Thursday, June 25, 2020

Songs that Shaped Me: "Make Mea a Channel of Your Peace"

Probably my greatest hero is St. Francis of Assisi.  The son of a welthy merchant, he abandoned his privilege to embrace the underprivileged of society.  He embraced the preople that others believed were the most untouchable, and loved those deemed the most unloveable.  The little friar of Assisi has been called the most Jesus-like of all the Catholic saints.  The famous Prayer of St. Francis (which may have been written by a follower instead of by Frandis himself) illustrates the gentle and humble spirit of the man:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
And where there is sadness, joy.
O divine master grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive-
And it's in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life.

This prayer has been a go-to for me when I find myself in emotionally trying times.  I've found it particularly helpful when I've dealt with people who are unloveable or difficult, or those who tend to bring out the worst in my own personality.  Sometimes (gasp!) I can be impatient and self-centered, prone to anger when challenging people knock me off my emotional balance.   When I'm in a situation like this, I'll step aside and quietly pray this prayer.  Or I'll pray it when I know I'm about to deal with a difficult person.  

This prayer is unique because instead of praying FOR peace, it asks the pray-er to BECOME peace, or at least to become an intrument of peace.  It takes the focus off of me and helps me to put the focus on the other person, so that I'm more interested in them than I am in myself.  

In Martin Buber's book I Thou, the Jewish philosopher and theologian talks about treating people as people, rather than treating them as objects like we so often do.  Instead of engaging people in "I-It" relationships, Buber recommends treating people "I-Thou."  To me, the Prayer of St. Francis inspires this kind of interaction.

One of my favorite songs, "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,"  was written by Sebastien Temple in 1967.  Based on the Prayer of St. Francis, it inspires me to not just hope for peace, or even to work for peae, but to literally become a channel of God's peace.  I offer it to you today, and hope you'll be a channel of peace, too.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Songs that Shaped Me: "The Summons"

So the story goes, no sooner had my parents arrived home from their honeymoon, than the draft notice was on the door.  Dad was going to Vietnam.  When he received his summons, he had to go.  Acccording to, conscription of soldiers goes back thousands of years, and provisions for the draft were made under the Code of Hammurabi, in ancient Babylon.  When you receive the summons, you have to go.

On the first day of seminary, students went around the room, telling the story of their call to ministry.  Most pastors have a "call story," about how they felt that God summoned them into church work.  Some told about being the children or grandchildren of pastors, and how ministry "ran in the family."  Others said that the idea of being a pastor completely blindsided them--that they felt like their were drafted against their will.  However we came to ministry, all of us felt called--summoned by God.  When I went to seminary in 1994, The Summons was still a new song (by church standards, anyway).  Its words made a huge difference in my understanding of calling.  The lyrics seem to come from the heart of Jesus himself. 

As a pastor, I received these words as my charter for ministry.  So much that I made the song a key feature of more than one installation service at churches that I served.  The summons remains--to go where I don't know, to let Christ's love be shown, and to grow in Him.  To leave my self (ego) behind in order to care for both cruel and kind people, to risk the hostile stare for the sake of love.  I received the summons, like my hero St. Francis, to kiss the leper clean--along with everyone who's on the fringe of society for one reason or another.  Since Jesus said to "love your neighbor as yourself," this also means loving who I am.  So self-exploration, self-knowledge, and self-love are important in order to do ministry.  Not a love of ego--but the kind of self-assurance that allows me to reach out to others for their good, even when I risk getting my hand smacked for it.  The summons of Christ calls me to use the faith I've found to reshape the world around.  This is the essence of ministry--to not leave the world the way I found it, but to make it better.  This applied to church ministry, and to the social work that I do today.

This summons is not just for me, or for pastors in general--it's a draft notice for all believers.  You've been chosen, selected especially to be who you are--to show love to a broken world and re-form it by the power of love.  If you're a Christian, I pray that the words of The Summons will resonate in your heart, and become your charter as well.  If you're not a Christian, then you could hear these words from the voice of Love, as if Love were specifcally calling you to follow (because I believe Love does).

Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the 'you' you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you've found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I'll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I'll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

Words: 1987 WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow, Scotland, G2 3DH (Admin. by Wild Goose Resource Group), Music: David Peacock - The Jubilate Group (Admin. by Hope Publishing Company)

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Songs that Shaped Me - "Who Killed Davey Moore?"

I was pretty young when I realized that I had blood on my hands.  I learned that lesson from listening to Pete Seeger's version of Bob Dylan's song, "Who Killed Davey Moore?"  The song is about an American boxer named Davey Moore, aka "The Little Giant" because he was only five feet, two inches tall.  On March 21, 1963, Moore fought cuban boxer Sugar Ramos.  After losing the bout, he conducted post-fight interviews.  Later that evening, he complained of headaches, passed out, and died four days later.  (Click here to learn more).

You can watch the fight footage, hear the song, and read the lyrics in the following video.  At 2:36, you can see where Moore falls after hitting the base of his skull on the rope.

In Dylan's song, the referee says he's not to blame for Moore's death.  If he'd stopped the fight before its end, the crowd would have booed.  The crowd says it's not their fault--they just came to see a good fight.  The manager denies blame, stating that if Moore was sick, he should have said.  One by one, the gambling man, the sports writer, and Moore's opponent Ramos deny culpability.  Dylan ends the song with the question, "Who killed Davey Moore?  How come he died, and what's the reason for?"  

By ending with a question, Dylan leaves us, the listeners, to ponder the answer.  When we listen closely, we hear the singer's message: Yes, we all killed Davey Moore.  Not one of us is innocent--we all have blood on our hands.  We're part of a system that glorifies violence, and pays a premium to promote people's pain.  The referees among us who might stop the fight, think instead about the disapproval of the bloodthirsty crowd.  Those whose job it is to promote the violence seem to thrive off its proliferation.  The media benefits from sensational stories.  And we the people--we just came to see some sweat.  Yes, we are the crowd. We are the manager.  We are the writer.  We are the opponent.  So when Dylan asks his question, he leaves us to say, "Maybe it's me?"  This song shaped me at a young age, because it made me realize that my hands aren't as clean as I think they are.

When Jesus told his disciples that one of them was going to betray him to death, they asked the same question.  "Lord, is it I?  Maybe it's me--am I the one?"  Instead of pointing fingers to find someone else who's more to blame, they each had the wisdom to ask what part they might have to play in such violence.  Maybe it's time for us to do the same.

In this violent world we're a part of, it's easy to say, "It's not my fault--it must be yours."  We point to unjust lawmakers, crooked cops, biased media, or politicians who try to use conflict to their own advantage.  And maybe they share some of the blame.  But what if we did the harder thing and asked, "Lord, is it I?"  What if, instead of trying to take the splinter out of our brother's eye, we pried the log out of our own eye first?  What if we realized we're all part of a system, a society, that's sick, and that we all have blood on our hands?  What if we all were honest and said, "I killed Davey Moore."  And then what if we had the courage to change--ourselves and the system--so nobody like him would need to die again?

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Songs that Shaped Me - "We Shall Overcome"

In times like these, we need a song.  A song to unite those who believe in equity, justice, liberation, and freedom for all people.  But not just any song.  We need a song that unites not only those who labor today, but a song that reminds us that we stand arm in arm with co-laborers from every generation that has spoken out against oppression.  So, the song we need isn't today's song, but one from generations past.

