Saturday, September 16, 2017

For the Love of Songs

I love songs. I think it's kind of amazing that we have this storehouse of music to draw from, thousands of songs to listen to, play, re-interpret, sing around campfires or on front porches with friends. Gospel songs, country songs, love songs and murder ballads, handed on from generation to generation. Call it the Great American Songbook, with its various chapters titled, Show Tunes, Cowboy Songs, Train Songs, Story Songs, The Blues, etc.

To me this is a chunk of our history every bit as inspiring as Mount Rushmore, say, because it is living history, continually expanding and deepening. It can make me feel downright patriotic! It is one of the great achievements of the American people, a kind of national self-portrait in song.

As a kid I learned to love songs as songs (as opposed to songs as vehicles by which to admire your favorite rock star). In school we sang Steven Foster and Woody Guthrie tunes and their lyrics seemed like fine poetry to me. Then of course there were the pop songs on the radio, one after the other, little 3-minute gems that take up permanent residence in your mind, so that even just one note can bring the whole song back.

In the rock era, two attitudes developed, which actually caused many in my generation to ignore or demean this precious resource. First, we baby boomers developed the notion that the good was to be found exclusively in the new. If it's old, it's probably bad.  Radio stations played "the latest hits," and that's all. Of course not everyone had this attitude (as the folk revival of the 60s demonstrates) but it was widely prevalent. The second nefarious idea that was adopted by many in my generation was the notion that you weren't a great musician unless you wrote all or most of your own music. Maybe this started with Dylan or the Beatles, but the idea is just plain silly. My favorite musicians love the "songbook" and are frequently adding its gems to their repertoire. To me, the musical possibilities provided in the pages of the "songbook" are positively inspiring, and to ignore it is not to prove your genius but to reveal your ignorance.

Youtube is an invaluable tool for song-lovers like me. You look up a song, and you get to choose from dozens of versions. Sometimes I like to sample several renditions of the same song, discovering a wide range of interpretive possibilities. This morning I got interested in looking up the music of John Loudermilk. He died a couple of years back at the age of 82. He wrote the songs "Tobacco Road," "Indian Reservation," "Now You Can Tell Me Goodbye," and "Abilene," among others.

"Tobacco Road," for one, has entered the songbook. It's one of those tunes that seems ageless, like a mountain or a river, a permanent part of the landscape (or songscape), so it comes as it of surprise to find out it was only written in 1960. These songs about growing up in constricted circumstances are legion, but Tobacco Road is the example without equal, the granddaddy of them all. I recall most readily the Eric Burden version and also Edgar Winter's memorable take, but of course the covers of this song are countless. Here's the 1964 version from The Nashville Teens:

Another vaovrite Loudermilk piece is the country song, Abilene. I listened to Bobby Bare's version this morning. Loudermilk's classic tune falls into that category of songs where the singer is not where he wants to be. He's far from home and longing to go back. In this case, back to Abilene.

That's all for now. I'm headed out today to go to a bluegrass festival and soak in some old songs. In the meantime, be sure to listen to some old songs today!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Song of Place: Louisiana Man

A couple of months back I established a daily habit of sharing a song on Facebook. I'm trying to share songs that feature admirable writing, or examples of American folk, blues and country music history.

Well, I'm up to the Daily Song #78. I have to admit it's not something that has generated much interest, but my goal now is to share 365 songs. Who knows after that?

I'm looking for songs that feature great storytelling, songs that evoke a time and place and a way of life, like this one:

Monday, September 11, 2017

Reading Report

Day 7 of my foolhardy attempt to write 20 posts in 20 days.

I'm coming to the end of a couple of books, and also starting a new one. The two I'm almost done with:

  • The War that Killed Achilles, by Caroline Alexander. This is a remarkable book. Not something I was planning to read, I noticed it while browsing the shelves at the library, read the first paragraph (just like my mother taught me to do) and decided to bring it home. I've read the Iliad a couple of times, but it's been quite a few years. I'm far from being an expert, but Caroline Alexander seems a really insightful writer. I'm liking this book much more than I expected to, actually.
  • The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, by S. C. Gwynne. Although I read a fair amount of sports history, I seldom read books about football. The last one was probably, oh, let me see, a biography of Bart Starr, read when I was about 12 years old and an avid Green Bay Packers fan. Anyway, this is another one of those books I happened upon while browsing the shelves at the library (something everyone should do). Entertaining and interesting, I actually learned a few things, though I've been a football fan for about 5 decades now. A fun read.
Then there's the one I just started:
  • And then there's the new one, just begun. I thought I needed a good tense thriller. Back at the library, I happened upon the books of John Lawton. He writes historical thrillers set in the the WWII era. The one I chose to read first is called Second Violin. This is from the Inspector Troy series. I'm maybe 50 pages in and it has absolutely captured me. I need to hurry up and finish those first two so I can devote myself to this one. Can't wait to get back to it!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

4 things

  1. This is the sixth post in my attempt to write 20 posts in a row (thereby re-establishing the habit of frequent blogging, I hope). The last post elicited an interesting response from Dan Edelen on Facebook, which I'm grateful for.
  2. With Irma now battering southern Florida, I greatly appreciate this prayer from Scotty Smith.
  3. Back to mercy: I accept as a given that Jesus' call upon his followers is to be freaks of mercy: let mercy so mark your way that it is one of the lasting impressions you leave with anyone who meets you. I accept, in other words, that it is a radical call (by our lights, anyway). I accept that few of us have mined its depths. Least of all me. [see these recent posts on mercy]
  4. Christians in America have always assumed that the Christian "we" and the American "we" are the same "we." That's Stanley Hauerwas, who is wise. [Listen here].

