Tuesday, March 31, 2009

You Can't Go Home Again

I was speaking with someone from my church today who told me I made her cry during a recent sermon. Now this happens sometimes, and it can be good or bad. In this case, I'm still not sure which it is.

The text of the sermon was John 2:13-22, Jesus cleansing the Temple. I began the sermon describing the joy I had spending so much time at my grandparents' home in small-town Texas. Then, the part that brought the tears:

"But we all moved away, grandmother and granddaddy died, and the family finally had to decide to sell the house. I went back for a visit not long ago. I click-clacked down the red brick streets—from the highway, through the town square, and down 6th street toward the park. I slowed as I approached my grandparents’ house. My heart lifted as I recalled all the memories and the family Mecca the place once was. I had even entertained ideas of buying the place myself one day, just to get it back in the family. And there I saw…the horror.

My granddaddy used to do a walk-around a few times a day, picking up gum wrappers and other bits of trash, and maintaining the lawn he always kept so delicately manicured. Now it was a mess of scrub and weeds, with children’s toys scattered all around. The fence that guarded the back and side of the house was adorned each spring with a coat of beautiful lilacs. Gone—fence, lilacs—gone, exposing the alley in the back and the street on the side. Perhaps worst of all, the climbing tree—hacked to a stump! Shutters were ragged, paint was peeling, the wooden roof was rotting. In my disbelief I circled the block for another look. My heart sank, and I never wanted to return. You can’t go home again."

I went on to set the stage for Jesus visiting the Temple:

"The Temple is outwardly glorious, but it’s lacking one important thing—the true presence of God. The heart of Israel and the heart of God no longer beat together.

And then he comes. This little carpenter, teacher, itinerant preacher and homeless miracle-worker, walks into the holy city during these Passover preparations and walks right into the Temple. Is he coming to worship, to advance his career, to grow his ministry? No, this is a homecoming. This is not some stranger or even a faithful pilgrim. This is the Son of God going to visit his Father’s house. This is the Lamb of God, whose blood will defeat sin and death once and for all. This is God himself returning to his Temple and fulfilling the long-awaited prophecy. And he doesn’t like what he finds."

I went on to discuss the scandal of Jesus' claim that he was, in fact, the true Temple of God; and how, since Pentecost, we become God's temples, filled with the Holy Spirit. And I asked how God finds his temple--your life--today.

But it was fascinating to me how broken up a few people got about the idea that we can't go home again. It is amazing to me how attached we become to places (and the people who made them special). Obviously, I'm certainly no different. The good news is that God himself is our true home and, as the psalmist wrote, "I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." Nevertheless, be it ever so humble...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Playing God's Tune

For our daughter's birthday in November, my wife and I got her a little pink guitar. Now if you know me, then you know this is not just some plastic toy guitar. This is the real deal, but pint-sized for our half-pint! I tuned it to an “open” tuning so that all she has to do is strum across the strings or put one finger down and it plays a chord. (This is as much for her mother and me as it is for our budding musician.)

As is the case so often with three-year-olds, MJ played her guitar excitedly the day she got it, but she soon moved on to other joys. Recently, however, she has picked it up again. And she has gotten better! She was playing the other day and actually sounded…well, tolerable. She let me have a turn, then she walked over and said, “No, daddy, like this…,” and showed me how to pick the thing. I see a bright future for that kid!

Our heavenly Daddy often behaves similarly with us. He strums the chords of life, inviting us to come to him so he might teach us to play. Our responses, though, are varied. Sometimes we turn a deaf ear to God’s song, choosing instead to only play our own tune. Other times, we intend to do and live well, but we refuse to climb up into his lap and spend the time it takes to learn from him. And occasionally, we hear his song, pay diligent attention to his instruction, and reach out and strum the beautiful music of a life well lived.