In this series, "Songs that Shaped Me," I'm sharing music that not only made a difference in my life, but songs that might shape you, too.  Let's hear Pete Seeger as he sings:

"We Shall Overcome" is a song for all who are peacefully protesting against police brutality and against systemic racism on all levels.  It is a song for Pride Month, inspiring people to join hands be proud of themselves, their friends, their family members who no longer need to remain in closets in order to be safe.  "We Shall Overcome" is a song for all who hope for a more loving, more welcome, more affirming world.  It's a song that shaped me.  If you're younger, maybe this song is new to you.  If you're older, it might take you back to different times, when we were passionate about equality.  It's a song of peaceful protest, not a song of violence.  It's a song that recognizes history's hurts and today's trouble, and looks forward to the promise of peace.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Songs that Shaped Me: "When Christians Sing That Nazi Song"

Did you ever go to church and hear a Nazi song in the worship service?  Yeah--me neither.  Or, at least, I never thought of it as a Nazi song when I was a kid.  But when I was a teenager, I was surprised to find that one of my most beloved hymns was also the national anthem of the Third Reich. Maybe you've sung this song as well... 

Yes, "We are Called to Be God's People" is one of the songs that shaped me as a child, for two reasons.  First, it is a musically amazing Austrian hymn by Franz Joseph Haydn.  The English lyrics by Thomas Jackson inspire Christians to understand their calling to live in unity, share hope, to work for God's glory, and shed light in the world. 

We are called to be God's people
Showing by our lives His grace
One in heart and one in spirit
Sign of hope for all the race
Let us show how He has changed us
And remade us as His own
Let us share our life together
As we shall around His throne

We are called to be God's servants
Working in His world today
Taking His own task upon us
All His sacred words obey
Let us rise then to His summons
Dedicate to Him our all
That we may be faithful servants
Quick to answer now His call

We are called to be God's prophets
Speaking for the truth and right
Standing firm for godly justice
Bringing evil into light
Let us seek the courage needed
Our high calling to fulfill
That we all may know the blessing
Of the doing of God's will

I absolutely loved singing this song in church on Sundays.  Its message genuinely shaped the way I view our calling as Christians.  But this song shaped me in another, more painful way as well.  Back in the mid to late 1980s, a dear old lady named Vida Savkovich, had a terrible time whenever we sang my favorite hymn.  She told our pastor that if we continued to sing it, she would have to leave the church.  That's because every time we sang it, her PTSD kicked in and she was a child watching Hitler's tanks roll through her country.  Yes, I found that one of my favorite hymns was also the Nazi national anthem.  Its opening words say, "Deutschland, Deutschland, over everything / Over every other land," and Vida was retraumatized every time she heard it.  Thanksfully, our pastor and music minister listened to her plea, and struck the song from our church's repertoire.  

Think my church's leadership overreacted?  That they made too bit a deal of her pain?  Listen to what this German vlogger has to say:

So even Germans (who have some sense) say you should avoid the first verse of that song, out of respect to others and out of a desire NOT to bring up painful feelings.

"We Are Called to Be God's People" is a song that shaped me in two ways.  First, it helped me to understand our calling as the people of God.  Second our congregational experience of the song taught me to be sensitive to the feelings of others, who may be offended by something that I might view as perfectly wholesome, beautiful, and theologically correct.  It taught me that just because something is right, that doesn't make it good.

Vida's story has impacted the way, as a pastor, I have tried to deal with other songs that involve hints of racism, traces of emperialism and violence, or sexist language.  This song that shaped me also made me aware of how much our musical choices affect young and old people who hear them.  It's important that the church listen to the theology in its music, and make sure it's communicating truth.  We need to be aware of the subtle social messages that are coming through in our hymnody and worship music.  And we need to be brave enough to ditch the songs that need to be cut.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Songs That Shaped Me: "By Our Love"

If you grew up in church, you might not remember the sermons you've heard through the years, but you sure remember the music.  Thisis because the message comes through meter and rhyme, rhythm and repetition.  And it's likely that you hear each sermon only once, but you'll hear the same church music for years.  Because of this, the songs we sing in church tend to sharpe us as much as, if not more than, the Sunday school lessons or sermons that are preached.  This is why I've always tried to make sure that the songs we sang in the churches I served, reflected good theology.  

