Singing the Victory of God

Sermon Scripture Text: Revelation 18:21-24, 19:1-9

Audio Here, preached at Peace Fellowship Church on August 20, 2017.

For many of us, Revelation is the last book of the Bible we turn to for comfort. Oh sure, we may hear a reassuring word at a funeral (like Ch. 7—“God will wipe away every tear”) or the vision from the end of the book of the new heavens and new earth, Chapter21. But I would venture to guess that few of us look to Revelation for questions about the rest of life.

For understandable reasons, many of us avoid this book like the 6th plague (that’s a Revelation joke—seeing if you’re paying attention. You didn’t know Revelation could be funny, did you?). Or, for other people, they have maybe made too much of it, offering it as a kind of playbook or movie script for the so-called “end times.” Some have even made a big profit from an industry that relies on a certain, narrow, interpretation of it—Left Behind, Late Great Planet Earth, and the like.

For me, I also avoided reading it for most of my life. I remember in 8th or 9th grade, I was in a Bible Study through my church youth group, led by other youth, and we talked about choosing Revelation for our book of study one year. I came home and told my dad about this idea, and he immediately vetoed it, explaining that it was a complicated book that needed a careful, trained guide in order to understand. So I steered clear of it for the most part for a long time out of a kind of fear that I was not ready to comprehend its message.

Yet, sometime after college, my same father wrote such a guide to Reading Revelation well—Responsibly—with an eye to literary genre, political issues of the time, and other important guide posts to make it seem less unreachable, and more like Scripture, meaning a text through which we believe the Holy Spirit can breathe new life into us with each reading. For if a part of our Bible has become unreadable, scary, foreign, then it has stopped being Scripture. It can go on the shelf with books like James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Anyone who has ever read that book knows it needs its own companion guide to understand!).

Since I helped my dad index the book, I had to read it, and I found myself opened in a new way to the message of the Apocalypse. Since then, I have come regard it as the unsung hero of the New Testament—the only book of almost entirely prophetic literature in the NT, who fantastic images and scenes invite us to use our imagination as well to adopt a new imagination—an apocalyptic imagination. The word apocalypse means “unveiling,” and it implies—by definition at least–not the “end of times” but rather that the curtain between the spiritual realm and our earthly realm has been pulled back for a glimpse into deeper forces—both good and evil—at work in our world. An apocalyptic imagination, therefore, invites us to look at our lives, individually and communally, as a part of a deeper struggle, and in the mind of Revelation, a truer victory, than may be immediately apparent. Revelation is like the Matrix—taking the red pill—to see with different lenses. (Sorry—have I missed the boat on Matrix references? Is that so 2005?) Revelation invites us to understand that God has, is, and will defeat evil. Let me re-say that: Revelation is the unequivocal assertion that God has defeated, is defeating, and will defeat evil once and for all. Amen? In short, Revelation presents the answer to the problem of evil. In your life, you may be asking, or have asked, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be until your justice comes?” like the faithful saints in Revelation 9. Revelation’s Lamb says, “Behold I am coming soon.”

At a basic level, there are TWO prevailing themes in Revelation.

1) God is forever. God is described as the Alpha and Omega; the one who was, is, and is to come. The first and Last. Ancient of Days. God shares the throne with the Lamb who was slaughtered, who was found worthy because he was slaughtered, because his power is expressed not by might, but by humble sacrifice. This is significant—any other fantastic images of the Lamb or Jesus in Revelation are rooted in—not contradicting—this first and most crucial image of the Lion-who-is-slaughtered-Lamb in Chapter 4 is an unusual conqueror. He conquers through self-giving love.

By contrast, evil in its many forms, is not forever. The language of Revelation is the impending end of all sickness, oppression, war, persecution. Whether it takes the form of a dragon, beasts, economic injustice ,plagues, sickness, racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, colonialism,  (someone say Amen?)—its days are officially numbered when the kingdom of God begins to take over the authority given to kings of the earth (chapters 11 and 12 in Revelation) and, as it so beautifully says in 11:15: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” Some might know this as the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.

Revelation addresses many kinds of evil, but the root issue throughout is idolatry, which leads to the second basic theme: true worship of God and the Lamb. Why is Revelation so concerned with the sin of idolatry? What does idolatry mean? Idolatry, generally, is giving worship or allegiance to other things or gods besides the true God and Lamb. In a literal sense, people during John the Seer’s day (who wrote Revelation) were literally worshiping statues of Greek and Roman gods, the emperor himself, all sorts of things. Christians were constantly struggling with their own relationship to these gods and the often debaucherous cult of worship that surrounded them at temples. On the one hand, John is speaking about a particularly specific and dangerous idea. Yet, idolatry means more than just conscious worship or homage to a statue.

