Category Archives: Jesus
The national outpouring of gratitude and mourning over the death of Andy Griffith goes on. It has spawned a jillion tribute video clips on YouTube and endless comments below each one about the comfort and familiarity each one brings. So here’s one of my favorites.
I have been plowing through James Davison Hunter’s book, To Save the World, which isn’t about Andy Griffith, but about culture and faith. It is nearly 400 pages, and reads like a scholar summing up his work to me. Mostly it is about the misguided foray of the church into politics over the past few generations—but also a recognition of the reduction of everything in our culture right now to national politics. Davison laments this, for cultures hold together by so much more than elections and news cycles.
He argues that we misunderstand the deepest work before us—to move the culture toward the divine vision of a kingdom that comes not through weapons, kings and coercion but through the power of persuasive love in human lives, ethos and story. It is a vision large enough, rightly conceived, to make a place for those who disagree with us without the need to punish, coerce and control them. This life we talk about begins with a man named Jesus and the character and depth that resonates out of stories and teachings that keep stirring up our thinking 20 centuries later.
Those stories in the Bible, like all stories worth reading, and like good acting, convey something that leaps from the core of the speaker and connects to us, resonates deep inside and keeps speaking long after we read it or see it. There is nothing like a life lived with its energies concentrated to something good and meaningful.
One of the tenets of Christianity is that we gain life by resignation from the egocentric self. In other words, while an “ego” is a normal part of human life, an egocentric life, obsessed with its own security, safety and control, can be quite destructive to the person and the people around them. This lives out large in the Stalins and Hitlers of history, but also in everyday life.
David Mace, the found of marriage enrichment, said at the end of his life that after all those years of talking about communication, money and sex with couples that success in marriage came down to one key—the ability to deal creatively and redemptively with one’s own anger. After 33 years as a professional minister, counseling, listening to troubled people, and coaching young newlyweds-to-be I believe he was right.
There is one key about the anger we have—the capacity to step back away from ourselves and take ourselves with less than ultimate seriousness. “Getting my way” is second to “getting it right,” don’t you think? But the egocentric self says, “It has to be my way or all is lost!” And you know what comes next.
I am watching “Andy Griffith” reruns with my wife in the evenings. Since they are recorded you can watch one n about 18 minutes when you take out the commercials. So when the news looks repetitive (as in EVERY night) or so dreary, or when we just don’t want to watch one of our history or biography programs, we pull up an Andy Griffith from the DVR and soothe ourselves.
This week, we watched one of our favorite episodes, “Dogs, Dogs, Dogs.” It was written by Everett Greenbaum and James Fritzell, who wrote many of the great “Mash” episodes and for many great comedy shows (a great blog about them here by Ken Levine CLICK
Opie finds a stray little dog, who disappears and comes back with some doggie friends. Andy and Barney are expecting an inspector from the state, so they have to get the dogs out of sight. They try sending them home with Otis Campbell, the town drunk, but they come back with more. Finally Barney drives them out into the country and dumps the dogs in a field to run and play. Opie becomes anxious when a thunderstorm begins, worried about their safety. Barney tries to explain that they will be okay, and in the course of his explanation hits of my favorite lines of all time. Dogs are not like giraffes, Barney says. They take care of their own, and they are low to the ground. Not giraffes. “Boy, giraffes are selfish. Just running around, looking out for #1 and getting struck by lightning.”
A marriage, a neighborhood, a church or synagogue, a club or a nation can only abide a certain quota of giraffes. Now dogs? More the merrier. I’d say Barney was exactly right.
“Just a Little Talk With Jesus” is a famous old gospel song. Last night, our band, Shades Mountain Air, had a grand time at the American Gospel Quartet Convention in Birmingham and sang this crowd favorite. I knew that it was a song that black and white audiences in the South had shared since it was written. It’s been covered by just about everybody—Bill Gaither, Elvis Presley, the Stanley Brothers, and innumerable mass choirs, quartets and Sunday night gatherings around the piano in little country churches. (click this link to listen to the song by Shades Mountain Air)
It’s so heartfelt, so soulful—are you in trouble? Look in and up—just a little talk to Jesus will make it right. This song first found me in my seminary church, where I was minister of music and youth (a lofty, long title for a part-time staff member in a blue-collar white church). My church was southern, small-town North Carolina Southern Baptist folk, barely scratching to stay above the black folk in the town—marginal at best. Ever Sunday night we gathered around the piano and pulled out our “Number 8s” our name for the red songbooks we loved full of familiar gospel music. Anyone who wanted to be in the “kwarr” (choir) would gather with us, and people would call out a favorite. “My God is Real,” was the one Mr. Jernigan always requested. “They Tore the Old Country Church Down,” “Whisper a Prayer,” “Troublesome Times Are Here,” Mansion Over the Hilltop,” “If That Isn’t Love,” “Hide Me, Rock of Ages,” and, of course, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” because the bass singers got to show out.
