Scribes Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven: Ministry in Matthew, Part 2

One reader of my last blog post lamented that I left you hanging. I suggested that scribal communities are sometimes fairly insular or defensive when it comes to mission. They live deeply in the alternative world of Scripture as a way to avoid the world in front of them. Matthew seems to avoid this temptation, I suggest, and promised I would explore why that was the case. Truth be told, I was working on a hunch and didn’t have much more to say at that moment. But I’ve thought about it more and think I have some things to say.

Let me begin by stating a commitment I have in terms of the word “missional.” For me, the word missional points less to a view of the church or a list of activities that might make one missional, and points more to the new era in which we live. We are not in Kansas any more and now have more of a missionary engagement within our own cultural settings. We can no longer assume that we are at the centers of cultural power and influence, and will have to learn a more apostolic way of being God’s people in a de-centered space. This is good new for the world and for the church. The legacy of mission within the realities of Christendom was too often colonialism. When the church is at the center of societal power, it is easy to confuse its own cultural expression of Christianity as normative. Taking Western civilization and Christianity are easily confused. “Missional,” in my estimation, is an attempt to define the God-church-world relationship in a way that resists colonialism.

A big part of keeping the church from identifying its particular form with the presence of God in the world is to work within open structures. For instance, I think it’s fair to say that Western theology had an over-realized eschatology. The kingdom of God wasn’t coming, it was here in the form of the church. Trinitarian views of God were largely ignored, especially social trinitarian views in which the communal nature of God was also open to the world. Salvation was viewed as a transaction between God and the individual, ignoring the larger views of salvation in Scripture that involve a coming new creation. I could go on here, but the point is that theological notions that tend toward closure, that are not open to the ongoing work of the coming and living God, tend to support a more colonial practice of mission.

The same is true for Scripture. If you think of Scripture as a complete statement of what it means to be God’s people for all time in every place, then there’s little need to pay attention to your world in which God might still be active. You end up defending the gains of the past instead of living creatively in the dynamics of Word and world. Scripture becomes the final word, a closed system, not the first word that pulls you deeper into the realities of God and neighbor. Matthew, I believe, sees being a people of the Word in this latter sense.

Let me reiterate that in Matthew Jesus is committed to a certain performance of Scripture. He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and not a jot or a tittle will pass away until all is accomplished. Both Jesus and the Pharisees, however, realize that Scripture has to be interpreted in light of Israel’s new circumstances, circumstances very different from the ones in which they originated. In the previous post, we have already noted that Jesus reads Scripture with a priority of mercy over sacrifice. I think it’s safe to say that the way of mercy is more open-ended than the path of sacrifice. After all, Peter asks, “how often should I forgive, seven times?” Seventy seven times is Jesus’ response, in other words, an option that never seeks closure.

But I think the clearest place this might be seen is in 5:21-48, the section in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus contrasts traditional teaching (You have heard it was said) with the way of the kingdom (but I say unto you). “You have heard it said, you shall not murder (closure)…, but I say to you that if you are angry with your brother is sister… (open)” (5:21-22). In each case, Jesus pushes beyond the traditional teaching in such a way that the hearer is pulled deeper into the “exceeding righteousness” of the kingdom, deeper into the life of God and neighbor. This more demanding way is so because it can’t be reduced to a set of rules or precedents. The kingdom is a coming reality that requires ongoing discernment. This is how I understand Jesus’ invitation to be “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). It is less a destination and more a call to continuously be drawn into the life of God and neighbor.

This call to a deeper commitment to God and neighbor, however, is a gentle yoke and light burden precisely because the God who stands behind it all is merciful. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the way of mercy makes us into the kind of people who demonstrate the exceeding righteousness. These are the people who can be trusted with the authority of heaven. And at the risk of another cliff hanger, that will be the focus of the next post.

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Ministry in Matthew: Scribes Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven

At the very center of Matthew’s gospel we find parables on the kingdom of Heaven. It is the third of five sections of Jesus’ teaching which end with the phrase, “When Jesus had finished saying these things” (We will return to this momentarily). At the conclusion of the parables, Jesus asks the disciples if they have understood what he has said. Unlike Mark, where the disciples are full of misunderstanding, in Matthew they reply that they have understood. Jesus responds with what I take to be the pastoral intention of the gospel: I tell you the truth, a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is one who brings from his storehouse both treasure old and treasure new.” Reading Matthew, we are looking for scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew’s community is a scribal community. That is, they are a people of the book. Let me see if I can demonstrate this claim a few ways. First, Jesus’ opponents in Matthew are limited to the scribes and do not include Pharisees, nor the Sadducees or Herodians, or any other opponents that appear in the other gospels. This may indicate a date after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, when Jewish groups like the Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes are no longer viable, leaving only Christians and Pharisees. At the very least we can say that Matthew arranges the story as a conflict between Pharisees and Jesus, the Pharisees a group that defines itself around a certain performance of Torah. They too, are a people of the book. In many ways, Jesus is presented in Matthew as a more faithful interpreter of Torah.

In Matthew, Jesus is Israel’s prophet and teacher. He is like Moses, but greater. Matthew tells the story of Jesus in ways that call to mind Moses’ story. Like Moses, the infant Jesus is threatened by a king who kills all male children of a certain age. Like Moses, Jesus comes up out of Egypt. Jesus’ first act in his public ministry is to bring God’s word from a mountain. There are five teaching discourses in Matthew, all ending with the phrase, “after Jesus finished saying these things…” (8:1, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1), reminding us of the five books of Moses. In Matthew 23, Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees as “those who sit on Moses’ seat,” but there is little doubt that Jesus is a greater teacher of Israel than Moses.

Remember, right off the bat, Jesus declares that he has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He claims that unless “your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you can not enter the kingdom of God.” A deliberate echo of these texts is found in the final discourse in Mt 23. While Jesus’ disciples are not to imitate what those “who sit on Moses’ seat do,” they are to pay attention to what they teach. Unlike Jesus, these teachers lock people out of the kingdom of God and do not enter themselves. While Jesus’ burden is light and his yoke is easy, those who sit on Moses’ seat tie on heavy burdens and don’t lift a finger to help people bear them.

