud it seemed. Admittedly, this was largely the result of a table of about ten women who were across the room from us, but even then it seemed unusually loud.

In just two weeks we had become accustomed to a quieter existence. The ship was quiet. Most of the dining rooms were quiet, even when full of people. But it was our shore excursions that really marked the difference. We were in small coastal towns. There was no traffic. And people just did their life at a lower decibel level, living much more aware of their environments than we do.

Eagles were everywhere. And while its great to see eagles, it was remarkable to hear them. We hiked a few times into dense rainforests where all sound was swallowed up by lush green. We enjoyed spectacular weather, it rained on us only one day, so we were spared even the sound of the rain.

The experience of the noisiness of our return home has seemed like a violent intrusion on our lives.

My favorite hike in Oregon is in the Columbia River Gorge. I have probably made the five mile hike from Wahkeena to Multnomah Falls twenty times. Wahkeena is a cascading falls from the ridge of the gorge to the Coumbia River basin. Switchbacks take you up the gorge, the water on your right, and soon the sounds of nearby I-84 have given way to only the sound of water. It’s wonderful. But my favorite part of the hike is once you get to the top and make your way east to Multnomah. The sound of crashing water gives way to no sound at all. You can see the interstate at various place along the way, but you only hear the trees and ferns and your own footfalls until you come upon the stream that feeds the spectacular Multnomah Falls.

While we live now just a block away from Rochester Rd, there is a rise on the dirt road where our house sits that effectively blocks the street noise. Our house backs up to the woods and our backyard is a refuge from the stressful noise of life. We have eaten on our back deck several times since we’ve been home, and the last two days I have sat in the shade in my backyard and read in the afternoons. It’s been amazing to hear the birds so clearly and distinctly and to hear the wind in the trees.

But beyond the relative peacefulness of this little sanctuary, I have been thankful for the ability to hear myself. I’m not distracted by noise. Nothing is demanding my attention. I find that I go deeper into awareness of my life the longer I am there, and I find myself praying for people I otherwise would be to distracted to think about.

Matthew Crawford, in his wonderful book, The World Beyond Your Head, talks about the need for “attentional commons,” by which he means spaces that aren’t constantly demanding your attention. Space where we can be bodily present and more aware of the world around us. A cruise is an expensive way to find such space (more on the spiritually corrosive effects of a cruise later), but my re-entry into our noisy world has made me appreciate the need for this kind of experience more.

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Preaching: Cover or Sample?

Anyone who’s read my blog for long knows that I am committed to preaching texts. Put more accurately, I am committed to the performance of texts. I think as important as the question, “what does this text say?” is the question, “what does this text want to do?” Some think of the burden of a text based sermon as teaching. I think of it more as helping people experience the text. I’m concerned about what the text says and hope to do a little teaching along the way, but I hope more to draw them into the experience of the world the text would create. I’m always asking, “what in this text wants to perform, and how would these elements perform best for this audience?”

From this standpoint, this makes the sermon similar to a cover. It’s a new performance of an original performance. Sometimes the original performance is so well known and carries such timeless elements, that the cover has to keep close contact with the original. Sometimes, however, the settings are so divergent and the themes so closely tied to the original performance that a more creative approach is called for–an update is in order.

The 2002, Concert for George, marking the one year anniversary of George Harrison’s death, was a concert of covers. Familiar songs like, Here Comes the Son, Something in the Way She Moves, and My Sweet Lord, stayed close to the original (with the exception of McCartney starting Something with the ukulele). My favorite song of the concert, however, is Sam Brown’s version of Horse to Water. A less well known song, it more easily tolerated a very different sounding version. This is more of a guideline than a rule. I also love Patti Smith’s transgressive cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit, or the Milk Carton Kid’s performance of Pink Floyd’s, Wish You Were Here. In cases like these, the familiar thing can once again surprise us and offer new life.

