2020’s Top 10

I needed a picture to sum up my writing in 2020. This one, of one of the first cell groups my wife and I were ever a part of, seems to fit the bill.

I know people do this, compile a list at the end of the year of their top 10 posts from that year. Though I’ve been blogging for more than 15 years now, I don’t think I’ve ever compiled such a list, for at least a couple of related reasons. First, I still struggle with a paradoxical lack of confidence in and probably some false humility related to what I write, and second, I tend to post sporadically. So some years I seem to have a lot to say, while other years I’ve said nothing at all. Nonetheless, as we move well into the 2020’s, and I (I hope, anyway) move (“well” or not) into what Richard Rohr and others call the “second half of life,” it’s a time for new beginnings, for resolutions made, if not always kept, for hopeful starts. So you’re getting this a bit late, but here’s my “top 10” list for 2020. Please note that I didn’t write many more than 10 posts in 2020; so what I’m giving you now for what I think is my first ever top 10 list is the top 10 posts read in 2020, though not necessarily written in 2020.

Number #10 Post Read in 2020: A Chronic Would-Be Rescuer Confronts His False Self

This is some 2020 writing I did early in the pandemic, touching on one of my favorite Circle of Hope songs and how it resonated with how the Circle of Hope Daily Prayer blogs were leading us to pray at the time, and how all of that brought to mind a book I reference often, Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land.

Number #9 Post Read in 2020: Better

This is another 2020 bit of writing I did relatively early in the pandemic, also touching on songs sung among Circle of Hope, some original to Circle of Hope, some not. In this post I say again how we were “surprised by (the) joy” that came as we reconnected with Circle during this terrible pandemic. I talk about my (still ongoing) journey doing EMDR and reflect on some writing done by Circle’s founding pastor, Rod White.

Number #8 Post Read in 2020: My Pandemic Playlist Drew Me Into the Silent Land, Where I Found My Life Again

You may begin to sense a theme from the writing I did do in 2020. This post also reflects on Circle of Hope music. It also touches on Laird’s Into the Silent Land, and it also alludes to the healing I’ve been reaching for of the trauma stored in my body, and the love I choose to believe is stored there too.

Number #7 Post Read in 2020: Capitalism Has Me Feeling Sad and Depressed Because of My Illicit Taking and Greedy Cheating

It took me a while to conclude that we could do better than capitalism, “or any -ism, for that matter,” as Ferris Bueller reminds us. Rod White and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (and yes, my own guilt) helped me get there in 2017.

Number #6 Post Read in 2020: Following Signposts Pointing Into a Fog, Because the Jordan is Waiting

You get music again. I give what I have to give, I guess. Rich Mullins still inspires me, and I hope this song of his plays at my funeral.

Number #5 Post Read in 2020: It Is Enough that Jesus Is Lord

I wrote this just before Christmas of 2020, riffing off Brennan Manning, and yes, Laird’s Into the Silent Land again.

Number #4 Post Read in 2020: Why I (Still) Keep Talking About…Circle of Hope

This is another early in the pandemic post from 2020, explaining why the way I encounter Jesus among the Circle of Hope continues to inspire me and captivate my theological imagination.

Number #3 Post Read in 2020: In Memoriam

I’m not sure why people keep finding this 2020 post written on the anniversary of my dad’s death. It could be because of the pandemic and how many people are dying and seeking to remember their loved ones. I don’t know. I write about dependency, “co-” and otherwise, and rescuing and the impulse to “keep our hands clean.”

Number #2 Post Read in 2020: Why I Keep Talking About…Alternativity, the Bruderhof, and Church of All Nations

This was my #2 post read in 2020, but is far and away my most read post of all time. I wrote it in 2017 as we were trying out a local to the Twin Cities faith community, Church of All Nations (CAN). CAN has much to offer and we connected with them because so much of what they do seemed to resonate with the alternativity that Circle of Hope has been going for for so long. Still, as much as we respect CAN and have no ill feelings toward that community or any of its leaders and did not leave them, I hope and pray, in a bad way at all, there was something missing in our experience with them that has very little to do with them. I’ve written a fair bit now about being “surprised by joy” when we began to reconnect with Circle in 2020, even from a geographic distance. It surprised us, I think, because we suddenly realized that we didn’t feel much like we had it, though we hardly knew it. If I could name the source of this joy, I would have to say simply that it’s Jesus. Circle works so very hard to be Jesus-centered, not just honoring him as a respected ancestor or learning from him as a political agitator, but seeing all of that and incorporating it into loving him as Lord, the one “in whom all things hold together.” I think this is what generates the gravity that keeps connecting us in the Circle of Hope and which our dialogue protects. It is the love which is our belief. Anyway, I talk about the Bruderhof in this post, and someone made it a source on their Wikipedia entry (it wasn’t me, I promise). I’m sure this is why people keep finding this post of mine.

Number #1 Post Read in 2020: Buck Family 2020 Christmas Newsletter

I tried to write a 2020 Christmas letter for our family and instead my #5 post above came out. I tried again, and was successful, and I’m glad folks have read it. It’s a “protected” post; so if you’d like to read it, contact me for the password. Thanks for reading my writing in 2020, and here’s to 2021 being one of those years when I have more (good, helpful things) to say, not less.

