Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Church and "Two Cathedrals"

One of the main things missing in church worship today is lamentation. And as a partial result, I daresay, there is a large part of our population missing as well.

When it comes to corporate lament, we don't know very well how to do it publicly and appropriately. To be fair, I'm not sure myself. I've been pastoring for a couple months here and we've only intentionally incorporated lamentation into our worship service once in that time (an "ash wednesday" time), and even then it was never given that name.

One of the things that happens, I think, when we fail to incorporate lament into the rhythms of church life and worship is that it goes elsewhere. Or else it comes in and is not received, or is aimed at the church people with malice. Or other things may happen with it.

There was one West Wing episode in season two where President Jed Bartlett railed at God in the middle of an empty cathedral. It was edgy. It was honest. It was probably off the rails in various places. But boy does it raise this issue. The clip is below, and while it is pretty abrasive, I think there is something about it that was essentially healthy.

To give background, essentially it comes after a funeral for one of the President's loved one, and it comes in the middle of a time when he has to tell the American public about the MS riddling his body and has to deal with one more international crisis among other things. After the funeral service he has a conversation with God who, he imagines, must be punishing him. You can watch it if you want, or skip down and I'll highlight what I want to talk about.

It begins with a quote from Graham Greene's Brighton Rock---"You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God"---and gets rolling from there. During the course of his talking to God President Bartlett starts speaking in Latin. I don't know whether the show's writers thought it a bit safer to do this or not, but there it is. My uncle did me the favour of looking it up for me the other day. Here's the Latin, followed by the translation, followed by an even more literal (and potentially more deeply profound) translation.

gratias tibi ago, domine. (sarcastically)
haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito?
cruciatus in crucem
tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci.
cruciatus in crucem (with a dismissive wave of the hand)
eas in crucem
Thank you, Lord.
Am I to believe that these are the acts of a righteous god, a just god, a wise god?
To hell with your punishments!
I was your servant here on Earth. And I spread your word and I did your work.
To hell with your punishments!
To hell with you!
Thank you, Lord.
Am I to believe these things from a loving God? A just God? A wise God?
Put your punishments on a cross!
I was your servant, your messenger on the earth; I did my duty.
Put your punishments on a cross!
To the cross with you!

Perhaps someone who actually knows Latin will correct these renderings somewhat, but I think in either case something very profound is being said, not only out of anger to God, but by the writers (whether knowingly or not) about God's response, and our proper response, to suffering and evil in the world.

He puts them on a cross, and puts himself on that cross, and takes them to hell with him.

We don't do ourselves any favours when we gloss over this stuff and leave it to prime time television to deal with it. Nor do we do ourselves any favours when we shelter ourselves from the fact that we still live with a lot of suffering and evil in our world.

I think we need to pause with Jesus outside the tomb of Lazarus or on the outskirts of a broken Jerusalem, and allow ourselves to weep. Even if we don't feel bad, to pause and weep with those who weep. "Blessed are those who mourn," Jesus said.

Of course, thankfully, he did continue: "For they will be comforted." Ultimately our lamentation, if it is enfolded in Christian worship as such, leads us then to our hope, which is that Jesus ascended from hell, rose from the dead, has ascended to heaven, has left us the Spirit in Church, heart, and Word, and is coming again to finish what He started. Too often I think we just skip to the "shiny happy" without dwelling on any of this, and thus we end up with worship services that seem somehow ethereal rather than real.

As a pastor I can sleep at night because I believe God is gracious with us in receiving us in our worship services and utilizing whatever we bring if we bring it with an open hand. And certainly in our worship services there is much that is good. But imagine if our worship services were places that met the world head on, honestly, and hopefully. I'd like to be there for one of those.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Out of the Comfortable Quiver

My oldest son's school building is shared by both a public and a private school, putting his public French immersion kindergarten class side by side with the private Christian school's kindergarten class. They are literally separated by a door jam. On the first day of school this stark juxtaposition made me pretty angry. Though I've calmed a bit since then it still raises some issues.

