Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Riff God, Part 2

*This is Part 2 of the previous post "Riff God"...

Here’s how it works.

Like riffs in rock n’ roll, God’s riffs are little bits that point to the bigger song. And what they are ultimately pointing to are God’s kingdom and God himself. Like rock’s riffs, these riffs might be interesting by themselves, but they are most interesting and significant to the extent that they point to the divine songs. So, for example, something like justice is important all by itself. But it takes on a more profound and eternal significance when it reveals something about God, that he is just. And then, when we pick up on the image riff—that humans are made to bear God’s image—then that justice riff becomes personal as we begin playing it ourselves. Our lives resonate with God’s life as we play his riffs. We become part of his songs. Yes! That’s where the fist-pumping starts!

We are riff people, made to be consumed by God-riffs 
and to be swept up into kingdom songs.

So, riffs like justice and beauty and care and peace—all nice tunes by themselves—become eternal ROCK! when we hear them in God and start playing them with our lives. I’ve had strange dreams every so often while drifting off with music playing. The music is instrumental usually—John Coltrane or something—and I’ll dream that I’m talking to someone, but what’s coming out of my mouth is what’s coming out of Trane’s sax. So I’m talking but it’s this glorious, tumbling saxophone music that is coming out. It’s your typical weird sort of dream, but it’s what I’m getting at here. God is a riff God. And we—made in his image—are riff people, made to be consumed by God-riffs and to be swept up into kingdom songs.

And this is why riffs get so discordant when they are pulled out of the divine songs. They seem okay at first. But then justice becomes street-justice, eye-for-an-eye vengeance. Beauty becomes self-indulgent obsession and superficial lust. Care of creation becomes pagan nature-worship and care of others becomes dehumanizing institutionalization. And even peace becomes a schmaltzy live-and-let-live homogenization that is apathetic toward truth and the deeper issues that divide.
            But resounding with the Creator, the Redeemer, the sanctifying Sustainer, these riffs become the very music of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven (I think I heard that one somewhere). The same way you know “Money for Nothing” by Mark Knopfler’s buzz-saw guitar riff, so the world begins to know God by listening to the lives of people who have begun to play his songs. 

            And like a kid sitting in his bedroom with the guitar he got for Christmas, banging out elementary riffs like “Iron Man” and “Smoke On the Water,” we learn gradually—maybe treating our family and friends justly, making peace with everyday adversaries. The kid moves on to “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Crazy Train”—we learn the beauty of worship and to care for our elders. And so it goes as the maturing young riffer hits “Purple Haze” and “Walk This Way” and chord-based riffs that make his hands hurt like stuff by the Police and U2. We maturing Christians learn to put others before ourselves and to affirm the value of the lowly and to recognize the beauty of things that are only made beautiful in God’s grace. Our lives become God-music. We learn the love riff, and it hurts more than our hands. And no one knows this better than the riff God.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Riff God

In a recent viral video, musician Alex Chadwick fired up his 1958 Fender Strat and 
ripped through “100 Riffs (A Brief History of Rock n’ Roll)": 

In the course of these twelve minutes Alex plays riffs from Chuck Berry through the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix to Queen and Van Halen and on through U2, Guns n’ Roses, the White Stripes, and Foo Fighters, illustrating an important truth: it’s all about the riff.

The riff is fundamental in blues, jazz and, of course, rock n’ roll. It’s that opening melodic or chordal bit, that motif that establishes the tone and structure of the whole song and will likely appear a few more times. But perhaps what most characterizes a riff is its association with a whole song. You know if it’s going to be “Pretty Woman” or “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Layla” by the riff. (Tellingly, Eric Clapton introduced his popular live unplugged version of “Layla” with the challenge, “Let’s see if you can spot this one.” The reason it was hard to “spot” was that he had changed the famous riff and, yes, it changed the song dramatically.) So it’s not just a cool instrumental thing that has lots of significance on its own. It’s that that instrumental thing—cool as it may be—has significance mainly because it points to the whole song. The lights go out, the opening riff thunders from the speakers, and the hands go into the air because you know that song…you love that song! That’s rock n’ roll.

Heaven and Earth are full 
of the glory of God riffs

God is a riff God. Not a riff god like Jimi Hendrix, but a big-“G” God who reveals himself and his kingdom in the form of riffs. All creation is riff after glorious riff, whether DNA or daisies or daughters or days-and-nights. God seems to love creating so much that he does it over and over, often stringing things together with riffs.