Unfortunately, many Christian songs have some poor messages that we keep repeating each time we sing them in church.  I've butted heads with some good music directors in churches, over their insinstence upon singing bad songs just because "the people love them."  I've tried to explain that the songs we sing shape our outlook on life--for good or for evil.  And even the songs we sing in church can have a bad effect on us, so "be careful, little ears, what you hear."

I've decided to take a few blog posts to talk about the songs that shaped me--some for the better, and some for the worse.  Some you might know, and others you may not recognize.  They are defintely all throwbacks.  The first is an idealized vision of what the Church is supposed to be--and for this reason, it may have made me somewhat of an idealist in my own view of the Church.  They'll Know We are Christians was written in the 1960s, so you know that when I heard it in the 1970s and 1980s, it was still considered new, by church standards.  I'll share with you a more updated version, "By Our Love," by For King and Country:

These lyrics, by Fr. Peter Scholtes, communicate the ethos of what the early church intended--unity and love.  In fact, they quote John 13:35, which says that love should be the distinguishing characteristic of believers.  The world will know that we are disciples of Jesus by the love we share.    No, it's not the crosses around our necks or the Bibles that we carry.  It's not the steeples on our churches or the multi-million-dollar TV shows.  The world will know we are Christians by our love.  Sound idealistic?  Jesus didn't think so.  And it's this simple, idealistic, message that shaped the way I saw the church as a child.

Perhaps this is something the Church needs to regain--unity in the Spirit.  We need to remember that unity does not equal conformity.  It doesn't even mean agreement.  Look, we are never going to agree on everything--maybe especially not on the hot button issues.  But when we can learn to live in unity despite our differences, they'll know we are Christians by our love.  Not by our insistence that we have the right interpretation of scripture,  not by our adherence to the strictest of moral laws, and not by the way we worship.  When we live in unity with one another, and embracing the world Jesus died for, they'll know we are Christians by our love.  

Saturday, May 16, 2020

"I'm broken. The church is broken. And that's beautiful."

"I'm broken.  The church is broken.  And that's beautiful."  That was my answer when someone asked me what I'd say if I ever interviewed for a pastoral position again.  Now, I'm not saying that I will, and I'm not saying that I won't, ever pastor a church again--that's up to God.  I'll just say yes to whatever God directs.  But when the question came to me, how I might represent myself or communicate my vision for the (universal) Church, I answered in terms of brokenness.

You see, I come from a broken home--two times over.  My parents didn't divorce til I was grown, but it profoundly impacted me as a young adult.  My first marriage lasted almost a quarter century, leaving many blessings but also some damage to my heart, to hers, and to our children.  But God specializes in restoring things that are broken.  People who are broken, too.  But God restores us beyond that which was fractured, and gives new purpose to our shards.

Kintsukuroi is the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer.  This serves as a metaphor for the way that pain, grief, and trauma can transform us into something beautiful.  It reminds us that our brokenness, our scars, can become things of beauty.  My life is Kintsukuroi. 

Now, I don't claim that I have been restored.  Instead, I'm proud to say that I'm broken.  But I'm being renewed day by day.  God has forgiven my failures, is putting me back together, and constantly restores my life, my love, and my livelihood.  God has brought me together with my amazing new bride, given me a new home, a new country, and a renewed purpose.  I can't say whether I'll ever stand in a pulpit again--but when somebody asked me how I'd express myself to  the Church, I'd say that I'm broken, and that's beautiful.

I'd also tell any individual congregation that it, too, is broken.  Because the Church (universal) is made up of damaged people who are all in the process of being restored, individual churches too are comprised of messed-up people.  They're led by messed-up people.  And they serve messed-up people.  If I ever stood before a church again, I'd tell them not to forget that they're all broken.  And that when they engage the world, they shouldn't do so from a position that says, "We've got it together, and we want to help the damaged people to be like us."  Instead, the church needs to embrace its Kintsukuroi-ness, and understand that broken is beautiful.  We're all damaged--and God is putting us back together.  The Church can only get real with the world when it gets real with itself.  Because the broken world will never be attracted by a pristine church.  Only a damaged Church will do.