It Is Enough that Jesus Is Lord

What follows was supposed to be our first family Christmas letter in a while, but read on and you’ll see that’s not exactly what this is. I just don’t know if I (Robert) can easily produce those customary Christmas letters any more. Of course I would love to tell you what we’ve been up to during the pandemic, how we’re all blessed to be working and attending school from home and how the pivot to widespread use of video technology for as much of life as possible has led to a deeply renewed connection with our “home” church in Philly, to the point that we’ve rejoined their covenant and daily consider what next steps we might take, but I find that I just don’t have very many words to spend on all that right now. Instead, I find my gaze shifting outward, to you, dear reader, and to Jesus, whose Advent we’re celebrating as I write.

This Advent I picked up a devotional I intended to use, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, by our (figurative) friends at the Bruderhof. I’ll confess I haven’t made time to read it every day as the usual Christmas doldrums set in some time ago, this year multiplied many times over by the global pandemic we’re all still suffering through. But I read it today, and since doing so this morning I can’t stop thinking about it. Today’s offering was from that old ragamuffin, Brennan Manning. I was privileged to actually hear Manning speak when I was in college many years ago. It probably was around that same time that I saw Rich Mullins in concert, and the two probably belong together in my imagination, as their lives were intertwined in the fabric of God’s grace. One writer’s take on their relationship as depicted in a 2014 Mullins biopic can be found here. A year earlier, another writer described Manning’s influence on Mullins this way:

The first time the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins heard former Franciscan priest Brennan Manning on tape as he drove through the edge of the Flint Hills in Kansas, his eyes filled with tears. He steered the truck to the side of the road. There, as he later wrote, the message “broke the power of mere ‘moralistic religiosity’ in my life, and revived a deeper acceptance that had long ago withered in me.”

The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus

What is this acceptance that Manning helped Mullins recover? It likely has little to do with the usual niceties of a consumeristic Christmas. The piece from Manning I read this morning was titled Shipwrecked at the Stable and was originally published in his book Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. In this piece, Manning writes:

The spirituality of Bethlehem is simply incomprehensible to the advertising industry. The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are being used to sell us pain reliever, and the prayer of St. Francis is being used to sell us hair conditioner. The Bethlehem mystery will ever be a scandal to aspiring disciples who seek a triumphant Savior and a prosperity Gospel. The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances, no one can exactly say where. His parents were of no social significance whatsoever, and his chosen welcoming committee were all turkeys, losers, and dirt-poor shepherds. But in this weakness and poverty the shipwrecked at the stable would come to know the love of God.

Manning goes on:

The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky but utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences—“Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!

I’ve been trying to move a bit more into contemplation this year. I’m finding more and more that meditation and silent, contemplative prayer are key to helping me calm my anxious body and traumatized mind and rediscover my own belovedness. Another Catholic priest, Father Martin Laird, has been a guide of sorts in this process. His book Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, has been extremely helpful. In it he talks about the passage from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” and Laird adds that “to the branch, it’s all vine.” To the branch, there is no point at which the vine has ended and the branch has begun. There is only oneness and unity. I wonder if it might not be this acceptance that Rich Mullins found revived when he heard Brennan Manning for the first time. Could it truly be that all things were created in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, and that in Christ therefore, “all things hold together?”

Here’s Manning again, talking about the shipwrecked:

All the time they were battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they were being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.

The shipwrecked don’t seek peace because they aren’t disturbed by the lack of it. By that I mean the subjective feeling of peace. Circumstances can play havoc with our emotions, the day can be stormy or fair and our feelings will fluctuate accordingly; but if we are in Christ Jesus, we are in peace and there unflustered even when we feel no peace. Meister Eckhart’s equation, “In Christ equals in peace,” is always valid. When we accept the truth of ourselves- shipwrecked and saved- our lives are henceforth anchored in the Rock who is Christ, not in the shifting sands of fickle feelings.

This is a point of capital importance for those who would fully experience the grace of Christmas. When we are in right relationship with Jesus, we are in the peace of Christ. Except for grave, conscious, deliberate infidelity, which must be recognized and repented of, the presence or absence of feelings of peace is the normal ebb and flow of the spiritual life.

Manning continues, invoking the passage from Colossians I alluded to above:

The shipwrecked have stood at the still-point of a turning world and discovered that the human heart is made for Jesus Christ and cannot really be content with less. They cannot take seriously the demands that the world makes on them. During Advent they teach us that the more we try to tame and reduce desires, the more we deceive and distort ourselves. We are made for Christ and nothing less will ever satisfy us. As Paul writes in Colossians 1:16, “All things were created by him and for him.” And further on, “There is only Christ: he is everything” (3:11). It is only in Christ that the heart finds true joy in created things.

To the clotheshorse fretting about what to wear on Christmas Day, the shipwrecked say, “Put on Christ.” To the merchant whose Bible is the Wall Street Journal and who pants down the money-making street, the shipwrecked say, “You have only one Master; serving him is incompatible with any other servitude.” To the power-broker dealing strength to get things done, the shipwrecked say: “However powerful you are, the most you can do is change the décor of a world that is collapsing into its own death.”