This is a daily pattern. Each day the Father picks up the instrument of our lives and begins to show us what we might do and be in him. And each day we have the choice to get “in tune” with him and to experience the day at his tempo, playing our version of his song, or to step out into the world all out of tune and distracted by whatever music pounds loudest in our direction. I would offer the advice of one of my favorite hymns: Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Wish I'd Written That (#10-6)

Here is another installment of I Wish I'd Written That--an eclectic collection of songs that have stricken me as so profound in music and lyric that my only response as a songwriter and music lover could be, "Man! I wish I'd written that!" Take a break and absorb some of these songs that may be new to you or, at least, deserve to be revisited. Also, enjoy #20-16 and #15-11.

10) "Lithium"--Nirvana

Most folks will say give me a good "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but for me, "Lithium" is the place teen angst crosses over into outright madness. The tune is similar to "Teen Spirit" in it's bipolar verse-chorus moods. However, the major key and happiness of "Lithium" takes it a step deeper into Gen X sarcasm and cynicism. You gotta love that opening line: "I'm so happy / 'cause today I found my friends; / they're in my head." When "Lithium" came out, the chord changes were so cool that I actually wrote a song of similar character. But the alienation was something I wasn't yet able to express. Nevertheless, I was (and remain) drawn to it.

9) "Crazy"--Gnarls Barkley

Keeping with the emotional instability theme... A highly unlikely Top 40 hit, "Crazy" wins the prize for best opening line ("I remember when I lost my mind..."), as well as best use of a laugh since "Wipeout." I still get chills at that line: "Who do you think you are? / Ha ha ha! Bless your soul. / You really think you're in control? / Well, I think you're crazy..." (The video also wins the best use of Rorschach ink blots.) All the spaced-out, funky fun of Parliament/Funkadelic, but stripped down to perfect simplicity. Gets under your skin.

8) "Takin' It To the Streets"--Doobie Brothers

I've wished to have written this one as well as "Black Water" (great mixture of acoustic, fiddle music and lyrics like "Catfish are jumping, paddle-wheel's pumping..." to create a sense of place). However, the "brotherhood" message, the descending chords in the bridge, and Michael McDonald's voice push "Streets" into the winner's circle. What a great anthem! (When no one's around, I slip into the sanctuary at church, sit at the piano, and do my best impersonation of this song.)

7) "No More Tears"--Ozzy Osbourne

Dark? Yes. It's Ozzy, for crying out loud! But what an amazing song. It seems a strange disconnect for some that Ozzy claims to have been very inspired and influenced by the Beatles. This song shows that Ozzy is every bit as capable, inventive, and musically sensible as his heroes. At the time it came out, I had written a "classical" chamber piece based on the Robert Browning poem "Porphyria's Lover," in which a man, upon realizing the affection his lover has for him, strangles her with her own hair to freeze the moment forever. So, when Ozzy came out with this version--mixing a similar lyrical theme and heart-achingly beautiful harmonic and melodic progressions with such a thick, heavy stomp--my jaw dropped. Plus, you just have to crank the volume to get the full impact of Zakk Wylde's crunching guitar!

6) "Bohemian Rhapsody"--Queen

Even when I was a kid, not even a composer/songwriter, I wished I could create such beautiful music. My words aren't really needed--most know this is one of the greatest songs ever written. Overplayed during the Wayne's World popularity, yes, but I'm thankful for that great movie exposing a new generation and wider audience to Freddie Mercury and Queen's masterpiece. And didn't we all bang our heads to this even before Wayne and Garth?!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Temptation of Christ...and Us

When I was about 17, the movie version of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1951 novel The Last Temptation of Christ* came out. There were uproars and picket lines at movie theaters all over the country. Amarillo, TX was no different. Some friends and I dared to show up at the theater on opening day and, sure enough, there were the picketers—churchy people with bullhorns and signs. “That’s not Jesus up there on that screen!” they would shout. Of course not; it’s Willem Defoe. He's an ACTOR. After the rush of the shouting and controversy, we went in and saw the movie. So what was all the shouting about?