Saturday, September 9, 2017

More thoughts on Matthew 12:7

I'm still thinking about Jesus' words, "And if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not acrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless." [Matthew 12:7]

Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6. It is God speaking through the prophet to his people. He says of them, "Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early." Their love was not "steadfast." It was passing. It was probably "situational." You have to figure h[out whether the love is deserved. Whether it is "worth it." Whether the cost is too high or not. O whether, perhaps, it'll just get boring after a while.

But getting back to Jesus. When Jesus questions or even rebukes these Pharisees, I have a feeling that we modern readers tend to fall back on what we've learned about Pharisees back in Sunday School, about how they were legalists and all that (supposedly), and then we feel a pleasant glow of satisfaction in watching Jesus put them in their place. All this, of course, is so as not to let the rebuke fall on us.

So I want to ask myself this question: do I know, do I really know, what it should mean to me that God desires mercy and not sacrifice?

This is the question that the text should force us toward. Have I understood the love of God at all? Do I rest on the mercy of God when mercy is what I most need, but require sacrifices of others when they sin against me (or maybe just bother me a little)? God loves me as I am, or so I like to say. But as for you, I certainly wish you'd change your ways (sacrifice) and then maybe I can start to show you some love.

I have this feeling that when Jesus talks about love and mercy, that's always a key passage. That's always a case of Jesus getting right down to the nitty-gritty. We're following Jesus, day after day, sitting at his feet,  hearing his teaching. Again and again, he comes back to this. Did you hear that? It reminds me of what he said about loving your enemy. Your enemy!

And if you think, dear Christian, that you can sus out how and when to apply this teaching, and when not to, then you have not understood it at all. The first need is honest self-assessment. No, I don't believe I have understood what it really means that God desires mercy and not sacrifice. One reason I know that I haven't understood it: I haven't lived it. My mercy is like the morning dew.

 I believe, though, that if I am to grow in understanding on this matter . . . understanding what it means for me, and how to live it out . . . I am going to need to keep following Jesus, keep sitting at his feet and drinking in his teaching. There is no other way.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Some thoughts on Matthew 12:1-8

It's chapter 12. Jesus and the disciples go through the grainfields on the Sabbath. Some Pharisees pose their "biblical" objection. This is not the first encounter with objectionists. Back in chapter 9, when Jesus told a paralyzed man, "Your sins are forgiven." "Wait, What?" was the reaction of some Scribes who were there.

Jesus' answer for these people always has something to do with his own identity. The objectionists need to deal with the question of who Jesus actually is. The answer to that question is not exactly stated directly, although Jesus keeps calling himself the Son of Man, whatever that might mean. Here, when Pharisees object to Jesus and his disciples "doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath," Jesus once again answers with a clue, a hint, as to his own identity. First, he puts himself on a par at least with David (12:3-4). Then, with the priests in the temple (12:5). Then comes the statement that really makes me sit up and take notice.
I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. For th Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath. (12:6-8)
 I suppose this is blasphemous stuff. If I'm a disciple following Jesus, a good and observant Jew all my life, I might be having some doubts about this man. I might be wondering if I've chosen the right teacher. But of course there is this to keep in mind: the man himself. If anyone else had said these words, ok then. But it's Jesus. Who in his mercy has healed so very many. And whose teaching is something I simply can't pass by with a shrug of my shoulders or a cynical eye-roll.

And even here, in this encounter with the Pharisees, there is this: "And if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'"

And do I know what it means? Do I, me, this non-Jew who never set foot in the Temple, never had anything to do with sacrificial systems . . . or have I? . . . do I too need to learn what mercy really means. When I hear the words of God, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice," do I simply smile and say, "You tell them nasty Pharisees, Jesus!" Or do I, perhaps, wonder if this is something I too have never really understood? And if not, who then will teach me?

I think I'll follow along with the Teacher a little longer. But I get the feeling that this matter of mercy, mercy and not sacrifice, is something that, if truly understood, may just undermine everything I've ever learned, and maybe even the very systems on which human society sustains itself.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

My last comment on the Nashville Statement

I'm not going to say a lot more about the Nashville Statement, especially after having read this response, which follows my thought closely. Some people seem pretty angry about it, and it sure seems to represent (and has been received as) a kind of line in the sand.

It's a theological statement first and foremost, and any engagement with it is going to have to be theological as well. Is it truly Biblically-founded, as it claims to be? I'm not one to say. I simply haven't thoroughly studied the issue. But what I think needs to be said is that the statement is more or less useless in terms of our relationships and interactions with folks outside the church.

I sometimes think that seminary professors and many pastors believe that the rest of us have frequent opportunities to have deep theological conversations with our friends and co-workers, etc. The fact is, even if there might be a remote chance that I get into a conversation about homosexuality, the Nashville Statement will be almost utterly useless to me. It might help me to explain the conservative Christian view, which is, you know, one Christian view. But it would not help me at all as a means to make Jesus understood to anyone.

That's the rub, really. The statement is a coldly rational piece of legalism that seems to have nothing at all to do with faith in Jesus. As a Jesus-follower, I might find it to be a good starting place to understand what the Bible says about sexuality, but I might want to consider other views as well. In the meantime, there is the Way of Jesus, which seems very different than this. When you examine how Jesus responded to the woman at the well, and compare that to the Nashville Statement, you might just see what I mean.

So in the end what we have is a statement of one Biblical perspective, which is sure to prompt a counter-statement or two from alternative perspectives, all of which will probably be forgotten before long. Maybe a few theo-bros will discuss it down at the Starbucks, but to everyone else, it is strangely divorced from the ground where we live and walk and talk and hope to make Jesus known.