This is the where the battle line is drawn in Matthew, and, at its core, the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is how they perform Scripture.

Two stories demonstrate the difference in how the Scriptures are being performed differently by Jesus and the Pharisees. Both stories are carried over from Mark nearly verbatim, highlighting Matthew’s editorial hand. In the first (9:9-13), the calling of Levi, Matthew departs from a verbatim use of the same story in Mark at only one point, adding a quotation from the prophets, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” (9:13). The second is the story of the disciples plucking grain on the sabbath (12:1-8), immediately following Jesus’ saying about his burden being easy and his yoke light. Again, this is a story that follows Mark’s version closely, but here we have three new elements. First, only Matthew tells us that the disciples were hungry, highlighting there need. Second, in Mark, Jesus refutes the Pharisees’ understanding using one scriptural citation. In Matthew there are two, highlighting that Jesus is a better interpreter of Scripture. Third, we have the repeat of the prophetic refrain, “had you known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7).

This impulse, “mercy, not sacrifice,” is something of a hermeneutical lens for Jesus that produces a very different performance of Scripture. The story of plucking grain on the sabbath seems to function as a kind of case study in “binding and loosing,” a theme unique to Matthew. The scene of Peter’s confession of Jesus in Matthew 16 includes the saying, “whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.” This saying occurs again in chapter 18 in the context of going to your brother who has sinned against you. The authority to bind and loose is Jesus’ own, “for where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am there with you” (18:20). This is an echo of the beginning of the gospel and the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, and a foreshadowing of the end, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The significance of binding and loosing rests in the need to apply Scripture authoritatively in circumstances other than those in which it was written. How much of Scripture is binding? How much is not? How do we determine the difference? The answer in Matthew seems to be found in the prophetic utterance, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

The space of a blog keeps me from fully exploring this theme here, but suffice it to say it runs throughout the gospel. (You can find more here: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol16/iss4/6/)

The issue for a textually inscribed people is aversion to the world, and, therefore, a defensive view of mission. Scripture can become an alternative and ideal world that gives us permission to disengage from the less than ideal in which we live. Yet, Matthew seems to avoid this temptation. We’ll examine why in the next post.

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Learning with others when we’re disoriented

In my previous post, I wrote about the possibility of adaptive change when our sense of normal has been disrupted, as has happened due to the pandemic. Paying attention to our circumstances in the right kinds of ways might very well lead to discerning God’s calling on our lives in our new circumstance.

Still, even if we’re alert and asking the right kinds of questions, new possibilities can be difficult to see because we carry so many assumptions related to how we’ve done things in the past. Heifetz and Linski remind us that the ways we do things come from somewhere, and to move away from those practices seems disloyal. So, even if we’re willing to take risks, there are other emotional forces that make this kind of work difficult.

It helps when we’re in situations like this to learn with others, other leaders, other congregations, other organizations. It’s not so much that the “other” is going to have the solution to our problems, though we may learn valuable things to imitate from time to time. It’s more that learning with others gives us more perspective, more distance on ourselves. When I consult with groups of congregations, its often the case that they learn more about themselves from observing others than they do through self-reflection alone.

This is especially true of volunteers in congregations. They often learn more from volunteers in other congregations than they do from the professionals on staff in their own congregation. There are a lot of dynamics in play here, but I believe one is that members rightly resist feeling like they are the project of the pastoral staff. The presence of others who have responsibilities closer to their own often creates fruitful learning space.

Church Innovations, the group I consult with, is firmly committed to the notion that the real transformation within a congregation will happen by increasing the capacity of volunteers. While helping staff and other formal leadership learn to take on different kinds of leading is very important to innovation, the real work is among the rank and file membership. And they learn best from others who are doing similar tasks in other congregational contexts.

Learning from others seems impossible when we’re sheltering in place. It seems like all of our energies are required just to survive. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that our best future requires energy learning from others rather than minding our own store. Learning with others, however, creates both a vital sense of companionship in a time of isolation, and the perspectival distance necessary for us to interpret our own experience better.

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Asking the right questions of our season of disruption.

I know that being a church leader during this pandemic has been brutal. The smooth, well-worn ways of being a “church” have been disrupted and we are right to feel like things may never be the same. We have stepped through some kind of portal and entered a time when the experience of the pandemic will continue to be with us even when it’s safe to resume a more public life.

My son-in-law has worked from home during the pandemic, like a lot of us. And his company has realized that it spends way too much money on physical space. Working from home might continue beyond the pandemic. In my own work, which was already largely remote, I have made a more permanent work space in my basement. I have an actual office now and am not just doing work from the kitchen table or the living room couch. I live so close to campus that I can be there in a matter of minutes if I need to be, but my students and colleagues have also gotten pretty good at doing things over Zoom to the extent that I wonder if things will ever go back to “normal.”

My point is, in areas other than church life, we’ve adapted, learned new skills, and won’t simply return to the way things were. I understand the very real losses of not being together in an embodied community. In my own worshipping community, we miss singing together and have found that some of our practices of praying together are difficult to do over Zoom. We’ve compensated the best we can. For those not suffering from an essential tremor (my thorn in the flesh), singing together with our hands has become meaningful and we do a time of examen in the place of our regular prayer practice. But we miss being together, hugging each other, eating together and look forward to being able to do those things again. So, there are real losses from the past year, but we’ve also developed some new capacities and learned some things that hopefully will go with us into a new future.

Ok, here’s what I’m driving at. While we are rightfully anxious for the pandemic to be behind us, we shouldn’t be in a big hurry to get things back to just the way they were. The thing about a pandemic or any prolonged disruption in business as usual, is that it provides the space for adaptation, for innovation, for learning new skills. And it also can teach us what things we’ve spent a lot of energy on in the past that might not be worth it. The key is to learn to be attentive to our experiences in fruitful ways.