Well, as the name implies, in the movie Jesus is tempted--tempted to cash it all in and not do the whole "Messiah" thing and, instead, to settle down, get married, have children, and die a "normal" death in old age. We know "the rest of the story," that Jesus did not choose such a path. But why do we have such trouble with the idea of Jesus being tempted?

What do we think is going on when scripture says Jesus was tempted? Do we think he just strolled along in the park with temptations buzzing gently around him like a few bothersome gnats? Why wouldn’t he be tempted with marriage and sex and children and a “normal life”? And why wouldn’t he be tempted not to be the Messiah and not to die the sacrificial death on the cross? We actually know that he was.

Scripture says about Jesus, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Are we tempted by money, sex, power? So was Jesus. And, again, I don’t think it was just a fleeting thing. He was “tempted in every way just was we are.” What’s the point of Jesus being sinless if there was no real temptation to begin with? No, I think his temptations were at least as real—at least as tempting­—as anything we can imagine. But he did overcome, and that’s the point.

I think we have two primary reasons for being so uncomfortable with the thought of Jesus being tempted. One: we think it makes Jesus somehow "less" God. Could God really have those wicked thoughts like I do? Of course! For one thing, do we really think he doesn’t know about sin, that he’s just somebody’s little church-going grandmother with white gloves? (And watch out for those white-gloved grandmothers….) And another thing, God certainly has those thoughts when he’s also 100% human. That’s the point. He doesn’t just stand over against sin. He stands with us in the midst of sin.

The other reason we’re uncomfortable with Jesus’ temptations—and I think this is the main one—is that it let’s us off the holiness hook if Jesus wasn’t really tempted. We think, “Well, of course Jesus didn’t sin. He was God! It’s much tougher for me.” But again, it’s not Jesus’ divinity that’s really the point here. It’s Jesus’ humanity. He was tempted as a child, as a teenager, as a young career man, as a successful leader, and as what the world would consider to be a failure. And he was tempted just…like…we are. The difference is he never gave in.

We're in this 40-day wilderness called Lent, looking at our temptations and sins. But the key thing to remember is what got Jesus through. It’s the same one who led him there to begin with: the Spirit. This Spirit has just descended upon him like. Then the Spirit drives him into the wilderness to be tempted. The Spirit was with him through it all. And the exact same Spirit is with us. Jesus didn’t resist temptation because he was God (though, of course, he is). He resisted temptation because he had God’s Spirit. And so do we. This is a man who hung out at the temple even as a kid, who studied and memorized scripture, who kept his lusts in check by fasting, who got up early to pray. And so can we—church, scripture, fasting, prayer. And this is a man who resisted temptation and overcame sin. And so can we.
*{It should be noted this is not (necessarily) a recommendation of this book or movie, though both are brilliant works of their respective arts. Nevertheless, there is some really freaky-deaky stuff in there that should be approached attentively and with the genre (fiction) in mind.}

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review: U2's No Line on the Horizon

I still have an excitement about digging into a new album, like a child on Christmas morning. This is especially the case with U2's new work, No Line on the Horizon. As soon as I dropped my daughter off at school, I rushed to my local vendor and plunked down 10 bones for the CD. I'll also be buying the vinyl version soon, but I'm an audiophile nerd like that. In this case, I know it will be worth it.

I'm sorry for those who will only get digital versions, particularly disappointing, gaunt little MP3s. When Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are at the production helm, the purer and clearer the medium, the better. This is definitely the case with No Line. The band is back in grand Achtung Baby fashion--experimental, deep, atmospheric, and head-on--not that they ever left. They deserve their record number of grammys, and this album should garner more.

The title track kicks right off with a "Mysterious Ways" atmospheric groove. The guitars are in-your-face (as they often are throughout the album), and the beat is punctuated with a distant middle-eastern yelp. Lyrics like "She said, 'Time is irrelevant, it's not linear.' / Then she put her tongue in my ear," show the high-/low-minded tension that is successfully held throughout. Almost every song is very present, yet somehow transcendent--the classic genius of U2.