I know it is cliche, but watching my son get on the bus that first day last September almost ripped my heart out. His particular route involves a transfer of busses halfway, and I'll admit that for the first few times we drove ahead to the transfer station to make sure he made it. There were a few other parents skulking about those mornings as well, so we didn't feel too bad. In fact the first month or two we had to coach him through many anxieties---anxieties that we as parents also felt ourselves. It isn't easy sending your firstborn into the world. Sure, everyone has to do it, but that doesn't make it easier.

That morning as my son walked through door number one and all the Christians through door number two it hit me like a ton of bricks: I found myself resentfully disappointed in those Christian parents, my supposed brothers and sisters in the Lord---angry at them for hiding in their Christian corner and leaving my son out there in the world on his own.

Sure, it would have been a lot easier to send him into a classroom where his parent's faith would have no challengers, where the environment would be arguably "safer", and the teachers would be sympathetic to many of the values that we hold dear. Believe me, I understand the impulse to take that route. We thought about it. Sending a kid to school is scary. Adding the element of faith to the mix, especially when one is never quite sure how well it will be received, can be even more unsettling.

Perhaps under other circumstances we'd have done the same as those parents whom I watched drop their kids off next door to mine that day. I'm not going to say private school is never the way to go. I'm sure there are times when it is appropriate. Heck, I grew up in private school and am thankful for the education I received. But that morning I was ticked.

In my son's case it wasn't really until November when his deep anxieties about the bus and school began to dissolve. That wasn't to do with anything about being a Christian. It is just life. The big thing was actually when his teacher moved his desk nearer the boy who had become his first friend. They've been inseparable since. It turns out there are a couple other church-going kids in my son's class too. Not that our kids really care.

Even the bus transfer goes smoothly now, although my son would still prefer we drove him. He does pick up a lot of crazy ideas from the older kids on that bus. He is a little fish in a big pond. But by an large he has risen to the challenge and made his parents proud.

This is not to toot our own horn or anything. Actually, there are spells where I'm not proud of my parenting at all. This isn't about that. But I do wonder where our son would be at if we'd sent him on the other side of the divider.

He might know more Bible verses. He might be more well versed in "love your neighbour" talk too (although the civil respect he is taught in his class is quite remarkable). He might also feel safer amongst people of his own worldview. Wouldn't we all?

But when it was all said and done would his faith have any earthly good? Would he be anywhere close to being able to be salt of the earth---both salty and in the earth?

Psalm 127 says "children are a heritage from the LORD" and it speaks of them with the metaphor of arrows in a quiver. But it does not have them staying in the quiver. It ends with them at their proudest moment right at the city gates. That's where they show their mettle.

Or perhaps it is that moment when their parents' inadequacies and, hey, maybe even their parents' ill-founded risks, are exposed.

I don't think there is any guarantee that we're going to pull it off as parents, or even if we do that our parenting will be "successful". But I do know how I felt sending my son off to kindergarten that day, separated from the Christians by a door-jam and a big old wall-divider. I felt on the outside looking in at my own "people", and I didn't like them very much. They didn't feel like mine at all. That may sound really egotistical and condescending but that's not how I mean it. I actually found it fairly confusing. Like when everyone at church is pumped and you are sitting there wondering why they feel that way. You question your faith a little bit.

We haven't interacted much with the folks on the other side of the door-jam. My son has only ever really told us a couple things about "that other kindergarten class." He knows that over there they learn about God and, unfortunately, he says that on the playground those kids are a little bit mean to the kids in his class.

I'm not trying to make any enemies from any private-school fans out there. Believe me, I imagine there can be times and places where that may be appropriate. Sometimes it is the only gig in town. Sometimes the context or the child's place in life requires some extra care. I was such a tiny fragile kid growing up in an evangelical environment of fear I remember that I thanked my lucky stars I got to go to private school. I'm not trying to bemoan my own upbringing. No education is perfect, and mine had flaws, but I was well cared for and I appreciate it.