The shipwrecked stand on firm ground. They live in truth and are rooted in reality. They do not allow the world to order them around. Kneeling at the crib they find the vanity of the world ridiculous, bloated, preposterous…

Do you hear what the shipwrecked are saying? Let go of your paltry desires and expand your expectations. Christmas means that God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ. Be unwilling next Christmas to settle for anything else. Don’t order “just a piece of toast” when eggs Benedict are on the menu. Don’t come with a thimble when God has nothing less to give you than the ocean of himself. Don’t be contented with a ‘nice’ Christmas when Jesus says, “It has pleased my Father to give you the Kingdom.” Pray, go to work, play Trivial Pursuit, eat banana bread, exchange presents, go caroling, feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, and do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Stripped and Filled

I’m 45 years old this Christmas, and so much of my life has been spent clinging to my paltry desires, somehow believing them to be the best that I might hope for. I fret about not just what I’ll wear, but about so much more. Far too many of my worries, of course, are sadly about myself, about whether or not I am okay in any number of ways. This is very much related to the complex trauma that I endured as a child, but this nagging self-concern is likely a temptation we all must face, in one way or another. Manning asks in this Advent reflection: “As Christmas approaches, an honest question is: do I want to be or merely appear to be a Christian?” And then Manning begins to answer the question by telling a story about a conversation between St. Francis and Brother Leo about how to be pure of heart. Soon into the conversation, St. Francis says:

“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is—your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him.

The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled—stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”

After a long pause, Leo said, “Still, Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.” “No doubt about that,” replied Francis. “But holiness is not a personal achievement. It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself. Instead of resenting it, you accept it and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew. To cry out, ‘You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,’ that is what it means to be pure of heart. And it doesn’t come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.”

“Then how?” asked Leo. “Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience, and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.”

This Christmas, I suppose I feel a little more shipwrecked this year as we approach the stable. I’ve long resented the emptiness I’ve felt inside, and have tried to fill it with Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions, not to mention with tinsel trees and religious experiences. Unsure of where I stand with God, which is to say nothing of where I stand with my long-deceased mother or even with my own self, I’ve settled for paltry desires and lowered expectations, desperately praying that the next city, the next job or church, or mentor or friend, will finally fill me and meet my needs. But of course they cannot, and thank God for those who will not. No, no longer will I settle, not if Christmas really does mean that “God has given us nothing less than himself and his name is Jesus Christ.”

I will accept the emptiness inside me, and let it become the free space where God can make something new. I will remember that I am a branch on the vine, and that therefore the vine is always with me. I will put on Christ. I will serve no other master. I will pray and work and play and eat, give and receive and nourish and comfort, and I will do it all in Jesus’ name. Advent and Christmas mean God-with-us, and in the free space inside me I’ve known as my emptiness, something new is being born. God’s very self is being born, and his name is Jesus Christ. May Jesus find a home with you and yours this Christmas too. Amen.

Rich Mullins Sings About the Secular Politics of Our Day

Hit play on the video above and give Rich a listen as he sings prophetically about the days we live in. All the words below are his, from his classic song While the Nations Rage, which draws from Psalm 2. Some of the pictures below show the church rising up in Jesus’ name to love and serve those around them. Some of them, sadly, juxtapose Rich’s words (“the church of God she will not bend her knees…”) with an image of the church doing just the opposite. I’ll let Rich take it from here…

 

"Why do the nations rage?  Why do they plot and scheme?"
“Why do the nations rage? 
Why do they plot and scheme?”

 

"Their bullets can't stop the prayers we pray  In the name of the Prince of Peace "
“Their bullets can’t stop the prayers we pray 
In the name of the Prince of Peace “

“We walk in faith and remember long ago
How they killed Him and then how on the third day He arose
Well, things may look bad
And things may look grim
But all these things must pass except the things that are of Him”

"Where are the nails that pierced His hands?  Well the nails have turned to rust  But behold the Man  He is risen  And He reigns  In the hearts of the children  Rising up in His name..."
“Where are the nails that pierced His hands? 
Well the nails have turned to rust 
But behold the Man 
He is risen 
And He reigns 
In the hearts of the children 
Rising up in His name…”

 

"Where are the thorns that drew His blood?  Well, the thorns have turned to dust  But not so the love  He has given  No, it remains  In the hearts of the children  Who will love while the nations rage"
“Where are the thorns that drew His blood? 
Well, the thorns have turned to dust 
But not so the love 
He has given 
No, it remains 
In the hearts of the children 
Who will love while the nations rage”

 

"The Lord in Heaven laughs  He knows what is to come  While all the chiefs of state plan their big attacks  Against His anointed One"
“The Lord in Heaven laughs 
He knows what is to come 
While all the chiefs of state plan their big attacks 
Against His anointed One”

 

"The Church of God she will not bend her knees"
“The Church of God she will not bend her knees

 

 

"To the gods of this world though they promise her peace"
“To the gods of this world though they promise her peace”

 

 

"She stands her ground  Stands firm on the Rock  Watch their walls tumble down when she lives out His love"
“She stands her ground 
Stands firm on the Rock 
Watch their walls tumble down when she lives out His love”

 

 

"Where are the nails that pierced His hands?  Well the nails have turned to rust  But not so the Man  He is risen  And He reigns  In the hearts of the children  Rising up in His name"
“Where are the nails that pierced His hands? 
Well the nails have turned to rust 
But not so the Man 
He is risen 
And He reigns 
In the hearts of the children 
Rising up in His name

 

 

"Where are the thorns that drew His blood?  Well, the thorns have turned to dust  But behold the love  He has given  It remains  In the hearts of the children  Who will love while the nations rage  While the nations rage"
“Where are the thorns that drew His blood? 
Well, the thorns have turned to dust 
But behold the love 
He has given 
It remains 
In the hearts of the children 
Who will love while the nations rage 
While the nations rage”