Throughout the Old Testament, idolatry is seen as the fundamental sin of Israel. Whether in the Garden of Eden (giving deference to the Serpent— it is no coincidence that Revelation uses a giant serpent/dragon to represent the Satan), the golden calf at Mt. Sinai, or the worship of Baal and other foreign gods, God’s people have tended to let other things take the place of YHWH. In a big picture kind of way, idolatry is at the heart of all sin. So in Revelation, John is showing that a particular kind of idolatry is at work in the world: evil, in the form of a dragon and his beast minions is trying to get people to worship them, pay them homage, and give allegiance that is due God alone (makes you stop and wonder about all those who criticize Colin Kapernick and others for not standing during the National Anthem). This idolatry is especially subtle as it comes through the nations, those tasked with to protecting and caring for the people have deceived them into giving their loyalty and trust in their sovereignty alone. Those who participate in and perpetuate its unjust economy (a mark on the forehead or wrist) are also committing idolatry. God is not deceived. John then uses the graphic imagery of “fornication” for Babylon, which is the embodiment of all the wickedness of the Beasts. Babylon fornicates with other kings and nations instead of being faithful to YHWH. Our text today contrasts the faithful church against the adulterous Babylon. Babylon of course is the land of exile that Israel dwelt in—the land of Baal, of idolatry, where God’s presence does not dwell. By using metaphoric imagery and coded language (Babylon instead of Rome, for instance, or Beast instead of Nero), the people and places are universal, calling for “a mind with wisdom,” to use John’s phrase, to see Babylon as any nation or institution that places itself at odds with God’s just and merciful ways. Just like Babylon can be any city or nation that oppresses, or demands allegiance and power, so too can dragons be any leaders or powers that push for war, racism, violence, hatred, and the temptation to idolatry can take any number of forms. This is one place where apocalyptic imagination is so vital.

Of course, the other side of idolatry is genuine, true worship of the only one who is worthy, and Revelation gives us almost 2 dozen explicit instances of worship in the form of proclamation and song. These songs and proclamations are sung by a variety of characters that I am today calling the “Heavenly Choir,” though there are some distinct subsets within this mass choir. This choir acts in many ways like the choruses of ancient Greek tragedies—they are always in the background of the drama, responding to events and people who appear. Yet in style, they’re more like a gospel choir, participating in a kind of “call and response” mode. Brian Blount calls the worship in Revelation a “Spiritual-Blues impulse,” meaning that over and over, the sung praises of God erupt responsively.

It blew my mind when I realized just how much worship is part of Revelation. It was always pitched to me as a scary story about judgment and plagues and God ruthlessly destroying enemies of God. Those things are in there—though not with the fear and cruelty that is often gleefully trumpeted—but far, far more prevalent are the songs of adulation, joy, adoration, and just praise of who God is.  (It is an interesting literary aside that those who worship the beast are never given a voice—we don’t know the “lyrics” to their idolatrous praise. In fact, the only voices, until the passage of text directly related to the one at hand for us today, we hear belong to God or God’s faithful. )

I see this call-and-response choir in 3 ways:

  1. Responding to God’s character: Especially in Chapters 4 and 5, there are these different groups of people that praise God simply because God is creator. God is worthy of worship because of who God is: the Creator. The Lamb is worthy of worship because he has been slaughtered and ransomed people from every nation to God.

2. Responding to other Saints: Often the songs of worship come in response to other groups singing. As we see in our text today, there is sometimes a domino effect: one group starts singing, then another chimes in, and then another, and then an “Amen.”

3.Responding to What God Does: Remember that Revelation is the story of God’s past, present, and future victory over evil. Different parts of this “heavenly choir” witness God gain some victory over evil and they respond in song and worship. Listen to the words from Chapter 19:3 (after Babylon has fallen): Once more they said, “Hallelujah! The smoke rises from her forever!” It’s like God’s victory is the “Call,” and worship is the “response.” And it almost feels like someone said, “Can I get an Amen?” because the next thing we hear is, “Amen, Hallelujah!” And then the multitude calls back, “Hallelujah! The Lord Almighty reigns!”

Singing the Victory with our Lives

Brothers and sisters, Revelation is not the script of the “end times,” but it is a kind of script in that it invites us to participate in the divine drama of salvation. We’ve been cast, as a community, as God’s people, as the “choir.” Our text today invites us and challenges us to think about what that means:

This specific passage is in response to the “fall of Babylon.” We see the response first of those who mourn Babylon’s defeat in Chapter 18:  First the kings and nations who benefited from her sins: “Alas, alas!” Then the Merchants and those who got rich off her oppression of others, weep and wail at the loss of its splendor. Then the sailors and those who carried the so-called Greatness of Babylon to others throw dust on their heads and ask, “What city was like the great city!” They might have said Make Babylon Great Again.  This is the city that we are told, had become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a ruiner of other nations. This is the city God’s people are told to come out of, to steer clear of its sins.