Too often, churches only attend to the question, “Did it work?” That’s typically a question related to numbers, both people and dollars. In the leadership program I lead, and in the consulting work that I do, we teach attending through a different set of questions. What happened? What did we learn? What surprised us? What might God be calling us to be or to do? These are far better questions in terms of attending to our experience.

I think its reasonable to expect that there will be numerical losses related to the pandemic, that the typical ways that we have done church haven’t created sufficient bonds of belonging to hold people together in the face of prolonged disruption. So, leaders might find themselves anxious about recovering their lost market share. I know these pressures are real and they strike at issues of livelihood and survivability. But I also know that anxiety creates exactly the opposite environment than one conducive to new life.

So, now is the time to attend in trust to the new thing that might be emerging. Now is not the time to rush back to business as usual. Slow down, be attentive. What surprising new skills or capacities have we learned? What have we learned about what’s necessary and what is only busy work that distracts us from what’s necessary? Have we learned anything in the category of less is more? Now is the time for curiosity about what new thing God might be calling us to be or to do.

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In the power of the Spirit, A brief meditation on Jesus and what it means to be human

In Luke’s gospel, the Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism, and full of the Holy Spirit, he is led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan. He then returns to Galilee “filled with the power of the Spirit,” and preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth from Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor… .” In the space of one chapter, there are five references to the Holy Spirit coming upon or filling Jesus with power. Luke’s conclusion is unmistakable, Jesus fulfills his ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This clear association between the Holy Spirit and Jesus seems obvious enough to us who have come to think of God in Trinitarian terms. It reinforces for us our belief in the divinity of Jesus. I would like to suggest, however, that it says as much about Jesus’ humanity as it does his divinity.

Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ ministry being accomplished in the power of the Spirit has always struck me. Of course, it sets up the story of Acts where the church continues the ministry of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh at Pentecost. Jesus ministers in the power of the Spirit. The church ministers in the power of the Spirit. Luke could, however, make the point that the church ministers in the power of the risen Christ without emphasizing the same about Jesus in such an emphatic way. After all, it would seem that divine power would come as a standard feature for anyone bearing the designation, “Son of God.” Doesn’t Jesus do things in his own power? Why would there be a need to emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit?

We think of Jesus the way we Westerners think of most individuals. What it means to be an individual is to be distinct, autonomous, self-possessing and self-directing. We are individuals before we are persons in relation. This view of what it means to be a self would be even more true of Jesus. Everything comes on board. Jesus is autonomous and self-possessing, without need.

Charles Taylor describes the modern view of what it means to be an individual as a “buffered self,” as opposed to earlier views of what it meant to be human that were characterized by porosity, the boundary of the self being open and fluid to powers beyond an interior life. The buffered self, however, is the task of the individual, to determine our identities through self-discovery. Jesus is not a buffered self. His identity is conferred upon him at his baptism. He is the beloved Son of the Father, and he lives out that identity not in his own power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ identity comes to him through a community of persons. His life is porous to the Holy Spirit. To use John Zizioulas’ term, he is a being in relation.

If this is true of Jesus’ humanity, then it is surely true of our as well. We are not self-originating, self-possessing individuals. There is nothing we have that has not been mediated to us in some way. We exist in a complex of relational, biological, and social factors that precede us and constitute our identities in many ways. This does not deny our agency or responsibility for our lives, but it surely suggests we are more than buffered selves.

In fact, the blessing of being in Christ is that we have an identity conferred upon us at our baptism. Like Jesus, we also have confirmation that we are beloved by God and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This does not negate other factors in our life that influence our identities, but it places these within this more fundamental framework. The difficulty of constructing our own identities as a task is that we are porous selves and it is often hard to sort out who we are amid the cacophony of voices and memory fragments and powers that we accumulate as we move through life. Salvation is in large measure the gift of an unshakeable narrative that doesn’t replace our own, but offers healing and reconciling love in the midst of all our contradictions. This is surely to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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Third Sunday of Advent—A sermon on joy

Isaiah 61

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 5Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; 6but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. 7Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. 8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

You won’t find it in a giggle. You won’t get it in a happy meal. Or, if you’re emotionally healthy, from getting a great deal on cyber Tuesday. It’s more than satisfaction, or happiness. It runs deeper than that. Joy comes from the often surprising realization that deep down, under it all, things are as they should be. Pure life. It’s more than an inner feeling or disposition. Joy is in your body, you can feel it in your bones. There’s a jailbreak of endorphines. In fact, joy is ecstatic. It moves through your body and it fills an entire room. Is there anything better than sharing in the joy of another person? It’s shareable and communal, it doesn’t happen just within us, it happens between us. You simply can’t keep joy to yourself.

And here’s a thing about joy, it often comes in relation to that other deep bodily experience–despair, the sense that things will never be ok. Pure death. Joy is often the outcome when your fortunes have been reversed, when in the language of our prophet, you receive “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit,” when fortunes are reversed deep to deep. When exile no longer frames your waking and dreaming, but instead the devastation of many generations has been replaced with a new vision of restored cities, of coming home. Our prophet says that it is precisely the people who have experienced double the shame and dishonor who will find everlasting joy to be theirs. So, when the prodigal has returned, when the cancer is in remission, when you’re surprised by finding a pearl of great price, when you hold that granddaughter in your arms, when you know finally that you have found a place to belong. Joy everlasting.

And for those with faith, there is nothing left to do “but greatly rejoice in the Lord, exult in my God with my whole being,” to praise like no one’s watching. Joy.

Our prophet says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me… to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

Here’s what caught my ear when I read this. And maybe I’m parsing things too finely, splitting hairs for the sake of a sermon point. But the prophet says, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me. I don’t talk that way, do you talk that way? I don’t talk about the Spirit of the Lord much at all, and my friends who do talk about the Spirit of the Lord don’t say “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” They are more likely to say, “The Spirit of the Lord is within me. I felt the Spirit move within me, prompt me to give you a word.” Well, maybe. I listen, I believe that that can happen. But I can’t tell what’s really inside you. I can’t distinguish between your feelings and your desires, the voice of God, from the voice in your own head. That’s the problem with having a Spirit that is only within you.