I’ll never forget the day that a black family showed up at our church door and one of the men sent his little boy back to tell them they couldn’t come here. I tried to get the church to put up a basketball goal in our parking lot for the little black children who were always playing when we drove up for Sunday night church. But it was 1978, and our world was cracking but the walls hadn’t come down. I lost my first church vote of my career as one family who barely came to church brought their entire extended clan to vote my proposal down. It was a hard lesson for a 24 year old future preacher.
It was our little church, where we came for comfort. We didn’t want change, just the comfort of “a little talk with our
Jesus.” Lawd, we loved that song. What a trip to find out that this white gospel favorite was written by an African American composer named Cleavant Derricks.
The website “Southern Edition” has a fine biography about Rev. Cleavant Derricks. He was a wonderful musician who was born in Chattanooga in 1910 and had a stellar career as a minister, musician and pastor. A gentle, kind man, his songs were sung by tens of thousands. The website says that
The same songs that ministered to impoverished blacks enduring discrimination in the Jim Crow South spoke to the hearts of disadvantaged whites whose lot seemed similarly dismal due to hardships spurned on by the Great Depression and the World War II years. Like Dorsey, Tindley and Morris, Derricks would write songs that addressed daily hardships, praised a loving, sustaining God and spoke of the heavenly reward believers would gain following their labour on earth. Butler adds, “And, too, his songs were sung in the Pentecostal churches back in those days. Those people were considered the poor class—you know, the common man. They were struggling, and so his songs were accepted very rapidly because they did have that hope.”
Butler points out that “most people didn’t know [Derricks] was a black man when his songs first started being published by Stamps-Baxter.” James R. Goff Jr. concurs in his book, Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, stating, “With an unmistakable influence from the shape-note convention arrangements and a style that often featured the bass part on the chorus, Derricks’s songs found their way into Southern shape-note hymnbooks, though few in the South would probably have guessed the author’s racial origins.”
The colossal stupidity and sinful ignorance that was racism kept us apart, but music and common suffering ignored what our systems and conscious minds erected to supposedly “protect our way of life.” We always were one and the same. Thank God we at least sang his songs. So today’s song, in honor of Rev. Derrick, is “Just a Little Talk With Jesus.” Thank God Almighty, we are further down the road to being “free at last.” Free to love one another and sing the songs of Zion.
NRSV Luke 1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
The first signs of the incarnation in the Christmas story is the moving of a child in a womb, a blessing before a birth, a declaration of faith, and a pregnant mother singing. This is, for Christianity, the hope of the world.
Perhaps the greatest critic of Christianity in the last century was not anyone that most average people know, but his arguments lasted until this day. The philosopher Nietsche attacked Christianity because of its adoration of humility and weakness. It was, he said, “the transvaluation of all values,” by which he meant that Christians adore all the virtues that lead to the collapse of humanity.
Perhaps our failings, along with our founding faith, Judaism, was a God who felled the mighty.
Christianity, declared Nietzsche, is the vengeance the slaves have taken upon their masters. Driven by resentment, “a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in imaginary revenge,” they have transvalued the morality of the aristocrats and have turned sweet into bitter and bitter into sweet.
Who is right? Mary or Nietsche? Is it power and will and human pride or humility and the song of the outcasts? Nietsche’s song is the song of children in competition: “I’m better than you-ou, I’m better than you-ou.” “Nanny, nanny, boo boo.”
Mary’s song bears some study for us. We sing things that come from the deepest places in us. Some people are ashamed to let their songs be heard, so they only sing them in their cars alone, or in the shower, but they sing. To sing is to release our rational minds and come from our hearts and center.
The question is, “Which song?”
I got an interesting CD several years back entitled, “The Seeger Sessions.” It’s a real turn for Springsteen—no rock and roll, acoustic, folk songs, and simple. It was a humbling experience for him to sing, because that rock-n-roll voice don’t sound the same without that wall of sound-a-round. It’s real, vulnerable, human, even though Bruce has a lot of instruments around him. It’s an interesting and wonderful experiment.
One of the haunting song there is an old Spiritual that revived in the Civil Rights days called “O, Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan.” It sounds very New Orleans early jazz-ragtime on Springsteen. If you want the old full mass choir gospel version, catch Aretha Franklin and choir in 1972 on “Amazing Grace.”
The “Mary” in that song is actually Miriam, the sister of Moses, who witnessed the miracle of the Exodus on the shores of the Sea when Pharoah’s armies were pursuing the fleeing band of former slaves to kill them. In a miraculous moment, the waters crash in upon the chariots and soldiers, vanquishing them. It is the birth of the nation of Israel, their saving event.
The lesson of that moment was, “It is not you who creates the nation, but only God. Never forget that you, too, were powerless slaves in Egypt, but God, the merciful, delivered you.” Miriam sang, according to the book of Exodus:
NRS Exodus 15:20-21 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
For over three thousand years, we’ve remembered that song, the pure joy of being saved when you thought it was all over. They had no weapons, no strategy except their faith in a mysterious God who promised.