When Babylon receives its defeat, its ill-gained riches lost, its finery and excess wealth destroyed, are the people told to feel sorry? No, they are told, rejoice! Rejoice that Babylon has fallen!

Revelation challenges us to wonder if we’re rooting for Babylon to win. Do we stand to gain, like merchants and sailors and kings, from Babylon? This Babylon will fall, whatever it is. It may be the nicest Babylon the world has ever known, but it is still Babylon. It may not be a violent fall—let’s pray not—but it will fall. Unjust leaders will be brought down; systemic racism will end; Mass Incarceration will end; Unjust over-consumption will be over. Revelation tells us that all Babylons will fall, but then turns and asks us, “Will you weep with the merchants or rejoice with the angels?”

This passage, like others in Chapters 14-16 is worship of God in response to God’s victory over evil. The choir are literal witnesses of God’s justice. They erupt in joy and praise, claiming God’s sovereignty, God’s authority, over all. They are songs of testimony. We are invited to sing our songs in response to God’s goodness, God’s character, yes, but just as much to respond to God’s justice. Do we have songs that proclaim this victory? Do we sing them with confidence of their truth?

This should tell us that our weekly worship services are not merely social gatherings, they are not merely affirmation gatherings, where we tell each other we’re not crazy. No, they have a participatory nature: when we worship, our songs become a corporate shout-down of evil, because we know God has already won the battle! Revelation is filled with this funny tension—knowing that God has already claimed victory in the Lamb who conquers, and that the Beast has a mortal wound, that its days have been numbered and that its time is short, and yet knowing that even now the beast is still trying to steal our allegiance. We sing in response to each little and big victory we see happening. The victory is God’s, we are simply the witnesses. We just sing the victory—in song and word on Sunday, with our lives the rest of the week

The beauty of worship in Revelation can inspire and invite us to write new songs (literally—2 different times, the choirs spontaneously sing a new song) that tell both of God’s worthiness and God’s justice. In that sense, our apocalyptic imagination is so necessary—without it, we will continue to see the darkness of the world instead of the light breaking through. I know we have writers here—write lyrics, and poetry, and testimonies. Work with a musician, write a song that we can sing together. Write a prayer or a call and response chant for the community. Be open to impulses that spontaneously urge you to praise God in our services, your life.

A new imagination is so desperately needed in American Christianity, and a commitment to the kind of worship evident in Revelation could be the avenue that leads us there. It is not enough to be simply for or against “empire” or patriotism or nationalism. St. John writes to churches—plural—facing various kinds of challenges and temptations, but the unifying call for all of them is in chapters 4 and 5: to behold the throne of God and the victorious Lamb and worship them with a new song. We all must become performers and narrators of the drama of God’s restorative acts and judgment through worship in our communities. That is our first call, to worship, and it strips away all of the other layers that our fallen selves add on—allegiance to political parties, leaders, even Christendom itself. When this happens, the community becomes (as another, wise Gorman has written), “a sacred space in which their imaginations and lives can be increasingly converted into the image of the Lamb” (Gprman, Reading Revelation Responsibly 178). It is through worship that dividing walls of political ideologies within in the church can be broken. Worship could heal the fractured church.

In the end, literally, worship is what we have been created to do, and it is the only appropriate response to the voice of the One who stands knocking, to the Spirit which says, “Come,” and to the God who is in enthroned above all creation. Through worship in the spirit of Revelation, an apocalyptic imagination is made available and a life of faithful witness is possible.

As we close today in song, I want to invite you to imbue your songs with new meaning. Add some extra weight to your hallelujah today. Let’s sing the victory of God! We even have a 2 part chorus for our closing song today.

Somone sing God’s victory over illness this past week. Someone rejoice as a piece of Babylon fell when that brave woman pulled that statue down in Durham. Someone sing God’s victory as thousands of people marched yesterday to shout down hatred and hate speech. Someone sing God’s victory as a white supremacist and war mongerer at the White House got fired. Someone sing the victory that’s still coming over violence and gentrification here in Deanwood and DC. Someone sing  the victory over economic injustice. You know the angels in heaven will be singing when a certain world leader resigns. Someone sing that victory!

It’s coming—God’s victory—but let the forces of wickedness in the spiritual realms hear you sing it today and live it so loud this week that the very walls of hostility in our world come tumbling down. Amen? Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] Gorman, 178.

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Martyr

I’ve been thinking a lot about Kayla Mueller, who apparently was a close friend of family friends. In addition to her work in Syria, Kayla worked for peace in Palestine with International Solidarity Movement, an organization I got to know a bit during my time tKayla-Ashraf-posterhere with CPT. She’s a true martyr for peace, in the best tradition of the church. Read some of her beautiful words from Palestine on my birthday in 2010: http://bit.ly/1INJmMT

But like most martyrs, her death has quickly been used to as a point for propaganda. Israeli “news” sources, call her a terrorist: http://bit.ly/1zw60yk. What rubbish. In reality, she was a terrorist for peace, of which this world could use a few more. Jesus, MLK, and Gandhi were all terrorists for peace. They terrorized the reigning authorities, made them quake in their boots because they knew their violent grip on humanity was at stake.