But I guess this all came flooding back to mind on Friday when I got to go to my son's class to tell them about my job. You know how it works: Last week someones dad got to go in and talk about being in the army, another week someone talked about their ad agency. This week it was my turn and I went in and talked about being a pastor.

It went fine. The kids were fun. I tried to explain where I work: How lots of people believe in God and how in our church we believe the man Jesus is God and how we get together to pray to Him and talk about Him and learn to love as He loved us and stuff like that. I explained that I spend most of my week preparing what to talk about because my job is to teach the church people from the book that speaks of Jesus.

The kids seemed pretty interested. I had some pictures on my laptop I showed them from my church in Manitoba and at the end most of the questions the kids asked were about how the laptop works, and about why it is called a laptop and not a computer, and about how I got the pictures on there.

During my little talk I asked how many kids had been to church. My son raised his hand along with a smattering of others. This time I wasn't angry at the other classroom. I just felt happy to be there. And proud of my son. Not proud of myself. Don't get me wrong. I tremble at the thought of all the therapy my kid is going to need when he grows up and leaves home and has to sort through all his dad's idiotic moves. I should probably save up and be ready to foot the bill. But I was proud of my boy. He doesn't understand any of the issues involved here. He is just rising to the challenges before him, as pretty much all kids do, fearfully and wonderfully made as they are.

Outside the classroom I was accosted by a kindergartner hanging around outside that other class's doorway. He asked me what I was doing there. I said I was there to talk to my son's class about being a pastor. He shrugged. So did I. Not resentful anymore. At the end of the day both he and his parents and my son and me need a lot of grace.

But I do think our children stand a better chance of learning to live as followers of Jesus if, as my friend Dale has put it on his blog, we don't keep them clothed in bubble wrap. Our proudest moments as parents will ultimately come when they are out of the comfortable quiver.

As unsettling as it can be to send your child of faith out into the free-market of worldviews, and as scary as it might be to send your child to school at all---it is just awesome to see your child rise to the challenge. I simply pray God graces him and his brothers to keep that flavour, even this side of Sunday; this side of the door jam.

Regardless of how that goes in the years to come, I must say that already in their young lives my four boys have not only been great sources of sleep-deprivation, humbling self-analysis and character development for their dad, but they have each of them already been an immeasurable blessing to him as well.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Best Rock Album of Our Time

Being music month at this side of sunday and all, I'm going to make a bold statement here:

Radiohead's OK Computer is the greatest rock album of my lifetime (post-1975).

I would say it is the best rock album of all time, but I don't feel equipped to make such a call. I can appreciate the Beatles and Dylan albums of the past (and do, immensely) but I don't know if I fully get how awesome and ground-breaking they were in their time; how mind-blowing they would have been for their first listeners; how epically they spoke to their time and brought their hearers to new levels of sonic enchantment and excitement.

But I put Radiohead's OK Computer on again about a week ago and have not been able to stop listening to it. It is just an unbelievable album. It sounds like a concept album but every song can also stand alone as a masterpiece of its own. Of course the music industry is too spread out and demographic-ized and genre-riddled for us to ever have another Beatle-mania, but I think that on a musical level Radiohead is our generation's Beatles. Just when you thought every chord-progression had been tapped out and rock n' roll had reached the point of perpetual recycling, in 1997 Radiohead took you to new places you didn't know existed. I didn't actually listen to this album until 2001 or so, but you get the point. It is never too late to have your life changed.

The 53+ minute, 12 track album begins with Airbag, Paranoid Android, Subtarranean Homesick Alien, and Exit Music (For a Film)---and by the time Exit Music is over one gets the feeling that had it been a 4 song EP it still might be among the best rock albums of all time. I'm not sure if Exit Music was ever the closing-credits-song for a particular film or not, but just listening to the song makes a person feel as if they've just seen an amazing movie. Listening to this song alone would be a better movie-going experience than most movies you actually have to sit through.

Though these first four tracks could stand alone, the album is just getting going. Let Down just might be one of the favourite songs of my life. There are two guitar parts played on different time signatures which catch up to one another every once in awhile and the overlapping effect gives a unity and diversity to the song that just keeps you coming back for more.