That song re-emerged in the sufferings of poor black people in slavery in this country, then in their Christian musical tradition. One of my personal favorite versions is of blues singer Mississippi John Hurt singing in in his recordings in the 1920s. Then it re-emnerged as a folk favorite in the 1960s, though Pete Seeger, but Mississippi John Hurt’s is my personal favorite.
That same song resonates with Hannah and with Mary. It is the song of those who have nothing except God to count on.
Two women here—Elizabeth, who cannot have a child and God gives her one. Mary isn’t ready for one, but God gives him to her anyway. Mary is exultant not about something she wanted more than anything, but something she hadn’t even thought to wish for but God chose her to give the gift.
Mary’s song connects to the whole of scripture. But deeply rooted here is a stirring truth—she sees the “turning upside down” of all values in the world. The nobodies are somebodies to God. The forgotten are remembered. The lost are found.
Nietsche attacked Christianity for this very point as a “religion of weaklings.” One might say that given the church’s track record, we haven’t always felt too strongly about it, either. For we are constantly tempted to forsake the kingdom of Jesus for the seductions of Caesar. If we remember to give to the poor we are mighty quick to put the rich on our budget committees and seat them at places of prominence.
Scholars increasingly have doubted that Mary composed this song. Wouldn’t you know it? One of the few women in the New Testament to author something and we’ve taken it away with scholarship! One seminary professor has observed three profound truths about this song of Mary’s–
- We’ve “spiritualized” the Christian life, making it only about our feelings and emotions, but God is concerned for all of human life, including social justice and physical needs.
- We carry out his kingdom mission within a culture whose values are at odds with his values. If the shadow people are God’s focus, how can we be Jesus in the world if they are not our focus? Baptism is not a rite of passage but an initiation into discipleship and membership in a counter culture.
- True worship is a spiritual preparation and entry into the agenda of God for our lives and the priorities of God for our lives.
Of course, the question is, “Does this mean exchanging one group of people in control for another?” And the answer is, “No.” What we need is not the same game with different players, but something that is beyond what we currently know. Walter Brueggemann has called it, “The Song of Impossibilty.”
But the beginning of any real change is in the imagination. To believe that my life could be different, that I could live another way, that there is hope where I see none.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous Christian ethicist of last century, sought to answer Nietsche. He said, “Yes, you are right. Christianity DOES turn the values of the world on its head.” Niebuhr wrote:
The Christian faith is centred in one who was born in a manger and who died upon the cross. This is really the source of the Christian transvaluation of all values. The Christian knows that the cross is the truth. In that standard he sees the ultimate success of what the world calls failure and the failure of what the world calls success. If the Christian should be, himself, a person who has gained success in the world and should have gained it by excellent qualities which the world is bound to honour, he will know nevertheless that these very qualities are particularly hazardous. He will not point a finger of scorn at the mighty, the noble and the wise; but he will look at his own life and detect the corruption of pride to which he has been tempted by his might and eminence and wisdom. If thus he counts all his worldly riches but loss he may be among the few who are chosen. The wise, the mighty and the noble are not necessarily lost because of their eminence. St. Paul merely declares with precise restraint that “not many are called.” Perhaps, like the rich, they may enter into the Kingdom of God through the needle’s eye.
I tell you this: it is not in our power that we are ever greatest, but in our kindness and compassion. Without these, we are reduced to the law of the jungle and the survival of the strongest. A society that worships only power is a society that will one day devour itself. Greed without stewardship becomes only self-absorption. Eventually, there is nothing sufficient to satisfy us. Power without service to others ultimately becomes what we have witnessed since Nietsche’s day—mass extermination and continuous war without peace and security that we continually fight to find.
We find ourselves still mired in the values of the old world. We seek security by power and it eludes us even more. We just officially ended the Iraq war, ten years and, conservatively, $709 billion, not to mention 4287 dead and over 30,000 wounded.
We have created entire television shows about people who collapse morally under the weight of success into drugs, addictions of various sorts and self-disaster. The way of power is not a way that will bring happiness. The way of power is not all that great when we see the damage left in its wake.
The church is not exempt from this way, either. We have worshiped the Mary who sang this revolutionary song, but we have more often preferred the methods of the world it undermines—power, influence, wealth and prosperity.
If I have to choose this Christmas, I choose Mary’s way. I realize that as I do that I, a prosperous American pastor living a privileged lifestyle in a comfortable place, immediately affirm values that undermine my way of life. It is to choose a way that will never let me be completely at ease.
But the alternative is worse. If I cannot immediately become one of the poor and forgotten of the world, I can let them into my heart as an act of my love for Jesus. I can be “poor in spirit,” as Luke put it, and pursue the way of humility and self-forgetting and generosity to others. I can follow the journey of surrender of my stubborn will and seek to obey the agenda of God in what I buy and how I live.
Mary’s song and Miriam’s song and Hannah’s song and the songs of the early Christians live on. When we sing them, we sing hope—that our lives can be different, that we can prevail with God’s help over all that is worst in us, that we can persevere in the struggle with our own failings. We might change the patterns of the past. We might find healing and health. We might make a difference in the world.