My favorite “cover” preacher is my friend, David Fleer, a rhetoric and homiletics professor at Lipscomb University. David uses the language and metaphors of the text to do the work of the sermon, hoping to get us for a few moments to inhabit the world the text would create. I heard him preach a few weeks ago on the story of David, Nabal, and Abigail. He never left the imaginative palate of the text, but at the same time we knew this text was being performed in Trump’s America, and in the aftermath of episode after episode of gun violence. It was a great cover. A true performance of the text, but with a contemporary audience in view.

I sometimes hear sermons that are content to “sample” the text–to take a riff or a loop and build an entirely new “song” around it. There is no rhetorical “world of the text,” and in turn no effort to draw listeners into the imaginative landscape of the text. A hip hop song might give you a sense of recognition or connection to the “text” of another song, but it is not a cover. Similarly, a sermon might strike a biblical chord of recognition, but leave the rhetorical setting of the text in the rear view mirror. This is not always wrong or bad, but we should be clear that it is not “preaching the text.” It’s sampling, not covering.

Sermons are an obvious place to use the analogy of a cover, but I think it can be applied to ministry as well. More on that to come.


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The Cover, Johnny Cash/Depeche Mode, and Meaning

In my last post, which featured the Led Zeppelin cover, In My Time of Dying, I used the “cover” as an analogy for how biblical materials get used anew in different contexts within Scripture itself. The point I tried to make there was that the original is not always the most authoritative version of a song or scriptural tradition.

In this post, I want to compare Johnny Cash’s cover of Personal Jesus, to Depeche Mode’s original. Cash’s version appears on one of the acclaimed American Series albums he released near the end of his life. These albums feature a lot of covers, some quite surprising. His cover of Nine Inch Nails’ song, Hurt, is perhaps the best well known of these. But he also covers artists as diverse as Roberta Flack, Tom Petty, U2, Simon and Garfunkel, and the list could go on. Some of them work surprisingly well, like his cover of U2’s, One. Some not as well (Bridge Over Troubled Waters). The most satisfying of the covers for me is Cash’s take on the Soundgarden song, Rusty Cage. It’s a surprising choice and tremendous new arrangement under the direction of Rick Rubin.

It’s not surprising, given Cash’s religious devotion, particularly at this point in his life, that he would choose to cover a song with the title, Personal Jesus. The Depeche Mode original made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It’s a synth rock song, driven by electronics and keyboard, with a great groove. Cash’s version is acoustic, a guitar doing most of the work, still with an infectious groove, but less driven as the original. They are significantly different musically speaking.

But Cash is faithful to the lyric, word for word. And yet, in my estimation, the performances mean two completely different things. Depeche Mode wrote the song after reading Priscilla Presley’s, Elvis and Me. Elvis, had become her own personal Jesus. Carried into the song, the lyrics seem to be a critique of televangelists who offer faux spiritual comfort to lonely people. It’s ironic, a parody, a critique. (You can check this interpretation by noticing two other covers, Marylin Manson, and my favorite, Sammy Hagar).

Feeling unknown and you’re all alone,                                                                                      Flesh and bone by the telephone.                                                                                                  Lift up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer.                                                                                  Reach out and touch faith.

When Cash sings these very same lyrics, the meaning of the song changes dramatically. Cash’s evangelical faith holds as the highest value a “personal Jesus.” Jesus can enter your life even if you’re “feeling unknown, and you’re all alone.” Even in your living room, you can be saved. Reach out and touch faith.

We could argue the merits of the different theologies represented here. But the main point to be made is that the very same words can take on completely different meanings in their reuse. Perhaps Cash meant to do this, perhaps not. But the context of the recording, sung by an American country artist with a very public faith near the end of his life, as opposed to a British synth band increasingly known for their darker tendencies, makes all the difference.

I come from a tradition that was built on the idea of restoring the New Testament church. At the very least, the cover analogy provided here, would call into question the very enterprise. It’s possible to cover the original word for word and come up with something that means just the opposite. I love William Placher’s observation in his book, A History of Christian Theology, where he observes that the effort of the 2nd-3rd century church to keep everything the same ended up changing everything.