The powers that be are always afraid of people of who die working tirelessly for justice because they know that there’s something compelling and convicting about the unjust death of peacemakers, and if it happens too often, people might re-question their allegiances. That’s why police brutality is condoned from the general population–police are usually hurting “bad guys.” The U.S. learned it’s lesson after the Civil Rights era–don’t kill the heroes, kill the villains. Kill the bin Ladens, the drug dealers, the kids high on pot. Give their communities drugs, poor schools, no jobs, and then turn them into the villains, so you can kill them. You can’t kill Martin Luther King any more, it’s too risky. So instead, turn the would-be Martin Luther Kings and Fannie Lou Hamers into something people love to hate.

I am suspicious of words of comfort and the pursuit of “justice” from President Obama after her death. Justice, for the powers that be, is simply code for killing. We will find the people who killed you and kill them, is what he means. That’s vengeance. Justice for Kayla would mean to question the U.S.’s unhinged support of an oppressive Israeli regime. Justice would mean questioning the U.S. foreign policies that led to to the creation of ISIS. Justice would mean taking a risk for love, as Kayla did. There can be no justice from the reigning authorities. In the Christian tradition, that’s what the kingdom of God means–a new reign of justice which can only be carried out by the one whose justice is self-sacrificial, loving, and redeeming.

Kayla’s death, ultimately, cannot be made right through vengeance,through the powers. It has already been made right because of its cruciform nature–she shared in the sufferings of the risen Lord, she became like him in life and in death. She died with him, that she might rise with him. I pray for more like her, that we would let the world have “all my everything” for peace.

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To Grow Spiritually

Not my words, but Killian Noe’s:

If we are to grow up spiritually, if we are to become who we were created to become, we need structures in our lives in which we are held accountable to that becoming. We need people in our lives who will hold us to the commitments that keep us in the process of growing spiritually. Again, spiritual practices like prayer, sharing of resources and being with the suffering and excluded have no power in themselves to heal and transform. These practices merely keep us in the process of growing up spiritually. Spiritual practices are what keep the doors of our hearts open to the power of the Spirit of God. That Spirit does the healing and transforming.

I don’t know that much else needs to be added to that.

 

I’m Going to Set Your Flag on Fire

In Paris just a few weeks ago, a few men attacked employees of the controversial magazine Charlie Hebdo in response to mocking images of the Prophet Muhammad. The headlines in the following days largely defended the magazine’s work as an expression of freedom of speech. Another theme in the discourse following the attacks was criticisms of Islam and confusion when some Islamic communities in France did not come out in full condemnation of what had happened because the magazine had incited the violence with their offensive work. Charilie Hebdo had been warned. For many people, it’s hard to imagine why mocking images of Muhammad would be offensive enough to incite physical violence. Jesus is found in cartoons, T-shirts, dashboard ornaments, portrayed in offensive ways, yet Christians don’t make headlines for murdering the creators of this content. Same with other kinds of religious or important figures.

I tried to think of a parallel that Americans might understand.

  • Don’t let it touch the ground
  • It should never have any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind placed on it or attached to it.
  • It should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
  • It should never be used in advertising
  • It should not be used as a costume
  • It should not be turned upside down for display
  • It should not be bunched up
  • It should not be used to decorate or adorn
  • Don’t let it tear

To what do I refer? Old Glory. The Star Spangled Banner. The Stars and Stripes. The Grand Old Flag. The [U.S] American flag is the Prophet of American Civil Religion. Want to start a fight? Insult the flag. Refuse to pledge allegiance. Turn your back on the colors that don’t run. Interrupt the hymn (anthem) during church (sporting event). Question whether or not it belongs in your church’s sanctuary. I’ve seen how angry people get about their flag. It’s not hard to find examples.

Here’s a hypothetical situation: Remember “Pastor” Terry Jones and the Koran burning party he planned? Imagine instead he had planned a flag burning party. It doesn’t take much to convince me that there might have been violent responses to such a thing. I can easily imagine threats against his life, church, ministry, and more. Or if something did happen, it’s not hard to imagine interviews on the local news with people saying, “Well, it’s never good to hurt someone, but he was kind of asking for it by burning the flag.” People take the flag that seriously.

Americans and Muslims share a lot in common in the level of respect for their religious/civil religious figures. The vast majority, as strongly as they might object to offensive displays, would never hurt or kill another person over it. Some might. On the one hand, these parallels are simply interesting to note, and innocuous.