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drowned
O Mary, don’t you weep
Well if I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep
One of these days about twelve o clock,
This old world’s going to reel and rock
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep
When I get to heaven goin’ to sing and shout
Nobody there for turn me out
Pharaoh’s army got drowned
O Mary don’t you weep
Do we have any idea what we’re singing?
- Brown, Raymond E., “The Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation, and the Magnificat,” Worship, 1988.
- Burghardt, William, S.J., “Gospel Joy, Christian Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
- Lovette, Roger, “A Vision of Church,” The Living Pulpit, 2000.
- Martin, James P., “Luke 1:39-47, Expository Article,” Interpretation, 1982.
- Miller, Patrick D., “The Church’s First Theologian,” Theology Today, 1999.
- Taylor, Barbara Brown, “Surprised by Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
- Trible, Phyllis, “Meeting Mary through Luke,” The Living Pulpit, 2001.
- Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni, “Blessed Are You,” Brethren Life and Thought, 2005. Poetry.
A new friend from New York reminded me of the Cash bio I read a few years back. Like everyone, I loved “Walk the Line,” the bio-pic of the life and love of Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash that came out years ago. It is not a true biography, really. Robert Streissguth’s JOHNNY CASH: THE BIOGRAPHY is where you get more than the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version.
Johnny’s story was, of course, about a many coming out of hard times, his well-known descent into drugs and alcohol that ruined his first marriage and nearly destroyed his career in mid-stream. The movie ends at the point where he turned his life around, married June, and got his act together again in the late sixties. It was not “happily ever after,” but for a movie that’s okay.
Johnny was (and still is—he stays on my IPOD) one of my musical heroes in the late sixties, along with Bob Dylan, Willie, James Taylor, Neil Young and a lot of groups you haven’t heard of.
It is also about how the love of a woman saved his life at its worst moment. He struggled with the poverty of his childhood and of early loss in his life. He carried a lot of that pain into his adult life and it nearly killed him. But he rose from the ashes of those shadows. A part of his journey was returning to the Christian faith of his childhood. Johnny Cash was earthy and blunt, but he was also unabashed about his love for Jesus Christ.
He once said this of his earlier failures:
“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space…I learn from my mistakes. It’s a very painful way to learn…You miss a lot of opportunities by making mistakes, but that’s part of it: knowing that you’re not shut out forever, and that there’s a goal you still can reach.” (Streissguth)
Listen to those last words again: knowing that you’re not shut out forever, and that there’s a goal you still can reach. Not a bad word for now or anytime. Our mistakes are not the final word as long as we’re breathing. If you’re dwelling in the past—the songs you used to write, the band you once had, or the retirement nest egg you watched dwindle away, hey, it’s time to box up and change addresses to now.
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Today is a new day, even if you’re greeting at Walmart until a better gig comes along…
For today, here’s a link my daughter sent me from Seattle a few years back when her nephew was part of a guitar recital. Another little guy, five years old, did “Folsom Prison Blues.” Pretty awesome if you ever have five year olds still singing your songs after you’ve gone, even if they do say, “I shot a man in Wee-know”
History is an odd and wondrous field in which to run and play. It’s quite serious but also is filled with miracles, surprises and the never-to-be fully resolved or explained. Discoveries change the course of things. Extraordinary lives, moments of courage, unanticipated choices and consequences. It’s a messy, beautiful truth.
I have been dabbling a bit in my own genealogy. I’ve been finding websites and people who share my name—Furr actors, writers, scientists, musicians, war veterans, and, yes, a whole list of Furr criminals. Pictures of the existence, for a while, of a carbonated drink in New Mexico (not sure if it’s still around) called, “Dr. Furr’s Cola.” Gotta get me some of that.
And I discovered an ancestor of mine that I quite like. I believe him to be my great, great grandfather, Allen Furr, born Jul 1820, and died in 1873. He was a man of immense physical strength, fought in the Civil War at age 42, and a recorded interview said this:
His son reported that “Once when his wagon busted a wheel crossing Rocky River he carried it on his back a great distance to have it repaired while his son … stayed with the mules. Allen once won a bet he could hold some huge timbers over his head while serving in the Civil War so he could get a 30 day leave. [But this is the part I liked the best:] Wilson Mathias Furr that he in fact could drink from the bung hole of a 50 gal. keg of whiskey. [bunghole is the hole drilled in a barrel where a cork is placed] Must have been quite a site, a grown man elevating a 50 gallon barrel to drink. I have wondered how many gallons he downed before he’d made his point. Who was going to criticize a man lifting 50 gallons over his head?
I have had so few opportunities to use the word “bunghole,” and since we don’t use barrels anymore the chances were disappearing. Bunghole originally came from the word “bunge,” which meant cork. I came across another man who knew about corks and barrels, a French cooper—a barrelmaker– and winemaker named Placide Cappeau (October 25, 1808 – August 8, 1877). He was born into those two businesses, and made his living by them.