But here, the Spirit’s work is upon the prophet. It’s like the source is external to the prophet, something more public and observable than it is private and hidden. It’s shareable because its between us and all around us. It’s upon us. And It’s like the prophet knows that he has an anointing from God because of what is being done and proclaimed. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because I’ve got good news for the oppressed, I’m binding up the broken hearted, proclaiming liberation for the exiles and release to the prisoners, proclaiming the day of the Lord’s favor. Want tangible evidence that the Spirit of the Lord is upon me? Testing the Spirits? Here you go. Want to see my prophetic resume? Here you go. This is what it sounds and looks like when the Spirit of the Lord is upon you.

Which is what Luke wants us to know about Jesus. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him. The Spirit’s presence is public and observable, tangible and demonstrable. It’s not so much within him, but on him, and between others and himself. Luke is the only gospel that tells us that after his temptation, Jesus went up into Galilee in the power of the Spirit. He doesn’t come in his own power, but in the power of the Spirit. And then Luke moves up a story that comes later in Mark, the story of preaching in Nazareth, so that the first words we hear from Jesus’ mouth, words that define his ministry, are words from Isaiah 61 (with a few words from Is 58 thrown in):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Do you want to see Jesus’ resume? Do you want to know if he’s the long awaited bearer of the Spirit of God? Here’s the plan, the messianic platform, our Messiah bingo scorecard for those playing at home. Because Jesus is bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release for exiles, recovery of sight for the blind, letting the oppressed go free, he has the Spirit of God. Because. Because these are the priorities in his ministry, we recognize him as the one bringing at long last the end to Israel’s exile, to demonstrate the year of the Lord’s favor. We recognize him as one upon whom the Spirit has fallen.

But Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 aren’t quite the same, are they? Did you notice the difference?

I recently found, we’ll call him Bill, on facebook. I wasn’t looking for him. Facebook thought maybe we should be friends given the friends we share in common. But I would never “friend” Bill, who was my nemesis in jr. high, the antagonist in the nightmares that haunt my life to this day. He made my life miserable. He and his toadies bullied me and opened to me a level of hell I didn’t know existed.

But, I clicked on his profile to see what his life was like. I had imagined over the 47 years subsequent to jr high, even hoped, that his life turned out miserably, that I would ultimately triumph over him with the demonstration of a better life. It might be why I have two doctorates, just to show him. And I needed to imagine that his life had turned out miserably, that life had bullied him. Karma, baby. Imagine my disappointment when I saw that his life was good. He hadn’t lost limbs or had some terrible disfiguring injury or ended up a Lions fan. He owned a successful business and had a beautiful family.

And I felt badly that I wished harm for him.

Look, I understand the impulse to seek consolation in the humiliation of your enemy. I understand why Israel imagined the day of the Lord as a day of vengeance for those who had oppressed them. There it is plainly in Is 61,”to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of the vengeance of our God.” I get why it would feel right to imagine foreigners being your slaves, dressing your vines, when you had once been theirs. I understand why you would indulge the thought that their wealth will one day be yours, that fortunes will be reversed, the way Is 61 imagines. This feels like justice to us, and we need to believe that God is just. I get it.

But in Luke 4, Jesus leaves out the part about vengeance. “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” full stop. And then, in case we miss the point, he proceeds to tell two stories about God showing favoritism to Gentiles in the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. And the crowd is so injured by the thought of it that they tried to throw him off a cliff, shouting “no vengeance, no comfort.”

Here’s the thing about vengeance that I think Jesus knew. It doesn’t produce joy. It might create a thin sense of satisfaction, but ultimately it doesn’t comfort, it doesn’t turn ashes into a garland, or mourning into the oil of gladness. It doesn’t make our hearts bigger. It makes them smaller, and it makes the world meaner. Because vengeance can’t set the world to right, it diminishes the possibility for joy.

And if there’s one thing I know about the Spirit of God, it produces joy from the deep wellspring of life. Luke is the gospel of the Holy Spirit, and it’s striking how often joy or rejoicing is mentioned together with mentions of the Spirit. My favorite is the scene in Luke 10. The 70 that Jesus sent out return with joy, reporting that in his name, even the demons submit to them. And then Luke adds, “in that very hour, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life. The work of the Spirit is always moving toward joy, toward life, toward the way things will be in the future of God. Wherever there is true joy, the Spirit of life is present. And so, it is necessarily evidence of the Spirit when prophets identify themselves with the poor, with the brokenhearted, with the exile and the prisoner. These are the preconditions for the greatest kind of joy, for turning ashes to garlands, for turning mourning into the oil of gladness, for turning despair into joy, death into life.

It would be hard to imagine 2020 as the year of the Lord’s favor. The losses have been great. We have been exiled in our own homes. And I know there’s still a lot we don’t know about the vaccines, and I know some people can’t take them and some people won’t. But I was deeply moved this week when I watched the first vaccine injections and saw the experience of great joy it produced in the hospital staff. The Spirit of the Lord was upon us. And I was reminded this week that the Spirit was poured out on all flesh at Pentecost, making available the spirit of prophecy to us all, young and old, male and female, even slave and free, infecting us all as carriers of joy. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, ya’al. There will be experiences of great joy, of life even in the midst of despair, even in the midst of a pandemic. You might even find yourself praising like no one’s watching.

Amen

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Ministry in Mark, part 2

I visited, several years after having left, the first congregation I served. They asked me to preach, and so I did, a sermon from the gospel of Mark. The congregation was generous in their praise afterward. The young preacher had gone off and gotten better! One woman, though, was a little less sure. She offered, “That was a beautiful sermon. What in the world did it mean?” The stress of her comment in my hearing seemed to be on the second sentence, and not the first. I felt rebuked.

But having spent a few days again with Mark for the writing of these blogs, I think Mark might have encouraged me to consider it a compliment and respond to her, “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear” (Mk 4:23). In the search engine age we live in, the allure of instant understanding has eclipsed our capacity to ponder a mystery. Preachers in this age are tempted to spoon feed easily digestible portions of immediately practical advice to hopelessly hurried consumers, and in so doing guarantee that they do not develop ears to hear the mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.