This is followed by Karma Police, which is just as musically moving, and includes the intriguing lyric "Karma Police, arrest this man, he talks in maths He buzzes like a fridge, he's like a detuned radio." It then moves into a chorus which gladly always get stuck in my head on my way to a soccer game: "This is what you get, this is what you get, this is what you get, when you meeeeeesss with us!" This is balanced by the other chorus, which says: "For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself." I just love this song.

Fitter Happier is what seems at first to be a throwaway spoken-word track (in a computerized voice), but which deserves the label of poetry in the highest sense of the term. I can honestly say that I've never skipped this track. It is vital to an album which, as wikipedia puts it, exposes and "emphasises common themes such as consumerism, social disconnection, political stagnation and modern malaise." But it does it with a seemingly random assortment of words, instead of that academic sounding mumbo-jumbo.

The rest of the album is exceptional, at times even beautiful, and I won't go into each track. Probably the only song I don't like all that much is Electioneering, but having said that I think its lyrics quite poignant. Almost inevitably, by the time I've come through tracks nine to twelve---Up the Walls, No Surprises, Lucky, and The Tourist---I am literally shaking my head with amazement at what I've just heard and am more than likely compelled to start it all over again. Think I'm exagerrating? Set aside an hour, turn off the lights, put on some headphones or crank it up, and hear for yourself.

Sure, albums can get old, and this one gets put on the shelf for a time like any other. But if its been awhile, or if you've never heard this album, give it a go again and tell me if I'm wrong. Best rock album of our time.

(By the way, I was thinking of doing a top ten list to go with this, but it kind of dissolves into subjectivity after two or three selections (and who can pretend to have heard them all). Nonetheless, I'd love to hear other suggestions for best rock album of all time, besides OK Computer of course!)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Complicated Kindness

Canadian Miriam Toews wrote a phenomenal novel a few years back called A Complicated Kindness which my wife and I finally just read this month. After Life of Pi this is the second hugely remarkable Canadian work of fiction I've read in the last while, and I'm beginning to think I've found a new place to go for good reading---right in my own backyard.

Some of the reviews on the book jacket call it "exquisitely written" and a "masterpiece". I can't disagree. I thought maybe the New Brunswick Reader was exaggerating calling the main character "Canada's answer to Holden Caufield," but now I'm not so sure. If you read Catcher in the Rye you know that's high praise indeed. But it fits. The Philadelphia Inquirer agreed and rightly praised this "wonderful little book because it reminds us of the beauty and meaning in one small moment of one small life."

Nomi Nickel is the novel's protagonist and the whole story is told by her, including all the dialogue, which is often written without quotation marks because it is as if she is in the room telling it to you in one breath from her own lips. The story-telling is not very linear and gives everything from one teenager's perspective, which gives it a unique style that may take a while to get into. But as with Catcher in the Rye the result is that the reader is engrossed in the character's world and really begins to understand.

This novel raises eyebrows on another level since the plot revolves entirely around the life-sapping, stifling strictness of a small prairie Mennonite town. Though the "complicated kindness" of some of the characters does shine through, the indictment on some of our evangelical strains is pretty stark. All the more reason for evangelicals to read it, though, in my opinion. Empathy and self-awareness are good things.

I'm not sure I fully appreciated this novel until I put it down. Though I normally enjoy different writing styles and non-linear story telling (more in movies than books), I wasn't sure I was following the way I was supposed to all the time. My wife would ask where are you in the story? and I'd respond what do you mean where am I, nothing is really happening in real time. (By the way that last sentence was Miriam Toews-esque). But the beauty of it is that over time the picture of what has indeed happened does emerge clearly, and in the meantime you have entered Nomi Nickel's world to such an extent that there will be sadness on losing her.