He was a contemporary of my great-great-grandfather. Allen was living in the aftermath of the American Revolution, Placide the French. Cappeau’s life changed at age 9, when playing at a friend’s house. They were horsing around with a gun that went off and cost little Placide his hand. It changed the course of his life. He began to cultivate the life of the mind, art, and literature. He was good enough, and with the help of the guilt-ridden friend who paid half his tuition, to attend university and, even with only one hand, to win a prize in art.
After, of course, he went into the family business and made wine, barrels and corks. But his love was literature, especially poetry. Word people are always being called upon, of course, and so it was that age 39, that his parish priest encouraged him to try his hand at writing a Christmas hymn. He was pretty much a non-attender, a political socialist, and anti-clerical, so it must have been intriguing to get a request, and he accepted the challenge.
He later said the inspiration came to him on a stagecoach ride to Paris, but however it happened, he took inspiration from the nativity story in Luke and imagined it from the vantage point of the night. What resulted was a beautiful poem called, “Cantique de Noelle.” “O Holy Night.”
He was not a musician, so he called upon a dear musician friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to help him. Ace Collins described the musician this way:
His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. [There was one small issue] As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words …represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Isn’t it strange that one of the most beloved songs of Christmas was written by a man who rarely went to church and set to music by a non-Christian Jew? But that is not the end of it. The song became wildly popular, sung all over France, but soon the Catholic Church banned it from use when Capelle openly identified with socialism and left the church. The Archbishop, whose name I think was Maurice de Glenn Beck, ordered it out of worship life because of anti-Catholic and Jewish connections.
Even so, the people loved it. They kept singing it. And eventually, a Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight, another contemporary of my great-great-grandfather, found it. Dwight was a transcendentalist and America’s first influential classical music critic and an ardent abolitionist. So, in 1860, on the eve of Civil War, he translated it into English and brought it to American popularity. He was especially taken by the third verse when it says, “Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
And so, there it was. A hymn by a socialist barrelmaker became an anti-slavery Christmas hymn through a Unitarian liberal abolitionist, and it began to be sung shortly after Allen Furr was lifting barrels over his head and heading off to war on the wrong side of an American tragedy.
Then there was Reginald Fessenden, a professor. It was on Christmas Eve 1906, that the former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, using a newly developed generator, was able to speak through a microphone and broadcast over the airwaves for the first time. He chose to read the Christmas story in Luke. Ace Collins says
Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle–hearing a voice somehow transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel. Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast–but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.
It’s a strange little song, isn’t it? There are legends that during World War I that one reckless Frenchman sauntered out of the trenches near the time of Christmas Eve 1914 and began to sing “O Holy Night,” and soon others joined in and the scabbed countryside of blood and barbed wire transformed into a shepherd’s field. When the singing ceased, the Germans answered, not with bombs and bullets, but with another carol. And unofficial truces kept happening. The two sides exchanged gifts, greetings and songs. The commanders were disturbed. How on earth would they be able to resume the extermination of the enemy if they kept talking about peace on earth, good will to men? What kind of war could they have? Commanders ordered Christmas eve shelling, but the tradition continued through the war.
Since the parish priest came to Placide Cappelle, long after the Catholic Church banned it as unfit to sing, and long after my Confederate uncle lifted a barrel, who knows, maybe one the Cappelle family had made, long after Yankees and Confederates killed one another trying to figure out what freedom means, long after the Germans and Frenchmen wept and sang and celebrated, that song keeps being sung around the world.
But isn’t that what Christmas keeps teaching us? This story is not ours to control or suppress. God can choose one life–a poor girl in Palestine and a carpenter husband and be manifested to them. Honored by people the church cannot always abide or fit into its creaky human traditions. Spread by miracles unexpected like wine flowing out of a barrel, out into our wars and our sins and the nights of the human soul. One baby, one night, and then one life after another, going here and there, unstoppable, this radiant light of love and hope. Out through the very air itself, sung around the very earth, so that on that night, it can be heard everywhere.
This simple story is one that touches hearts that even do not like our more generic pill called “religion.” It is not mostly about principles or philosophies or power and might. It is of a life, one life, one night, that comes and turns the course of history, again and again. That’s why a baby, and not manly strength, is the most powerful and unstoppable force history has known, for there is no weapon great enough to defend us from love.
I wrote this piece as a mediation given at the Christmas Banquet at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. The source material for the historical backgrounds came from Collins, Ace. THE AMAZING STORY OF ‘O HOLY NIGHT’ posted on BeliefNet; “Placide Cappeau,” From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia and material on Allen Furr from http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=bfurr1&id=I1494
One of the most-read blog pieces on here was one I did on the Hardy family of Williams, Alabama called, “Following Jesus from Israel to Rural Alabama.” As a follow up to that, I am happy to report that last Sunday evening, the Hardy family received the keys to their new home in a dedication ceremony led by Pastor Mike Oliver.
