Thursday, December 18, 2008

Peace Train

As I sit in a coffee house and write this, a train is rumbling by blowing its whistle and disturbing the coffee-drinking peace of those around me. I remember the time my wife and I had just moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and we were camping in the most peaceful grouping of trees beside a vast glassy lake that reflected the surrounding snow-capped mountains. Sometime after we drifted off to sleep, we heard the thunderous sound, felt the tornadic rush and saw the midday light of a train that charged through maybe twenty surprising yards away!

Trains. When I lived in California near the famous Tehachapi railroad loop, a friend and I used to actually entertain the idea of hopping a train, just to see what would happen and to say we did it (for legal reasons, I won't say whether or not we ever did). My 3-year-old daughter is obsessed with the Christmas train we got to go around our tree. And to top it all off, the toy in her kids’ meal just yesterday was what? Yep, train.

There’s something about trains that captures the minds of many. Trains are loud and powerful and utilitarian. But I think it’s that they seem unstoppable that most holds our imaginations, tapping into our natural wanderlust. Trains have their own tracks, and they travel unimpeded by traffic or houses or even mountains. They just go, and they go to all sorts of interesting places that are anywhere but here. That’s what gets us—trains can take us somewhere else and let us enjoy the countryside as we go.

Unfortunately, we sometimes look at God in that sort of train-like way. The point of entering into a relationship with God, we tell ourselves, is so that God can take us anywhere but here and maybe let us enjoy the countryside as we go. We’ll sing phrases like, “And now I am happy all the day,” and then we’ll just fly away to heaven. That’s what faith is all about, right?

God might be like a train, but not because he takes us away from it all. God is like a train because he is the God who comes, not the God who goes. God is indeed a powerful, unstoppable force. But we are not waiting for him to take us way. Instead, we are to be about laying track so God can come into our midst, even as we follow him—the Way—on into the sunrise. I have to laugh because, as some sort of Jungian joke, the song “Peace Train” by Cat Stephens has just come on the radio in the coffee house. Choo-choo!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Your Favorite Cross-Over Song

Well, judging by the amount of hits my blog got vs. the amount of comments on the last post, perhaps the ideas were tough to come by. So, I'll expand the brainstorming to include any secular-to-sacred cross-over. Here's what I mean...

I recently did a rare thing of preaching through a song (for more, see post "Singing vs. Preaching"). The scripture reading was Romans 8:31-39 ("...nothing can separate us from the love of God..."). And for the sermon I sang the Bob Dylan (as popularized by Garth Brooks) song "To Make You Feel My Love." As I sang, I had images on the screen of Jesus carrying the cross ("I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue / I'd go crawling down the avenue, / there's nothing that I wouldn't do / to make you feel my love"), walking on the water, and of course, being crucified. You get the idea. I do this rarely, and only in the context of a consistently challenging and serious preaching/teaching ministry. But it proved to be life-changing for a few people, really breaking through where more "traditional" sermons had not. Of course, it wasn't the sermon that broke through but the Spirit of the Living God working through the story of redemption. But music helped tell that story, and it wasn't a hymn or praise song, but a love song written by Bob Dylan.

So, in that vein, what "secular" song does that for you? What "non-Christian" song do you hear and think, "This is exactly how I feel about God," or " I think God feels about us. This tells the story!" It's always been interesting to me how narrow Christian radio is. They won't play U2 doing "Beautiful Day" or Peter Gabriel doing "In Your Eyes," but they will play "Christian" artists doing those exact songs. Baffling! So what would you program on your "spiritual/Christian" radio station?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Your Christmas Adaptation!

"You've GOT to be kidding!" I yelled to my car radio the other morning. My surfing had stopped at the all-Christmas station to hear the great wall-of-sound "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by the Ronettes--Phil Spector may be an insane murder, but he is one hell of a producer. My head still bobbing as the song faded out, it took me a minute to realize what was happening next.

Just as my finger was reaching to get away from Bette Midler's "From a Distance," I thought, "Wait a minute! This station's playing all Christmas music. Are they considering this song a Christmas song?" And then I heard sleigh bells in the mix. And then references to "Silent Night" and other Christmas staples. "What the hell? They're trying to turn this awful song into an even more awful Christmas song? You've GOT to be kidding!"