What is scary to me is that extremists in one of these groups of people have access to the largest military on earth and unchecked stores of nuclear weapons.

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Nazis, Drones, and Immigration

As part of my Master’s degree in Music at Catholic University, I am taking a course, “The Music of the Holocaust Era.” In addition to studying specific works that came out of the Holocaust (both by Jewish and non-Jewish composers), we are discussing the environment that musicians were faced with under the Nazi regime. Part of this discussion has been the entire mindset of the Nazi party’s efforts to eradicate the Jewish population (as well as a number of other “other” groups).

What it boils down to, at least from my perspective, was an arbitrary distinction between Jews and non-Jews. Jews were declared inherently different from true Germans, out to bring about the economic and political ruin of the entire country. Even though families had intermarried, Jews had fought in wars on behalf of Germany, were successful musicians who had contributed to the vast cultural depths, they had to be expelled from the country and eventually from existence. That is the irrational logic of the Holocaust. It was implemented under the guise of patriotism and propaganda and enforced with violent repression.

droneIn our day, in the United States, there is currently a controversy over the US Drone policy. The US has been killing so-called enemies at will and with little accountability or oversight for years using these remote controlled planes. While their use has been opposed by many, the recent outcry has been due to the now-public memo which lays out the “legal” justification for killing pretty much anyone perceived to be a threat, including U.S. citizens. It’s the “U.S. citizens” part that is now causing the stir.

But what the lunacy of Nazism teaches us is the absurdity of these nationalist distinctions, “American,” “German,” “Pakistani.” People should rightfully be concerned and outraged at the killing policies of this administration, but not any more so because they now include US citizens, but simply because these policies kill humans. In fact, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that the government would kill its own citizens because other, arbitrary, divisions are actually more important. Muslim? Ties to “radical” groups? Family member who is in prison? In US history, it was at one time American Indians, then African Americans.

We don’t have to look far to see how these distinctions apply other other groups in the US especially when you look at immigration stance and policy. We are told, by both liberals and conservatives, that we have to fear the influx of Latin American people coming to the country. We can’t grant them citizenship, even if they fought in the military, go to college, support the economy, excel in the arts and culture…sound familiar?

I’m not suggesting that the US government is the same as the Nazi regime, but merely highlighting that the xenophobic philosophy that led to the Holocaust and the underlying philosophy behind US “homeland security” are not that different.

Over and over, stories from Germans who lived during the Holocaust have claimed that there was nothing that could be done. People who spoke up were killed. Musicians who protested saw their careers end or were sent to the camps. But antisemitism didn’t appear out of nowhere in 1933. Perhaps in some sense, by the time Hitler came to power and made policy what was already accepted sentiment, it was too late. Christians and other people of good will waited too long and so they were left with the option to become martyrs or to become complicit. That is a choice that we should all pray we never leave ourselves with.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller

Something That Won’t Compute

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

This poem has been on my mind for the last while. It’s by Wendell Berry, and is excepted from “Manifesto,” a poem from the Mad Farmer Liberation Front. Every stanza in it releases me to live life more fully. It names the evil I’m surrounded by, it calls forth my humanity, it reminds me that I’m not a machine, but a creature like the fox.

I was especially thinking about this poem on Election Day. Today, I’m fasting, both from food and from voting. I may vote again one day, but I’ve refrained for a variety of reasons. However, re-reading this poem has reminded me that I don’t want to be predictable; I need to be more like the fox.

I recently celebrated a birthday and have decided to take the “Wendell Berry Mad Farmer Challenge” (my term):

Everyday do something that doesn’t compute.

I want to try for the next year, to do one thing a day that doesn’t compute and try to post it here. So, today on election day, I’m going to start. Here’s what I’m doing, taking a cue from WB (“Denounce the government and embrace the flag”):

I’m not going to vote, and I’m going to write a letter to a military service person in Afghanistan.

Why:

I am firmly pacifist and abhor the wars this country is involved in. Yet, in my pacifism, I often forget that the people fighting in the wars are actually people. They become issues, or lumped in to the policies of war-mongering that the government lives by. I can’t support anyone’s decision to join the military, to be willing to kill at the whim of a general or president. By writing a letter, I hope to remind whomever I write to, of his/her humanity and the humanity of the enemy.

Why this “won’t compute”

For a lot of people, choosing not to vote is either an act of apathy or an act of anger against a rotten system. I can identify with both of these to some extent. But I want my choice to abstain to be rooted in genuine compassion and action for what I do believe in: the Prince of Peace.

Maybe you’ll join me. What about your life doesn’t compute (in a good way)?

Pace e bene.