Times of crisis can certainly reveal our failings and weaknesses. But it is also true that crisis reveals character and new possibilities. one of God’s most mysterious works is bringing communion and healing from our disasters. Such times can divide, but they can also invite new re-formulations of Christian fellowship. Ordinary divisions become an unaffordable luxury in the moment of need. We come together and leave lesser things to God.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was a man of broad spirit and reconciling heart. He sought Christian cooperation in every way possible. He once preached a sermon on 2 Kings 10:15, which says, “When [Jehu] left there, he met Jehonadab
son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. Jehu took him up with him into the chariot.”
Wesley said “But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
In other words, unity of heart, spirit and love can exist even though we must have differences that will take longer to resolve. We begin with this willingness to know a fellow Christian’s heart and build upon the possibility of fellowship. It does not mean give up our convictions. But we must begin with the hardest and highest call Jesus gave to us—to love one another as He loved us. That is not what we do once we have worked out all our disagreements, our differences or
our hurts with one another. Forgiveness itself is born out of obedience to the Savior’s call to love one another.
The Day After Thunder
It was truly a day beyond words in April of this year when record tornadoes tore through Alabama. I put it on my facebook page this way:
“It is the morning after a wall of thunder ripped across our lovely state. Time to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to help.”
A lot of death and injury greeted us when we emerged–damaged homes, businesses gone—and we found the task of cleaning up absolutely daunting. One family in my church found themselves in a neighborhood of felled trees, including a big one right in the middle of their den. The husband put it this way to me on the phone, “We’re glad to be alive.” A lot of people echoed those thoughts. One family in my church watched the huge Tuscaloosa tornado on television live as it destroyed the store in which their son was working. Then, for 45 minutes, they waited for the phone call—his truck was totaled, but he and his co-workers all alive.
Many were not so fortunate. Well over 200 died all across the state. For months and weeks, the wounded and grieving dug out. Volunteers poured in from everywhere, as did the government and state workers and the nation’s sympathy. Not long after, Joplin was devastated by another killer tornado and Alabama moved off the front pages.
Walking, Praying and Learning Where Jesus Walked
In July of 2010, I was part of a group of 18 ministers from central Alabama. I was asked by a colleague who led the project to recruit the group. We met in an initial retreat, then went together on pilgrimage to Israel for two weeks. We were funded by a grant from the CF Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia in a program that has been functioning for many years to deepen and renew the spiritual lives of ministers in the hope of revitalizing churches in order to impact their communities.
Most of this group had never been to Israel before, and we committed by our participation to be an ongoing Christian fellowship, praying for each other and eventually working on a project for the greater good of our churches and the place where we live.
Most are pastors. A few work in church-related ministries. We were Episcopal, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist, and Methodist. We were male, female, racially diverse, geographically from many different seminaries, hometowns and experiences. Most of us knew about one another but didn’t really know each other until we came together for an initial community building retreat in Atlanta for two days.
The trip to Israel was transformative. We did not merely visit tourist sites—we prayed in them, stayed in a Benedictine retreat center in Galilee for a week and another Catholic center in Jerusalem for a second week. Our days began and ended in worship. We went to the West Bank, saw the walls and checkpoints guarded by automatic weapons and suspicion.
We lived together as a community of faith for two weeks and came back as friends. We continued to meet monthly together, every other month in a four hour “pilgrimage” to each other’s place of service. The highlight of these meetings was to lead us to walk together through the buildings, hear our stories, and pray together for that person at a “holy place.”
We struggled with the project, though. What could we do? We spent a follow-up retreat agonizing through to something. It was organized, intentional, and lifeless. It had all the passion of a tooth extraction. We went home and nothing happened.
Throwing Out the Plan
In April of this year, one of our group, Mike Oliver, found his community devastated by the tornado. More than a hundred homes were utterly destroyed. The next week my church, like hundreds of others, loaded up a truck full of donated supplies and took it to them in Williams, AL where Mike’s church had organized..
The church instantly turned into a community kitchen, feeding thousands of meals to homeless people from the community, a daycare center, and a disaster relief operation. They had to bury two of their own members and get back to work.
All through the summer, people worked, cleaned up and prepared for the next phase, which only now is underway in earnest. One of the realities about disasters is that the tornado or the tsunami or the earthquake get all the publicity. Rebuilding is harder to watch over the long haul.
Meanwhile, our ministers group kept meeting, praying, wondering about what we might do. Mike had an idea. He
invited our group to come together on building a home for a family in his community. The church had already organized to do this as their calling. They have already built five homes and more are on the way.
Thought all of our congregations already had multiple projects they were involved in, we all decided that we would do this one together, somehow. We are raising money, sending volunteers, praying together, and will go on October 7, all of us who can, to work together on our house that day.
We were unanimous in wanting to do it. Each of us, our organizations, our churches, will offer what we have to give—money, volunteers, expertise. Somehow, together, we believed that God will provide through us enough to do the job. We have already done some things: our band, Shades Mountain Air, was part of a day of joy and celebration to thank the workers and lift the spirits of the community. The clowns from Childrens Hospital came and were the hit of the day.