“Well, where are the nails that pierced His hands?
Well the nails have turned to rust
But behold the Man
He is risen
And He reigns
In the hearts of the children
Rising up in His name
Where are the thorns that drew His blood?
Well, the thorns have turned to dust
But not so the love
He has given
Oh, it remains
In the hearts of the children
Who will love”

 

"...while the nations rage..."
“…while the nations rage…”

 

Following Signposts Pointing Into a Fog, Because the Jordan is Waiting

The Jordan River in Palestine (ht here)
The Jordan River in Palestine (picture courtesy of this site)

My typically 30 minute commute into work took 90 minutes today. I spent the first part of it listening to MPR as the pledge drive winds down toward its conclusion tomorrow. I tuned in to hear a little about the weather and traffic since there was just enough snow overnight to make for a rough drive this morning. I also wanted to hear just a little about Trump’s speech last night, which I did. As time, and my commute, wore on, I decided to redeem both by listening to a podcast. I had downloaded some speeches, talks, and interviews given by a hero of mine, N.T. Wright. This was a 30 minute or so interview he gave several years back in which he discussed a number of topics, including creation care, which was how the conversation started. It’s interesting that the questioner began by posing a question that went something like this (this is a very rough paraphrase): “since the gospel is mostly about (individual) people getting saved, what links then can we make between this and how we care for creation?” Tom (Wright, as he seems to prefer to be called), immediately gave a corrective, that again in a very rough paraphrase went something like this: “The gospel is about the kingdom of God. While this has to do with (individual) people being ‘saved,’ those people are connected to others…” in a complex web of relationships that extend not to just to other people but to the places they occupy and the very earth itself. Wright asserts that a “theology of place” has been lost in Western Christianity and is only just now being recovered. This echoes so much of what I’ve been reading of late from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and others, who reminds us that the gospel is very particular (but not strictly individualistic). The good news of and about Jesus is a story about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their physical and spiritual descendants. It’s good news for Israel first, and then by extension it’s good news for the rest of us too, for Israel was “blessed to be a blessing,” (and so are we).

This particularity, I think, is meant to root us both in a people, in a community, but also again to a nearly forgotten extent in a place, for, as Wright reminds in that podcast, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and creation itself “groans” anticipating its own redemption along with the people of God. So place, and the earth itself, matters. These are reasons to care about creation, for starters, but this only takes us so far. He speaks of eschatology, and as I listened I was reminded of something else Wilson-Hartgrove wrote in The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith that I read recently: “More than anything else, eschatology teaches us to see that the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added). I can think of no better way to get at the idea that we live “between the times,” when the kingdom of God is “already” upon us, but “not yet” fully realized. As Wright spoke of eschatology in the podcast, he said something else that I found very helpful. He said: “All our language about God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a fog.” He added that while the truth the signposts point to may indeed be very true, we just don’t see it very well yet, and, by implication, even our best and most well thought out language just can’t speak of it very well yet. We have clues, to be sure, but we should tread lightly and give equally good thought, I would add, to what such language is for. It may have been in that podcast or perhaps I’m conflating various things I’ve heard or read from Wright, but at some point he mentions the eschatological language regarding the sun “turning red” and the moon “being darkened” and says that this “is not a primitive weather forecast.” Rather, this is an effort to invest what may be very “real” concrete events with their theological significance. The overall thrust of Wright’s point in the podcast and elsewhere is that God doesn’t come from heaven to earth to take us back there. Instead, again in a very real sense God comes from heaven to earth to join the two.

Thus, to those who read Scripture and interpret some of its language to mean that “it’s all gonna burn” before the “new heaven” and the “new earth” are brought about- which they therefore take to mean that we don’t have to worry about what happens to the earth in the meantime- to those folks I think Wright would suggest they’ve seriously misread Scripture and therefore missed the point. While there is “fiery” eschatological language, I think Wright would say it’s more in keeping with the rest of what we find in Scripture to think of this is a “refiners fire” that burns away the dross to reveal what was already there, but hidden. Thus, again in a very real sense it is this earth to which Jesus will return and which will be revealed to be “new” at his coming, just as a “new” heaven is brought to this earth when Jesus returns, all of which means that, just as always, in him “all things” really do “hold together.” So then what we do to this earth matters, for eternity even. I, for one, find this to be very good news indeed.

I finished the podcast and was still sitting in traffic; so I listened to a little Rich Mullins. I’ve written before about why he remains important to me, why I keep talking about him. I listened to a couple of my favorite songs that he sings before “Elijah” came on shortly before I arrived at work. In that post I just linked to I talk about this song, but some of what I said bears repeating. First, here’s Rich himself again singing it:

 

The song is so incredibly poignant not only because it so clearly foreshadows Mullins’ own death, including the way in which he died, but because of the way it so clearly exemplifies what a (not devil, but) God-may-care attitude looks like. Various definitions of “devil-may-care” describe such an attitude as “carefree” or even “reckless,” and the faith Rich sings about in this song I think could be characterized as both carefree and reckless. Here are the lyrics again:

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through

My heart is aging I can tell

So Lord, I’m begging

For one last favor from You

Here’s my heart take it where You will

This life has shown me how we’re mended

And how we’re torn

How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free

Sometimes my ground was stony

And sometimes covered up with thorns

And only You could make it what it had to be

And now that it’s done

Well, if they dressed me like a pauper

Or if they dined me like a prince

If they lay me with my fathers

Or if my ashes scatter on the wind

I don’t care

CHORUS:

But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah

With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire

And when I look back on the stars

Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park

And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

There’s people been friendly

But they’d never be your friends

Sometimes this has bent me to the ground

Now that this is all ending

I want to hear some music once again

‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

But the Jordan is waiting

Though I ain’t never seen the other side

They say you can’t take in

The things you have here

So on the road to salvation

I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride

And His music is already falling on my ears

There’s people been talking

They say they’re worried about my soul

Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking

‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll

And when I do

CHORUS(2x)

 

I think this is a song for all times, but it’s especially a song for this time for myself and my family. In the video above of Rich performing the song, after questioning why anyone would listen to “contemporary Christian” music, he describes the song as being about one of his “weirdo heroes of the Bible,” Elijah:

The prophet Elijah (picture courtesy of this site)
The prophet Elijah (picture courtesy of this site)

The song touches on themes from Elijah’s life, but also certainly does so in regard to themes from Rich’s own life too, even in ways that Rich himself couldn’t have known, like when he says he wants to “go out” like Elijah “when he leaves” (dies), which he certainly did, having died in a fiery car crash. More than that, though, I think this song represents Rich at his vulnerable, truth-telling best. The song begins with Rich singing that “The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through.” He’s referring of course to the Jordan River.

The Jordan River is an image rich with symbolism in Scripture and in Christian thought. It often symbolizes the boundary between life and death, between salvation and destruction, perhaps even between this life and the next. This site alludes to some of this in describing the very real role the Jordan has played in Israel’s history, including in the life of Rich’s “weird hero,” Elijah:

– The Israelites feared the people of Canaan. As punishment for their lack of faith, God did not allow any Israelite over twenty years old to enter the Promised Land, including Moses. The Israelites wandered for forty years, and despite begging God to allow him to enter, Moses only viewed the Promised Land from a distance. (Deuteronomy 1:21-32; 3:23-28; 34:1-4.)

– Elijah warned King Ahab of Israel that there would be a drought in the land because of Israel’s evil deeds. After Elijah gave his prophecy, God told him to cross to the east side of the Jordan and hide from the king. The river became a barrier of protection for Elijah. (1 Kings 16:29-33; 17:1-6.)

– Absalom, David’s rebellious son and the leader of Israel’s army, schemed to kill King David and everyone who was loyal to him. David was forewarned and crossed the Jordan with his people during the night. The river became a barrier of protection for David and his people. (2 Samuel 17:15-22.)

– Before being taken up to heaven, Elijah struck the Jordan River water with his cloak. The water parted so that he and Elisha could cross. After Elijah ascended, Elisha again parted the waters with Elijah’s cloak so he could return to Israel. (2 Kings 2:1-2, 5-15.)

 

What that site just quoted only alludes to is that after Moses died, the people did cross the Jordan and entered the Promised Land. Wikipedia discusses this and further details that the Jordan is the scene of several miracles in Scripture:

In biblical history, the Jordan appears as the scene of several miracles, the first taking place when the Jordan, near Jericho, was crossed by the Israelites under Joshua (Joshua 3:15–17). Later the two tribes and the half tribe that settled east of the Jordan built a large altar on its banks as “a witness” between them and the other tribes (Joshua 22:10, 22:26, et seq.). The Jordan was crossed by Elijah and Elisha on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8, 2:14). God thrived through Elisha performing two other miracles at the Jordan: God healed Naaman by having him bathe in its waters, and he made the axe head of one of the “children of the prophets” float, by throwing a piece of wood into the water (2 Kings 5:14; 6:6).

 

Wikipedia further describes the Jordan’s significance in the “New Testament:”

The New Testament states that John the Baptist baptised unto repentance[10] in the Jordan (Matthew 3:56; Mark1:5; Luke 3:3; John1:28). These acts of Baptism are also reported as having taken place at Bethabara (John 1:28).

Jesus came to be baptised by him there (Matthew 3:13; Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21, 4:1). The Jordan is also where John the Baptist bore record of Jesus as the Son of God and Lamb of God (John 1:29–36).

The prophecy of Isaiah regarding the Messiah which names the Jordan (Isaiah 9:1–2) is also reported in Matthew 4:15.

The New Testament speaks several times about Jesus crossing the Jordan during his ministry (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1), and of believers crossing the Jordan to come hear him preach and to be healed of their diseases (Matthew 4:25; Mark 3:7–8). When his enemies sought to capture him, Jesus took refuge at Jordan in the place John had first baptised (John 10:39–40).

 

What’s clear is that throughout Israel’s history and that of Jesus and his disciples, the Jordan very much did indeed mark this boundary between life and death, between salvation/rescue and devastation, between following God’s call and not doing so. It’s a powerful symbol.  So again Rich sings:

 

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through

My heart is aging I can tell

So Lord, I’m begging

For one last favor from You

Here’s my heart take it where You will

 

In these words I hear Rich saying that whatever troubles and cares have led him to this point, he’s now ready to cross that boundary that the Jordan represents. Perhaps he’s saying that he’s ready to follow Jesus whatever that may mean, whatever it may cost him, wherever Jesus might lead. Rich says that his “heart is aging,” and I can relate. I’ve seen so much and been through so much in my 40+ years that I have a very real sense that my time is short. I too am ready to follow Jesus perhaps in a way that I never have, to wherever he might lead. I’ve written about this of late as I’ve described our efforts to get “small,” to listen to and learn from and engage with those on the margins of society because that’s who the Bible was written by and to, because Jesus commands us to let those on the margins come to him and says that we must be like them to see his kingdom, and because when we draw near to them, we draw near to Jesus himself. With a few notable exceptions, I’ve largely failed to do this in my life, but no longer. My heart is aging, and I don’t have time to mess around any more. So I’m willing to offer it to Jesus and invite him to take it where he will.