"Magnificent" is a great love song on the order of the aforementioned tension. It works best (for me) as a love song to God, especially with lines like, "Justified till we die, / you and I will magnify / the Magnificent." However, there is a reality of pain present among the hope, as seen in the chorus, "Only love can leave such a mark / But only love can heal such a scar."

This same mood is heaviest in "White as Snow," which borrows musically from the Advent hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." The Advent theme of the hymn is carried out masterfully in this song, as seen in lines like "Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not / Only the lamb as white as snow." Yet the listener is left with the repeated, pleading confession, "If only a heart could be as white as snow."

In the same canon as these is "Moment of Surrender." It is a beautifully spiritual and contemplative marriage of music and lyric in the tradition of songs like "Bad" (from The Unforgettable Fire), "One" (Achtung Baby), and "Grace" (All That You Can't Leave Behind). Like those, this is an instant classic in that U2 sub-genre of truly sacred songs. And, like the other songs on No Line, this one pairs sacred and secular imagery to a high art, as in the line "I was speeding on the subway / through the stations of the cross...," and the varied chorus, "At the moment of surrender / Of vision over visibility / I did not notice the passersby/ and they did not notice me." These lyrics are beautifully surrounded by music that is smooth and warm, perfectly accented with a pipe organ in the mix.

Punching through the more contemplative songs are representations of that other classic U2 sub-genre, raucous anthems. The album's first release, "Get On Your Boots," is the best example. As the Obama campaign successfully used How to Destroy an Atomic Bomb's "City of Blinding Lights" as the sound of hope, "Boots" would be the convoluted reality the day after the inauguration. This song and others, like "Stand Up Comedy," are like romance firmly entrenched in reality, like dancing in the dirty rain. "Night is falling everywhere / Rockets at the fun fair / Satan loves a bomb scare / but he won't scare you," is an example of the in-your-face approach the guys are taking.

And the music is the same. The Edge's guitars are often fuzzy and grinding, and the drums are more up in the mix than ever before. The band is tight and never gets buried in the production, which is a feat considering the ethereal contributions of Eno and Lanois. But that team always makes U2 sound like a 4-piece rock band with their spirits slightly exposed.

Any weak spots are only an aesthetic disconnect between listener and band, rather than any technical or creative shortcomings. I thought the plodding chants of computer commands in "Unknown Caller" were cheesy and off-putting at first. But by the end of the song, the chanting was wrapping itself around me and I realized the humanity breaking through the technology ("Restart and re-boot yourself/ You're free to go"). And the primal mood and mixture of roughness and elegance in "Fez--Being Born" turns out to be just right. That piece is more musical art than pop-song (and what's wrong with that?), so the very gradual delivery and evolution of the lyric and music require patience, but it is only serving the song itself--being born.

When the band came out with All That You Can't Leave Behind in 2000, the headlines read "U2 Saves Rock n' Roll." I don't think rock n' roll is as much in need of saving now as it was then, but a fitting headline might be "U2 Does it Again!" If their recent work had been dismal, No Line would be a revelation. But the last two albums have been revelations. Yet, somehow, this one surpasses even those. It is consistently interesting and relevant. Edge's church-bell guitars chime as majestically as ever, and Bono's wail is as plaintive and powerful. There is a lot of fun, as in the bouncing Dylan-esque vocals of "Breathe," and yet there are painful lines like "Child drinking dirty water from a river bank / Soldier brings oranges he got out from a tank," from the Lou Reed-styled "Cedars of Lebanon." The tension of the album is the perfect expression of our times. Yet, as an expression of the human condition, it seems fitting for any time. That's good art.

NEW BOOK--An Untold Story: Heroism, Mysticism, and the Quest for the True Self

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." ~ Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings About the Boo...