The rhetoric of Mark, the rhetoric of ministry. As I noted in the previous blog, Mark is long on narrative and short on explanation. Only rarely does he look up from the details of the story to give the reader a wink or a nod or a scriptural citation. This is in keeping with the story being told. The life of Jesus is an apocalyptic parable, turning the world as we know it upside down and changing all of our definitions of “Christ,” “Son of David,” “Son of Man,” and “Son of God” along the way. The risk for Mark would be turning the story over to our preexisting categories and expectations. This is a story intended to tear open the heavens and call us into something totally new for the sake of our salvation.

I love Rowan Williams characterization of Mark’s treatment of Jesus: “Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others” (Christ on Trial, 127). Richard Hays builds on this insight by insisting that Mark speaks through the stories and symbols of Israel’s scripture intermingled with the stories of Jesus. “If it is misleading, or careless of the mystery to say ‘Jesus is the God of Israel’–just as it is not permitted to speak the ineffable name of God figured in the Tetragrammaton–there is still a way of narrating who Jesus is by telling stories in which he has the authority to forgive sins, to still storms, to walk on the sea…” (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 102).

I am following the lead of Williams and Hays simply to say that we should be more careful with the reputation of Jesus. What we say about him and the titles we attribute to him, will be measured against how we act in the world. Even our own understandings of words like “lord,” or “king,” or “Son of God” are waterlogged with wrongheaded understandings of authority and power, both God’s and ours. Mark’s gospel is a collective “get behind me Satan” to those who misunderstand Jesus’ mission and ours in the world. I think Mark would tell us to take great care with our speech about God, and instead let the fact that we live as if the last are first, and the least are the greatest, to represent the identity of Jesus into the world.

God, church, world in Mark. The condition of the world (irredeemable) and the agency of God (the coming One), dominate Mark’s perspective related to mission. Again, Mark’s view of the world is apocalyptic. There is no hope for the world within history (things will get worse before they get better), but will only come through God’s direction intervention, bringing both judgment on the old age and the possibility of a new future–the kingdom of God. Whatever role the people of God play in all of this is worked out in relation to this apocalyptic framework.

As with all things in Mark, the “church” is not an explicit theme. The word ecclesia never appears in Mark. Still, this is a story of renewal for God’s people, Israel. The selection of twelve disciples reveals Jesus’ own belief that God’s work of renewal includes a restored Israel–a community embracing the way of life indicated by the kingdom of God.

This is God’s work, and doesn’t come through human initiative. There’s nothing the people of God can do to establish the kingdom of God. There is no path of progress or restoration that can bring the kingdom or restore Israel’g glory. It is the apocalyptic work of God. The people of God, therefore, live in anticipation of what is coming, discerning the presence of and joining in the coming of the kingdom. For those with eyes to see, the evidence of God’s work in the world is discernible. There are signs to be read and directions to follow. The skills, then, necessary for following Jesus are interpretative, being attentive to the world through the lens of the self-giving life of Jesus.

Mark’s world is full of powers hostile to those who would follow Jesus. There are demons and scheming ruling authorities and menacing crowds. In keeping with this, the parable of the soils seems to emphasize the rocky soil, indicating those who at first receive the word with joy, but when “trouble and persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (4:16-17). This mirrors the story of the twelve in Mark, who follow enthusiastically early in the gospel only to scatter during the trouble surrounding the crucifixion. By placing the cross at the heart of the gospel, Mark reminds his readers of the very nature of the story. The kingdom of God does not arrive with flowers and rainbows, but with suffering and a death that leads to resurrection.

This is hard stuff to hear. It’s hard to preach. But Mark sets the condition of the world so deeply against the grain of God’s kingdom that the only path to something different, to something newsworthy, is death and resurrection. We should be clear eyed about what story we’re joining. Jesus invites his followers to “repent and believe the good news” (1:15), and the shape of that repentance is to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus.

The good news is that if we scatter and lose sight of our Lord, we can always find him again in Galilee. The story begins and ends there. Jesus comes out of Galilee with the good news of God. In Peter’s denial of Jesus in Mark 14, the slave girl near the fire identifies him as a Galilean, which Peter vigorously denies. Before his death, Jesus tells his disciples to meet him in Galilee, unlike Luke where they are told to wait in Jerusalem. And the women at the tomb are told to fell his followers that Jesus has gone before them to Galilee.

Galilee indicates an unlikely place for the home base of the kingdom of God, away from traditional centers of power and associated with ill-conceived insurrection. This, in Mark, is the natural habitat for the kingdom of God. An unlikely Messiah, with an unlikely mission (death and resurrection), from an unlikely location. Mark’s story with Jesus always begins here and in other places like Galilee.

The word “missional” refers principally to the church’s location in society. The end of Christendom in the West has been met with much hand wringing in churches more accustomed to Jerusalem, or even Rome, than Galilee. In my neighborhood, multi-campus churches are more likely to franchise in affluent communities than they are in places like Detroit, Pontiac, or Flint. Churches attuned to new missional era, in contrast, would find the move away from cultural centers of power to the margins an invitation to meet Jesus again in Galilee. Let those with ears to hear…

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The heavens were torn asunder: ministry in Mark, part one

In my estimation, there is no more beautifully crafted, enigmatic treatment of the life of Jesus than the gospel of Mark. From the packed introduction, to the passion predictions occupying the middle of the gospel, to the abrupt ending that leaves the reader with fear and trembling and not rejoicing, there is no wasted effort. The reader is moved briskly through the life of Jesus and with very little editorial help from the author along the way.

There are clues to Mark’s understanding of Jesus along the way, but only for those with eyes to see. Scriptural citations or allusions, though many, are rarely cited. The amount of space given to Jesus’ teaching is spare in comparison to the other gospels, and what teaching we do have is often enigmatic and puzzling. This is significant because other gospel writers use teaching in unique combinations to editorialize on the actions of Jesus. Not so here. We’re on our own. Mark won’t spoon feed us.