 

 Rich continues in the song:

 

This life has shown me how we’re mended

And how we’re torn

How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free

Sometimes my ground was stony

And sometimes covered up with thorns

And only You could make it what it had to be

And now that it’s done

Well, if they dressed me like a pauper

Or if they dined me like a prince

If they lay me with my fathers

Or if my ashes scatter on the wind

I don’t care

 

Rich, I think, is again probably writing a little about his own life while engaging with Elijah’s story, and maybe writing a little about my own life too. We’re mended and torn because life can be hard. Brokenness abounds. When he says his “ground was stony and sometimes covered up with thorns,” he’s hinting at the parable Jesus told of the sower in Matthew 13:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

 

Later, Jesus explained the parable to his disciples:

 

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

 

So the “stony” or “covered up with thorns” ground Rich spoke of alludes to a heart ready to hear the good news, but which lacks depth or in which the good news is crowded out by the cares of this world. Rich sings that while this may have been true, “only you can make it what it had to be.” Kirsten and I had new friends over the other night, and we were talking about the new ways we’re learning to follow Jesus, all the ways we’re working to get “small” by simplifying our life and building capacity in our hearts, minds, and budget for what God is calling us to. I alluded to my life to this point and said that for whatever reason I just don’t think I was ready yet. Despite everything I’ve been through and all the hard lessons already allegedly learned, somehow I just wasn’t ready to follow Jesus like I’m trying to now, recklessly, with a carefree heart. Even the readiness I’m experiencing now is by no virtue of my own. Only Jesus could make my heart “what it had to be” too.  

 

Rich speaks of this, of this reckless, carefree faith, when he says that “if they dressed me like a pauper, if they dined me like a prince, if they lay with my fathers, if my ashes scatter on the wind I don’t care…” In Philippians 4 Paul says that he has:

 

…learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

 

Rich seems to be hinting at this. As a would-be “Christian music” star, Rich had access to fabulous wealth, but wrote into all his music contracts that he would receive whatever the average U.S. salary was for that year and the rest that he earned would be donated to charity. In part I suspect because he realized that even this act of generosity, given that the U.S. is the richest country in the history of the world, did not suffice to make him “small” enough (to use the language I’ve been using for myself and my family). So at some point Rich gave it all up and moved to a Native American reservation. I wrote about this again in my last post about Rich. My point now is that I too hope to move ever closer to a place of solidarity with those who are not the beneficiaries of all this fabulous wealth our country enjoys, and I hope to learn to be content “whether well fed,” as I obviously am now, “or hungry,” as so many will experience as they go to sleep tonight.  

 

After going through the chorus the first time Rich sings on:

 

There’s people been friendly

But they’d never be your friends

Sometimes this has bent me to the ground

Now that this is all ending

I want to hear some music once again

‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

 

I can relate to this too. I’ve known a lot of “friendly” people in my life who turned out not to be friends, certainly not a friend “who sticketh closer than a brother.” I’ve known more than my fair share, I’m sure, of broken, fractured relationships, and sometimes the ending of those relationships- or what felt like the ending at the time- has more than once “bent me to the ground.” Still, when I look back at them, usually I realize that I can probably place the blame for the lion’s share of what went wrong in those relationships at my own feet. I am the worst of sinners, and my own worst enemy. In any case, I sense in this that Rich feels the freedom to move on from his own brokenness and broken relationships in order to focus on what matters most. For Rich, music is both an end in itself and a means to end. God clearly gave him a gift for it, and he used it as best he could. All the while, Rich seems to recognize that he’s caught up in a song that is larger than his contribution to it. He sings on:

 

But the Jordan is waiting

Though I ain’t never seen the other side

They say you can’t take in

The things you have here

So on the road to salvation

I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride

And His music is already falling on my ears

 

The Jordan, this boundary between death and life, between salvation/rescue and destruction, beckons on. He says he’s “never seen the other side,” but knows “you can’t take in the things you have here.” “You can’t take it with you when you die” is a truism rooted in Scripture, and has been a major theme in our life of late. We literally have been “storing up for ourselves treasure on earth, where thieves break in and steal and moth and rust destroy.” So as a family we’ve been redoubling our efforts to “store up treasure in heaven” instead, for we well know that “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” Abandoning the ways of Empire and getting as “small” as we can despite our education and privilege is hard, subversive work. It’s reckless work too, perhaps something akin to hitchhiking along the road to salvation, along the way with Jesus, as Rich sings above. When we get moving along the way, we begin to hear “his music” as we too get caught up in a song that is larger than what we contribute to it.