**Read my next post for Day 2 of the Wendell Berry Mad Farmer Challenge

Praying Twice

I’ve played music since I can remember. I grew up at the piano, playing by ear songs I heard on the radio at age 4. Some of my fondest memories are of family and community music-making; my parents host a Christmas caroling-party each year, where we carol to neighbors and return to their house for hours of singing and playing. During college, I would come home and we would have Taize/hymn singing. My mom and I play duets together for fun. If you ever meet my grandmother, she has trouble going an entire conversation with making reference to some old hymn or bluegrass song.

Being musically inclined and having spent time in various denominations, I’ve absorbed the hymn traditions of many parts of the church–African American spirituals, Mennonite hymns, Methodist hymns, Gregorian chant, Baptist hymns, contemporary “worship” songs, Lutheran Hymns, Taize chant, and through Common Prayer and time at the Rutba House, the songs original to Christian communities all over the world.

I think one of the best thing Christian communities can commit to doing is singing together. If singing isn’t part of your common prayer practice, I highly suggest incorporating it. I also sincerely suggest learning new songs from traditions other than your own–there’s something about singing that connects to all those who have sung before, similar to praying the Our Father or any number of other prayers. We need to sing the songs of other traditions in order that we may more fully become part of the  family of God–by singing, we bring those traditions into our own.

One of the obstacles I’ve observed in churches and intentional Christian communities alike is how few people can read music. It’s quite hard to learn new songs on your own if you can’t read music. Many people can pick up a new song after hearing it a few times, but resources like Common Prayer (which contains 50 songs from communities around the world, many of them new I’m sure to users of the book) aren’t fully being tapped by people who don’t read music. I find it sad how many people I meet who use Common Prayer every day and yet when they get to the song in the daily morning office, they skip it or inevitably sing any song they know. There’s nothing wrong with singing another song instead, of course, but a big blessing of Common Prayer is mixing traditions and teaching all of us something new.

(I digress for a moment to express my sadness at how fewer and fewer children will grow up unable to read music. For many people, church is where they learned to read music, or at least follow a melody line. Whether it was in choir or handbells or just using the church hymnal, for many Christians until recently, there was some element of music reading going on in church. With more and more churches using powerpoint to project simply the words, our churches are inevitably contributing to the growing musical ignorance of American culture. I can’t help but recall a joke I heard once at a Christian concert. A man was visiting a church where his brother was pastor. During the service, all the hymns were projected on in front and there were no hymnals. Afterward, the pastor was talking to his brother and asked how he liked the service. The brother replied, “Don’t worry, one day you’ll have enough  money so that everyone can have their own copy of the words.” Though I don’t think words on the screen are so bad, the point for me is that church should be a place where music is the lifeblood of the congregation).

I advocate for as much singing of various traditions as possible. And I hearby offer my services to come to any community and spend time teaching people songs from Common Prayer and also just how to incorporate music more into life. I can also teach the basics of music to help people be able to learn new music on their own. I believe music is close to the character of God that we should be doing all we can to participate in it. Some of the most soulful music we have in our culture is from impoverished or enslaved groups who had only God to look to for provision. When we sing that music, we learn their story and become a part of it.

I pray for the church to live music this way.

Our Daily Bread

From mnprairieroots.wordpress.com

During my morning prayer time today, I was struck by the words of the Our Father. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he teaches them to pray for “thy” kingdom (referring to God) and “our daily bread.” The instruction to pray for God’s kingdom to come means that we don’t pray for our own personal kingdoms or the kingdoms of the world to come. We don’t pray for Obama’s kingdom or Bush’s kingdom, we don’t let our selfishness dictate the prayer. Even though the truth of our shadow sides is that we’d actually prefer our own view of what the kingdom should be to prevail instead of God’s, in this humble prayer we contradict our self-seeking ways.

But the prayer for “our daily bread” is another matter. Like the Israelites in the desert, we’re commanded to trust God for what we need each day and not to store up for tomorrow. We learn from the manna story the futility of worrying about tomorrow as well as the fundamental discipline of Sabbath–trusting God for 7 days of abundance for 6 days work. (I had a different reflection on these same words almost 2 years ago here)

Yet the prayer for daily bread could easily become selfish, looking out just for me and my family’s needs. In contrast to the preceding words of the prayer, the petition for daily bread becomes me-focused. Upon closer look, however, the pronoun “our” is the key word to comprehending what God is asking of us.

By praying forour daily bread, I must recognize it is not enough if I have food on my table each evening. The prayer reflects the needs and petitions of the whole world; when I pray for the daily bread, my voice is joining the millions of others who pray that prayer, especially those for whom the manna has not yet appeared on the ground. Each time I pray the Our Father, it is an invitation to solidarity with the truly starved brothers and sisters around the world. And as I pray this  with them in mind, I cannot gather too much for myself but must instead turn to help the one who gathers little, so that together no one has gathered too much and none too little. Maybe that is part of the manna story in the desert, that as the people gathered each day, they realized that their flourishing as a people depended on their willingness to walk the road together and help everyone gather what they needed.