I've always hated that song. Not only because of the extreme schmaltz, but because the message is horrible--the idea that God is watching us from a distance. Not only is it depressing and Deist, it's just plain creepy. But to turn it into a Christmas song is outright blasphemous. It's one thing if someone wants to sing about generic "holidays" or Winter and snow. It's altogether different when someone tries to make an actual Christmas song that pretty much denies the Incarnation--the whole point of Christmas--by saying, not that the Divine became flesh and dwelt among us, but that God is only passively watching us...from a distance. Sad, sad, sad...

Okay, rant over. I want to know what non-Christmas songs would make good Christmas/Seasonal songs. They could make a deep statement--Dylan's "The Times, They Are a-Changin'" or U2's "Beautiful Day"--or they could just be fun--Randy Newman's "Short People" sung to an elf, Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" etc. The lyrics may need some seasonal tweaking, but it shouldn't need a total re-write. This is a chance to exercise some creativity, so let's share some meaningful or silly ideas.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Best & Worst Christmas Songs

I attended a gathering at the Abilene Women's Club yesterday for whom I was to be the "entertainment." My lovely wife went with me and we enjoyed a nice brunch with the group, followed by my bit. I was instructed to do some "Christmas" songs, by which was meant tunes appropriate for...well, an Abilene Women's Club brunch. I admit I cringed a bit while weeding through my options--slim pickins to say the least. My final set list was: "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Blue Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Silver Bells."

I was not thrilled with this set; and the fact that, after I sang "Blue Christmas" in my best Elvis baritone, a younger-middle-aged woman stood up and shouted out, "Let's see those hips shaking!" is exactly why I feel the set didn't quite convey what Advent is about. But hey, I'm a pastor who likes to have fun, and a good performer has to know his audience. Plus, the tunes I chose were decent, sounded good on my guitar, and got the Christmas-sweatered ladies in the spirit--that is to say, the spirit of shopping and parties and TV specials and Christmas sweaters.

Now it's time for: You Make the Call! What is and is NOT on your Advent/Christmas set list? What are your most and least favorite Advent/Christmas/Seasonal songs/hymns? And why? (You might also include whose rendition you consider best...and worst.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Divorce Diary*

June 16, 1978--
"Strike one!" he barked. He was a bull-dog of a man--short, thick, jowly. He was a coach in title only, since he didn't coach us about anything but just called us "panty-wastes" and told us what positions to play--never how to play them. This was just baseball practice, but it felt like a naked spelling bee.

"Strike two!"

I thought it was only a strike if you swung and missed. Why did he keep calling strikes with me just standing there, sweating?

I was seven years old and a head taller than everyone in my class. I wasn't fat. My red, Sears Toughskin jeans were for "husky" boys, so that's what I was. But I just knew everyone was staring at me. It was bad enough that everyone always stared at me because of my size. It was worse that everyone always stared at me because I was the only boy in the whole small Texas town whose parents were divorced and whose father had moved far away. Now everyone was staring at me because I didn't have a clue how to play baseball. But I didn't have a choice.

"Strike three, you're out!"

He didn't have to sound so happy about it.

"You don't stand on the plate when you're batting, Pelfrey."

Now how the hell was I supposed to know that? And why didn't he tell me to begin with? Oh the power of shame to teach a lesson--and to crush a young spirit in one guttural bark.

My mom had taken me to Gibson's to buy a glove and bat with money held out from her four jobs. But my hippie dad had left two years before to go find himself, and my brother was too much older to mess around with his fat, er, husky kid brother.

Why weren't you supposed to stand on the plate when you're batting? What's it there for?

In my twenties I took another stab at it, actually fell in love with baseball, and developed a swing that elicited compliments from baseball-playing friends, a few coaches among them. But I taught myself, dammit. Hitting, pitching, fielding, scores and stats--all the fundamentals, I taught myself.

*I recently realized that I'm now about the same age my parents were when they divorced. There was no custody battle or harsh words. Just a father who went off to find himself, and a childhood that got lost in the process. You may or may not have a comment. But if you or your parents have gone through a divorce, please feel free to share your own feelings. If you are considering divorce, please stop and consider the long-term ramifications of this decision, especially if children are involved. Consider giving counseling a chance, or I am happy to dialog with you from my own experience as a child of divorce and a pastor (e-mail me). To be continued...

My Friend Thomas

I met Thomas when we ditched school together. We were 16, and my friend Scott and I had planned to skip out after homeroom and take Scott’s ...