 

“Elijah” builds to an end with this final bit before the chorus again:

 

There’s people been talking

They say they’re worried about my soul

Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking

‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll

And when I do

…when I leave I want to go out like Elijah

With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire

And when I look back on the stars

Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park

And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

 

Rich says “people have been talking,” that they’re “worried about his soul.” His unorthodox approach to a life in the “Christian” spotlight and his unwillingness to spend the decades amassing millions while churning out the cliched feel-good musical tropes that his record label may have liked sometimes landed Rich in “trouble.” His move to the Native American reservation only magnified these “concerns,” I’m sure. If you read my last couple of posts, I echoed Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in speaking of Mark 10 and the stories of Jesus and the little children and then Jesus and the “rich young ruler.” In that passage Jesus says that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” I spoke in my last post about how somehow I had always interpreted those verses individualistically, such that if I gave up something for Jesus I would always get something bigger and better in the end, even if only in a “spiritual” sense. I wrote then of my shock to suddenly realize that this too was directed at the community. Hence if Kirsten and I gave up a house to come to MN in part to serve her mother, this passage isn’t suggesting we’ll get a bigger, better house out of the deal. Rather, it’s telling us that we may not need to buy a house again, that as members of God’s family we have access to all the houses wherever our brothers and sisters in Christ can be found.

 

This is a dramatic reversal, I would argue, of the individualistic, consumer-driven “American dream.” As people struggling to better follow God’s dream for the world, we’re working to consume less, not more. We’re working to get small, not big. We’re working to give away power and privilege, not amass it. This flies in the face of the logic of the (U.S.) Empire, and I have no doubt that while our pursuit of God’s dream will bring us “homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields” where we had none before, they will also bring persecutions. If so, we are in good company with all the saints and Jesus himself. Thus, Rich can conclude by saying that when he “leaves,” “it won’t break his heart to say goodbye.” His heart is aging, after all. Mine is too.

 

Thus it was that upon hearing “Elijah” just after hearing N.T. Wright talk about how what we do in the here-and-now matters in eternity because when Jesus returns it will be to join heaven and earth and reveal the new creation that is already present, even though we can “not yet” see it clearly,  I soon found myself weeping again in the car, the tears streaming down my face as I pulled in to work. Today is Ash Wednesday. Throughout history Christians have started the season of Lent in preparation for Easter with the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead and the words from Scripture, “(Remember that) your are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a time of often solemn reflection on our own mortality, which is a way to find our place, literally to locate ourselves in God’s story. He is the creator; we are the creation. It’s a time to make space in our lives, often by forgoing some pleasure or even some necessity, like food, so that there is room for God to make himself known in a new way.

 

Remembering that we are dust and that we will return to it and looking forward with great anticipation to Easter, to our remembrance of the inauguration not of a new U.S. President but of the King of the Universe as he conquers death and defeats the powers that would keep us separated from God and one another, we are helped to see again how the end of our story interrupts us in the middle. We are helped to see how every act in this age has eternal repercussions. On the Rich Mullins Songs album that I began listening to after N.T. Wright’s podcast and on which “Elijah” is one of the songs, the one after “Elijah” is “Calling Out Your Name.” This is another all time favorite of mine by Rich, as it so clearly evokes the mystery and wonder of creation and you can almost feel Rich’s respect and reverence for the earth and especially its indigenous people here in the U.S. This amazing song speaks of being “wild with the hope” that “this thirst will not last long and it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain.”

 

Wouldn’t you like to be “wild” with hope? I would. I sure hope to be. The imagery of thirst drowning in a song not sung in vain is very moving. In the story of the “woman at the well” Jesus tells the woman that “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Those who drink the “living water” Jesus offers find their thirst quenched once and for all. In fact, they find within themselves a “spring of water” that “wells up” to eternal life. This sounds a lot like a thirst that “drowns” in a “song not sung in vain.” Rich found himself caught up in a song that was larger than his part in it, and so are we. We who “drink” the living water Jesus offers can be wild with hope that our thirst will drown in a “sing not sung in vain.” It’s not in vain because despite the extent to which it seems that the peaceable kingdom of God is not yet fully realized, it is nonetheless true that the end of our story (which our language for is only like a set of signposts pointing into a fog) has interrupted us right in the middle of the story. Our actions today echo into eternity. They matter because we have clues about where this story is headed, how this song ends. It’s a love story, and always has been. Though we were made from dust and will return to it, we were made in and for love, and will return to that too. We’re already on our way, some of us more knowingly and willingly than others.

The Jordan has been waiting for my family and I in new ways recently. We’ve known ourselves to be crossing a boundary, moving from an old way of life into a new one. The more stuff we give away, the more we can extricate ourselves from our participation in the systems of the powers that be, the less we participate in the domination system that seeks to marginalize and control and disadvantage all of us in the end, the more we experience a spring of water welling up in us to eternal life. My heart may be aging, but it’s also wild with hope as I’m learning to follow Jesus in a new, carefree, even reckless way. Thanks be to God.

Striving No More, Part 3, or My Encounter with a Ragamuffin

mullins2

This is part 3 in a 5 part series. You can read part 1 here, and part 2 here. As I spent a good part of today writing about Keith Green, I was constantly aware that I couldn’t speak of his outsize influence on my spiritual formation without mentioning the impact of Rich Mullins too. Then I remembered that I already had, two years ago. Rich and Keith are like two sides of the same coin. Rich lived a little longer than Keith did, but Rich died suddenly and tragically in a crash just like Keith, in Rich’s case before his 42nd birthday (which means he was about as old as I am now). Like Keith, Rich was a talented musician. Wikipedia notes:

Mullins had a distinctive talent both as a performer and a songwriter. His compositions showed distinction in two ways: unusual and sometimes striking instrumentation, and complex lyrics that usually employed elaborate metaphors. Mullins did most of his composing and performing on piano and acoustic guitar, but he also had a prodigious talent for obscure instruments. He displayed arguably virtuoso skills on the hammered and lap dulcimers (in “Calling out Your Name” and “Creed”) and the Irish tin whistle (in “Boy Like Me/Man Like You” and “The Color Green”).