And so the readers, like the twelve, start the gospel following Jesus enthusiastically only to identify with them later in their confusion over who he is and what he’s doing.

So, what is Jesus doing in the gospel of Mark? The clues are there from the beginning. After providing a statement related to Jesus’ identity in 1:1, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (messiah), Son of God,” Mark quotes Isaiah 40, along with some scraps from Malachi and Exodus. The Isaiah 40 text, which ends with “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” announces the long awaited end of the exile for Israel. From a highway in the dessert, the Lord will lead his people in a second Exodus and establish the rule of God again over his people in the presence of the nations of the earth. From his baptism in the wilderness, through Galilee, and eventually to Jerusalem, Jesus enters hostile territory (demons and human opposition) to establish again God’s rule over his people. Jesus, as Christ and Son of God, has come to end the exile, bringing both judgment and hope for God’s people, Israel.

At Jesus’ baptism, only Mark tells us that the heavens were “torn apart” as the Spirit in the from of a dove descends on Jesus and a voice from heaven rightly identifies him, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11). Richard Hays sees the phrase “torn apart” as a reference to Isaiah 64:1, in which the prophet beseeches the Lord to “tear apart the heavens” and act to at long last deliver Israel from the rule of others. (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 16-17). Jesus is an eschatological figure, the Son of Man, long promised to restore the kingdom to Israel in the final age. The opening of the gospel ends with a brief summary, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news” (1:14-15).

While the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism identifies him rightly, both here and at his transfiguration (9:7), other human voices consistently misidentify him. The most notable occurrence of this is after Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). Peter gets the titles half right and the meaning all wrong when he confesses Jesus to be the Christ, but not the Son of God, and then rebukes Jesus when he explains that being the Christ entails suffering, rejection, and death. “Get behind me, Satan,” is Jesus’ pointed rejoinder.

In contrast to Peter, the rest of the twelve, and the religious leaders (“He is of Beelzebul”), the demons consistently confess Jesus rightly as do outsiders to Israel. In fact, the demons obey Jesus and are subject to his authority. Humans, on the other hand, are disobedient and testify to his actions even though he forbids them to speak of them. In fact, in the scene in which Peter confesses Jesus to be Israel’s messiah, Mark reports that Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (8:30).

This is often referred to by Markan scholars as the “messianic secret.” Unlike other gospels, notably John, Jesus is coy, not openly confessing his identity. It appears that this has something to do with the centrality of the death of Jesus in Mark. Chapters 8-10 function as a thematic center to the gospel, featuring three passion predictions (8:31-9:1, 9:33-37, 10:32-45). Each story features Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection, the disciples demonstrating their lack of comprehension, and Jesus teaching on the nature of being a disciple.

We have already seen that Peter misunderstands Jesus’ mission when he takes him aside and rebukes him (8:32). We haven’t yet noticed in that account the teaching on what it means to follow Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it” (8:34-35). This pattern repeats two more times as the disciples argue about who is the greatest or seek positions of power in the coming kingdom of God, to which Jesus says things like “those who would be great, must be the least,” and “those who would be first, must be last.”

The death of Jesus in Mark is not principally about the forgiveness of sins in Mark. Jesus has the authority to forgive sins apart from his death. Rather, Jesus’ death is the outcome of a particular way of life, and invites the same in those who would follow him. The blood of Christ is tied in Mark, not to the levitical codes or to the cult of sacrifice, but to the Exodus story in which Moses sprinkles blood on the people as a sign of covenant (Ex 24:8). Jesus offers his blood in the last supper in Mark as the blood of the new covenant (Mk 14:24), reaffirming the theme of a second Exodus we saw in the opening lines of the gospel.

The trial and death of Jesus also occupy the end of the gospel. Unlike the other gospels, there are no resurrection appearances, only an empty tomb and the appearance of a young man in white robes who tells the women who have come to anoint Jesus’ body that the crucified one, Jesus of Nazareth, has been raised. Peter and the others are to meet him in Galilee, where our story began. Again this differs from other gospel accounts, notably Luke, where the disciples are told to wait in Jerusalem. The gospel ends with the women saying nothing to anyone “for terror and amazement seized them” and “they were afraid” (16:1-8, which I take as the original ending of the gospel).

But I’ve skipped an important detail. The only human voice in the gospel to confess Jesus to be the Son of God was a Roman centurion, who when he saw Jesus die said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39). Jesus has come as the one to reestablish God’s rule over Israel, to end the time of exile and lead God’s people from a wilderness and into the kingdom of God. At the heart of that mission, however, is the shocking story of a crucified messiah. Moreover, it is precisely the death of Jesus that manifests the nature of this new Exodus. God has indeed torn open the heavens and introduced a shocking new story of deliverance. Mark is protective of the identity of Jesus as Son of God, refusing it to be attached to any reality other than the death of Jesus, withholding that confession until the very end of the story. Let those with ears to hear…

One last story detail. Indeed, there are many that I could add, particularly to build out the notion of Jesus’ coming as the end of exile and the beginning of a second Exodus. I want, however, to tie the beginning and end of the gospel together in one more way. Jesus’ ministry begins in Galilee. The opening announcement of his ministry is surprising. Mark reminds us that the setting for this “gospel of God” comes after John has been put in prison, and that its origins are not in Jerusalem or even Judea, but Galilee. It begins outside of officially sanctioned religious authority. It begins in the precincts of exile, in a wilderness, and moves toward Jerusalem. And as we have seen, the disciples are instructed at the end to meet the risen Jesus who has gone before them to Galilee.

Now given the poor performance of the twelve in Mark, it is good news that the story can always begin again. But I think of greater significance is the fact that the origin of the story, which indicate something of its character, is located outside of the realm of religious and imperial authority. It is the only fitting beginning and ending for a story that would tear open the heavens and name a crucified Nazarene as the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah.

So, this is something of a way to brief summary. In the next post, I will offer some ministry implications.