Here are a couple random excerpts to leave you with a bit of the flavour:

"Lydia was lying on a bed that had two mattresses on it instead of one because just one was too hard for her bones. Its a beautiful day, said the nurse, and a young healthy girl like Lydia should be outside in the fresh air. . . . Lydia opened her eyes and smiled and nodded and then closed them again. The nurse sighed. I would kill her on my way out of the hospital. My friendship with Lids was often about protection. Or it was a shared desperation. Or it was about recognizing the familiar flickering embers of each other's dying souls" (p. 33).

"My dad gazed into the neighbour's yard. Looks like the little girl's got herself a new two-wheeler, he said. We say bicycle now, Dad, I said. Or, sometimes, bike. He . . . took the pant clip off his leg and saluted me before going into the house. I had never seen him salute before. Were we saluting now? Was this some new playful thing we were doing now? God, Ray deserves a better daughter than me. He deserves Laura Ingalls Wilder saluting him back exuberantly, clicking her heels even, and saying oh, Father, and gazing at him the way a daughter should. I took the chalk and wrote in tiny, tiny letters on the driveway: Dad, don't think I'm not saluting you when I'm not saluting you" (p. 73).

I highly recommend this book. I don't know if I've ever done this before but I'm thinking about turning back to the first page again and reading it again right away. I think I'm adding it to my "great fiction" list (on the right sidebar along with another recent add-in, Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill).

Monday, March 09, 2009

U2's No Line on the Horizon

The new U2 album is not the best they've ever made, but I enjoy it. As far as likability goes, I'd probably place it somewhere between How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (which I was not a huge fan of) and War (which has some favs and some also-rans). Stylistically it actually falls somewhere between All That You Can't Leave Behind and Boy.

It does seem that they wanted the center-piece of this album to be the Edge's guitar riffs more than Bono's crooning. That said, its not like an either-or. However, many of the songs either make it or don't based on what the guitarist brings to the table. In most cases it is classic Edge, often reminiscent of Boy. '

The best tracks are the concert-ready Magnificent, the trademark album-ending prayer Cedars of Lebanon, the unique Fez: Being Born, the meditative gospel-chorus sounding Moment of Surrender, and the should've-been-first-single I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight.

Skip-worthy tracks include the goofy Stand Up Comedy, the mediocre Unknnown Caller, and the (bafflingly chosen) single Get On Your Boots. So far the title track has been enjoyable but I think it will get old. Breathe is an okay track, as is White as Snow, but the former is unremarkable and the latter sounds like a Christmas song (O Come Emmanuel?)

My favourite line on the album so far is from Stand Up Comedy, where Bono says to "stop helping God across the road like a little old lady." Probably the most interesting song is the last one, which begins:

"Yesterday I spent asleep / Woke up in my clothes in a dirty heap / Spent the night trying to make a deadline / Squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline" and ends "Choose your enemies carefully ’cos they will define you /Make them interesting ’cos in some ways they will mind you / They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
/ Gonna last with you longer than your friends

I've realized that though my music tastes have changed over the years, U2 is still a part of me, all going back to a fateful November day in 1994 when I stumbled into a ZooTV concert having never listened to a single U2 album in my life (you can read my review here).

I find that in between their re-arrivals on the scene I forget about them, but every time they return I remember that I just like them as people, and I like, for the most part, the music and lyrics they produce. Likely if this album where released by anyone else I'd ignore it. In this case, it fits in the U2 timeline quite nicely and is a worthy purchase for any U2 fan.

Oh, and the following video is pretty funny:

Saturday, March 07, 2009

A Little Church Satire

There's a site where you can make your own motivational posters.

So I had a bit of fun this morning.

Monday, March 02, 2009

iTunes Top 40

Like I said a couple posts ago, March is "Music Month" at this side of sunday. So I figured this morning I'd get around to something I've wanted to do for a while.

Ever since I got my ipod two and a half years ago I've kept an eye on the play count stats telling me the songs I listen to most.