And like Keith, Rich had an enormous impact on the “Christian” music scene while simultaneously having a sometimes contentious relationship with the industry. While Keith stopped charging for his music or concerts or gave away a tape for every tape purchased, Rich set it up so that “the profits from his tours and the sale of each album were entrusted to his church, which divided it up, paid Mullins the average salary in the U.S. for that year, and gave the rest to charity.[28] Mullins was also a major supporter of Compassion International[29] and Compassion USA.[30]” He was quoted as saying:

Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these my brothers you’ve done it to me. And this is what I’ve come to think. That if I want to identify fully with Jesus Christ, who I claim to be my Savior and Lord, the best way that I can do that is to identify with the poor. This I know will go against the teachings of all the popular evangelical preachers. But they’re just wrong. They’re not bad, they’re just wrong. Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in a beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken-hearted…[6][31]

Thus, like Keith, Rich knew that God has a special concern for the poor, for folks on the margins, that if you wanted to find Jesus, it was among them that you should look. So, he did. In 1995 he up and moved to a Navajo reservation, where he lived until his death two years later. Wikipedia mentions that…

He was asked if he made the move because God had called him to proselytize and convert the Native Americans. To this Mullins responded: “No. I think I just got tired of a White, Evangelical, Middle Class perspective on God, and I thought I would have more luck finding Christ among the Pagan Navajos. I’m teaching music.”[27]

Rich was so influenced by another of my heroes of the faith, St. Francis of Assisi, that he wrote a musical about him, “The Canticle of the Plains.” He also was influenced by another hero of mine, Brennan Manning, whose seminal work The Ragamuffin Gospel so moved him that he thereafter assembled The Ragamuffin Band. I encountered Rich and really began to immerse myself in his music a little later than was the case with Keith, but like Keith, Rich has also had an outsize influence on my formation as someone who wants to follow Jesus. Thus, it was my great honor to hear Rich in concert when he came to Gordon College, I think when I was a freshman. I sat in the back, by myself, and remember being moved to worship. I was amazed to be doing so as the concert ended, and the entire crowd was singing with Rich, though Rich had stopped singing for the final little bit. When I opened my eyes and looked up, Rich was just…gone. He hadn’t gone backstage to wait for everyone to clamor for an encore, though clamor they did. It was more that he had done what he set out to do. He came to help us connect with Jesus. When we did, his work done, he quietly left. Like Keith, Rich’s music has a way of engaging me at a much deeper level than mere intellectualism alone could afford, and I am the better for it. Rich’s music, like Keith’s, often breaks my heart and brings me to tears, but it’s usually there that, gratefully, I meet Jesus.

I think Rich would be the first to say that he’s no hero. Like Keith, he was very genuine, and like Keith, struggled with demons of his own. Unlike Keith, as far as I know, one of Rich’s struggles was alcoholism. It’s something he had in common with Brennan Manning. This review of the movie that was made not too long ago about him, which I would recommend, mentions that:

For a guy who refuses to wear shoes and doesn’t look like he showers on a regular basis, he’s often met with curious stares during Sunday morning services. Not surprisingly, Mullin’s life only gets more complicated when Nashville comes calling. Never fully comfortable as a go-to songwriter for Amy Grant or a celebrated CCM artist later on when “Awesome God” winds up being his breakout hit, Rich’s life fails to follow a predictable course. But Rich finds a mentor in the late Brennan Manning and discovers his true passion in ministering to Native American youth. Mullins’s life may have remained far from perfect, but his story has incredible resonance and redemptive value.

Indeed, it does. Here’s one of my favorite of Rich’s songs:

 

Here’s another one:

 

 

This is one that gets to me much like Keith’s “When I Hear the Praises Start:”

 

Finally, like Keith, Rich was prophetic in his willingness to speak truth to power, especially “Christian” power, but he was likely also quite prophetic about his own death, as I wrote about in my last post about Rich. Remembering that in Scripture Elijah was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot, and that Rich died in something like a fiery car crash, here he is singing “Elijah,” with the lyrics copied below:

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through
My heart is aging I can tell
So Lord, I’m begging
For one last favor from You
Here’s my heart take it where You will

This life has shown me how we’re mended
And how we’re torn
How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free
Sometimes my ground was stoney
And sometimes covered up with thorns
And only You could make it what it had to be
And now that it’s done
Well, if they dressed me like a pauper
Or if they dined me like a prince
If they lay me with my fathers
Or if my ashes scatter on the wind
I don’t care

CHORUS:
But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire
And when I look back on the stars
Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park
And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

There’s people been friendly
But they’d never be your friends
Sometimes this has bent me to the ground
Now that this is all ending
I want to hear some music once again
‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

But the Jordan is waiting
Though I ain’t never seen the other side
They say you can’t take in
The things you have here
So on the road to salvation
I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride
And His music is already falling on my ears

There’s people been talking
They say they’re worried about my soul
Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking
‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll
And when I do

CHORUS(2x)

I don’t think it broke Rich’s heart to say goodbye, but I sure am grateful that God keeps using him to break mine.