Like the prayer of St. Francis, it is not enough to simply say the Our Father. To truly pray this prayer—to remember to ask for “our daily bread,”  to be forgiven “our debts,” to be delivered from evil—means to live it out. Here is the difference between saying prayers and praying them, that when we pray our lives are altered. When we pray, our feet move. When we pray, our eyes are opened.

Let us truly pray this prayer that our Lord taught us.

On the Super Bowl

I thought I’d share a reflection (not my own) on Super Bowl Sunday. I enjoy sports, but am overall quite skeptical of many aspects of professional sports. I am particularly not-so-enthusiastic about football probably in part because it is just so American: controlled violence, egotism at its height, self glorification, and ostentatious exhibitions of wealth in the form of millions of dollars on commercials. Football, and particularly the Super Bowl, is the closest modern example to the Gladiator fights of old. It’s painted a lot more colorfully, but the parallels are remarkable: thousands cram into an arena to watch a bunch of primarily black men nearly kill each other while the folks who arrange the carnage get wealthier. Sure, these days we pay our gladiators a lot more, but instead of being slaves to of Rome, they’re slaves to performance and wealth and glory. Many people enjoy football, but do we ever stop to analyze why we get so much enjoyment out of a rather violent sport?

I leave you with this beautiful prayer by Walter Bruggemann from his book Prayers for a Privileged People.

“Super Bowl Sunday”

The world of fast money,
and loud talk, and much hype is upon us.
We praise huge men whose names will linger only briefly.

We will eat and drink,
and gamble and laugh,
and cheer and hiss,
and marvel and then yawn.

We show up, most of us, for such a circus,
and such an indulgence.
Loud clashing bodies,
violence within rules,
and money and merchandise and music.

And you–today like every day–
you govern and watch and summon;
you glad when there is joy in the earth,
But you notice our liturgies of disregard and
our litanies of selves made too big,
our fascination with machismo power,
and lust for bodies and for big bucks.

And around you gather today, as every day,
elsewhere uninvited, but noticed acutely by you,
those disabled and gone feeble,
those alone and failed,
those uninvited and shamed.
And you whose gift is more than “super,”
overflowing, abundant, adequate, all sufficient.

The day of preoccupation with creature comforts writ large.
We pause to be mindful of our creatureliness,
our commonality with all that is small and vulnerable exposed,
your creatures called to obedience and praise.

Give us some distance from the noise,
some reserve about the loud success of the day,
that we may remember that our life consists
not in things we consume
but in neighbors we embrace.

Be our good neighbor that we may practice
your neighborly generosity all through our needy
neighborhood.

On Not Voting

Yesterday, for the second consecutive time since I became an eligible voter, I declined to participate in the elections. Two years ago, in the presidential election, I abstained for the first time with much deliberation and thought, turmoil over my reasons for not voting and feeling pressured to vote by others. This time, to be honest, I never really even gave it a second thought. I didn’t once entertain the thought of actually voting, due in part because I’m registered to vote in North Carolina and wouldn’t have known exactly where to begin to change the registration, and in part because I dealt with the majority of my moral dilemmas two years ago and feel pretty comfortable with my reasoning.

I, like others who are not just apathetic but purposefully choose to not vote, have received varying amounts of criticism. I can’t speak for other people, but I will offer my reasons for not voting and why some of the typical persuasive arguments that say I should vote don’t really do much to dissuade me.

I am a Christian who happens to live Babylon, familiarly known as the United States. I’m not American, though technically I am a citizen here. It sounds odd to say, almost choosing to ignore facts. Most people would say I’m American. But if we regard the Scriptures, Philippians tells us that those who confess Jesus as Lord are citizens of heaven. Not merely an ethereal place, heaven is God’s kingdom, and as Jesus prays, it is coming to earth. Those who have made their allegiance to Jesus the king have no other king, emperor, or president (this is the entire pretense of Jesus for President). The Revelation of St. John makes it disturbingly clear that collusion with empire is a recipe for disaster for the believer. The writer makes it clear: “‘Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). We would do well to let Revelation inform our political involvement!

Frankly, I think the strong message of Revelation alone is nearly enough to be as near a prohibition of political involvement as there could be in the New Testament. The rest of the NT sets up the church as an conspiracy to undermine the prevailing kingdoms by subverting their corrupt systems and means; it’s an ongoing embodiment of the now-and-future reality that the world is being put to rights through the mustard seed revolution of Jesus Christ.