I like lists. I used to love Labour Day weekend in Vancouver because Rock 101 CFMI would play the top 500 rock songs of all time. Satisfaction was always number one. I also used to listen to top 40 countdowns a lot, whether it was on pop radio or "Christian" radio, and now I realize it was more because I liked the countdown than because I liked the songs. Nowadays I enjoy listening to CBC Radio 3's top 30 Canadian indie songs countdown podcast, even though I skip half the songs there too.

So I enjoy checking up on my personal top 40 (Considering my last post, maybe I should call this "nerd" month at this side of sunday). The trouble (and if you have itunes I'm sure you can relate to my trouble) is that because it is two years and counting since I got itunes any new albums or songs I get don't ever really have a chance to catch up to the others. So the numbers are slanted toward longevity and never actually reflect the true top 40.

Thus and therefore: I am resetting the play count.

But before I do that I figure it is pretty important to store the stats somewhere for posterity.

So, without further ado, I present to you my iTunes top 40 for 2006-2009. The top 5 albums are pictured, and some of the songs have links to places you can hear them (ignore the music videos). FYI the Jeff Coutts and Matthew Wilkinson songs are actually available for free download, so be sure to check that out.

1. Wonderwall - Ryan Adams (Love Is Hell)
2. Please Do Not Let Me Go - Ryan Adams (Love...)
3. Chicago - Sufjan Stevens (Come On Feel The Illinoise!)
4. Staralfur - Sigur Ros (Agaetis Byrjun, Hvarf Heim)
5. Alone Together - Jeff Coutts (Consider the Ravens)
6. Sinners - Matthew A. Wilkinson (Sinners)
7. The Shadowlands - Ryan Adams (Love...)

8. What Were The Chances - Damien Jurado (And Now That I'm In Your Shadow)
9. I Can't Stand - Jeff Coutts (...Ravens)
10. Start a War - The National (Boxer)
11. Giver - Patrick Watson (Close To Paradise)
12. Drifters - Patrick Watson (...Paradise)
13. The Rescue Blues - Ryan Adams (Gold)
14. Avalanche - Ryan Adams (Love...)
15. Denton, TX - Damien Jurado (...Shadow)
16. La Cienega Just Smiled - Ryan Adams (Gold)
17. Barely Moving - Jeff Coutts (Your Imagined Fire)
18. Love For Granted - Phoenix (Alphabetical)
19. Goodbye, World - Joel Plaskett (In Need of Medical Attention)
20. Come On! Feel The Illinoise! - Sufjan Stevens (...Illinoise!)
21. Fix You - Coldplay (X&Y)

22. The Great Escape - Patrick Watson (...Paradise)
23. Hoquiam - Damien Jurado (...Shadow)
24. A Ghost At the Window - Jeff Coutts (...Ravens)
25. How Few There Are of Your Eyes So Strong - Jeff Coutts (Your Imagined Fire)
26. Consolation Prizes - Phoenix (It's Never Been Like That)
27. Death and All His Friends - Coldplay (Viva la Vida)
28. Hotel Chelsea Nights - Ryan Adams (Love...)
29. Lovers In Japan (Acoustic Version) - Coldplay (Viva...)
30. Hotel Hospital - Damien Jurado (...Shadow)
31. Nina and Albert - Joel Plaskett (La De Da)
32. Dreams of Yasujiro Ozu (I'm no longer mocking the past) - Matthew A. Wilkinson (Sleepy Heads)
33. 42 - Coldplay (Viva...)
34. Shannon Rhodes - Damien Jurado (...Shadow)
35. Fake Empire - The National (Boxer)
36. Wild Flowers - Ryan Adams (Gold)
37. Lying On a Beach - Joel Plaskett (La De Da)
38. Life In Technicolor - Coldplay (Viva...)
39. Bridge over Troubled Water - Johnny Cash (American IV: The Man Comes Around)
40. Corrugated Tin Facade - Buck 65 (Secret House Against the World)

Being the list-guy that I am, if I had such powers or inclinations I'd start a meme where people posted their own itunes top 40.

But I'm not going to go around tagging people. Nonetheless, if you have itunes or some other counting device for your mp3 player, let me exhort you to post your playcount stats. Oh, wouldn't that be fun!