When Mike presented the project idea, it rang a bell. I suspect it won’t be the last one we do together. There are still needs here in Birmingham, and other places. But God has a whole church in the world that only has to harness us to one another to make good things happen.
So it was that on Monday, September 19, four of our group, along with two men from my church, went together to see our project. We were met by the leader of our Israel trip from last year, Dr. Loyd Allen, and Tom Tewell, the man who
leads the foundation program that sent us, as well as Mike and number of his church folks.
After a time of lunch and fellowship together, we rode out and toured the area. It was the first time I had seen it extensively, so I found myself deeply affected by to breadth of destruction, and by how many areas still had debris and damage evident. The hardest site was one of sorrow and joy side by side. A concrete slab, clean to the ground, lay as evidence of a place where a home had been. It was the home where two of the church’s members had died, their bodies thrown across the road, deep into the tangle of trees and debris. Next door was one of the homes the church had completed and dedicated, where recently the congregation came to celebrate a new beginning with a family.
After visiting several sites where homes had been built or were underway, we came to the site that we have committed to help together. The husband and wife came out to meet us. They have been married 38 years, have eight children and there were thirteen of the extended family together that day when the tornado roared over their little patch of land and destroyed their trailer homes. I will let you listen to Mr. Hardy’s remarkable description of what happened. It’s about 2 ½ minutes.
We were joined by the chair of deacons and we all joined together and had a groundbreaking and prayer together for the home we hope to build. Tears streamed from men’s eyes as we listened to the Hardys tell us how blessed and overwhelmed by the thought that “complete strangers” would care about them and help them. I told them it was we who felt blessed to get to meet them. I was pretty sure we were talking directly to Jesus through their faces and hearts. I felt Him with us.
When I got home, I was tired, deep tired. I began the feel the emotions of all the damage I had seen, the suffering it represented, and the power of hope in a place where people have cast aside the divisions normally among them and began to help one another. They were and are becoming real “neighbors” to one another.
I woke up this morning thinking about Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem—and Williams, Alabama. I thought about all the terrible divisions in that place of killing and brokenness, where walls are being built at vast expense, to keep people apart. We saw it with our eyes, together.
We came home also with memories of the place where Jesus lived and died, the water he fished in and the village where he grew up. We prayed and prayed together, and we became friends, more than ministers usually do, I am sad to say. We live in our own siloes, running our own little place, and need God’s help to get pulled out of them.
So out of nowhere, on April 27, the walls blew down and we stood there, afraid, vulnerable, dazed. We needed each other. Then gradually it has been dawning on us that these walls started blowing down a long time ago—in ancient Israel through a rabbi who told the Truth, indeed was Truth in human form. And somehow, in a journey a group of pastors who didn’t know each other took, mainly because somebody paid for most of it and gave them a gift. We went thinking, “This will really be nice. It will inspire me and give me some sermons.”
Well, we weren’t prepared for what it actually did. It knocked the walls over. We began to truly care about each other and our churches and our ministries. God connected us all through the land of Israel and that ancient story. So on the “day after thunder,” we discovered that we didn’t go to Israel just to get away from our churches or enjoy a time of respite. It was to lead us to rural Williams, Alabama, and to the Hardys, and to Pratt City and Birmingham, and down deeper into our own congregations and people, to see that this is indeed the best and most holy work of all, realizing the meaning of the words of the Lord Jesus when he said in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We went to Israel to find what Jesus always wanted us to find—one another.
Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar, wrote an opinion piece for CNN in the aftermath of the horrendous mass murder in Norway by suspect Anders Breivik. Breivik set off a bomb and then, disguised as a policeman, infiltrated a youth camp where leadership and politics are taught and opened fire, at this point claiming at least 76 deaths.
Breivik is white, Christian, and released a bizarre 1500 page manifesto in which he advocated a revolution in which the cultural dominance of Christianity might prevail over what he saw as an “Islamic-Marxist” alliance. He wanted to speak on television in his hearing to plead his case, still apparently seeing that his murders were somehow defensible as a desperate call to arms in a culture war.
No one would defend what Breivik did. Glenn Beck, whose irrational rantings have gotten even stranger since being booted from Fox, did offer the most incredibly insensitive (or worse if he believes his own drivel) statement of all when he mulled that the camp itself seemed somehow sinister, like a Nazi Youth camp. Glenn, did you never go to civics? Events and summer leadership training happens in the USA all the time, and many of them quite patriotic. .
The right wing was not alone in its absurd reactions. Lamentations about “fundamentalist Christians” quickly followed. If you ever read the comments under the stories online, of course, you can read more visceral reactions to these things. Religious folk often responded by saying, “No, this is not true Christianity, it is the work of a sick individual.”