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The gospels, the practice of theology, and the tasks of ministry

If you will allow me an overly general observation, there are fundamentally two kinds of theology with two corresponding ways of thinking about ministry. One is a theology from above which moves from revelation to experience, context being secondary and sometimes irrelevant to the overall task of constructing an internally coherent web of ideas. Theology then, is a task completed before ministry. Ministry in this approach is an application of an already settled content. The questions about God are answered in the pastor’s office and subsequently conveyed to the congregation as the authoritative results of theological investigation.

The second is a theology from below which moves from experience to revelation and back to experience. Here, the congregation and its environment is more than a place to apply the settled results of previously determined theology, but is actually a source for theology, proceeding on the assumption that a living God is active in the circumstances of our lives. Ministry, then, is a practice of discernment, attending to the life of the congregation and its environment while living in the historical practices of the church. While the first kind of theology looks for complete statements about God, tying one idea necessarily to another, the second is confessional, carrying its claims about God more provisionally, subject to further review.

Again, these are massively simplistic renderings of what in practice are complex realities. Gadamer and others have taught us that all knowledge is circular. Theory is always informed by experience, and our experience is always being interpreted in light of traditions passed down to us. These things are always happening simultaneously, even though we might be able to distinguish between theory and practice in the various moments of coming to understanding. For Gadamer, the issue is not whether or not there is a “hermeneutical circle,” but how we enter it.

I will also say that both kinds of theology are important and have their place. While I fashion myself as doing the second kind, practitioners of the first kind populate by book shelves and help me check my work.

Ok, with these caveats and apologies offered, I want to say that the Bible is fundamentally doing the second kind of theology. There are no big summations of theological ideas, no systematic treatments of topics like the Trinity, Christology, soteriology (salvation), or ecclesiology (the church). Instead, every writing is responsive to an occasion. The impetus for writing is related to the facts on the ground and the need to say something meaningful about God’s involvement in the circumstances confronting churches. And that is still what ministers attempt to do everyday. This, in my estimation, is the first vocation of the theologian/pastor.

As I’ve been pointing out in the last few blogs, this is just as true for the gospels as it is for Galatians or Titus. Jesus, in the case of the gospels, is not reduced to an abstract set of principles, as is the case with atonement theories and the like, but rather the details of the narrative elements of Jesus’ life find their importance for the writer in light of the challenges facing actual congregations. It’s not enough to say that God became flesh in Jesus, but to place the event of Jesus’ birth in a lowly place surrounded by lowly people in Luke’s case, or to put Jesus’ birth in the context of Herod’s political machinations reminiscent of Pharaoh to underscore that God is with his people (Immanuel) even to the end of the age. Jesus’ death is not simply a way for sins to be forgiven for Luke, but happened in a certain way to unmask the injustice of keeping the peace through violence, through the state sanctioned power of violence as opposed to the kingdom of God’s reliance only on the power of the Holy Spirit. My point here, is that the details of Jesus’ life are important, not just in some general sense, but in relation to the pastoral needs of congregations.

Going forward, I hope to suggest how the big themes in each gospel seem to correspond to an occasion. Some of this will be working backwards, the occasions being reconstructed by the identification of the themes. This has the disadvantage of being hypothetical work. But I proceed on the premise that the church consistently affirmed the importance of the diversity of the gospels, of having four gospel, and not just one big gospel that rules them all. I hope to show that this diversity is related to the ongoing need for discernment related to a living God, a risen Christ, and a Holy Spirit.

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Music, and then theology

I’ve had the opportunity over the last few years to make several presentations on the intersection of popular music and theology. I’ve decided to write an introduction that explains the “what” and “why” of what I do and to collect the various pieces in one place. The following paragraphs are a window into the music side of the music and theology relationship in my life.

I have two enduring loves in my life–music and theology, in that order. And I should clarify that I’m not a musician. I wish I could play an instrument well enough to belt out my favorite songs. I do, however, know a little about music. I grew up in a religious tradition that sang acapella. Everyone knew their part and I learned to read music as my mother traced the alto part with her finger in the hymnal on Sundays. My mom and dad sang duets sometimes in church, and my dad’s head would vibrate along with his voice as they sang in pleasing and soothing tones. All the women in my mom’s family sang alto, not a soprano in the bunch. My grandfather sang a way too loud tenor, which would become my part and which I’m sure I sang way too loud.

I played trumpet in school and was in both the marching and jazz bands in high school. I picked the trumpet because I listened to a few Maynard Ferguson albums at Jeff Van Horn’s house, loved Tommy Loy playing the national anthem at the beginning of Cowboys’ games, and revered Doc Severnson because he was from Oregon, my heart’s home. Truth be told, however, I would have traded all my trumpet playing for piano and guitar lessons. To this day it mystifies me that I never learned to play either. I have a guitar now and play around. I have an essential tremor, though, and so playing is difficult with the way my hands shake. I can move between chords and finger pick decently, but I can’t strum well and so will never really be able to play the way I’d like. I can get through a few Dylan songs and some Tom Petty, but I will never be James Taylor. This mildly frustrates me because I would love nothing more than to play rhythm guitar and sing backing vocals in a band.

Music came to my house the Christmas or 1969. My dad bought a cheap record player and three albums for the family that year. Ed Ames, Mingo from the Daniel Boone tv show, Gentleman Jim Reeves, and the crowning selection, Johnny Cash, Ring of Fire. I listened to them over and over, especially Reeves and Cash. And I would look at the album covers and the dust jackets for hours, soaking in every detail. This would become my way of life.

I started to listen to pop music a few years later. I bought a k-tel collection of hits that included Rod Stewart, the Hollies, the Raspberries, Argent and other bands of this ilk. Around this time, my dad upgraded to a component stereo system and my world expanded. The first album I bought to run through its paces on this fine sound system was Credence Clearwater’s, Suzy Q, which I bought from my cousin Lydia. Her grin at the time of the transaction said she thought she had got over on me with an exorbitant price price, and I probably did overpay for a used album. But I still have that album today. Who’s smiling now, Lydia?