God reveals himself in the Bible this way. There’s the opening riff of God as Creator of all that is, seen and unseen. After it starts things off in Genesis, we hear it again in all kinds of big moments. From the starry-sky covenant with Abraham to reminding a doubtful, stammering Moses who it was who gave people their mouths and ears; from putting Job on trial with the question, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” to the psalmist’s humble affirmation that the LORD made “mere mortals” and “crowned them with glory and honor”; and from the Gospel of John’s new creation story to coming full circle with Paul’s glorious creedal statement that all things—seen and unseen—are made by and for Jesus; and then on to the new heavens and the new earth: in all these the Creator-God riff resonates. And it is heard in the world today—heaven and earth are full of the glory of God riffs.

Of course that’s just one riff among many. If you’ll listen attentively you’ll hear. There are number riffs like 40 and 12 and 7. There are water riffs like the pre-creation chaos and Eden’s rivers and the flood and the Red Sea and baptism and Jesus walking on it and New Jerusalem’s river of life. There are tree riffs like Eden’s trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil, and Abraham’s oak and the lover’s apple and Zaccheus’ sycamore and a cursed fig and Christ’s cross and New Jerusalem’s tree of life. And there are grand, sweeping thematic riffs like exile and homecoming—heard in the Israelites’ captivity and exodus and in Jesus’ parables like the Prodigal Son and, of course, in the story of humanity’s fall and redemption.

Picking up on these riffs is really fun. You should try it. You just may find your fist shooting up into the air when you hear them. They aren’t always readily heard. It often took many generations before Scripture writers could listen back and pick out the riffs. They had to get to a certain point in the God-song before they began to recognize that same riff that had been repeated, and then to work out what it was about God and his kingdom that it was telling his people. Likewise, in our lives, it sometimes takes a while before we begin to pick up on God-riffs, to listen back to the God-song our life is playing and hear the riffs he keeps bringing in. But when we do, when we pick up on them and even learn to play along, we find our lives resounding with nothing less than the music of God. Here’s how it be continued...

Friday, August 24, 2012

Beggar's Banquet

"Tie him up, hands and feet, and throw him
into the darkness outside!"
Here's a tough one: After the right people refuse to come, EVERYONE--even the riff-raff--gets invited to this wedding banquet a king is throwing for his son. We like that part. But then when the king shows up, he finds this one guy not wearing a wedding suit and he tosses the guy out. We don't talk about that part.

Jesus has a way of getting on my nerves sometimes, as he does with this parable from Matthew 22:1-14. He gets on my nerves when he catches me off guard and when I don't understand him. He's supposed to stop at that part where everyone gets to come. The chosen ones refuse so the servants go out to the streets and the slums and make everyone feel cherished and special by inviting them to this sumptuous banquet.

What are you doing, Jesus?! 
You messed up the whole story!

The camera shifts to the banquet hall, to the grand double-doors where homeless vets are dropping their "will work for food" signs and filling their plates at the banquet table; where prostitutes are tugging awkwardly at their short skirts and sitting down at the king's table; where even corrupt Wall Street golden boys are coming empty-handed to stand at the back of a line that stretches out the door. The camera pans back to reveal the line of undesirables stretching across the grounds, out the front gate, and down the street. The music comes up as the credits roll. The End?

No, because at least one guy doesn't have the right clothes? So he's outta there! What are you doing, Jesus?! You messed up the whole story!

I think the irritation comes from the subtlety and seeming randomness, characteristic of a parable. There's a scene that I think is understood for Jesus, but which the movie needs to show to make sense of it all. After getting their fill at the banquet, the homeless vet gets up and finds an old dealer friend and the two go off into a room and start shooting heroin; the prostitute starts hitting on the groomsmen to try and drum up some business; the Wall Streeters make rotten business deals with unsuspecting guests at the dinner table. Everyone has a good time while widows sit alone at their kitchen tables and AIDS-orphans forage for food in the dumpsters. But we're at the banquet, so everything is fine, right?

It's not enough to come to the banquet. We also have to change our clothes. It may not be heroin or prostitution or white-collar crime. But compulsive eating and pornography and consumerism will do nicely. We each have our stinky rags that we parade around in as if we're fine, though for most of us it's our underwear. We keep our rot to ourselves, satisfied that we're at the banquet. We're satisfied that we're telling everyone they're ok: "God loves you and your cute little cancerous corruption..." Oh, we might pick and choose a few things we don't like, a few types we don't allow: "You can't stay at the banquet and be _____!"

Thing is, Jesus seems to have something to say about it. And I'll warn you, it might get on your nerves.

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