The power of a good cover, Cash’s or anyone else’s, is that it is contextually authentic. It necessarily presents itself as an interpretation, not a reproduction. Maybe the analogy here is the difference between a cover and a cover band. The cover band cares nothing of context or the surplus of meaning that is present in something as rich and textured as lyric, beat, voice, etc. But a cover, a good cover, brings out of all these potential meanings, something newsworthy–new meaning, an act of interpretation. I would suggest the same is true for all subsequent performances of the biblical narratives, whether in preaching or in the shape of congregations.

Choose the cover. don’t be a cover band.

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The Cover, Led Zeppelin, and the gospel

I watched a documentary on the making of Led Zeppelin’s album, Physical Graffiti last night and it got me thinking about Scripture. I know, right? But here’s how I got there.

I was fascinated by the backstory to the Zeppelin classic, In My Time of Dying. It’s a cover. I learned on the documentary that it was on Bob Dylan’s first album as a cover of a traditional blues song. So, I went searching on Spotify to see who all had covered it. There are over 50 covers of the song on Spotify, most paying homage to Zeppelin’s version. But let’s back up.

We don’t know who wrote or first performed the song, but it shows up on albums by Charlie Patton, J.C. Burnett, and Blind Willie Johnson. Here’s the thing though, it’s got a different title, Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. Over time, it becomes a folk/blues/gospel staple (though this happens largely in the “oral tradition,” performed in traditional audiences without access to recording), eventually appearing on Dylan’s 1961 debut album under the now accepted title, In My Time of Dying.

While Dylan raised the profile of the song, it didn’t become a part of a broader musical consciousness until Zeppelin’s eleven minute version (which is a great way to spend eleven minutes). After their version, the covers proliferated, some staying close to the original, and some interpreting it more loosely or expansively given their own musical genre/abilities and the interests of the audience. For instance, John Mellencamp stays close to the original, albeit without the long instrumental sections of the Zeppelin version. The Succulents take a more folky approach with acoustic guitars and lush harmonies, but still sound more like Zeppelin than Dylan or Blind Willie Johnson. The band, Last Supper gives it a kind of Depeche Mode spin, while Umillo gives it an abbreviated electronic version. Again, it’s clear that dthe primary influence in all these cases is Zeppelin and not someone like Charlie Patton.

Ok, this is mildly interesting, but what does this have to do with Scripture or the gospel? Scripture, in some ways, is like a series of covers, traditional materials being reused in different contexts. Sometimes, the original has the most authority in how the tradition gets used and reused, but sometimes not.

Let me make a really rough analogy here. The original version of the song might be the Genesis version. It has resonance, but when people connect to the song, it’s not typically through the Genesis version. The wording’s a bit different than the the way we’ve come to know things, the musical setting a bit different.

Dylan, in this analogy, might be an exilic prophet, recovering the original and bringing to expression the development of the “oral tradition” worked out in communities over time, but now with a different title and a different musical setting. In ways, Dylan’s version paves the way for Zeppelin’s version, but no one is rushing to cover this “Dylan song.”

The version of the song that lifts it to the status of revelation is Zeppelin’s. This is the “gospel” (remember, this is an analogy) version of the song, everything coming after finding its reference point here, not with the original, and not with Dylan (though we should point out that Zeppelin owes more musically to the older blues tradition, than to Dylan). Every subsequent performance is an effort to embody the gospel given the place and time in which we find ourselves.

Again, this is not unlike Scripture, though sometimes the original is the most authoritative, the version from which other biblical authors riff. But whatever the case, the fact remains, Scripture is always being used and reused (the best parts, anyway) in relation to the new contexts in which it is being performed. Sometimes these performances attempt to be note-for-note, word-for-word, but sometimes the performance is surprising, the same song, but altogether something new and different. Some of these new performances are both faithful and original. Some are heretical.

I learned about this way of thinking about Scripture from the writing of Richard Hays, who has made a stellar academic career out of noticing how the NT uses the Hebrew Scriptures. His book, Echoes of Scripture in Paul, profoundly changed the way I conceived preaching. His student, Ross Wagner, has admirably taken up the same project and applied it directly to a “missional” way of reading Scripture. I want to write a few more posts around this theme anticipating what we will do at our Fall ministry conference, Streaming, for which Ross Wagner will be one of our featured presenters.

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