But, the church has hopped in bed with empire, and Christians in the U.S. find themselves (at least view themselves) in a very different position than their brothers and sisters 2000 years ago. We live in a society with a democracy that has the potential to do real good through the government (see my post below about how both so-called conservative and liberal divisions of Christianity both use this same argument), real work for God’s kingdom, so the argument goes. Whether it’s saving lost souls or giving health insurance to millions, the government can do God’s will, so we must vote for those who will help God’s will be done most effectively, according to whatever your version of God’s will is. On top of this, still others add, people have died to bring the vote to African Americans (or women), what kind of “privilege” are you flashing by throwing this history and struggle to the side (and the way some folks have dealt with that is to give their vote away to populations that in the past have been denied it)? Voting is a right, a blessing, a privilege!

The above paragraph is a sampling of what people usually say in defense of voting (other things include, “It’s your civic (also known as “civil religious”)duty,”). Hopefully, careful consideration of what I think the Bible has to say to us about participation will at least show that I don’t discard voting glibly or without thought to what I’m doing. If I don’t consider myself American, then it makes sense that I wouldn’t vote, right?

[I will here insert a caveat that I do distinguish between national elections/participation and local politics, specifically politics below state level like Mayor or city council. This is not hypocrisy, but respect for the argument that people make which says that no matter where you place your allegiance, you still live here and are affected by what happens. That I have a driver’s license, I used to have a library card, went to public schools etc. is testimony to that. While I think voting/participating in local elections should be done thoughtfully, it seems to me that they are much closer to communities. I am for local communities and neighborhoods working together, pooling their resources.  But, I do not believe in voting for the emperor or his attendants, be they black, white, male or female.]

Yet of all the arguments for voting, often the most convicting and persuasive one (in my eyes, at least) is that specifically in the African American community voting was such a hard-won victory, and came at the cost of many lives, to not vote or even disagree with voting overall, is an insult to that struggle. I have a deep respect for that struggle and that point, and know many other white folks for whom that’s enough for them to keep voting or to give someone else a “second” vote. But I wonder if that argument takes for granted a few things and misses perhaps the deeper meaning behind the black fight for voting rights, at least from a Christian perspective.

First, it seems to me that the underlying meaning in the voting rights campaigns (and indeed all of the Civil Rights movement) was a demand to be looked at simply as human by others. Courageous black folk refused to be treated as less than the creations they were made to be, and in a society where voting was used to further such oppression, organizing folks to vote was saying, “Look me in the eyes.” While there was a strong push for national equality, the battlefield of this quest to be regarded with dignity was in lunchrooms and buses. In my opinion, the Civil Rights marches and nonviolent actions were the epitome of personalism, Peter Maurin’s catchphrase. Each march was specific to the town or area that was affected. So, to reduce the martyrdom of many beautiful souls to having fought merely for voting rights is not honoring of the holistic picture of what was going on. Even if they didn’t see themselves as such, we are able to read the deeper and broader meanings of what they were part of.

Another problem is that today the vote is often a tool to manipulate black folk. The “black vote” is simply another voting bloc that politicians have to appease in order to keep their office. And especially in national elections, appeasement is merely shallow rhetoric. That African Americans can now vote no longer assures that they will be regarded any better than before; they’ve been swept into the masses of people whom the politicians lie to without a second thought. What is it exactly about the vote today that has any real connection to what people really struggled for decades ago? Does voting really help black folks succeed in life in a way that is honoring to an understanding of an upside-down kingdom (or really right side up) that Jesus brings? (Note again the caveat above; I’m speaking mostly of national elections, yes even the one where Obama won)

I am white, it’s true, so I do not have a family history of the importance of voting, but I think this argument ignores the complexities both of what was fought for in the middle of this century and of the reality of life in the U.S. today.

To one final argument for voting: folks who (rightly) are concerned about health care, the poor, and immigration who say that such large-scale things need government control and we should vote to influence them for good. While I certainly won’t say no to the government trying to do some good for people through social services, I recall Jesus giving his disciples the command to clothe the naked, house the stranger, and care for the sick. This has been and always will be the church’s call and when we give it to the government to do (or not to), we shirk our responsibility as Christians and shouldn’t be surprised when it’s an utter failure. It’s an uphill battle, but it is within the church’s grasp to do the good it usually commands the government to do. There are enough Christians to house all the homeless people in the U.S. Christians have certainly got enough resources to pool them better for health care, or to welcome and protect immigrants. The failure is the imagination of the church, not the government.

In the end it comes down to faith, having enough faith to “come out of her” and pour ourselves into the lives of service God makes possible. Matthew 6 assures us that God made enough for all of us, we just need to do a little better at sharing. Certainly Christians ought to be able to begin to do that. If we believe that power, God’s power, is expressed most truly in the weakness of Christ’s death, then should we be worried that God cannot make much of our small efforts? I respect people who choose to vote, but I would hope people can acknowledge that it is the ultimate in weakness to trust to Babylon’s domain that which God has entrusted the Church to do.

I have many other thoughts, but that gets the bulk of them down about why I choose not to vote. I’m curious to hear other opinions–why vote? If you don’t vote, why not?