Prothro calls all of us who practice religion to task for being inconsistent. He writes: For the last two decades, Christian students have told me that Christianity had nothing to do with the Holocaust. After 9/11, many Muslims said that the men who flew those planes into those buildings had nothing to do with Islam. When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, we were told that the crime had nothing to do with our current climate of political hatred…Yes, he twisted the Christian tradition in directions most Christians would not countenance. But he rooted his hate and his terrorism in Christian thought and Christian history, particularly the history of the medieval Crusades against Muslims, and current efforts to renew that clash. So Christians have a responsibility to speak out forcefully against him, and to look hard at the resources in the Christian tradition that can be used to such murderous ends.”
All of our texts have violent stories in them–Jews and Christians the book of Joshua, Islam has its parallels. Christians have often been fond of talking about “spiritual warfare” and the world hearing us doesn’t understand that we don’t mean “killing people.” The “weapons” of Christianity are faith, hope and love. The way of Jesus is one of non-violence, not killing. Have we not made this clear? Apparently not.
So what does this have to do with “worldviews”? I’ve kept thinking about him writing that 1500 page abomination before doing this. His “worldview”. Having a Christian “Worldview” has become a bit fashionable in recent years among evangelical Christians. We talk of the importance of “examining one’s presuppositions” as though our own are clear and rational and pure and the rest of the world (the “lost”) are corrupt, compromised and sinful.
For more than thirty years I have engaged in many discussions with fellow Christians about “worldviews” and hear many preachers and media personalities talk about the so-called “culture wars” with this language.
“Constructing a Christian worldview” is a large enterprise. I believe in Jesus as the son of God. I am a Christ-follower. I encourage others to follow His way. Why would I react so negatively to all this “worldview” talk? Why WOULDN’T I join in the obsession of so many to construct a “Christian worldview”?
Other than my almost automatic dislike of Christian trendiness itself, I would have to say that it’s the “rationality” of it that worries me. The boundless optimism of naive Christian warriors is astounding. They read a few books about the “Christian worldview,” and pretty quickly move to authoritativeness about “standing up” against this that or the other. It’s not that I don’t take the Christian view of things seriously–it’s that I do.
First, my “view” begins with the Jesus of the New Testament. He engaged not in antiseptic schoolboy debates and parlor arguments based on straw men, but pushed deeper, down into human hearts.
Second, rather than seeking some comprehensive, one size fits all “system” that appeals to some personalities (who almost always benefit from it–strange about that), like the Pharisees and Sadduccees of his day, Jesus invited his followers to a Way of surrender to new perspectives, ruthless self-questioning, and humble obedience to his teachings and love for one another.
Third, the Christian “way” is not merely about rationality. It speaks to the irrational and subrational, too–to things we can’t know and don’t know. The Holy Spirit has to reveal truth to us, little by little, and so we are invited into this incredible humilty of following and living not from some “top down” system but from “bottom up” surrender.
It’s not very surprising that the bin Ladens, Nazis, Holy Warriors, Klansmen, Inquisitionists, and Breiviks of the world manage to create a god in thier own political, cultural and racial image and then demand that everyone else bow to it. But it is not the God of Jesus. We cannot assume that the world knows these distinctions. We ourselves have profaned, ignored and compromised this vision of our Lord too much. We have explained away his call to peacefulness and created our own many systems.
Prothero is right in that sense. So count me as one who says clearly, “This is not Christian, even if it claims to be.” The renunciation of violence as a way to resolve disputations, in a time when killing has become so efficient, seems more important than ever. Be clear–we follow a Savior who laid down His life for the world and refused to take up the sword to save it. Whatever we think of government, armies, war, executions and every other way of violence, let us at least acknowledge that the taking of life is profoundly serious and something that we accept, tolerate and ignore too often.
We have been too comfortable rationalizing our own way of life and downplaying the difficult and serious things our own Founder said to us. I speak out to say, “Mr. Breivik in no way speaks for me as a Christian.” But further, I stand against every effort at a “Christian view of things” that can be snapped together like intellectual Lego bricks, a neat little house of explanation of my own making.
Only a “view of things” that is prayed, agonized and wrestled into being with honest hearing and listening and with surrendered anger and sin, can be taken seriously. A New York Times piece quoted Breivik as having written an entry in June that said, “I prayed for the first time in a very long time today. I explained to God that unless he wanted the Marxist-Islamic alliance and the certain Islamic takeover of Europe to completely annihilate European Christendom within the next hundred years he must ensure that the warriors fighting for the preservation of European Christendom prevail.”
Those of us who have anguished sincerely for decades to learn how to pray shake our heads. One does not “tell” God what needs to be done. This young man knows nothing of the ways of God. But we offer him too many voices that seem to say these very things–voices of anger, frustration, rage and cultural certainty. But no one seems to have taught him how to actually pray.
So Christians, speak. And let’s beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, as the Hebrew scriptures put it. And maybe while we’re at it let’s refashion those worldviews into calloused knees. Maybe if we spent the time we were using to argue our “worldviews” praying for our neighbors and for God to have mercy on us sinners we could find a better way.