Occasionally my parents would go on trips and leave us in the hands of students from the college where my dad was an adjunct professor. It was the early 70’s, and Phil and Connie were legitimate hippies. Phil had an incredible music collection and would bring albums and his Martin guitar when they would come to stay. They would let my brother and me stay up late and watch the Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack. Phil gave me about a dozen albums to start my collection off in the right way. I don’t remember everything he gave me, but the Three Dog Night and Chicago albums were my favorites.

Those albums began my infatuation with listening to music. My allowance the next few years went toward nothing but baseball cards and albums. Led Zeppelin II awakened me to things musically. Though I couldn’t name it, I knew their music was of a completely different order. Chicago, mixing horns and rock and roll, gave me a familiar touch point to the music I was making playing the trumpet in the school band. Elton John’s, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player and Yellowbrick Road thrilled me. I would listen to them and other albums while lying on the living room floor, reading and memorizing the liner notes the way I did the backs of baseball cards. Liner notes, for the non-initiated, include the names of all the musicians who received writing credits or who played on the album, along with production notes like the studio where things were recorded and mixed and who produced or engineered the album. To some, this is like reading Leviticus. To me, it was the album as epic tale.

Over time, I began to make connections between bands from what I found in the liner notes. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter played guitar on Steely Dan albums, but also played on the Michael McDonald version of the Doobie Brothers (not to be confused with the Tom Johnston version). Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, The Eagles, and Poco had this long intertwined relationship of musicians moving in and out of bands and playing on each other’s albums. Waddy Wachtel, Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, and Jeff Porcoro were names that I knew, session musicians who appeared on favorite albums of mine with regularity. I began paying attention to the archaeology of bands, their sedimentations over time. I knew the difference between the Bernie Leadon version of the Eagles and the Joe Walsh version. Similarly, I knew the Randy Meisner songs on those albums as well as the Poco connection of Timothy B. Schmidt who eventually replaced Meisner. I can tell a Greg Rollie Journey song from a Jonathan Cain Journey song, the successive keyboardists for the band. I could go on and on, but the point is I was hungry for every morsel of information I could gather from the bands whose music I loved. I wanted to live as much as I could in the world those albums created.

During this time, certain albums marked me deeply. Boston’s debut album was like nothing I’d ever heard before, a wall of sound that filled every inch of my listening capacity. The successive Steely Dan albums, Aja and Gaucho, blended jazz and rock in ways that just made me feel cool for just listening to it. They made me feel sophisticated, a connoisseur of fine music. Hotel California, Rumors, Frampton Comes Alive, Physical Graffiti, Songs in the Key of Life, The Dark Side of the Moon, all came out on top of each other and my world was full of music.  

This kind of relationship with albums continues today. I still have the turntable my parents gave me when I graduated from college and most of the albums I bought in those early years of listening. I’ve started buying vinyl again, filling in my Dylan and Tom Petty collections, and buying newer stuff like Spoon, Gary Clark Jr., Margret Glaspy, Leon Bridges and The Avett Brothers. My kids all like music and I pride myself on being able to find new artists before they do. 

Beyond albums, however, there are two other factors that deepened my relationship with music. Exploring the novels and essays by Nick Hornby, which prominently feature music, provided new possibilities for exploring my obsessive relationship with music. Music plays a prominent role in a novel like High Fidelity or Juliet, Naked, but as a way to carry other themes, like making meaning and commitments in a world in the absence of authoritative cultural narratives. Hornby’s essays are about songs or albums, but they’re not about them really at all. The music  serves as prompts for cultural commentary, ways to enter a discussion about things that matter, like love and death and joy and regret on familiar terms, terms most of us have spinning on a loop somewhere in our collective soundtrack. 

High Fidelity is a great novel, but it’s absolutely my favorite movie of all time. The setting is a record store (in Chicago in the movie version) owned by an aimless and commitment challenged character named Rob, played by John Cusack, and his two slacker “employees,” Barry and Dick, played brilliantly by Jack Black and Todd Louiso. I’ll spare you the movie review, but want to highlight two features of the film. To underscore the point I made in the previous paragraph, the soundtrack is phenomenal and music is the vehicle that carries the movie, but the movie is about what it means to be human in a world where external sources of authority no longer provide norms for things like relationships. In that kind of world, we’re all on our own to find some kind of meaningful line between the serial episodes of our lives. Which brings me to the second feature of the movie. Meaning is made throughout the movie by way of the playlist. It is a way to structure our experience, like the musical score of our life. Playlists are expressive of identity, both our own, and the identities of the ones we share them with.

A good part of my life is spent in the pursuit of making the sublime playlist. Spotify and other music services have made the possibilities endless. I make playlists for the different moods my life might take on a given day. I have joy playlists and mellow playlists and sad playlists. I have genre playlists. I have playlists that remind me of certain places or events in my life. I have more than 100 playlists in my Spotify library, and in comparison to the prolific-ness of some of my friends, I don’t consider this obsessive in the least. While albums are about the band, the playlist is about me.


One last piece about my relationship with music. When I was preaching regularly, I made it a habit to always have a novel and a biography going. Many of the biographies I have read have been about musicians. I love knowing their stories and their influences. I love the name dropping and the behind the scenes details on the making of an album. I’ve read biographies about the Beatles, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and others. But I like the autobiographies more. Springsteen’s is nothing short of brilliant. I love Dylan’s genre busting Chronicles, Part I. I’ve read Clapton’s and Elvis Costello’s. Hearing the artist’s voice in prose amplifies their songs, making the connections more immediate and vivid. A good biography finds a life’s voice by turning the events of a life into a meaningful plot. It renders a world, the world of a person’s life. In the same way, I love music documentaries, an obsession more readily satisfied with the growth of services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

All of this is allows me to have a sense of the “world” of the artist. I know titles like “the gospel according to…” are en vogue, but I find it more accurate and useful to say that I’m after the rhetorical world an artist’s music makes. And those worlds have been life giving.

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